WARNING: POST CONTAINS CONTENT POTENTIALLY TRIGGERING TO SURVIVORS OF SEXUAL ABUSE
Being a small-l liberal who believes in free speech, free association and assembly, free markets and a free press -- is hell on the back. All too often, you find yourself doing an intellectual pole dance, hanging upside down with your arse hanging out in defence of people you normally would tell to get off your lawn before the minefield goes live.
Ian Wishart — whose unseemly fixation on the malign influence of Helen Clark’s supposedly Sapphic genitalia is the least of his literary sins —is very close to the top of that distinguished company. Breaking Silence: The Kahui Case, the Kahui twins' mother, Macsyna King's "tell-all" memoir isn't going to be getting a review here.
But I’m more than a little concerned that The Warehouse and Paper Plus in bowing to pressure from the Boycott the Macsyna King Book group on Facebook (which I will not link to, as it's hardly difficult to find and some of the content is not only defamatory but in extremely poor taste) and not carry the book. Prominent independent booksellers like Unity Books’ Jo McColl and Women’s Bookstore proprietor Carole Beu are on the record that they intend to follow suit.
Now, let’s get one or two things straight. I absolutely and unconditionally respect the right of booksellers to determine their own stock as they see fit – even if I don’t agree with their reasoning.
I would also be a total hypocrite to criticise anyone for using their power as consumers in a free market to organise a consumer boycott, after I encouraged people to shun Penguin New Zealand after their feeble response to Witi Ihimaera being outed as a recidivist plagiarist. Nor do I feel terribly well-disposed towards enriching Random House New Zealand when I see Paul Henry smirking from atop a stack of his apologia pro vita twatcock memoir.
Friend of Muse Lew Stoddart adroitly fisks at Kiwipolitico the slushy equation of a boycott -- which neither of us support, FWIW -- with a ban or censorship. Since I've done it myself, along with Wishart and commentators who should know better, I'll just say "fair call, will do better."
Something else that also needs to be called out by its right name is craven and blatant corporate hypocrisy. I really had to roll my eyes at reading this in Wednesday’s New Zealand Herald from Paper Plus CEO Rob Smith:
He said the amount of concern over the "highly emotive content" in the book was the main reason for not stocking it.
Paper Plus has a strong heritage as a family friendly store and its decisions were always made with the wellbeing of children at the front of their mind, he said.
Has Mr. Smith ever set foot in his own stores? A little unscientific browsing yesterday, found Paper Plus, The Warehouse and Unity Books all selling copies of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. It’s arguably the best-selling work of fiction in translation since The Bible. It also contains excruciatingly graphic and intense descriptions of child sex abuse, rape and the violent degradation of women. If nothing else, this tome's original Swedish title, which literally translates as 'Men Who Hate Women', deserves a Nobel Prize for Truth in Advertising.
I've even seen (shrink-wrapped and appropriately labelled) copies of American Psycho in Paper Plus stores and both branches of Unity Books -- a novel whose many felicities includes a lengthy description of a woman having a rat inserted in her vagina before she's cut in half with a chainsaw, genitally mutilated then raped. In that order.
(Before you bolt to the comments to suggest I get back on my meds, neither of us are clinically psychotic. I know the depiction of an act in a novel or film is not the act itself. I'm just suggestion that there are lot of people -- myself includes -- for whom presenting rape and abuse as entertainment is "highly emotive content" as well. Certainly not "family-friendly" unless your name is Manson.)
Paper Plus, The Warehouse and Unity also have little concerns about selling “true crime” non-fiction, self-justifying memoirs written by convicted criminals. I also had little problem finding DVDs and tie-in books of Underbelly -- an Australian fact-ional drama that's been accused of glamourising murderous thugs like Terry 'Mr Asia' Clark while re-victimising their survivors and, shall we say, playing fast and loose with history for dramatic effect.
Now, the simple truth is that if you get enough people shouting loudly enough on Facebook in the middle of a recession that's hitting retailers like a steel-cap stiletto in the junk, you pay attention. Still, if booksellers are going to outsource their judgement to social media, could they respect us enough not to pretend they’re looking out for the children instead of their bottom line?
The Herald story I linked to above had another quote, this time from Warehouse merchandise manager Nick Tuck that should have been examined more closely by journalists.
[He] said the company had decided not to stock Breaking Silence in any of its 89 stores or online after receiving "significant" comment from customers.
"Overwhelmingly, they have told us that they do not wish to buy it or see it on the shelves. We have listened to our customers, and The Warehouse has chosen not to stock the book."
So, Mr. Tuck, what delicate ratio of phone calls, e-mails and FB "likes" constitutes "significant" for the largest retailer in New Zealand? And how consistently will this be applied in future? While the "book burning" hyperbole in Brian Rudman's column on the topic is particularly useful, he asks asks a perfectly legitimate question:
Unity Books' owner, Jo McColl, told National Radio she would cancel her order, or if it was too late, throw the books in the bin when they arrived.
The evidence from the Coroner's Court this week had made her feel "quite queasy about anyone making money out of this story".
She argued it wasn't censorship because booksellers made choices of what to stock all the time, and that anyone who wanted a copy of this book could buy it online from the author.
But that avoids addressing the dangerous precedent now being set by booksellers.
Since the twins' brutal killing in 2006, the country has been shocked, disgusted and intrigued by this unsolved case.
Now, because an unknown number of people want to silence one of the prime suspects from publishing her story, they're threatening boycotts of offending booksellers, and the shopkeepers are quickly caving in.
This leaves them vulnerable to the next wave of book-burners. What happens when the next "I euthanised my mother" book turns up and right-to-lifers come bashing on the door? Or a new Richard Dawkins book upsets the Christians? For the sake of an easy life, will the booksellers toss those on the bonfire as well?
Contra Rudman, I would point out that McColl isn't exactly wrong. It would be physically impossible and economically suicidal for any bookseller to try and stock every one of the hundreds of thousands of books published in English alone, every year. Many independent bookstores also "narrowcast" to specialist audiences -- foodies, SF/fantasy geeks, feminists, GLBT folks, poetry fans to pick a few favourites of mine.
Nor do I really think Ms. McColl or Carole Beu would be purging queer-lit from Unity or Ponsonby's Women's Boosktore no matter how many people "liked" a BOYCOTT THE SODOMY BOOKS Farcebook group started by Density Church or Family First. I'd also surmise that Richard Dawkins, Chris Hitchens and Philip Pullman are pretty safe on High Street too.
But I've no reason to be so confident about Paper Plus, The Warehouse or the new prorietors of the Whitcoulls/Borders group who between them dominate the book trade in New Zealand. Anyone who thinks that wouldn't have a real impact on the trade (and publishers' willingness to risk publishing contentious books) and people for whom the big chains are their best, even only choices, are being disingenuous at best.
If you want to make a case that Ian Wishart is a twenty gallon drum of douche whose relationship with truth is not a good one, I'm not going to argue. Think Macsyna King is a ghastly bitch not fit to have custody of goldfish, who must be guilty of something? You're entitled to your opinion, but I'm also entitled to tell you to take it elsewhere. (Also, anyone who shares the incoming Children's Commissioner's views on the right to silence as it pertains to can we just say I agree to disagree, and leave the legal debate to the comments on whatever Public Address' legal blogger has to say.)
The problem with supporting freedom of speech is that you defend the rights of ghastly people -- not only Wishart and King, but folks whose exercise their freedoms of speech to talk nonsense. And retailers who need to get on-line and buy one slightly-used spine. Now if you'll excuse me, I see a pole that needs a quick going over with the Spray 'N' Wipe before my next show...
(This post is an expanded version of my '180 Seconds with Craig Ranapia' piece, that will be broadcast on Public Address Radio this Sunday, 7pm, on Radio Live.)