The Amazon debacle hasn't quite left us. For now, I offer some observations on what transpired over the last few days. None of this is based on more than my following the "debates" over various websites, Facebook accounts and the occasional ramble through twitter posts. The statements below are musings and not to be mistaken for an in-depth analysis (that will come later). No sources were killed during the course of this writing.
I understood the reasons why authors were up in arms, and I also understood why the gay community was and is worried about the potential of censorship, given the history of gay books being censored. And yet, it's been hard to show much support for a community that, over the past few days, has shown itself inclined to jump to conclusions and, worse, make some pretty harsh judgments about what counts as appropriate "Literature."
For now, as far as anyone can tell, the truth about what really happened may or may not come to light. I never quite bought the idea of hackers, and I'm not entirely sure the glitch was as, well, glitchy as Amazon would like us to think. Perhaps it will turn out to be a combination of factors, or perhaps it will turn out to be some administrator who took matters into his or her overzealous own hands, causing the resulting snafu. But for now, my points of interest:
Capitalism, or the end thereof
Okay, I'm overstating things a bit here. A small number of queer folk did call for the support of unionized bookstores as an alternative to Amazon, but for the most part the gay backlash against the rank capitalism of Amazon seems short-lived. One of the first instincts against Amazon as evidenced in this piece by Jenna Lowenstein was to shake a fist at the giant retailer and threaten to take our business elsewhere.
I was amused at the various comments that Amazon is "homophobic," as if somehow a capitalist enterprise has any ideological leaning towards one form of sexuality or another. Capitalism wants cheap labor. If that comes in the form of women or children who can be exploited and paid less or not at all, or of gays who are too afraid of being discriminated against in the workplace to speak up for fear of being outed, that works just fine. But capitalism is also happy to cozy up to gays when convenient - hence, for instance, its fondness for the HRC-style wealthy gays who might sustain capitalism's ideals of maximum exploitation. So, Amazon wasn't being homophobic in its latest snafu - it was probably advancing its own capitalist interests because someone, somewhere stupidly assumed that deranking certain books was somehow a good business decision. At the end of the day, gays weren't mad at Amazon as evidence of capitalism. They were just mad that capitalism wasn't working for them this particular weekend.
We, or some, or a lot of us, hate porn
Time will tell if the gay/ally community will actually turn now to the dwindling number of independent booksellers across the country, 2200 in all, instead of Amazon. But what did emerge was a shocking hatred of porn in favor of what gay authors and critics upheld as more sacred Gay Literature and Erotic Fiction (Please Note My Sustained Use of Capital Letters). On Dear Author, a site devoted to Romance Literature, comes this: "Amazon has deranked Annie Proulx, E.M. Forster, but not American Psycho. Mein Kampf and books about dog fighting are ranked and can be searched from the front page, but not books about gay love or books with erotic content."
Did you get that? Mein Kampf! They'll let Hitler in before they let in our precious works on "gay love" or "erotic content" (apparently, gays no longer fuck, they only provide "erotic content.") Dog fighting! No, we can't have any books on dog fighting.
I'm no fan of Hitler, or of dog fighting, but really - could we be a little less obvious in our comparisons?
Brett Easton Ellis's American Psycho, a novel about, well, someone who could be construed as a psychopathic killer, is the frequent target of derision. Here's an initial comment from Charlene Taglia, "And I'm highly offended that my romances are considered more offensive than dog killing or a serial killer how-to by Amazon. Violence is okay, but expressions of love must be kept off the shelf?"
From there on, it's downhill for Ellis and by the end of the section the book has lost its bookness and is now synonymous with a person: "I still want to know why a sociopathic serial killer is not de-ranked while a book like Brokeback Mountain is."
Granted, I'm taking potshots at commenters and their occasional errors but, still, I think it's fair to say that this kind of seething rage at what so many consider non-Literature is also impelled in part by an idea of what constitutes "love" as opposed to its hazy, dark Other - violence combined with unthinkable acts of sex. That, in turn, determines our judgments about what should be the themes of proper Literature. And, of course, everybody, including the LA Time's Carolyn Kellogg seems to have forgotten (or chosen to ignore) the fact that Ellis is, well, at least part gay.
And then, of course, there's the matter of Playboy. Authors and commenters pointed out that Amazon still sold sex toys and, horrors, collections of Playboy Centerfolds. Oh, no, they sold nudie photos and sex toys and crotchless stockings while deranking our books! Over at Appletree, the message could not have been more clear, with a photo of men in chaps captioned: "Amazon seems to think that all gays are like this." Rarely has a simple "this" dripped with more scorn and contempt. And then, the damning first line of the post: "Looks like Amazon.com has been treating books by and about gays the same way that they treat pornography."
The lesson here, in case you haven't got it already, is simple: Amazon is homophobic. Gay Literature is exquisitely refined, and even its sex, if such should exist between its hallowed pages, is "erotic." Not to be ever confused with PORN. Gay love and erotic content are opposed to PORN! BAD PORN! NAUGHTY PORN! DISGUSTING, VILE PORN!
The irony of gays and lesbians beating up on porn will, no doubt, be lost on us. There are - or there should be -- entire works on the importance of porn to queer culture, and I won't rehearse all the issues and arguments here. But suffice it to say that porn in print was, until relatively recently, a primary way to figure out that what we did and liked and thought about was okay and fun, and not to something to be ashamed of. So, this beating up of the body of porn, pun unintended, is an amnesia of sorts.
As for the Playboy Centerfolds: keep away from the Playboy Centerfolds, okay? Some of us learnt, as curious children, to love them. Some of us may still, on occasion, take a look - if only to end up being bored by the sameness of plastic breasts and pubescent shaved genitals. But please, darlings, do lay off the Centerfolds.
The other irony here is that as gays sought, during the debacle, to establish that "our" literature was just as worthy as any other, and not to be ashamed of, we ended up demeaning and trashing anything that didn't fit. Over at queerty.com was the comment that the deranking of E.M. Forster's Maurice meant "that in Amazon's eyes, Hugh Grant was in a porn [film] when he appeared in the Merchant & Ivory adaptation of the book." We ended up distinguishing between porn and "our" stuff when, really, the issue - as Kellogg wrote, to her credit, is that "making [any] books harder to find, or keeping them off bestseller lists on the basis of their content can't be a good idea."
American Psycho is pretty fucking brilliant, in my view, and it's pretty damn funny as well. You might not like it, with or without a gay author, but keep this in mind - if you slam that, or porn, as somehow more deserving of censorship/censure/disgust, you're only asking for the same judgments to be made about the work you read or produce. One man's psychopathic behavior is another's yearning for gay love and erotic expressions. We could argue that we had a right to jump to conclusions and that our nasty insinuations about what counted as proper Gay Literature came easily in a moment of crisis. Or we could acknowledge that we could have handled this differently, with less haste and condemnation. This was not our finest moment.