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Too Much Freedom

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I have, for better or worse, aligned myself with what is sometimes referred to as “slipstream” fiction. I don’t particularly like the term—it sounds kind of New Age-y, and brings to mind airbrushed silver dolphins leaping over a cloyingly pink moon—but it gets the point across: fiction which does not adhere to one specific set of rules. Genre-bending, in other words.

There are risks to this. By using genre elements in the first place, I forfeit my credibility to a vast swath of readers who see realist fiction as the only legitimate literary mode. Further, by blending different genres together—sci-fi and noir, say, or sci-fi and western, or sci-fi and, well, anything really—I lose a potential readership of genre purists, folks who would have no beef with a crime story, say, but who nonetheless don’t want their whodunit marred by sentient, saw-toothed microbium. Or whatever.

So it’s risky. But seriously, it’s not, like, really risky. It’s not like someone’s going to throw me into an isolation chamber until I renounce such interbreeding of conventions and agree to let the cowboy shoot his villain and saunter off into the sunset. That’s because, fortunately for me, the genres I’m interested in mixing don’t happen to be horror and porn. And also because I don’t make films.

Janet Romano and Rob Zicari, the folks behind a porn production company called Extreme Associates, are not so fortunate. And as a result, after having created a few films that blend these two distinct and perfectly legal genres, they are currently each serving a 46-month prison sentence.

This article at Reason.com talks about their plight, and though the author seems more interested in the comparisons to the Polanski debacle and talking about censorship generally, it was the following passage that really stood out to me:

Unfortunately, Romano and Zicari had the audacity to mix genres of entertainment that, while permissible on their own, are apparently not allowed to be combined. And thus they managed to achieve what not even John Waters ever accomplished: They were sent to prison for having bad taste.

Whether or not you approve of porn generally, or even think that within its otherwise legal practice there should be limits set by some standard of decency, surely you might understand my fascination with the fact in this case the crime, the real forbidden fruit, was a matter of mixing genre, of blending fictional modes that people expect—and, I suppose, prefer—to remain separate.

Because in writing, explicit sex coupled with gratuitous violence would not expose the author to any potential criminal accusations. At least not the U.S., or central Europe. In fact, if authors like Jonathan Littell are any indication, it might even win you accolades.

While I’m happy, in a way, that despite how many genres I mix together, the worst that can happen is I’ll just be writing for an audience of me (well, I suppose I could write something even I’d hate to read…), I can’t help but wish, sometimes, that there was more at stake. I certainly don’t envy Rushdie for having to hide out after publishing Satanic Verses, or Pamuk having to leave Turkey for talking about the massacre of Armenians.  But, well… I kind of do, as sick as that sounds.

Do you ever wish you could write something that could really cause disruption?  Something that could put you behind bars?  Something, at any rate, that wouldn’t just be either ignored or consumed greedily by a readership totally numbed to any and every potentially disruptive thought or image you could hope to conjure? And, finally, does living in a society that in most cases ignores or, worse, co-opts (instead of violently suppressing) your every deviant, mutinous word undermine the potential power and authority of art?

17 thoughts on “Too Much Freedom

  1. Heh, it’s cool to see someone taking on sliptream as a writing identity. I like slipstream as a movement name because it doesn’t have punk in it.

    No, I don’t really wish I could write something so disruptive it would get me thrown in prison. But I definitely identify with the anarchic/disruptive/revolutionary urge some people have with fiction. I guess I feel the kinds of systems I want to attack are too insidious and subtle for a clear revolution. Patriarchy, heteronormativity and white supremacy have no governing body, or perhaps they are all governing bodies. There’s no central authority to overthrow.

    On the other hand, I did once publish in a technically illegal anthology. I’m not sure what would happen if I tried to fly to England.

    1. “Patriarchy, heteronormativity and white supremacy have no governing body, or perhaps they are all governing bodies.”

      Not to mention the fact that, despite being everywhere apparent, they are vocally rejected even by those who perpetuate them. Meaning, you can rail against these things all you want, but all anyone (all but a very small and essentially powerless minority) will say is, “Yeah, totally, that stuff sucks.”

      But I guess the looming fear I have is that, if everything is basically permissible, is the potential for tranformative literature undermined? Or does it just become a slow, invisible slog like the powers you describe (insidious and subtle)?

      1. This is a good and challenging question.

        Relatedly, some would say “neoliberalism” seeks to coopt, objectify and transform all forms of resistance or transgression into products for consumption.

        What then?

        1. Revolution, clearly. Attack the governments, create anarcho-syndacalist communes, eradicate social inequalities.

          I don’t mean to mock. There are much smarter activists than I am who have much smarter ways of thinking about recreating political orders. I don’t know if there are *answers* per se. I just know that there are people who get closer to having answers than I do.

          I get overwhelmed.

          1. I’ve been wanting to start a writer’s retreat. Does that count? Something year-round, that I could live on and pay for by getting grants for other authors to come stay in cute little cabins and stuff.

            1. Sure, as long as its run by collective agreement. The meetings might cut into your writing time, though.

            1. Thanks! That looks useful. I’ve gotten some from anarchist friends, but I’m severely under-read in the area.

  2. I think issues of legality and disrupting systems come up most often for us with issues of property, collage, and that type of thing. The fact that it’s a legal issue is unfortunate, but it does establish the work as a legitimate threat to stale and unjust ways of thinking and establishing order.

    1. Indeed. If I wanted to be disruptive, my best shot would certainly be using other people’s content for my own purposes without asking permission. It’s sad, really, how intensely intolerant we are of “copying.” It’s the worst thing you can possibly do as a child, and the punishments only get more severe from there on out. That said, the importance of “originality” gets beaten into our heads in this way–a trait I’m assuming we all celebrate here…

  3. nice post. brings up, for me, the question of what “deviance” is, exactly, and by whose standards, etc. too, the genre-mixing issue is interesting because it suggests, if indirectly, that form, and not just content, can unsettle. which isn’t news, but the context for considering it is, here, refreshing.

    (so many commas!)

    1. I personally was kind of amazed by the way those pornographers created obscenity by mixing two acceptable (legal, at least) genres of art. The whole thing feel vaguely alchemical.

  4. Didn’t Ron Sukenick once take a pornographic short story, then revise it to take out any explicit mention of sex? And then distribute it to undergrads in a class? And then nearly get fired for it?

    I always wanted to read that story. Although maybe I’ve just imagined that this happened. (My apologies to Mr. Sukenick’s legacy if it didn’t. Although I think this would only help his legacy. So let’s all agree that this happened.)

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