PayPal vs Smashwords: Censorship and fiction

As you may have heard, Smashwords is currently in talks with PayPal regarding the publication of “questionable” erotic fiction. As a writer and publisher of erotica, this concerns me.

Smashwords’ founder, Mark Coker, is currently in talks with PayPal about the situation, as what PayPal is proposing is ultimately censorship.

As a writer and publisher of erotica, I agree with Coker that PayPal has no business telling us what we can or cannot write about. If the work is fictional, it’s legal.

PayPal is worried about topics such as bestiality, rape and incest. But, when applied to fictional works, these concerns make no sense. No real person or animal is being harmed by writers who graphically describe a man fucking a donkey (or, perhaps more to the Smashwords point, one half-man/half-donkey hybrid fucking another half-man/half-donkey hybrid). So why should anyone be concerned about this content? It is, in a word, ridiculous.

Think about it: Lolita is the story of a pedophile, who describes his love and lust for the underage Lolita—whom he drags across America, violating her in one motel room after another, following the death of her mother (who, by the way, he only married in order to get at her child). Would PayPal have had Smashwords censor Nabokov’s seminal work, claiming that it violated the Terms of Service concerning rape and incest?

This is exactly the kind of madness PayPal is proposing.

Here is what Coker said in an email to the Smashwords community about the company’s views on fictional instances of incest:

*Incest:*  Until now, we didn’t have a policy prohibiting incest between consenting adults, or its non-biological variation commonly known as “Pseudo-incest.”  Neither did our retailer partners. We’ve noticed a surge of PI books over the last few months, and many of them have “Daddy” in the title.  I wouldn’t be surprised if the surge in “Daddy” titles prompted PayPal to pursue this purge (I don’t know). PI usually explores sexual relations between consenting adult stepchildren with their step parents, or between step-siblings. Effectively immediately, we no longer allow incest of any variety in erotica.

Pseudo-incest? The name itself says it all: it’s not real incest, it’s pretend. So what is there to censor? If, as Coker suggests, these titles concern consenting adults having affairs with their step-parents (i.e. people who are totally unrelated to them by blood ties), I am flummoxed by PayPal’s desire to suppress this material. It’s not like these writers are saying, “Go out and rape your step-daughter; here’s a how-to manual.”

As Coker eloquently puts it:

Like many writers, censorship of any form greatly concerns me. It is with some reluctance that I have made the decision to prohibit incest-themed erotica at Smashwords. Regardless of your opinion on incest, it’s a slippery slope when we allow others to control what we think and write. Fiction is fantasy. It’s not real. It unfolds in our imagination. I’ve always believed fiction writers and readers should have the freedom to explore diverse topics and situations in the privacy of their own mind. From an imagination perspective, erotica is little different from a literary novel that puts us inside the mind of farm animals (1984), or a thriller novel that puts us inside the mind of a terrorist, or a horror novel that puts us inside the mind of an axe-murderer or their victim. All fiction takes us somewhere. We read fiction to be moved, and to feel. Sometimes we want to feel touched, moved, or disturbed. A reader should have the right to feel moved however they desire to be moved.

Incest, however, carries thorny baggage.  The legality of incest is murky. It creates a potential legal liability for Smashwords as our business and our books become more present in more jurisdictions around the world. Anything that threatens Smashwords directly threatens our ability to serve the greater interests of all Smashwords authors, publishers, retailers and customers who rely upon us as the world’s leading distributor of indie ebooks. The business considerations compel me to not fall on the sword for incest. I realize this is an imperfect decision. The slippery slope is dangerous, but I believe this imperfect decision is in the best interest of the community we serve.

While I can’t say that I will be personally affected by PayPal’s crackdown, as I do not currently offer any titles that concern bestiality, rape or incest (or use keywords to that effect), I categorically do not support PayPal’s moral policing of Smashwords authors, and I stand by my fellow authors who do write about these topics.

It is their right, as authors of fiction. To suggest otherwise is censorship, pure and simple.

Coker is correct when he says that this is all a slippery slope. If PayPal can tell erotica writers who tackle dangerous or taboo subject matter to stop writing, then they can tell erotica writers who tackle completely normal subject matter to stop writing, too. And once they’ve silenced erotica writers, why should they stop there? They will have set a precedent, enabling them to eliminate any writers they deem unsavory or dangerous. Horror writers, crime writers, mystery writers that splash too much blood on the page… hey, why not?

That, to me, smacks of fascism. Do we live in a free society, where writers are able to dream and imagine and write as they please, or do we live in a concentration camp of the mind, where only “acceptable” ideas are considered?

PayPal cannot tell writers which ideas are acceptable. It isn’t up to them. Readers will decide, and they will vote with their dollars. And if PayPal doesn’t want our dirty money, then they will ultimately drop out of favor as the “preferred payment method,” and someone else will step in to enjoy the profits.

So I guess the question for PayPal is: do you want to keep making money, or do you want to be the vice squad? You can only pick one. Think fast.

If you support freedom of speech and the writers who publish with Smashwords (like me!), sign onto this letter from the Electronic Frontier Foundation to tell PayPal you think they should stick to handling money and keep their opinions about morality and erotica to themselves.