Opinion: Criticism Will Never Be Censorship

Today, on the book blogging site Ink Heist, horror author Karen Runge wrote a piece concerning censorship called The Frankenstein Effect. In the essay, Runge compares the old, popular misconception of Frankenstein being the monster rather than the Doctor to the general public’s misunderstandings of horror media. The author then claims that these misunderstandings and preconceptions lead to the general censorship of horror, especially the Extreme Horror she enjoys writing.

Runge does not hold back the punches in describing this censorship.

YouTube has demonetised videos with ‘dark’ content, regardless of their aims. Schools in the States have called for To Kill a Mockingbird to be pulled from their curriculum because people find it ‘too upsetting’. We’re a few short steps away from straight-up burning books and jailing filmmakers. All because horror—the one genre driven entirely by its namesake emotion—is… too horrifying?

Damn. That does sound incredibly terrifying for the horror fan. Nobody wants to see horror creators suffer, and Lord knows that horror fans have faced much scrutiny and distaste for enjoying the darker side of literature. Well, then, what are some examples that Runge uses to show the censorship affecting the horror genre?

Is it an exploitative publishing industry? A detrimental focus on “what sells” that ignores the creativity in other people’s writing? Are there problematic editors and publishers that refuse to publish works that tackle problems with today’s society? The general publishing industry’s deep refusal to acknowledge horror as a work of art?

Nope. According to Runge, it’s negative reviews from readers that are the real problem.

Here’s what’s happened recently.

A breakthrough YA Fantasy author pulls her three-book deal with a major publisher, after she is accused of racism. It seems her interpretation of slavery in her make-believe world was distasteful to some. The key words here are ‘interpretation’ and ‘make-believe’. As if ‘Fantasy’ shouldn’t cover that already.

A Schlock writer’s debut novel is slammed by a well-known reviewer for a major horror magazine, because this reviewer finds the key material too upsetting. As a mother, she feels that scenes of infanticide—no matter how honestly and empathetically presented—cannot be tolerated. This is too much for her maternal sensibilities. Fair enough, except she goes so far as to attack him on social media, with the entire inner community watching, and then berates him when he dares defend his work.

And my own book? Resplendent with a WARNING: EXPLICIT CONTENT label smacked on the cover, one reviewer took a few stars off because they felt some of the scenes were ‘too extreme’—and stated as much in their review.

This is not the first time authors have attacked reviewers for negative reviews. It won’t be the last. But is Runge honestly going to say that negative reviews of her own book are a sign of incoming, genre-wide censorship? That an author’s own choice in response to criticism of her novel is a sign of coming book-burnings?

That’s ridiculous. Negative reviews are just as much an expression of free speech as the creation of a book. If anything, they’re an incredibly important part of a book’s “life.” True, many negative reviews are terrible and miss the point of the work in question, but people are still entitled to post or spread them if they wish. They’re just a part of criticism, a necessary part of criticism, I might add.

After all, would we have the concept of the Final Girl without Carol J. Clover’s masterful book criticizing the slasher genre? And that’s just one huge example in horror.

Additionally, most reviewers and critics don’t have a lot of power in this dynamic between reader and author. Readers do not have the power to ban horror, keep books from getting published, or to force authors to cater to their needs. These decisions are kept in other hands, hands far more powerful and influential than your average horror fan chiming in on Twitter and excited for a readathon.

Most passionate readers and fans just post their thoughts on Twitter, Goodreads, or other social media sites to help readers discover whether a book is meant for them or isn’t. It’s nothing personal against the author. It’s just how the consumption of media works. If authors have a problem with what’s being said, they could just avoid the reviews themselves or take a break from any social media that’s not bringing them any enjoyment. Oftentimes, the fans that take the time to post these reviews are some of the biggest horror fans, the most engaged and invested for the genre to succeed.

This simple explanation doesn’t even cover how Runge slanders one notable horror reviewer in her piece, claiming that they cyber-bullied an author when the actual events surrounding that mini-drama could be farther from the truth. Runge even condescends to the reviewer’s qualms over infanticide, calling it “too much for her maternal sensibilities.” What next, a diagnosis of hysteria and a recommendation to lock her in the attic?

Runge’s analysis also seems completely contradictory. For example, in the beginning of the piece, Runge states this:

When we assume a book or movie is ‘bad’ purely because its subject matter is ‘bad’, we rip away all its power as social commentary, as a cathartic healing tool, as the light shining on a serious issue. As a warning. As a guide. And if anyone wants to hack the head off that ostrich, they’re going to have an extra easy time of it, now.

And I agree. Literature does work as social commentary, and, when written well, it can be a cathartic healing tool or a warning. But the key phrase here is “written well.” If an author fucks up a sensitive subject, the work can be read as an affirmation of something incredibly harmful and be offensive.

But Runge doesn’t seem to take this point to heart when considering the YA author who was accused of racism. When it’s a negative connotation, an author should just stick with their guns and celebrate their own “interpretation.” After all, it’s “just” make-believe, right? It doesn’t hurt anybody, right? I mean, it’s not like people of color have been harmed by incorrect and racist ideas about slavery for literally hundreds of years or something and that media celebrating these incorrect notions led to real harm for them.

Or that, literally last month, Shudder came out with a documentary exploring harmful tropes in horror for Black people with many members in the industry criticizing media.

Social theory is not something convenient you can toss away the minute it’s no longer profitable for your writing. Media doesn’t stop affecting reality because it happens to be fictional or in a more speculative genre. If anything, speculative fiction can have the most powerful effect on its readers because its foundation rests on the worlds we create, not the world that we currently live in.

And if a reader happens to not like the world you create or wants to critique its aspects, it’s not tantamount to banning a book from a curriculum or from a country. Criticism of art will never be censorship. If you can’t tell the difference, maybe you shouldn’t be a content creator.



2 thoughts on “Opinion: Criticism Will Never Be Censorship

Add yours

  1. This is an excellent view on the matter. It’s been disturbing how many writers have been taking so much offense at criticism and how so many people will defend this view. I’m striving to become a professional writer of horror, SF and fantasy myself, and as much as the idea of being criticized for problematic content scares me, it’s not something I should be shielded from; I want better representation myself, so if I fuck up I need to be told about it. It’s made me a better reviewer and hopefully better writer by paying attention to intersectional criticism.

    Liked by 2 people

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