As he launches “No Exit”, a dark novelette about suicide and murder, indie author and campaigner Dan Holloway considers the self-published writer's dilemma regarding the conflicting pulls of self-censorship and self-expression, an issue he sums up neatly as “the writer's wants versus readers' needs”.
Freedom. I don’t think anyone who self-publishes would deny that’s the most alluring thing of all about doing things yourself. For many of us it’s a mix of relief, joy, intoxication, in-your-face-up-yoursness that conjures up George Michael and Robbie Williams.
But I started wondering about the flip side to this when I posted a piece about my new book, No Exit, a loosely YA piece of fem noir that puts some uncomfortable questions to contemporary culture – about whether death can be beautiful; about whether murder can be a healing act; about whether we should intervene if a loved one tries to kill themselves.
The question I wrestled with was a simple one – should I write this stuff? Is it ever justified? Indeed, is not writing it ever justified? Can my honest intention excuse the potential effect on readers?
What ensued on the post, but most of all on Faceboook, was a fascinating but surprisingly predictable conversation. I have become used to a general decrying of self-censorship, the clarion call of “I write what I have to write” or “I cut nothing.”
- I have learned that most people who can say this glibly do so because what they “have to say” is so anodyne it would cause very little harm.
- I have learned to keep quiet when people think the unharmful anodyne is actually the sharpest edge of dangerous.
- I have even learned to stop getting irritated at the irrationality, and even to stop rolling my eyes when those I see making such pronouncements are those I also saw sharing petitions for Amazon to ban a certain notorious book a few years ago.
The Self-Publishing Perspective
But I have started thinking. The glib cries seem to fall easiest from the lips of my self-publishing friends, and I wonder if there’s a reason. And whether that reason has to do with the heady passion for freedom self-publishing brings. Has self-expression become a holy grail, a sacred chalice from which self-publishing enables us to drink? Do we reflexively see any talk of self-censorship as the distant decretals of an establishment seeking to wrest the cup from our hands once more (yes, it’s not an accident that I’m using the Protestant Reformation as my guiding metaphor)?
Of course, there are many self-publishers who take the notion of responsibility, especially to their readers, very seriously. We see that in the pleas for professionalism. Ironically, this is one of the aspects of self-publishing of which I am an outspoken critic, but that may just be my natural contrariness.
But it’s rare that we see in-depth pieces asking whether we should use the freedom we have over content without considering the implications:
- Is it really the case that a deleterious text is rendered acceptable by correct formatting and structure?
- Is it that we are, rightly, so frightened of the notion of censorship it cannot even register in our vocabulary?
- Is it that all those writers think such vanilla thoughts the issue never arises and self-expression is allowed to become the easy-to-defend “freedom to stick close to the consensus or to demur on points that breach no libertarian levees”?
Or is it that placing the author at the centre, as the battle cry incites us, does just that?
Places the author at the centre. Not just of the business of books, but of the whole literary universe. Is the unreflective call for self-expression simply another avatar of the notion that “author wants” trumps “reader needs”, accompanied by the convenient metastructure that informs us of the ultimately patronising nature of even considering the notion of a reader’s “needs”?
It is probably a mix. But whereas anodyne is a noun that applies to most humans per se, and fear of censorship is a pillar of our hunger for justice – and both therefore apply to traditional and self-publishing alike, I wonder if self-publishing is unique in holding out the sacrosanct promise and expectation of the final cut. And if so, I wonder if this is a good thing. I know that in No Exit there’s not a punch I’ve pulled. But I also know that if I hadn’t asked the question, when the inevitable comments come in I would feel my responses were on shakier ground.