The Strange Case of Disappearing Stories and the Rise of Internet Censorship

Internet censorship

American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins hits the shelves causing a digital backlash of epic proportions.

Kobe Bryant is killed in a helicopter crash causing dubious brands and fake influencers to shamelessly take advantage of his death to gain extra exposure.

Coronavirus puts an entire country on quarantine causing an information war passionately fostered by dystopian scenarios of classic Hollywood proportions.

This could the opening scene of a dystopian novel. Unfortunately, it’s just another crazy week on this planet.

These topics got me thinking about publishing, fake news, social networks and how any art can truly stand without drowning in the noise that threatens to envelop this world.

It’s hard to absorb it all without making uncomfortable questions about our future. It’s even harder to let these things go without writing about them.

So, what do coronavirus, Kobe Bryant, and Jeanine Cummins have in common?

Nothing much, except for the weird timing.

But it’s the world’s reaction to this series of unfortunate events that truly binds them together. It’s the palpable effect they provoke that makes me shiver in a warm room.

In one word – polarization. Our opinions are the new currency we’re using to measure our status in this crazy and confusing world. The louder and more shocking they are, the higher the elusive status they seem to grant us.

But what happens when those opinions hurt the people they were supposed to protect?

Kat Rosenfield answered this question beautifully in her disturbing article entitled: What is #OwnVoices Doing to Our Books?

#OwnVoices is the same movement behind the backlash of epic proportions that has hit Jeanine and her story about Mexican migrants. A story she was unfit to tell.

The story should be told by a real Mexican migrant, activists say. A petition signed by more than 100 authors gives substance to the argument. In the aftermath of the backlash, it seems obvious that Cummins and her publishers only managed to make a 7-figure mistake.

But, where do we need to start drawing the line?

When does silencing become censorship?

When does freedom become oppression?

Rosenfield’s article answers all of these questions with disturbing examples of #OwnVoice writers who were publicly shamed for choosing the wrong setting for their novels.

“(…) many authors say that the single-minded focus on “authenticity” as a standard for publication has begun to act as a hindrance, not a help,” writes Rosenfield.

You would think this hindrance would be restricted to stories that mimic the real world. But it isn’t.

In Wired’s article “The Disturbing Case of the Disappearing Sci-fi Story”, we learn otherwise.

The missing story is that of Isabel Fall, published and later removed by Clarkesworld – “I Sexually Identify as an Attack Helicopter.”

That story was meant to take the power away from the transphobic meme and use it to weave a new narrative. Instead, because we know so little about Isabel’s identity, her story polarized the trans community garnering criticism and praise in equal measure.

The criticism ended up hurting Isabel deeply and made her remove her wonderful story.

My feelings about this incident were perfectly translated into words by author Carmen Machado:

Imagine if we start censoring art…

Alexandre Dumas would be considered unfit to write The Count of Monte Cristo because he was never unjustly imprisoned for political crimes.

Isaac Asimov would be criticized for setting his novels in space without experiencing the struggles of space travel himself.

Brandon Sanderson would be mocked for writing about magic.

If we limit ourselves to expressing purely what we know, art will cease being what it is. If we limit ourselves to the confinements of our reality, we risk losing the very thing that makes us humans. We risk losing our ability to imagine our future.

“Humans think in stories, and we try to make sense of the world by telling stories,” wrote Yuval Harari in Sapiens. I wonder what’ll happen if we start limiting the types of stories we’re allowed to tell.

What does this mean for aspiring authors?

It means the rules of the game are changing.

Even you end up choosing the traditional path, and even if you find a good editor and publisher, it doesn’t mean you’ll find the right audience for your stories. More and more, traditional publishers are urging creatives to build an audience first before trying to sell their books.

This also means that identity and authenticity should be the cornerstones of your creative endeavors. Unfortunately, this is becoming increasingly difficult for writers who wish to express their opinions on sensitive and controversial topics. And it pains me to think these writers will have to face unjust criticism to bring their ideas and work to the light.

As writers and readers there’s only one thing left to do: defend the ideas and art we believe in! Authors shouldn’t have to face the uncertainty and backlash Isabel Fall faced on her own.

These episodes showed me once again that knowledge is power. For the author creating in isolation, there is a real risk of rejection by readers and editors alike. But for the author who dares to step out of his comfort zone and make himself vulnerable, the reward may be a caring readership that will support him when unfounded criticism comes knocking at his door.

So, I have to build an audience, what’s new about that?

The conclusion may sound like old news. But after months of struggling to build any kind of audience, I still have to wonder if most people truly know what it means to build an audience.

I learned, through many confusing and difficult experiences, that building an audience it’s not what it seems. We shouldn’t aim at becoming indispensable. We shouldn’t aim at becoming experts.

Instead, we should understand what our readers may want and let their wants fuel our imagination.

In this way, your creations will blossom from real wants, needs, and struggles of our readership. Maybe if Jeanine Cummins had done that, instead of hiding behind a publishing house, she would have understood that her narrative would be seen as cultural appropriation and denounced by the Latin American community as just another insidious form of poverty porn.

Writers have more to gain from an audience than they realize. And, as aspiring authors, we’re in the perfect stage of our life to act as the catalysts of that impending revolution.


Featured image credits: Kristina Flour on Unsplash

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