I’m in the process of publishing my short story A Tourist Visa as an e-book. It has been successfully published to Amazon, and can be seen and bought in any Amazon store. Yippee! That was easy.
For publishing to non-Amazon outlets, I’m making use of Smashwords, who offer the book through their own store, and also distribute it to a number of other retailers, including Apple’s iBook Store. A Tourist Visa is up in Smashwords’ own store, but they have rejected the book for distribution to their retail partners—a status they call “entry in the Smashwords Premium Catalog.” Rejected? I thought. Why? Here is the relevant instruction in their Style Guide:
Please do not link or refer to any online retailer other than Smashwords or the author’s personal blog or website. Our retail partners don’t want to see links to Amazon, Barnes & Noble, etc., or mention of the Kindle or Nook.
In the back matter of my book, where I ask the reader to leave a review of the book at on online store, I provide links to several online stores. If I am to be distributed to Smashwords’ retail partners, I will have to remove the references and links to Amazon and Barnes & Noble, and any mention of the Kindle or Nook e-readers.
What do you think of that? I’ll tell you what I thought: I found it irritating and troubling. I felt, well, censored.
Is that word too strong? Let’s look at the definition of censor in my new Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, eleventh edition:
to examine in order to suppress or delete anything considered objectionable; also: to suppress or delete as objectionable
My book has been found to contain material that is objectionable, and will not be distributed unless it is deleted. I think Webster’s backs up my impression: I’m being censored. My content is being objected to not on moral or political or religious grounds, but on commercial ones; nonetheless, censorship is what it is.
I am a believer in free speech. My belief in it arises from three separate causes:
- I was born with an eccentric and irreverent nature, which predisposes me to thinking and saying things that do not conform with convention or orthodoxy
- I am a creative artist, whose vocation requires me to express the urgings of my imagination, whatever they are and wherever they lead
- I have come to hold a liberal political philosophy, which is based on the principle of individual freedom, and is devoted to protecting people from infringements to their freedom
When you mix those three ingredients together, you have someone with a positive passion for free speech. My passion for it puts me in a position which is quite politically incorrect. For example, I don’t support the placing of any limits at all on the expression of people’s personal opinions. I would not try to obstruct anyone from uttering or writing things that express hatred or contempt for anything or anyone; nor would I obstruct anyone from praising what most people regard as wrong or evil. In particular, I don’t think that anyone should face legal sanctions for sounds that he makes with his mouth or marks that he makes on paper or computer screens. Does that mean I would suffer the prating of racist, flat-Earth, Holocaust deniers? Yes I would. (Suffer in the sense of allowing them to prate; not in the sense of sticking around to listen to it myself.) Freedom means freedom.
I do recognize that there must be limits to free speech. Speech that causes immediate and obvious harm (such as by shouting “Fire!‘ in a crowded theater), and speech that causes less immediate but nonetheless definite harm (such as by knowingly publishing falsehoods about someone), do need to be controlled by law. But my notion of what constitutes harmful speech is a very restricted one. I want my neighbors to enjoy virtually unrestricted ability to express what’s on their minds, no matter how unpopular or how upsetting those things might be.
The reason I feel this way is because I want that freedom for myself. And I recognize that I have no right to such a freedom unless I am prepared to extend to everyone else.
I am so prepared. In order to enjoy freedom of speech, I am prepared to listen to other people’s crap. Well, maybe not listen to; how about hear? For my own freedom means that I am free to leave or to tune out material I find objectionable. No one’s forcing me to watch Fox News, so I don’t. But I would not censor them, either.
I have another reason for championing free speech: it’s better than the alternative. In a free-speech world, everyone can say openly what’s on his mind. At least in theory, we can say what we really think. But in a world where more and more speech is regarded as objectionable for one reason or another, we increasingly censor ourselves, and hide our true thoughts while, to get along and avoid censure, we express feelings we don’t have and profess beliefs we don’t hold. Such a society might appear to be homogeneous and harmonious; but that appearance is superficial and false.
Such a society might look a lot like the one I visited in 1982 when I traveled to Latvian SSR to meet my long-lost grandfather Alexander—the society I portray a small slice of in A Tourist Visa. In that world, my granddad told me, people did not speak openly on the streets or even look in each other’s eyes. Only in the walls of your home could you relax and let your hair down, could you be yourself.
So Smashwords is censoring me. It might seem a trivial instance of censorship, but it’s a real one. So, to be true to myself, I must protest.