The Big Red Button

by Kelli Owen

A strange thing happened on my way to convention season this spring. While ordering copies to take on the road, one of my books was banned. Banned. This happened on a rather large retail website whose logo may or may not include a curved arrow reminiscent of a smile. Why? Because an underpaid, overly entitled, customer service agent has too much power at his fingertips. Long story short, after several weeks and dozen of emails, I am the proud owner of a banned work of fiction. 

Proud? Yes. Because I didn’t cave. I didn’t change my already published story—which said marketplace had been selling for over three years—and I didn’t let censorship win. Instead, I went to a local printer and had hard copies made to bring to conventions, as well as sell directly through my website. It’s still available, and I still have my integrity. 

But I’m not alone in this battle, and the war is far from over. It’s not just authors who need to fight against the banning of their creations. This problem is all encompassing and affects everyone, whether they realize it or not. 

I have freedom of speech (in the broad stroke sense) to say and/or write whatever I want, but I also understand that doesn’t mean any marketplace has to sell, provide a link to, or otherwise acknowledge my fiction exists—which is a painful distinction we sometimes forget. It’s their store, their rules, and their catalog. Of course, this particular marketplace offers a bevy of books with much stronger imagery and language than mine, and therein lies my problem. I could abide by being banned if I’d done something they always, unanimously, reject. But it was not a standardized decision. It did not come from the top. It didn’t even come from middle management. It was left to the whim of one man in customer service. One man was allowed to interpret company policy however he wanted, thus given the power to act as judge and jury, with no responsibility or repercussions on him whatsoever. One man suddenly had control of my income, based on his personal opinion.

There’s the crux of my problem with this situation. 

Censorship is almost always opinion—in this case, one man’s opinion: Charlie V (note: he has my name, address, bank information, social security number, etc., but I don’t even get to know his last name). Rock music doesn’t create Satanists, video games aren’t the gateway drug to violence, and just because you don’t read horror doesn’t mean you should control whether or not other people can. You’re not the world’s mother, and censoring my story because you are sensitive about the topic or outcome is acting on your opinion alone. It would be like censoring fantasy because you think dragons are stupid. You can think that all you want. You can be sensitive all you want. Just don’t read about dragons. And don’t read my revenge story. But do not presume to make that decision for everyone else. 

When one opinion takes away the freedom to form opinions from others, there’s a type of control going on in a free society that can do nothing but divide and damage us as a whole. The reader should decide whether or not they want to read something, and thereby be given the opportunity to make their own opinions on the topic matter, point of view, struggle, or outcome. 

My story is a revenge tale, not unlike any number of other novels and/or movies, except mine is from the female perspective, and guessing by his reactions to my emailed suppositions, the employee in charge of the big red button didn’t approve of that. Because of his sensitivities, my female protagonist’s revenge on a (much deserving, by the way) male was taken as an affront to his own masculinity. This is not about me playing the female writer card. Oh no. This is his use of the man-in-power card, and “man” is used generically, as I’m sure there are female customer service agents with the same whims, power, and button. What someone wants to read should be up to them, even if you don’t agree with what they’re reading.

Should a company, using a standardized guideline, be allowed to choose not to sell certain books in their marketplace? Absolutely. But to give the power of that verdict to one person, to allow one guy having a bad day, to make that decision—only to then stubbornly back it up with nothing but company lines and quotes from the terms of service (“we reserve the right to determine what we consider to be appropriate”)—is ridiculous, and does not in any manner abide by the right of company or corporation to dictate their rules. These are not their rules, their guidelines were not ignored or trampled on by my story, but rather abused by their employee. Imagine a consignment shop that clearly states they will not sell yellow clothes. Okay, don’t sell yellow. And I won’t bring you yellow to sell. And if I do and you say no, that’s perfectly acceptable. But if I bring in a red sweater that reminds the non-managerial cashier of the shirt she saw her ex-boyfriend’s new girlfriend in, or some equally flippant reason, and she suddenly decides they don’t like red either, even though I can clearly see red around the store, it is now her opinion of the item rather than company policy. And that is unreasonable, unreliable, and unacceptable censorship.

In recent years, lifestyle has taken a hit from the censorship stick—especially the LGBTQ community. It’s as if their stories are shameful or damaging to society, and need to be hidden from public consumption. It is simply an attempt to erase the reality of their existence. And it is not just censorship of fiction, but of people, culture, and lifestyle in general. In my case, it’s not the suppression of thoughts and ideas around a type of people, but rather the denial of character development through hardship. The events of the story in question very much dictate how the character grows, changes, adapts, and overcomes, not just this story, but also the next. Part of our job as writers is to throw problems at our characters, and we should never have to choose those problems from an approved list some committee—or worse, an individual with too much power—decides are safe enough for a society who never asked their opinion. It is also our job, especially in the darker genres, to make the reader uneasy, to take them out of their comfort zone, and introduce them to new ideas, new horrors, new fantastical realms and realities. 

We are a nation of diverse people, with diverse imaginations, lives, desires, and interests. Trying to control that diversity and streamline the available fiction to approved-by-committee lists is ridiculous at best, damaging at any level. 

Everyone has an opinion and that’s fine, but those opinions shouldn’t dictate other people’s choices, lifestyles, or reading habits. Social media has given opinions a life force of their own and unmerited power. We have become a cancel culture on many levels, the masses using social media to seize control of any given situation. If they don’t like it, and they’re loud enough, the offending whatever will disappear, or be otherwise resigned to change accordingly. 

The banning of books and censorship in general has trickled down into every crack of our society. Government censorship was an evil we all fought together. Along came private entity and corporate guidelines to kowtow to. Then libraries and schools caved to what was essentially peer pressure from parents, affecting both their shelves and curriculum. Groups of people have gathered now and again over the years to burn copies of books, which had offended them personally. But I fear the Internet’s court of opinion is going to sully the greatness of the information age by dictating which information is acceptable. By allowing the group with the loudest opinion to change things socially, to have their social media tantrums and be rewarded for them, we’ve created a society where everyone believes their opinions supersede fact or reality. And now we have customer service agents with big red buttons giving them the unmitigated authority to deny the existence and opportunity to both reader and writer. 

I have the freedom to say or write what I want. You can read it or ignore it. But that choice should be yours, and yours alone—not Charlie’s.

Get your copy of Left for Dead / Fall From Grace here.

Kelli Owen is the author of more than a dozen books, including the novels TEETH and FLOATERS, and fan-favorite apocalyptic novella WAITING OUT WINTER, and the Wilted Lily Series. Her fiction spans the genres from thrillers to psychological horror, with an occasional bloodbath, and an even rarer happy ending. She was an editor and reviewer for over a decade, and has attended countless writing conventions, participated on dozens of panels, and spoken at the CIA Headquarters in Langley, VA regarding both her writing and the field in general. Visit her website at kelliowen.com for more information. F/F