I’m going to use a few words in here not everyone likes reading and I’m not going to asterisk them out, FYI.
I’m a bit late for Banned Books Week, but this is an issue that keeps coming up today.
I spent a lot of years defending the freedom to read when I worked in libraries. It’s not just abstract. There’s a lot of stuff out there that people really don’t want others, especially kids, to have access to. I once had a woman throw the Koran at me, literally. I think she was aiming to throw it at my desk, but she was mad. The Koran ended up back on the shelf. We as librarians take our duty to protect the freedom to read seriously. If there’s not something in my library that would offend you then I have failed at having a balanced collection. I worked in a school library serving kids from ages 7-14 and I used to give them the same message every year: not everything is for everybody. If it makes you unhappy or uncomfortable, don’t read it. If it would be against the rules at your house, don’t take it home. It’s a personal decision, not a librarian decision.
My rules on the podcast are the same. I don’t write with a lot of profanity. I don’t write explicit sex scenes. I’ve tried. I get embarrassed. It’s not my style. But not everyone is me. I put an intellectual freedom statement on our submission guidelines, and I stand by it. Sometimes literature offends. Sometimes it makes you uncomfortable. Sometimes it’s supposed to.
So we have a handful of explicit episodes, which are labeled as such and come with a little audio disclaimer so that the audience can make their own choices. And they are seriously powerful. Some of the explicit episodes rank among my favorites. Like what happens to even good guys in a world without rules as told by Cristina Querrer in Episode 9’s “Ex-Pats.” What intimacy looks like in the future as described by Cassandra Ricard in Episode 17’s “I’ll Meet You There.” Of the nineteen episodes I’ve released thus far, six are explicit and I stand by every one of them.
Then I learned that you can’t get the show in iTunes if you live in India.
The thing about free speech: it’s not global. Literature is. Podcasting is. Art is. But free speech is not.
For cultural and legal reasons, explicit podcasts and music are not allowed in the iTunes store of many countries. India is the biggest, but not the only. And there are a lot of explicit podcasts. Apple doesn’t release numbers on this, but you only have to browse the iTunes store to see them. I looked at the top 20 “New and Noteworthy” podcasts in the Literature category just now, and 8 have at least one explicit episode, meaning they would be unavailable in India (one explicit episode=your show as a whole is not listed, although select clean episodes might be.) My guess is that literature is far from the raciest category. Look at the top podcasts and you’ll see a lot of them have explicit episodes. The ones that don’t are radio shows.
“Explicit” is also a big word. One curse word makes you explicit, or you can be a sex columnist talking about bondage. The label is exactly the same. And it’s not really a big deal. Until they start blocking you around the world.
There are lots of suggestions about how to get around this. I can take the explicit shows out of the RSS feed, just make people get them off the website. I can bleep out the offending words. I can just pick clean stories. But the show is called No Extra Words. Every single one of those words was chosen for a very specific reason by the author. Nothing quite replaces the word “fuck.” It’s phonetically satisfying. It serves a purpose. And you don’t put it in there by accident. A story you will hear after the first of the year has the word “nigger” in it. It doesn’t make you feel comfortable. It isn’t supposed to. (The President of the United States used that word on Marc Maron’s WTF podcast over the summer, by the way. He could not have done that on CNN.)
So as I’m wrestling with this discovery that I’ve been banned in India (me, who hates it when people swear on the bus,) I was reading submissions for upcoming episodes. Regular readers will know that I have been asking for awhile for some shows that fill a particular niche because of episodes planned for around the holiday season, so I’ve been on the lookout for stories slightly less serious and, these are my words, “family friendly.” I’m really excited about what we have planned for December, and I just want the stories chosen to fit in well with what will happen on the show. And this morning I read one I thought might work. It’s fun. It’s different. It has a bit of a holiday theme to it. And it uses the word “asshole.”
My heart sank when I saw that. Do I want to add that word to an otherwise very “family friendly” episode? If I don’t use it on that episode, it is unlikely to fit anywhere else, so does that story just get rejected for that word? We don’t do that here, although as stated in the submission guidelines we “reserve the right to keep some episodes family friendly.” I suppose I could ask that author for a new word, but again, words matter. Changing the word changes the story.
I call the show No Extra Words because I believe there are no mistakes in word selection. Every single thing that we say in short fiction packs maximum impact. And some words have more impact than others. If we stop responding strongly to this language, does it lose its strength? Is that a bad thing? Is it time to get over my prudishness about cursing on the bus?
I would love to hear what you think about this issue. Do you think about it when you use profanity in your writing? What message are you trying to send to the culture? Do you care if it gets you censored in some markets?
Tomorrow’s episode is wonderful. And not explicit. But you can’t subscribe to it if you’re in India, and I’m sorry about that.