Monthly Archives: January 2014

On Honesty and Self-Censorship

Among all the other fallout from the Snowden/NSA revelations was a PEN America survey of 520 writers which found they are “not only overwhelmingly worried about government surveillance, but are engaging in self-censorship as a result.” The survey states that,

– 24% have deliberately avoided certain topics in phone or email conversations.

– 16% have avoided writing or speaking about a particular topic and another 11% have seriously considered it.

– 16% have refrained from conducting Internet searches or visiting websites on topics that may be considered controversial or suspicious and another 12% have seriously considered it.

Then just yesterday I came across a self-published author’s post about why he no longer swore in his books. Although the author goes on to give several lengthy and variably credible artistic reasons for the decision, he candidly admits that part of his reasoning includes the concern that some readers are turned off by coarse language, and that he’ll probably sell more books if he stops using it.

My reaction to both the above? I don’t fucking believe this. What are we coming to?

Last case first. It’s true that the gratuitous overuse of coarse language can be obnoxious, attention-seeking, and a crutch for poor writing, especially in dialogue. And some fine writers, among whom Charles Portis (True Grit, The Dog of the South, Norwood, et al), arguably one of the very best American authors of the twentieth century, have written several books without using a single swearword.

It’s also true that bad language can alienate some readers. One reviewer of my own book, Aegean Dream, says in his three-star review, “I might have given this a fourth star had it been written with fewer profanities/vulgarities.” (Meh. One reader. There are probably less than a dozen cusswords in the whole 350-page book.)

All that said, the truth is that people in real life, even the best brought-up people, do swear, often, and almost without exception when bad things happen. Some people even go so far as to use swearwords as punctuation. This is reality, people. And I take the firm view that it’s the writer’s duty, even in fiction, to represent the reality of the world*

The same thing goes for sex. In the real world, most adults spend a large amount of time thinking about sex, and—all things being equal—enjoy practicing it whenever the opportunity arises. It therefore follows that if you’re writing fiction for grownups, at some time or another your characters are going to think about, or have, sex. And yet I can’t count the number of times I’ve listened to newer writers agonize over writing a sex scene out of concern that their parent/relative/boss/coworker will end up reading their book, and what will they think of them as a consequence.

In fact, if the reader in question is also a grownup they won’t probably think anything negative about the author—unless the sex scene is poorly written, in which case they’ll think the author is a bad writer.  More to the point, if the scene is done well and feels like reality, they’ll probably appreciate the honesty. Because the truth is that readers—with the possible exception of ultra-conservative religious types—respond very well indeed to honesty, including hot bedroom scenes and, where appropriate, coarse language. It’s part of making the fictional dream real, people!

In the case of the PEN America survey, the concerns are of a different order, with the writers surveyed obviously fearing that they’ll be tagged, flagged, and perhaps even targeted by the authorities.

While there’s some sound basis to these concerns, the fears aired also show a high degree of ignorance about the way intelligence works. Simply running a few web searches on Al-Qaeda training camps, white supremacist groups, or the enrichment of Uranium for use in nuclear devices is not going to land you on a watch list or bring the DHS to the door.

In the course of writing Sutherland’s Rules, my 2013 caper novel about a pair of lovable sixty-something hippies on a crazy last dope smuggling run**, I did no end of research—online, in library books, and via phone and email with experts—on drugs, smuggling, Afghanistan, the Taliban, intelligence and police agencies, customs procedures, surveillance techniques, and much more.

If all this activity ran up enough flags (unlikely) to be brought to the attention of a human intelligence analyst, it’s just possible they checked it out, built a profile, noticed I was an author, and likely concluded I was researching a book on the subject; if not, the publication of the book would have confirmed this. But more likely it didn’t even come up on the human radar, because the reality of modern-day intelligence is that the amount of SigInt (intelligence gathered by interception of signals) is so fantastically vast that even a small fraction of it would swamp all available human resources. Face it: you’re both less unique and less important than you think. And, although mistakes can occur, these people are generally smarter than people give them credit for.

So the likelihood of a few innocent queries getting you into trouble is, really, insignificant; if, however, your contact list includes firebrand Imams, terrorist suspects, or known criminals, then, yeah, all bets are off, and you may well deserve a little attention from the authorities.

It is true that there’s always going to be some small chance that you’ll get flagged, and perhaps suffer some minor harassment down the road as a result of repeated digging into very sensitive areas. But you know what? Art isn’t safe. Artists and writers around the world daily face beatings, arrest, and even death, and it doesn’t stop them. Because honesty is more important to them. If you want safe, you’re in the wrong business.

To me, a big part of honesty—in fact, the biggest part of being an artist or writer—is having the courage of your convictions. I’d bet a year’s income that a great many of the PEN survey respondents who self-censor and fear to run web searches on “topics that may be considered controversial or suspicious” also claim to be huge supporters and admirers of Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, Russian feminist punk rockers Pussy Riot, Martin Luther King, and Nelson Mandela. Hmmm.

And yeah, this shouldn’t happen in the US; but, like earthquakes and tornadoes, it sometimes does. Get over it. If you don’t like it, vote; if that doesn’t work, protest (peacefully). But if you protest, don’t be wimps like Occupy, who cut and ran at the first snow flurries in NYC and the first threats of muscular action from the authorities. In Russia, crowds of protesters will stand all day in temperatures of 20 below; in other countries, they regularly face tanks and tear gas and rubber bullets. But writers in the US self-censor because they fear getting an extra pat-down or some intense questioning at the airport next time they fly, or having their activities monitored a little more closely? Give me a break.

So are we going to be honest as writers, or leave it to those of real conviction?

*          *          *

* Stephen King addresses this same point wonderfully in his book, On Writing; John Gardner has a whole chapter on honesty and truth in The Art of Fiction

**The protags in Sutherland’s Rules risk both life and freedom in pursuit of love, loyalty, and their ideals. 

ADDENDUM: And this very evening my good friend Jon Del Arroz has posted a wonderful response–check it out:  http://delarroz.com/?p=100

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