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.

Boycott Dubai: Literature, Censorship and Homophobia in the Gulf

Several news outlets this morning carry the story of British author Geraldine Bedell being banned from the Emirates Airline International Festival of Literature in Dubai because of the depiction of a homosexual relationship in her novel The Gulf Between Us, and possible queries about its stance on Islam.

[Multiple updates with response from the festival and partners, and some authors pulling out (appended below).]

The Telegraph quotes festival director Isobel Abulhoul saying that “I do not want our festival remembered for the launch of a controversial book. If we launched the book and a journalist happened to read it, then you could imagine the political fallout that would follow. This could be a minefield.”

MSNBC reports that festival organizers complained that “it talks about Islam and queries what is said.”

The New York Times quotes Bedell’s publisher, Juliet Annan, saying: ”It’s all very unfortunate. In effect the censor has said they will ban it, which means no book chain can buy it.”

The Dubai Festival calls itself “the first true literary Festival in the Middle East celebrating the world of books in all its infinite variety” – a shocking claim to be making when it in fact singles out and censors books whose variety it finds it impossible to confront. There is no place for censorship in literature, or at any “true” literary festival.

The festival claims as attendees the writers Anthony Horowitz, Kate Adie, Chimamanda Adichie, Sir Ranulph Fiennes, Lauren Child, Terry Brooks, Alexander Maitland, Kate Mosse, Brian Aldiss, Robert Irwin, Rachel Billington, Frank McCourt, Sir Mark Tully, Wilbur Smith, Anita Nair, Victoria Hislop, Philippa Gregory, Margaret Atwood, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Karin Slaughter, Louis de Bernières and a host of others. It is sponsored by Emirates Airlines, and partners include Time Out and the British Council.

I urge you to contact these individuals and organisations and express your dismay at the actions of the festival, and urge them to either boycott the festival, or engage with the organisers and insist that work invited to the festival is not censored in this way.

Let’s be entirely clear about this: the suppression of literature leads to the suppression of people. Article 177 of the Penal Code of Dubai imposes imprisonment of up to 10 years on consensual homosexual relations, which is regularly enforced (see Wikipedia article). Oppression is a result of ignorance, and literature can be one of the great forces to bring understanding and the ending of such oppression. Authors, journalists and all lovers of literature should see it as something to be supported, argued over, but never suppressed.

After the jump, I’ve provided contact details for those listed above. Please consider contacting them.

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Posted February 17, 2009 | Comments (3).

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