This Sunday brought  a little bit different offering from the Bloomington Writers Guild (cf. February 1, et al.).  Rather than poetry or prose per se., or open mike readings, today had a group of eight or ten writers discussing the questions of censorship and even, perhaps, the duty of writers.  “Since the CHARLIE HEBDO attack,” the description began, “questions have surfaced once again about free speech, censorship, self-censorship, and the possible consequences of putting words into print.  . . . the meaning of free speech, its effect (both good and bad), and how it may affect our lives and future.”

There were no answers, just an informal chat for about an hour at a local coffeehouse.  Quotes from writers were passed around, which we read in turn, as a sort of warming up session — mine, for instance, from Salman Rushdie, ended “To read a 600-page novel and then say it has deeply offended you:  well, you have done a lot of work to be offended” — these in turn leading to questions, in this case perhaps whether there are times when a writer should seek deliberately to offend.  There might be, for instance, as in the case of CHARLIE HEBDO, a time when one should take an especially “in your face” position as a way to force conversation about things people may be deliberately trying to ignore.  But there could be dangers, too, as we learned in the case of CHARLIE HEBDO.

One thing pointed out, is that the danger of silencing need not always be in the headlines.  Social pressure to prevent speaking out at a school board meeting against censorship of biology texts on evolution, for instance, may in its combined effect across multiple communities be even more dangerous in the long run than armed thug attacks against a single “offending” high-profile publication.  But everything ends up, still, to a matter of individual circumstances and contexts and, ultimately, the writer’s individual decisions.  As a horror writer in my own experience I don’t go out seeking windmills to tilt at, but in certain stories I do feel it’s needed to go in some depth  into what lies beneath, and causes, the horror (in choosing stories for THE TEARS OF ISIS, as one example, I realized perhaps for the first time — though this time in terms of parallels between 1950s cold war paranoia and present day Islamophobia — how powerful the story “Bottles” may be especially now, as well as possibly understanding why the mystery magazine I’d originally written it for may have decided to turn it down even forty years after the time of the story).

In any event, it’s something to think about.  Do I self-censor?  Of course I do sometimes — even in horror there is such a thing as taste.  But other times I might not, and at yet other times what I think a story might need is an extra twist taking it at a tangent from where it started (in THE TEARS OF ISIS perhaps in the reprint “The Christmas Rat,” or maybe “Bones, Bones, the Musical Fruit”?  Though others who read them may disagree).

Be true to one’s self, is that the message?  I think so, maybe, but also to study who you yourself are.  Be sure it is true, and be mindful of editors or, even if self-publishing, a need to attract readers to your words if they’re worth reading.  Or does that start going around in circles?

To close, another quote I drew to read, this one from 1960s activist Abbie Hoffman:  “Free speech is the right to shout ‘Theater!’ in a crowded fire.”


  1. I love that Hoffman quote! Free speech should also be the right to satirize the overly P.C. movement. Publishing a poem by another person got me into hot water with Those Sorts –back in 2008. I remain banned from certain publications whose editors supported that faction, even though I apologized for offending anyone (which was not my intent). So it goes. I apprecated reading the part that you played in this discussion!

  2. A lot of what;’s here may be more my reflections after (e.g. we didn’t talk specifically about horror writing, though some fantasy was cited, but now my “job” as a horror writer as I see it is to apply the generalities we did discuss to my peculiar circumstances), but I think they hold true to the spirit of what we were saying. On personal “offense,” I had my own mini-feud with STRANGE HORIZONS about a year back as I recall, in terms of their “PC Police Informant Policy” (if one may coin a phrase) as a violation of copyright law. Neither they nor I have changed our positions to my knowledge, but it’s been a time since I’ve submitted anything to them either. (In fairness though, in terms of my non-submission, it’s because they turn down most of the stuff I do submit.)

    • For some reason, I can’t recall your mentioning that “PC Police Informant Policy” thing. As a fact, although I won their Readers Award in 2010, the new staff of ladies (STRANGE HORIZONS) continually turn away everything I submit too. Sonya has been gracious in so doing, I can say that.

  3. It takes a little bit of work to find this, but the part I objected (and still object) to is the second indented paragraph beginning “In an investigation of a specific incident of harassment or abuse. . . .”. And this is the clarification that came out in part from the “contributors page” discussion I more or less started — in which many bad-mouthed me, although a few on my side did bring up the problem of self-censorship, intimidation (as a general thing, especially in foreign countries), etc. But to the good, I believe that final paragraph, saying that authors will be notified, also come out of the discussion/my objection — previously there was no guarantee of even that.

    I had ended up by simply posting a link to an introductory piece by a lawyer explaining aspects of law concerning writers, including copyright (that is, if SH acted on that paragraph without _first_ getting an author’s permission, they would be guilty of stealing). And remember, “incident of harassment or abuse” simply means someone claimed they were offended by something.

    Submissions to Strange Horizons may be retained in our archives for editorial reference, but are treated as confidential correspondence.

    We do not, however, guarantee absolute confidentiality. We may release material to the following parties in the following circumstances:

    If the magazine receives material containing explicit threats, either towards members of staff or other individuals, in the form of a submission or as other communication, we may share such material with legal authorities;
    In an investigation of a specific incident of harassment or abuse, initiated by a third party organisation (for example, a publisher or a convention committee), which specifically involves a work that has been submitted to Strange Horizons or material present in communication with Strange Horizons, we may consider sharing a copy of that work or communication with the relevant organisation;
    We will comply with duly authorised subpoenas requesting material in our possession.

    We will notify the author(s) involved if we share any of their work under these provisions.

    • Ah, yes. If memory serves, I know of one outstanding incident that actully didn’t involve SH, (or need not have involved it) but they got into it anyway. I also firmly agree with you about your stand on this.

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