Sunday, January 8, 2012

Censorship, Rating Systems, and Book Banning

About a year ago in an on-line critique group, I encountered a woman who wouldn't allow any R-rated material submitted for critique, PG-13 only. She refused to explain what she meant by R-rated or PG-13, and she wouldn't accept that the film-rating system doesn't apply to books.

Struggling to make sense of her restrictions, I researched film-rating systems of various countries. In the US, the Motion Picture Association of America rates movies. PG-13 can have no sex scenes what-so-ever, although torture and other forms of violence are acceptable. This rating was added specifically for movies such as Terminator and Indiana Jones, which are violent but geared toward a teenage and pre-teen audience. Some R-rate moves actually have little sex or violence. The King's Speech for example is rated R. It seems R actually means intended for adults regardless of the content. If this is so then for literary equivalents G means children, PG means middle grade, PG-13 means YA, R means general adult fiction, and NC-17 means erotica.

I suppose the major difference between film and fiction is that if a child manages to read the novel Clockwork Orange he or she is a genius, but it takes no particular skill for the child to view the story as a movie. I consider Clockwork Orange to be one of the greatest masterpieces of science-fiction language building. For the first three pages or so the prose has so many new words that story doesn’t make sense but, after that, the language comes off as seductive and beautiful. I'll admit I've never seen the film. I don’t want to encounter that kind of violence without the veil of words.

Another difference is that a reader can stop at any time, while a movie goer in a theater is in sense held captive for the duration of the film.
So the gal in the on-line critique group wanted to apply film standards to novels, ignoring the distinct difference between film and written fiction. I dropped out of the group and immediately wrote an erotic science-fiction novella. Don't tell me that I can't write about sex. I don't much go for violence, but sex is interesting. We humans sure have a bizarre way of producing more little humans.

I'm sending that novella, Sappho's Agency off to a publisher this very weekend. Despite erotic content it's the most political story I've ever written. I was raised Roman Catholic and have long struggled with the Church's teaching on sexuality. My bookshelf contains a well thumbed copy of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, written by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI. I've read with interest the parts relating to the role of women. I'm interested in the Church's position on homosexuality, birth control, and marriage, and in particular the reasoning for these positions.

The Catholic Church holds that the primary purpose of sex is reproduction. Following from this premise, the Church concludes that homosexuality is wrong and that condoms should be used under no circumstances whatsoever. According to the Church, a person who engages in a homosexual act or uses a condom is selfish, hedonistic, and unnatural. I find this logic stunningly bizarre and therefore fascinating. If this logic were used consistently, the Church would be rallying against men who've had vasectomies, women who have hysterectomies, and against men who marry women who are infertile. Following this logic, only those who are physically capable of producing children should be allowed to marry and engage in intimacy. The rest of us must remain chaste and celibate.

In the writing of Sappho's Agency, my thoughts and frustration found an outlet. The story shows homosexuality and condoms being used with the intent of producing a child, and it shows other legitimate functions of sex such as nurturing of love between a couple, relief of pain, and sacramental expression of religious belief. I'd best explain that last one. The Catholic Church teaches that marriage between a man and a woman should mirror the relationship between God and the Church. Therefore, marriage should be limited to heterosexual couples and, within a marriage, the woman should be subservient to the man, thus maintaining a resemblance to the proper relationship between Church and God. Logically this is complete nonsense, but it makes sense religiously. When we love our spouses, we take part in something much larger, and so feel a sense of wholeness.

Following up on my interest in religion, politics, and erotic fiction, I researched the Index, more properly called the Index Librorum Prohibitorum, a list of written works prohibited by the Catholic Church. Among the notable included works is Justine by the Marquis de Sade. I'll admit I haven't read the novel, as it's likely to have a greater amount of sadism than I enjoy. The Marquis de Sade wrote the book on sadism and Justine is that book. My low tolerance for violence rears its ugly head again. However, I believe Justine is on the Index, not for violence or sex, but because of political content. If it were just a dirty or gory story, Justine would have been forgotten, but it criticizes the Catholic Church and, for this, it was banned and the author thrown into prison. Never mind that the man engaged in pedophilia, rape, torture, and abduction. These were not viewed as his crimes. He was banned and imprisoned for his philosophy, not for his violent acts against his fellow humans. Les Miserable was once on the Index as well, most likely for containing less than flattering views of priests. That's the best I can figure out anyway.

With trepidation I send my novella off to a publisher. At times, I fear I've gone too far, at other times I worry that my writing isn't erotic enough. Truth be told, I'm more interested in politics, society, and economics than I am in sex. In this my writing is very definitely science fiction in the tradition of Stranger in a Strange Land by Heinlein, The Left Hand of Darkness by Le Guin, or one of my favorites Ethan of Athos by Bujold.

Eve Marlinspike
writer of erotic science fiction

No comments: