Those Words

Warning: This post discusses certain words shunned by polite society. The actual words do not appear, but they are referred to in unambiguous terms. If you find such references offensive, please stop reading now.

So, yeah, a little more information about my current project leaked out. I mentioned a few weeks ago that I was researching inside-the-park home runs for the new novel*. Now, my co-conspirator/co-author has let a couple of additional tidbits loose.

* For those of you wondering what’s happening with our first collaboration, The RagTime Traveler, I counsel patience. The publishing industry is many things, but speedy is not one of them. Rest assured, as soon as there’s anything to report, you’ll see it here.

Mo’less Jones is under construction–a phrasing that makes it sound slightly more frankensteinian than it really is–partway through Draft 1. And yes, Jackie Robinson’s and Branch Rickey’s assault on the color barrier in baseball is relevant.

Now, normally I wouldn’t have mentioned this; I know that if you read this blog, you also eagerly load the Poisoned Pen Press blog on the thirteenth of every odd-numbered month to see what Larry has to say. But, quite coincidentally, literary agent extraordinaire Janet Reid* raised the question of forbidden words, and the “N-word” in particular.

* No, not my agent, darn it. I’m still looking, and besides, she doesn’t represent SFF.

Janet observed that we’ve reached the point as a society where some people feel that certain words should never be spoken or written. She feels–and I agree–that a blanket proscription against the use of a word because somebody might be offended is counterproductive. A universal barrier removes thought and empathy from the equation. Better to teach people think about what they’re saying and consider the impact on the listener, than to just say “Don’t use this word. OK, moving on to the next topic…”

So, yeah. It’s my responsibility as an author to tell my story–whatever story I’m telling–as honestly and effectively as possible. If I’m dishonest, if I omit certain words, situations, or concepts to avoid offending someone, then I damage my credibility and, more importantly, my story.

Is it possible to write fiction about the 1940s without a character using the N-word? Absolutely. Is it possible to write fiction about race relations in the forties without using that word? Maybe. Depends who your characters are and what’s happening. But it’s not possible to write fiction–honest fiction–about breaking the color barrier without using the N-word and all its only slightly-less-forbidden synonyms. Why? Because those are the words that were used by the players and fans to punish Jackie Robinson for daring to invade their turf.

That’s not to say the writer can use those words carelessly or with intent to hurt the reader. But carefully placed and with malice toward his characters? Absolutely. No other word could replace the N-word and still give the reader the same punch in the gut that the character is feeling.

The movie 42 got it right, but using the N-word (or any similarly loaded word) properly is very easy thing to get wrong. Use the word as often as it was used in reality and either the reader becomes desensitized or throws the book aside in disgust. Don’t use it enough, or use it in the wrong places, and the reader loses empathy with the character and his or her motivation doesn’t ring true.

Difficult to write, uncomfortable to read. But absolutely necessary.

Perverse Hope

Stop me if you’ve heard this one…

I find it somehow reassuring that the United States doesn’t have a monopoly on clueless politicians and lawyers who create–and try to enforce–completely brain-dead legislation.

For proof, one needs to look no further than a story making the rounds this morning. According to multiple sites, Germany is attempting to prevent the sale of adult e-books during daytime hours.

You read that right. If you want to buy an adult e-book from a German bookseller, you can only do so between 10 PM and 6 AM*, local time.

* If I haven’t screwed up the timezone conversion, that’s 1 PM to 9 PM here on the west coast of the US. Primetime for porn consumption. Remember, kids, don’t use your work computers to buy porn–unless you can justify the expense on the corporate credit card.

This isn’t an old, pre-Internet law being extended into electronic territory. It was passed in 2002 and appears* to be an update of a law dating back to 1954. The new extension to e-books is part of the ongoing review and rating process at the core of the law.

* I took some German in grad school, but have long since forgotten most of it. Accordingly, I’m relying on this article from the Font of All Human Knowledge. If your German–or direct knowledge of German law–is better than mine, please correct any errors you see in my post. Come to think of it, Wikipedia would also appreciate your corrections.

The implementation, as best I can tell, will be for retailers to tag all “youth-endangering” titles and automatically filter them out of all lists and search results during those dangerous hours when kids are awake.

Am I the only one who expects this to go down the way the EU’s charming “Right to be Forgotten” has been handled? There’s no question that Amazon’s German arm will be subject to this law–a corporate entity operating in Germany is logically subject to German Law.

But remember: France now insists that it’s not sufficient for Google to only filter searches for RtbF material in the EU. I expect German politicians* to point with horror to how easy it is to access non-German sites from Germany and thus that their restrictions must be implemented by all sellers. It’s not enough that sellers block sales (and they already do: the big sellers use geolocation to determine where an order is placed from to apply the correct VAT and block sales to regions where titles haven’t been licensed). Even showing the titles, let alone covers and previews, would be a violation.

* And if you don’t think the ongoing anger over the post-Snowden revelations of NSA spying on German lawmakers won’t be a factor, you’re dreaming.

Bets on how long it’ll be before we hear the first demands for Amazon US to hide adult titles during the American afternoon?


Honestly, I try not to be a complete grumpy curmudgeon, rambling on about Doom, Gloom, and The End Of Civilization As We Know It. I really do. The universe sure makes it difficult, though.

Between the NSA, Caltrans, BART and AC Transit, and the Baseball Gods, there’s a lot of depressing stuff going on out there. I know last week’s posts were on the grumpy side, and the subject I’ve got lined up for Thursday leans that way as well (or at least towards the curmudgeonly*), so I figured I should talk about something lighter today. I started looking for something cheerful. Instead, I found this.

* Blame Lior. He’s the one who sent the link that set me off. He’s frighteningly good at that.

Last week, The Kernel, source of “tech, media & politics for enquiring minds” published an expose of the fact that Amazon sells “depraved amateur literature that glorifies rape, incest and child abuse”. Apparently this is new information to them. They also revealed today that Amazon also sells Holocaust denial works. But I digress.

The story was picked up by other British news providers, most notably The Daily Mail, which pointed out that several other ebook vendors also sell “pornography”, much of it self-published, and that at least one store mixed erotica and children’s books in search results.

So what happened? Amazon removed a few specific titles listed in the various articles, then decided that didn’t go far enough and began dropping any book whose title or description used certain key words such as “babysitter” or “sister”. Barnes and Noble is doing the same. WH Smith blamed the “problem” on their partner Kobo and shut down their entire site until “all self published eBooks have been removed”; Kobo is deleting all self-published titles.

Yes, you read that correctly. All self-published titles.

Keep in mind that all of these sellers’ terms and conditions for self-publishing specifically ban pornography. But rather than enforce their own policies, they would rather throw out the entire concept of self-publishing. After all, that’s much easier and legally safer than reviewing works at some point during the publication process. And it’s definitely cheaper than adding a filter to the site search functionality to hide material tagged as “erotica” unless the searcher specifically requests it.

Of course, if one has a publisher (even one that exists only on paper or operates out of your garage), you should be safe from the ban, since Amazon and the other sellers assume that a publisher is exercising editorial oversight*. As several commentators have pointed out, that means that “50 Shades of Gray” and many works that straddle the ever-finer line between “romance” and “erotica” are safe, at least for now.

* I don’t blame them for making that assumption: having them pass judgment on what constitutes a “real” publisher would be just as slippery a slope.

What makes this even more depressing is that Banned Books Week was only three weeks ago.


Here’s something to cheer you up. Kotaku is reporting that a Japanese company has introduced “Nyan Nyan Nouveau”: wine for cats. It seems to be a non-alcoholic, catnip-infused grape juice.

Now you and your faithful feline companions can sit down together and share a toast to Doom, Gloom, and The End Of Civilization As We Know It. Kampai!