Of Kindle porn,, and the online marketplace

While most of us were being squeaky-clean in our online activities, a rather dirty war recently broke out in cyberspace over the selling of dirty e-books on Amazon and elsewhere. The affair raises numerous issues of non-prurient interest.

The controversy first erupted in the British press. That’s appropriate, since it was the British author Charles Dickens who gave us the term “pecksniff.” (See his “Martin Chuzzlewit.”) There the online publication the Kernel unearthed “hundreds of e-books that celebrate graphic rape, incest and ‘forced sex’ with young girls available for sale from online retailer Amazon.”

The Kernel headlined its article “How Amazon Cashes in on Kindle Filth,” which was a gift to all websites inclined to link to the piece in quest of a growing audience, including this one.

The issue, as the Kernel described it (and as my colleague Carolyn Kellogg ably reported), lies with self-published e-books. As the term suggests, these are products that anyone can hawk through Amazon’s online marketplace simply by calling oneself a publisher and registering an ISBN number, a publishing code which can be had in the U.S. for a fee of $125 per title.

Since self-published books don’t go through the careful vetting process for propriety and social acceptability followed by all our upstanding legitimate publishing houses, anything goes. The Kernel pinpointed several especially raunchy titles, which can’t be repeated in a family blog. Many are unquestionably outside the bounds of even conventional depravity. That’s presumably why they needed to be self-published, since real publishers know to draw the line at things like “Fifty Shades of Grey,” which is merely about bondage and S&M.; Saturday night in the suburbs, don’t you know.


The Kernel’s campaign has caused some heartburn for Amazon and other online booksellers such as Kobo and Britain’s W.H. Smith. Amazon took steps to trim some of the rawer titles from its inventory, and W.H. Smith took down its entire website for a scrubbing.

But self-publishers of erotica have pushed back, launching an online petition encouraging the e-bookstores to lay off. And they make some good points, among them that the books in question are legal, and that “filth,” of the Kindle variety or otherwise, is not always easy to define.

Amazon, in fact, is of no help on the latter point. Its guidelines for self-published material state simply that: “We don’t accept pornography or offensive depictions of graphic sexual acts” and that “What we deem offensive is probably about what you would expect.” It’s hard to know who the “you” is in that sentence, since what I would expect to be deemed offensive is quite different from what would be deemed offensive by, say, my grandmother. Or my brother, for that matter.

That points to the question of whether Amazon is assuming too much power in deciding what’s offensive to me or you or its audience at large. In the old days, when a multitude of bookstores served any decent-sized community, including some with back rooms to keep the nonjudgmental book buyer segregated from the blue-nosed variety, almost any taste could be fulfilled. That’s less true today, in part because of Amazon.

Amazon isn’t the only eCompany claiming the right to screen material for its customers; Steve Jobs was known to have decreed “no porn” in Apples’s App Store for the iPhone and iPad, a position that made him potentially the most powerful judge on Planet Earth. Forget the jurists who can sentence criminals to the death chamber; the man who can define “porn” for the rest of us can really rule the world.

The point, of course, is that the definition of “porn,” or “offensive,” or “disgusting” is and always has been a moving target. It’s not only time that changes definitions, but simple literary judgment. The best example is Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita,” which was praised in the New York Times one day as a masterpiece, and damned the very next day as “dull and fatuous,” “repulsive,” and (in perhaps the greatest misjudgment of its middlebrow critic) not “notably funny.”

That’s not to say that there aren’t self-published e-books that shouldn’t be hushed up by decent society, or that don’t reflect very poorly on their buyers, not to mention their authors. But it does raise the question of who should judge, and how. If Amazon is going to open its marketplace services to people selling their own wares, there are limits to how much oversight it has a right to impose.

Ban goods and services that hurt people, sure. But books in which the depravity and repulsion are all in the words? That’s a different story. It certainly demands standards a bit more explicit than “probably about what you’d expect.” What I expect from Amazon is something better than that.

Reach me at @hiltzikm on Twitter, Facebook, Google+ or by email.


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