Monday, April 13, 2009

An Amazon "Glitch" Eliminates Most Gay Titles From its Search Engine

So by now, the whole world knows that Amazon decided to start listing a whole slew of gay-themed titles as "adult," virtually eliminating them from the website's search features.

The problem? Many of these titles were clearly not "adult"; gay-themed young adult books and even some picture book titles were included in the change. And even among the seemingly-"adult" titles, the company seemed to have a different standard for gay-themed works than for heterosexual-themed ones: gay romances were "adult" while A History of Playboy Centerfolds was not.

When first queried about the new policy change, Amazon initially defended it (in what was probably a form email to one of the affected authors).

A few authors have been sounding the clarion call on this policy change for weeks now, and this weekend, they were finally heard. All hell broke loose. By Sunday night, the blogosphere was furious, with emails and tweets flying back and forth.

By this morning, Amazon announced that it was all a misunderstanding -- the result of a "computer glitch." The policy was reversed. Score one for the Twitter Generation.

But pardon me if I'm a tad skeptical of Amazon's explanation.

Here's what I think happened:

Religious conservatives, probably in an orchestrated campaign, used the feature on the Amazon site that allows users to flag a book as "adult" to target as many gay-themed titles as they could manage. And a clueless worker at the company okayed these changes (or perhaps this is done automatically--the aforementioned "glitch").

When the error was pointed out, they did what most people do when they're criticized: they reflexively defended themselves without really considering that they were defending the virtual elimination of gay titles from their search engine.

But apart from Amazon, the greater issue is this: for too long, America has equated "gay" with "sex." Heterosexuals are three dimensional beings, and their relationships are above "love": marriage, commitment, and all the rest. Homosexuals are defined by sex acts, and their relationships are about getting off. (My partner wrote a terrific essay on the topic here.)

It's a grossly unfair double-standard, with obvious real-world implications, and it's absolutely has to change.

In our discussions here at AS IF, one of our members, Bennett Madison, made the trenchant point that this Amazon mess is absolutely the danger when independent bookstores go out of business, and they're replaced by one or two conglomerates: one or two companies -- often one person at these companies -- is making the decision about what titles are available to the rest of us. This brouhaha was high profile enough that it was eventually reversed, but what about all the decisions that are too small scale to reach this level of outrage?

We here at AS IF! think this is very much worth considering.

Brent Hartinger

Friday, April 10, 2009

GEOGRAPHY CLUB Under Fire Again: My Reponse

So my book Geography Club is under fire by book banners yet again, this time in West Bend, Wisconsin. I wrote an essay response for the Milwaukee paper (the nearby daily), but they chose not to print it. But -- you luck folks -- here it is!

It's hard not to take it personally when someone wants to ban your book.

A group of folks in West Bend have made a varying list of demands regarding
my 2003 teen novel, Geography Club: ban it, put a warning label on it, put it somewhere where teenagers can't get it without permission from their parents, or buy books to "balance" it that show what a horrible, immoral "lifestyle" being gay is.

My book has been out for more than six years, sold tens of thousands of copies, received almost unanimously good reviews, won many honors, and is currently being adapted for the movies.

But truthfully, this is not the first time that some people, often with the backing of national conservative Christian activist groups, have tried to ban the book. Libraries are, of course, about open access to information, and there's really not much more fundamental in America than the right to decide for ourselves what we want to read, and what we want our kids to read.

These activists, on the other hand, want to make the decision for the rest of us. So
they make ridiculous assertions, based on the inclusion of a few swear words in
my book, that it's "pornographic."

Oftentimes their demands sound reasonable. Why not put a sticker on a book that some find offensive? But who decides what's "offensive"? Trust me: there is something in every book that someone somewhere doesn't like. Should a twelve-year-old go into the woods alone with a loaded gun? One does in Where the Red Fern Grows. Should kids always show respect to their parents? They don't in Roald Dahl's Matilda.

Why not put "controversial" books in a special section where the books require parental approval to be checked out? Again, who decides what's "controversial"? And for the record, the real point of this strategy isn't to give parents "choice"; it's to drive down circulations, which is what libraries use to determine their collections, making it so they can't justify buying similar books.

Why not buy "anti-gay" books to satisfy people who feel that homosexuality is a horrible, immoral lifestyle? Every librarian I've ever met tries hard to satisfy the needs of their own community and to have a broad, diverse collection. But while I know it's an article of faith among some that homosexuality is a "choice" and that the "media" are burying the "truth" about how horrible the "gay lifestyle" is, these are not the books that respected authors and educators are writing; few of these books exist and even fewer are published and reviewed by respected sources because they're mostly based on falsehoods and misrepresentations, like books about how the Holocaust never happened.

Once you are the subject of these book debates a number of times, as I have been, you quickly realize something: some people really dislike, and even fear, gay people and their inclusion in our communities.

Ironically, anti-gay prejudice is part of the reason why I wrote my book in the first place.

I wish everyone who thinks my books are not "appropriate" for teenagers could read my mail for one single week -- the avalanche of touching emails I receive from lonely or harassed gay and lesbian teens and their friends, so grateful to see gay characters portrayed accurately and with dignity, not merely stereotypes or the punchline of jokes.

And let it be noted: plenty of parents want their kids reading my books. I frequently hear from parents who've read my books with their teens. In one of the most flattering emails I've ever received, one teenager said, "I gave my parents your book and said, 'Please read this. This is how I feel.'"

So I think my critics really miss the point.

In every teen book I've ever written, gay-themed or not, there is a moment when the main character has to choose between moving beyond his or her own little bubble -- doing what would make him or her momentarily happy or comfortable -- and putting those selfish prejudices and concerns aside, and committing to a larger cause, a greater good. In my mind, that's the choice every teen confronts, again and again, because it's the difference between a child and an adult.

Do books with that message have a place in libraries and in the hands of teenagers and their parents?

Absolutely. In fact, there might be a few adults in West Bend who could benefit from reading books like that too.

Brent Hartinger