Yasmin Nair

Gays All A-Twitter about Amazon: How They Nearly Ended Capitalism But Chose to Hate Porn Instead

Filed By Yasmin Nair | April 16, 2009 9:30 AM | comments

Filed in: Entertainment, Media
Tags: Amazon, Amerian Psycho, Brett Easton Ellis, capitalism, gay authors, gay literature, gay porn, Porn

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.


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Akim Adé Larcher | April 16, 2009 10:36 AM

Bang on Yasmin! Interesting commentary on the illicit romance between capitalism and gays.


Hi.

First, wanted to say that I really liked your post. Very thoughtful, not reactionary, smooth without being smoothing, if you see what I mean.

I was appalled by the whiplash of reaction. First everyone (me included) was up in arms -- storm the castle, dismantle Amazon, etc., because of the derankings. Then almost everyone (not including me) was a-ok again once the "glitch" was fixed.

Full disclosure -- I am one of the people going on and on about how Amazon is homophobic. I don't mean the gigantic corporate entity. I mean the ways in which they do or do not create policies and protections for queer employees -- ESPECIALLY trans folk, of which I am one. So for me the "glitch" was just more of same.

But for so many people... Sigh. The number of queer authors, readers, editors, bloggers, etc. who became instant Amazon apologists as soon as the "glitch" thing was "resolved" astonished me. As if buying from Amazon is somehow better because people can shop from their small towns and closets. As if there are no other online bookstores that have a decent selection and actually LIKE GLBTQ etc people.

Meanwhile, I agree totally with your assessment that we (the queer community of all stripes, genders, and orientations) seem to be picking and choosing which books are OK to censor/derank/remove/scorn. I don't like American Psycho particularly, but I also don't like badly written gay or lesbian detective fiction, and I also don't like Jane Austen. So sue me. :) Banning one is banning all, as far as I'm concerned.

Anyway. No, not our proudest moment. We had an opportunity to increase the use of local bookstores and independent bookstores, and to decry censorship of ANYONE's books, no matter how offensive, and we blew it.

Maybe next time we'll do better...

Scott Kaiser Scott Kaiser | April 16, 2009 9:10 PM

"everyone (me included) was up in arms -- storm the castle, dismantle Amazon, etc., because of the derankings"

Rafe-

Maybe you missed them, but I wrote not one, but two posts urging caution against "storm the castle" mob mentality response.

As for Amazon's non-discrimination policies, I know they do have in place protection based on sexual orientation. I'm not sure about their policies on transgender protection, but I'll take your word on that.

Let's not distort the facts though. Up until this instance, Amazon was a fairly gay-friendly company (at least in comparison to some other large corporations). As Yasmin pointed out, maybe that was just because it made good business sense. Maybe this incident will remind them of that.

Thanks, Akim - I like this: "illicit romance between capitalism and gays" ...

Rafe,
I was under the impression that Amazon has protections for queer employees, but clearly I may be mistaken. Thanks for pointing this out, and for your kind words. I'll be in touch with you re: Amazon workplace policies. As for books - ha, my own preference is for dead white authors, go figure :-) I read Ellis for a longer project, on the recommendation of a friend, and enjoyed it hugely. But, like you, I'm more concerned about the wholesale condemnation/banning of books.

I thought they did too (workplace protections), but I couldn't find a policy statement on the careers section.

BTW, I almost forgot Amazon sold books - my last two orders were for software and ramin.

And I can remember when Amazon started out with just books!

Ellen Andersen Ellen Andersen | April 16, 2009 11:14 AM

Bravo, Yasmin. You did a terrific job of encapsulating some of my rather inchoate reactions to glitchgate. Here's one other thing that I've been puzzling over: it'd never dawned on me that Amazon's search feature deliberately excluded "pornographic" materials, thereby protecting my innocent eyes from "indecent" materials that Amazon itself sells. That was naive of me. Amazon's certainly doing this for a good capitalistic reason: it doesn't want to push away customers who'd be offended by such materials and its calculated that customers who turn to Amazon to purchase porn/erotica will learn/know how to search for it.

But in the meantime, Amazon's sales rankings are deliberately biased, no? Its actions are shielding us from the knowledge that some (significant?) portion of its customer base purchases sexually explicit materials. In fancier words, Amazon's actions remove a domain of knowledge from the public sphere. This may be good business sense, but it distorts (perhaps radically) the "truth" of the world we live in.

Also ... "glitchgate" is magnificent!

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.

Not just any men in chaps... it's the German Mr. Leather! woof!

Surely if Amazon thought all queers looked like that, they'd have a vastly different marketing strategy? Sponsorships at IML? Manhunt profile?

Well, that convinced me to follow the link... I wish someone thought I looked like that!

Ellen,
You give me something to chew over - I've always been dubious about the sales rankings and their function (and why the hell we buy into them), and you make a link between those and "shielding us from the knowledge that some (significant?) portion of its customer base purchases sexually explicit materials." That's an excellent point... thanks!

Nick,
Woof indeed. As for marketing strategies at IML - maybe they will, maybe they will... or at least a giant Pride float - yay for corporate gay culture and commodification!

Yay! See you in the streets!

Err, I mean -- on the sidewalk. We can watch the floats together!

...word.

and it wasn't just the porn. Folks were shaming sex toys, dildos and such, critical tools for accessing sexual pleasure & autonomy.

wow. thanks for naming some of my dis-ease with amazon fail. especially the way that we were deciding that since capitalism didnt like us we would take our money elsewhere. but if capitalism doesnt like those other people...we are okay with that...
cause our love is pure. and theirs can be censored.

Porn is always the bastard child of literature, despite the fact that so many people first discover anything about sexuality through some form of pornography. Even when defending the rights of publishers and authors, it's almost always a slippery-slope argument - they shouldn't ban Leatherwomen, because then they'd ban The Well of Loneliness!

I am still puzzled about the Amazon form letter which suggested they were delisting some items in order to make searches safe for morons - they haven't come up with an explanation for that yet. But with porn becoming one of the fastest growing markets in e-publishing and POD, they'd be pulling a huge fail for their own business by making it harder for those consumers to find the works they want.

I thought I'd responded earlier, but apparently this didn't go through.

Tim,
Yes, or rather no, on the shaming of sex toys. I thought the same thing. I mean, when did queers become the sex-only-for-procreation brigade?

maia,
"but if capitalism doesnt like those other people...we are okay with that...
cause our love is pure. and theirs can be censored." Exactly - you hit the nail on the head!

Laura,
We can only hope that Amazon realises the profitability of porn - perhaps they'll now put a separate website - Amazon X? - just for porn! And you're so right about: "Porn is always the bastard child of literature, despite the fact that so many people first discover anything about sexuality through some form of pornography."

Scott Kaiser Scott Kaiser | April 16, 2009 9:28 PM

I just dislike Yasmin's implication that Amazon is somehow bad for not wanting a union. I'm as liberal as they come, but I've seen unions destroy companies (the one my dad worked at for example). Unions are appropriate when employees are being exploited. Are Amazon employees being exploited? I haven't heard that they are, but I don't work for Amazon so maybe I don't know.

However I DO know that CEO Jeff Bezos spent a week last month working as a normal employee at Amazon's Kentucky distribution center so he could better understand worker's jobs, issues, and concerns. It wasn't just a publicity stunt either as he shut the press out and did not allow interviews or photographs. Here's a link to the story: http://www.businessinsider.com/henry-blodget-jeff-bezos-works-in-kentucky-distribution-center-for-a-week-2009-3

Scott Kaiser Scott Kaiser | April 16, 2009 9:31 PM

For argument's sake, an example where I would think a union is appropriate: Walmart. Their employees are paid extremely low wages and poor benefits as the company rakes in record profits.

Yes, there are examples of bad or even corrupt unions - I'm in Chicago, and know something about that. But the union movement, however tendentious it can be, has also historically been the way to guarantee workers' rights. The point of unions is not to exist after the fact of exploitation but to prevent exploitation in the first place.

I know there are several workplaces where bosses treat their employees fairly without unions present but, especially in a global economy rife with extreme exploitation, we shouldn't simply depend on the kindness and goodwill and fairness of individual bosses. Change has to be systemic, and rights guaranteed for all employees -- and unions are the best way to ensure that. Besides, it doesn't matter if you have a great supervisor or boss if the company is not structurally capable of understanding your rights as a worker.

forbesfart | April 17, 2009 6:31 AM

What I know is they employ and bus workers at around 11 per hour thru a temp service. 11.00 dollars per hour before Christmas.......after Christmas, less than nine dollars per hour,less than 32 hours per week, and no benefits, no more bus to work, another Amazon distr. center located in middle of no where.In the case one cannot afford to continue to work for the temp agency they then deny unemployment benefits.

Thanks for the details, forbesfart; I'll be sure to look into them for the longer piece.

The issue is hypocrisy, not porn. Keeping straight porn accessible but delisting gay porn is a problem. Keeping "A Passage to India" and "Howards End" accessible but delisting "Maurice" is a problem, because the general topic of gay identity and relationships is the one unique thing about "Maurice". Same author, same lack of salaciousness. Amazon customers have every right to make their objection known.

Nancy,

My post was about how the gay community rushed to dismiss porn as less than "Gay Literature." What you raise - what books were delisted, and why - is the subject of another post.