It’s Still On: The real failure of Amazonfail, Dubai, and Internet Outrage

There’s a lot of post-Amazonfail discussion on the blogs at the moment. We wrote up our own experiences here, but we’d like to do a bit of a debrief on this, and the recent Dubai Literature Festival controversy, to explain why this is important, and why it’s not over.

First of all, let’s get a couple of things clear: it wasn’t a troll and it wasn’t all a big glitch. The troll/user-tagging argument relies on the assumption that it was only LGBT (Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) books that were targetted: Bookkake’s own examples contradict this (and, contrary to many reports, there’s no facility on Amazon to flag up products you dislike, only other user comments). And Amazon’s “glitch” excuse does not in any way explain why LGBT books – all of them, books with no sexual content, books about parenting, marriage and advice for young people – got shunted into the ‘adult’, family-unfriendly reaches of the catalogue.

There’s a lot of back-tracking going on right now, with some interesting thoughts on the issue, mostly from webby, social media types. Among others, Meg Pickard, Head of Communities at Guardian Media Group, is concerned about this kind of internet-enabled hue and cry, and whether it’s doing more harm than good. Clay Shirky, new media commentator de nos jours, has a thoughtful – and apologetic – piece on why moral ourage may have been redirected, and why it’s so hard to turn around.

We understand these arguments, and we sympathise with them. We don’t endorse the mindless mob, and in our own reporting of the event, we tried to stick to our own experiences, and we kept our minds open. But now Amazon has had a chance to respond, it’s time to talk about what’s really the matter here, and we’ll start by going back a couple of months, to Dubai.

As regular readers will know, a comparable situation occurred back in February over the alleged “banning” of a book with gay content by the Dubai Literature Festival. There was a similar (if far smaller) outcry in the book world, with calls for a boycott—in which Bookkake participated, gathering contact details for attendees, soliciting statements from those involved, and collating information as the event unfolded. Margaret Atwood, no less, changed her plans to attend. Others reconsidered.

Some days later, it turned out that the book had not been banned, but simply not selected for the festival, and the director had written a rather naive letter to the publisher saying she didn’t think the book would sit well with “local sensibilities”. Well, OK then, said everyone, what a silly hoo-hah over nothing. Poor new festival director who got it in the neck. They even put together, at short notice, a special panel on censorship, with several prominent Middle Eastern writers, representatives from PEN, the international writers’ human rights organisation, and Atwood beamed in by satellite. Job done.

Well, sorry, but no. Here’s a thing: in the whole two-hour panel, which you can watch online, in its entirety, on Vimeo and on the festival’s website, nobody talks about homosexuality. (Andrey Kurkov – author of the excellent Death and the Penguin – says the word ‘homosexual’ around 82:50, as part of a throwaway remark with little relevance to the discussion. That’s it.) That bears repeating: in a two-hour panel on censorship, set up specifically in response to accusations of homophobia, not a single participant talks about homosexuality.

You don’t play these sort of games with literature, with peoples’ lives. The book in question is still not on sale in Dubai, and the local media can’t discuss it. The Dubai Literature Festival’s tagline was “There are places only books can take you.” If you’re gay in Dubai, the only place you’ll go is to prison, for up to ten years. This issue vanished from the debate, which became one of general censorship, rather than one of specific discrimination against lesbians and gays.

On the panel, in the video, Margaret Atwood, International PEN Vice-President, talked about how books can be a lifeline to those who read them (64:00). Rachel Billington, previous President Of English PEN, spoke of how authors’ self-censorship is often the greatest danger (71:35). Eugene Schoulgin, International Secretary of International PEN, said that “it is our responsibility as writers not to close our eyes to what is going on” (80:15). And yet: no one spoke of homosexuality.

Likewise, the issue at the heart of #amazonfail is not – should not be – whether Amazon’s recategorisation was accidental or not, but how LGBT books came to be classified as not suitable for “family” viewing. How Amazon attempted to place them in the category of things of which we shall not speak. There is an effort to recoup and reform the discussion going on right now, to make this an issue of social media, of its use – and misuse – to “victimise” Amazon. But Amazon started applying these filters two months ago, and when it was just the gays who complained, as recently as last week, Amazon did nothing. Homosexual speech is not heard; it is unimportant; it is recategorised; it is censored and banned and imprisoned.

It took the full weight of the social web hue and cry—yes, an ugly thing at times—to turn Amazon around. Which they have now done. But is it enough? No. If Amazon really want to rebuild their credibility, they need to tell us exactly what happened, how it happened, and promise that it won’t happen again. We won’t let you play these kinds of games with literature. We won’t let you weasel out of this debate; we won’t be sidetracked by the issues of social media, mob rule and poor reporting; we won’t just move on as the short-attention-span of internet outrage passes. We’re willing to give you a fair hearing, but you must speak so that we all can hear.

Image detail from 58/365: It’s Better This Way by Eternal Grom, used under Creative Commons.


  1. Wow. I am stunned to read the coda of the Dubai story. Not surprised, but stunned that this inevitable thing happened and was inevitably unreported. And this will continue to be a huge “gays crying wolf” story even with this proof that there was something seriously amiss and no serious intent to set things right. Doubtless the same will happen at Amazon.

    The best thing I can say about #amazonfail is that it has led me to several voices like yours, who write truths I am usually alone with.

    Thanks very much. My sillvideo on the subject:

    # by Landon Bryce, April 16, 2009

  2. Thanks for letting me know about this post. I still think that you should also be concerned about how a major publisher manipulated real fear of homophobia to attempt to sell a book. .

    # by William Shaw, April 17, 2009

  3. William – I am concerned about that, it’s something I’m still looking at, and it’s why I don’t mention the book, author or publisher in this post. But I’m largely unsurprised by PR people doing what they do; I’m more concerned about good people doing nothing.

    # by Bookkake, April 17, 2009

  4. Thank you for the insightful piece on and its relation to the Dubai incident and other such incidences of moral outrage versus terrible PR. It is refreshing to read a well-written post that really examines the causes behind these spectacles and challenges us to consider what good our protests do, especially in the wake of the misunderstandings that often create them.

    # by Auburn, April 17, 2009

  5. Once I got over my astonishment that my books had been disappeared by Amazon based on lesbian content, I was astonished again that feminism too seems to have been targeted by the infamous glitch.

    The more I thought about it, the more I thought that perhaps more than simple (simple-minded) homophobia was at work here. I blogged about it here:

    To quote our new Secretary of State: Could this be a “vast right-wing conspiracy?”

    Catherine M. Wilson

    # by Catherine M. Wilson, April 25, 2009

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