Amerika Online

Fighting The Good Fight: Taking On The Political/Literary Establishment And The Many Faces of Censorship

Mark Amerika

UPDATE: On June 23, 1998, the U.S. District Court in New Mexico ruled in favor of Mark Amerika, ACLU, et al versus The State of New Mexico and granted us our request for injunctive relief. This means that we were able to prove that free artistic expression in cyberspace is protected by the First Amendment in the U.S. Constitution.

April 24, 1998

Alt-X has just joined the American Civil Liberties Union, the PEN American Center, the Recording Industry Association of America, the Association of American Publishers, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and 14 other organizations as plaintiffs in yet another case fighting censorship in cyberspace, this time against the State of New Mexico. After having gone to the Supreme Court of the United States and successfully defeated the unconstitutional Communications Decency Act (CDA), the ACLU, along with Alt-X and the others organizations involved in this action, is fighting what has since turned into a series of second-generation laws passed by individual states. As our "Complaint For Declaratory and Injunctive Relief" states: "The State of New Mexico has enacted a broad censorship law that imposes severe restrictions on the availability, display and dissemination of constitutionally protected, non-obscene materials on the Internet by making it a crime to use a computer communications system to disseminate expression that involves 'nudity' or 'sexual conduct.'

Anyone familiar with the diversity of literary and artistic content at Alt-X knows that we are not in the business of censoring ourselves or our contributors from around the world and that we proudly publish and/or exhibit some of the most innovative writing and art being produced today and that we will always stand up for our 1st amendment rights to do just that. In fact, this is not the first time we've had to deal with these issues. My Amerika Online column released in February 1996 effectively stated our position and this column has since been broadcast in newspapers and online sites throughout the Net. Also, a reading-performance of this column took place at the 1996 Freedom To Write conference at Brown University and was recorded by and appeared on C-SPAN, the national government cable channel.

I urge everyone to check out the ACLU homepage for more details on this case and continue to ask our readers to fight for the freedom to write and distribute our creative work here in America.

Of course, censorship has many faces. Whereas organizations like PEN are constantly assisting writers around the world whose very lives are threatened by dictatorial or severe socialist regimes, here at home we usually fight the battle on two fronts. The first front is the one outlined above, i.e. usually some clueless legislator with a "mission" to simultaneously impose his or her own moral value system on the entire adult population while totally disregarding the U.S. Constitution, drafts legislation that regulates speech on the Internet. As we firmly state in our action, "[t]he Internet represents the most participatory marketplace of mass speech yet developed -- it is in many ways a far more speech-enhancing medium than radio or television, print, the mails, or even the village green." But under the New Mexico law, if an adult user in Taos, New Mexico downloaded, say, an excerpt from my novel Sexual Blood, located on our server here in Colorado, we could face criminal prosecution. This is an obvious form of censorship and would end up leading to a silencing, self-censorship effect throughout our supposedly "free" country.

Less obvious, but just as critical in many ways, is the chilling-effect produced by something I'd call market-censorship, a more subtle form of censorship that keeps certain offensive works of art out of the public sphere. This less publicized form of censorship usually manifests itself in the multi-national, corporate-controlled marketplace via the conglomeration of the entertainment/publishing industry into a few mega-corporations who consistently engage in a practice of selling books as mere product (the so-called "Simon & Shoestore" phenomenon). Whereas there used to be a time, not too long ago, when publishers were willing to support the development of lesser-known, yet innovatively-inclined, young writers challenging the status quo literary experience, nowadays this kind of support is considered "risky business" in the world of bottom-line, profit-driven corporate publishing. Let's face it, the books taken most seriously today are sold simply as more media "content" much of which is most likely generated as spin-off material from more popular media like TV or films. Or how about the confessional memoirs of the rich and famous?

There can be no question that it is harder than ever for emerging writers (and now, even established writers of innovative fiction) to get published in this shrinking barnes-enobled marketplace of commodified objects. In fact, it is this "other" kind of silencing that permeates the publishing landscape today that led me to say in yet another Amerika Online column I wrote earlier this year that "there really are no more literary masterpieces, just hefty media by-products that occasionally get picked up by the self-replicating mainstream media virus and that are sold to consumers as off-the-shelf 'cultural objects' they must own the same way they must own a sports utility vehicle or the latest Braun coffee-maker."

With chain bookstores now dominating the distribution of these multi-national corporate-produced "media by-products," getting alternative, avant-garde, occasionally offensive works published and distributed to a wide audience is nearly impossible (this is why freedom of expression issues are so important in relation to distributing ones work over the Internet where the distribution-paradigm is radically altered). But let's say you are lucky enough to get a formally subversive literary work published by an alternative press like Black Ice Books or Dalkey Archive, your chances of getting a serious review in an establishment publication like the New York Times Book Review (NYTBR) are slim to none.

When the NYTBR finally paid attention to my work, it was not to review one of my novels, but rather to publish a shallow piece of new journalism that inaccurately characterized the readership of my web-based GRAMMATRON project. The article, published in the March 15, 1998 issue, is a further indication of the curious times we live in: on June 26, 1997, the day GRAMMATRON was officially released to an international Net audience, the New York Times arts@large columnist Matthew Mirapaul wrote an insightful review-article that clearly showed a thorough reading of the narrative as well the kind of open-mindedness free-thinking societies need in order to deal with the monumental changes taking place in our culture. The Book Review, on the other hand, felt comfortable publishing a somewhat resentful, ill-informed article, nine months into the GRAMMATRON World Tour that has brought the project to over 30 international cities in America, Europe and, most recently, Australia. Here is my online response to the NYTBR:

Imagine my surprise when, the day I was to deliver a performance of GRAMMATRON to a packed house at the Perth Institute of Contemporary Art in what is often referred to as the most isolated big city in the world, I received email from dozens of correspondents detailing the attack on my work in the March 15th Bookend section of the NYTBR written by Laura Miller. The crowd in Perth, similar to my other large audiences throughout Australia, Europe and the U.S., was extremely engaged with the GRAMMATRON reading and pleasantly put a face on the over 100,000 serious readers the story has attracted since its homespun launch on June 26th, 1997. As these numbers indicate, Ms. Miller's suggestion that when it comes to hyperfiction "no one really wants to read it" and that the "most adventurous souls" in her own community network "shudder at the thought" of interacting with this emerging multi-disciplinary art form in a proper way, says more about the cultural positioning of Ms. Miller's own network than it does about the accuracy of her assessment. As a Senior Editor for the online journal Salon, which has been heavily sponsored by the ubiquitous Borders Bookstore, one can readily see from what sort of cultural position she comes from (her article has led to a few other conservative riffs against hypertext & GTRON, mostly in lowest-common-denominator online business journals which is the perfect indication of how this sort of slippery thinking can devolve into hack-like drivel...).

The fact of the matter is, even though Borders Bookstore has not sold one copy of GRAMMATRON, the story is one of the most widely read narrative experiments in recent literary history and has located an international community of adventurous readers who, for the most part, aren't at all hung up on Barthesian "death of the author" theories or phony proclamations about "the end of books" (the title of Robert Coover's essay was, I'm assured, chosen by the NYTBR to increase its own readership). The continuous feedback GRAMMATRON has generated from readers sending me email and snailmail letters points to an evolving audience who enthusiastically explore the potential of network-distributed narrative and its ability to take part in an alternative form of literary production which, to the dismay of neo-luddites like Ms. Miller, does an end-run around the publishing establishment she proudly represents.

As a published novelist whose first novel, The Kafka Chronicles, is now in third printing, I can assure NYTBR readers that I treasure our book culture and am quite fond not only of my own books but the thousands of others that I constantly turn to for intellectual nourishment. By setting up this false binary between those who are "for" books and those who are "against," Ms. Miller attempts to take the life out of the creative process which innovative writers from Sterne to Beckett to Burroughs and beyond have always felt deeply connected to in order to investigate the possibilities of contemporary narrative art in their own time. Instead of bandying about these unnecessary "either/or" oppositions, I would propose that we try to open our minds to a multitude of styles of writing and media through which to deliver this writing in. Let's look beyond the tiresome models of "suspended disbelief" and welcome the opportunity for emerging writers to engage themselves with the exciting challenges of the day.

Mark Amerika
Sydney, Australia