Category Archives: Censorship

My Banned Books Week post for the Bauman Rare Books blog

We Read Banned Books is my latest post for the Bauman Rare Books blog, featuring the stories of six important books: Joyce’s Ulysses, Galileo’s Dialogo, Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and Nabokov’s Lolita.

Read it here: http://www.baumanrarebooks.com/blog/read-banned-books/

Ulysses

 

 

 

 

 

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Edward de Grazia, the lawyer who fought book censorship & wrote Girls Lean Back Everywhere

In a 2008 post about Banned Books Week, I recommended an excellent 1992 book about literary censorship and obscenity prosecutions in the United States, Edward de Grazia’s Girls Lean Back Everywhere: The Law of Obscenity and the Assault on Genius. He was a lawyer who fought the censorship of books in a number of prominent cases in the 1960s.

Girls Lean Back Everywhere

This morning I learned that Edward de Grazia has died at the age of 86. Here’s his obituary from the New York Times.

Here’s an excerpt from my original post about his book:

The title is taken from a quote by Jane Heap, who (with Margaret Anderson) was prosecuted in 1920 for publishing episodes from James Joyce’s Ulysses in their magazine, The Little Review:

Mr. Joyce was not teaching early Egyptian perversions nor inventing new ones. Girls lean back everywhere, showing lace and silk stockings; wear low-cut sleeveless blouses, breathless bathing suits; men think thoughts and have emotions about these things everywhere–seldom as delicately and imaginatively as Mr. Bloom–and no one is corrupted.

This work describes in detail the publishing histories and obscenity trials of the most controversial books of the 20th century, including Joyce’s Ulysses, Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness, Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, and Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, as well as later trials involving the monologues of Lenny Bruce, the photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe, and the lyrics of 2 Live Crew.

What makes this work particularly entertaining are the extensive quotes from the authors and publishers involved. As de Grazia notes in his introduction:

I wanted to find out, and describe, how the persons who were most immediately affected by literary censorship–authors and publishers–responded to and felt about it, and to present their reactions as much as possible in words of their own. I also wanted to say what I could about the nature of the legal and constitutional process that has framed the struggle against censorship in our country….

Google and antitrust and censorship, oh my!

Lots of interesting book-related news, articles, and posts over the last week or so:

Amazon acknowledges its “embarrassing and ham-fisted cataloging error”

On Monday afternoon, Amazon spokesman Drew Herdener released this statement about the AmazonFail fiasco to the LA Times and other media outlets:

This is an embarrassing and ham-fisted cataloging error for a company that prides itself on offering complete selection.

It has been misreported that the issue was limited to Gay & Lesbian themed titles – in fact, it impacted 57,310 books in a number of broad categories such as Health, Mind & Body, Reproductive & Sexual Medicine, and Erotica. This problem impacted books not just in the United States but globally. It affected not just sales rank but also had the effect of removing the books from Amazon’s main product search.

Many books have now been fixed and we’re in the process of fixing the remainder as quickly as possible, and we intend to implement new measures to make this kind of accident less likely to occur in the future.

Various sources are reporting that rankings have been restored to some of the affected books. I just spot-checked the specific titles I mentioned in my last blog post, and as I write this some have had their ranking restored, but most have not. Let’s see how long it takes to fix them all. Fixing the damage to Amazon’s reputation and restoring the trust and goodwill that’s been lost will take a lot longer and require more than just this PR statement. That Amazon has not handled this well is a monumental understatement. It would help if they issued an actual apology that showed some understanding or acknowledgment of why the Internet and Twitter exploded. It may have been an unintentional error, but the results and implications of that error and Amazon’s late and inadequate response caused pain to authors and readers alike and felt like a betrayal to those of us who’ve been Amazon customers for years. You can fix this, Amazon. Please try. Hard.

I’ll leave you with one last link for now: Kelley Eskridge’s great post on her Humans at Work blog about the management lessons to be learned from Amazonfail.

Update: On Monday night the Seattle P-I posted “AmazonFail: An inside look at what happened“:

I’ve spoken to an Amazon.com employee who works closely with the systems involved in the glitch… On Sunday afternoon at least 20 Amazon.com employees were paged alerting them that items, possibly many, were incorrectly being flagged as adult. The employees also received links to the Twitter discussion AmazonFail. Thousands of people were angry that gay-themed books had disappeared from Amazon’s sales rankings and search algorithms…

By this time, Amazon.com had upgraded the problem to Sev-1. (Amazon.com breaks down its operational issues in terms of severity levels. Sev-3 means a problem affects a single user. Sev-2 is a problem that affects a company, or a lot of people. Sev-1 is reserved for the most critical operational issues and often are sent up the management chain to the senior vice president level.)

“People got pulled away from their Easter thing when this whole thing broke,” the employee said. “It was just a screwup.”

Amazon.com employees are on call 24/7, and many began working on the problem from home. It didn’t take much digging to realize that there was a data error.

Amazon managers found that an employee who happened to work in France had filled out a field incorrectly and more than 50,000 items got flipped over to be flagged as “adult,” the source said. (Technically, the flag for adult content was flipped from ‘false’ to ‘true.’)

“It’s no big policy change, just some field that’s been around forever filled out incorrectly,” the source said.

New Update (April 14): All of the books I listed in my original blog post have had their sales ranking restored.

Amazon sets the blogosphere on fire

Thanks to Cheryl Morgan, I discovered that Amazon.com has done something ridiculously stupid and offensive– it has stripped the sales rankings from many books (fiction, nonfiction, and academic) with gay or lesbian subjects or characters, and it is excluding this “adult” material from some searches and bestseller lists.  People are posting lists of books affected online, and I did some quick author and title searches myself, so here are just a few of the books now missing their rankings:

  • Fiction:  E.M. Forster’s Maurice, D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness, James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, Rita Mae Brown’s Rubyfruit Jungle, Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges are not the Only Fruit, Manuel Puig’s Kiss of the Spider Woman, Annie Proulx’s Brokeback Mountain, Sarah Waters’ Tipping the Velvet, and books by Nicola Griffith, among others.
  • Biographies, autobiographies, and memoirs:  Randy Shilts’ The Mayor of Castro Street: The Life and Times of Harvey Milk, Dan Savage’s The Committment: Love, Sex, Marriage and My Family, Quentin Crisp’s The Naked Civil Servant, and Gerald Clarke’s biography of Truman Capote.
  • History: David Carter’s Stonewall: The Riots that Sparked the Gay Revolution, Vito Russo’s The Celluloid Closet, Louis Crompton’s Homosexuality and Civilization, and Tin’s The Dictionary of Homophobia: A Global History of Gay & Lesbian Experience.

Mark R. Probst raised the alarm in his blog and posted Amazon’s response to his inquiry about this:

On Amazon.com two days ago, mysteriously, the sales rankings disappeared from two newly-released high profile gay romance books: “Transgressions” by Erastes and “False Colors” by Alex Beecroft. Everybody was perplexed. Was it a glitch of some sort? The very next day HUNDREDS of gay and lesbian books simultaneously lost their sales rankings, including my book “The Filly.” There was buzz, What’s going on? Does Amazon have some sort of campaign to suppress the visibility of gay books? Is it just a major glitch in the system? Many of us decided to write to Amazon questioning why our rankings had disappeared. Most received evasive replies from customer service reps not versed in what was happening. As I am a publisher and have an Amazon Advantage account through which I supply Amazon with my books, I had a special way to contact them. 24 hours later I had a response:

In consideration of our entire customer base, we exclude “adult” material from appearing in some searches and best seller lists. Since these lists are generated using sales ranks, adult materials must also be excluded from that feature.

Hence, if you have further questions, kindly write back to us.

Best regards,

Ashlyn D

Member Services

Amazon.com Advantage

The Meta Writer blog has a link roundup and has starting compiling a list of notable books that have had their sales ranking removed. Strangely, the Kindle editions of GLBT books still have their rankings– for now.

News of this is raging across the blogosphere, and there are more blog posts about it than I can link to, but here are a few more from Booksquare and Kelley Eskridge and Nicola Griffith. Amazon should quickly reverse itself or else this is going to grow to a public relations disaster of epic proportions.

Update:  Sunday evening news flash from Publisher’s Weekly:

A groundswell of outrage, concern and confusion sprang up over the weekend, largely via Twitter, in response to what authors and others believed was a decision by Amazon to remove adult titles from its sales ranking. On Sunday evening, however, an Amazon spokesperson said that a glitch had occurred in its sales ranking feature that was in the process of being fixed. The spokesperson added that there was no new adult policy.

“Girls lean back everywhere…”

In honor of Banned Books Week (September 27th through October 4th), I thought I’d recommend an excellent book on the subject of literary censorship and obscenity prosecutions in the United States, written by a First Amendment lawyer:  Edward de Grazia’s 1992 Girls Lean Back Everywhere: The Law of Obscenity and the Assault on Genius. The title is taken from a quote by Jane Heap, who (with Margaret Anderson) was prosecuted in 1920 for publishing episodes from James Joyce’s Ulysses in their magazine, The Little Review:

Mr. Joyce was not teaching early Egyptian perversions nor inventing new ones. Girls lean back everywhere, showing lace and silk stockings; wear low-cut sleeveless blouses, breathless bathing suits; men think thoughts and have emotions about these things everywhere–seldom as delicately and imaginatively as Mr. Bloom–and no one is corrupted.

This work describes in detail the publishing histories and obscenity trials of the most controversial books of the 20th century, including Joyce’s Ulysses, Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness, Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, and Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, as well as later trials involving the monologues of Lenny Bruce, the photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe, and the lyrics of 2 Live Crew.

What makes this work particularly entertaining are the extensive quotes from the authors and publishers involved. As de Grazia notes in his introduction:

I wanted to find out, and describe, how the persons who were most immediately affected by literary censorship–authors and publishers–responded to and felt about it, and to present their reactions as much as possible in words of their own. I also wanted to say what I could about the nature of the legal and constitutional process that has framed the struggle against censorship in our country….

Visit the American Library Association’s website for more information about Banned Books week, including lists of the most frequently challenged authors and books, descriptions of notable First Amendment court cases, and information on how to fight censorship and deal with challenges to library books.

Update 4/24/13: Edward de Grazia, the author of Girls Lean Back Everywhere, has died. See my new blog post for details.