Censorship, Guidelines, Endorsement, Oh My

Backstory: The Goodreads MM Romance group runs an annual story event, in which authors write from prompts. This year there was a prompt asking for a romance where a black slave falls in love with the white slave-owner’s son, set in the American South. The story was  written, and published by the group, and a lot of people are extremely upset.

Many have said that the MM Romance group should not have published this story under the auspices of its event, and that the rules should be tightened to prevent this kind of thing. Other people, who don’t find this premise innately offensive, or who disagree that the context makes consensual love impossible, or who believe that unfettered free speech is the first priority, are arguing that this would be censorship, and that no content restrictions should be set.

I’m not going to write on why this story premise is offensive: I’m a white Brit, there are more qualified people doing that. Instead, I want to focus on the concept that asking a publisher to set guidelines/restrictions on content is censorship. As follows:

No, it isn’t.

If a publisher (any platform provider, from Big 5 to a Goodreads group) makes a decision not to publish a work, if a publisher sets boundaries and guidelines for submission that exclude a story, that is not censorship. All of publishing has rules on what they will and will not offer on their platform. That is how publishing works.

  • If I send a collection of poetry to Harlequin (as, when I worked there, someone did), they will not publish it because they don’t publish poetry. That’s not censorship. What would they do with a poetry book?
  • If I send a bestiality story to, eg, Riptide Press, they won’t publish it because like many, they have a specific and clear set of guidelines about their erotic content that excludes bestiality. Not censorship, guidelines. Take the horse porn elsewhere.
  • If I send a gay romance to a hardcore evangelical Christian publisher and they decline to publish it for religious reasons? Not censorship. They don’t have to publish books that would go against their beliefs.
  • If I send a story packed with homophobia and racism to a publisher, and they decline to publish because they feel it will damage their reputation? Not censorship. It’s them saying: This book will make us look like a publisher that supports hatred, and that’s not in our five-year marketing plan.

None of these publishers are censoring. They are setting guidelines for the kind of books they read, publish and market. A publisher that published everything that came over its threshold would be unspeakable. Trust me. I’ve read slush pile. To publish something is literally to put your imprimatur on it: if you publish it, you endorse it. Which is why publishing without a quality/content filter is likely to seriously damage your reputation.

The MM Romance group has made a statement declining to moderate the prompts and stories they publish, including the following:

Any time we discuss content restrictions we come up against the question of censorship. Censoring either our prompt writer or authors is not something the moderators support. […] There has never been a vetting process for either prompts or stories. Stories are beta read, edited and formatted but are never judged based on their content. [my italics]

Hurrah for free speech! Except that the italicised statement is not true.

  • The group specifically bans stories with underage sex.
  • The group publishes m/m. If I send in a heterosexual romance, it will not be published because it doesn’t meet the event premise.
  • The group publishes romance. If I submit a thriller with no romantic content, an extract from my literary novel about the Dutch porcelain trade, or an essay on the feeding habits of the mantis shrimp, it will not be published because it doesn’t meet the event premise.

In other words, the group does indeed judge and select texts on their content. And that is not censorship, and it would still not be censorship if they, for example, stated that racism, misogyny, transphobia, ableism etc must be handled with respect, care and sensitivity, and that stories would be accordingly vetted pre-publication. You could then have a lifetime of argument, since one person’s sensitive treatment is often another person’s cack-handed mess (I’m informed the slave book was intended to be respectful), but at least there would be a principle to refer to, a basic idea of what is and is not okay, and a means by which to say: hang on, you messed this up. We all mess up, all the time, and guidelines are one way to do it less.

Declining to publish is not censorship. Censorship is preventing something from being published, the way governments do. A specific publisher declining to publish is saying: “This is not for our platform, it does not work for us.” It does not stop an author from seeking out a platform that wants them, or creating their own. Plenty of publishers declined Harry Potter, and JK Rowling got her voice heard in the end.

Of course, people don’t always decline to publish for good reasons. Say (as happens) that a publisher declines, eg, a children’s book with black main characters because they think they won’t sell enough copies. Overall, if every children’s publisher does this, it has the effect of censorship, because it means there are very few stories to point to and say, “look, of course they sell”, and a vicious circle is created. This is why it is extremely important to talk about this, and look at the numbers of what’s being published, and who’s writing it. But it is also not the same thing as declining books based on clear explicit guidelines; in fact, it’s the opposite because this is hidden, back-room, unaccountable stuff.

The consequence of publishers applying guidelines is not that books that they deem unacceptable cannot be written or published. It might be that the authors would have to consider critical feedback and modify their stories if they wanted publication in a particular place (again, this is how publishing works and informed critical feedback is generally a good thing, even if it’s no fun). It might be that if they weren’t prepared to make changes, they’d have to spend longer looking for a platform, or self publish and thus not benefit from a publisher’s imprimatur and promotion. But none of this would be an infringement on the author’s free speech. It would merely be the consequence of other people declining to amplify that speech for them in its original form.

And that’s how it goes. Because freedom does not mean freedom from consequences. And free speech doesn’t come with a book deal attached.


My blog aims to be a safe space, including the comments. Anything that I deem likely to infringe that will be deleted without discussion as soon as I see it. My platform, my rules.

28 replies
  1. Lotta
    Lotta says:

    You are so wonderfully well argued. Thank you for this! It bugs me no end when people think that free speech means the right to any platform of their choice and no pesky negative feedback.

  2. Liv
    Liv says:

    I spent a couple hours reading through the comment threads on the MM Romance Group page yesterday, and my take-away was that “we can’t develop guidelines because it’s too hard”. Now, I get that the group is volunteer-run, and it’s grown to some 19,000 members, so keeping everyone happy would be challenging, but I do think it’s possible to craft language that would, if not prevent this kind of situation, at least create a way to address it that doesn’t involve people shrieking at each other on message boards.

  3. willaful
    willaful says:

    I’m really glad to see that point about having some situations having the effect of censorship, because that’s something that’s been niggling at me when reading about this ugly situation. Even though it’s not relevant here, it’s good to keep it in mind.

    I think you put this all very succinctly and really helped me understand it better. I’m a member of the group — for now — and the discussion threads are so repellent in their unabashed, unthinking, uncaring racism that it’s really hard to follow what’s actually going on.

    • KJ Charles
      KJ Charles says:

      Yes, there is absolutely a censoring effect when lots of people won’t publish something. If Nazi concentration camp or deep south slave romances become something that has to be self published to a niche audience because no publisher will touch them, that’s fine with me, but it does need to be because of explicit things you can point to. “We don’t publish noncon” or “this topic is offensive”. A stated policy, a clear reason for rejection, is a lot better than de facto bans behind closed doors.

  4. Anastasia
    Anastasia says:

    Excellently worded and on point, thank you. I’ve linked the post in the group, because one more good explanation of why the two things are not the same could really come in handy now.
    For the past few hours the discussion there finally got a lot more constructive, and I seriously hope it stays that way. I’m not going to leave the group myself – there’re a lot of good things going there, it gave me so many great, free stories, but mainly I want to stay and work on making things better as much as I can.

    • KJ Charles
      KJ Charles says:

      I left the group because of this, but I admire people who are staying and working for improvement. I’d rejoin if there was a clear policy statement aimed to make it an inclusive space (rather than an ‘anything goes’ one, which is not the same thing) so I do hope the discussion stays constructive.

  5. Vivian
    Vivian says:

    I love this post and it is really important. Thank you.

    Unfortunately, the grievance people had with the story was not censorship. It was a convenient red herring. The advice is excellent, and perhaps they’ll use it in the future.

  6. Pam/Peejakers
    Pam/Peejakers says:

    You said it wonderfully. I’m not very active on GR & am even less active in the M/M Romance group, plus I’ve been kind of off the grid while a lot of this has been going on, but finally posted to there today for whatever it’s worth (probably very little), recommending your post and these very sensible criteria for standards, should they, err, ever choose to have any: “racism, misogyny, transphobia, ableism etc must be handled with respect, care and sensitivity, and that stories would be accordingly vetted pre-publication”

    I also suggested maybe someone needs to start a new group, with a title something like: “Queer/LGBTQIAP/GSM Romance with Standards”!

    Incidentally, I’m not the only one recommending & quoting from your post over there 😉

  7. Jenn Burke
    Jenn Burke says:

    Fantastic post, KJ. Thank you so much for laying out the differences. I hope folks from the group will read this and grasp what people have been calling for since this news blew up.

  8. Karen Stivali
    Karen Stivali says:

    Thank you so much for writing and posting this. Hopefully having this info so clealy stated, in a place where it’s not getting lost in endless threads full of arguments, will make more of an impact on those who don’t understand.

  9. Anastasia
    Anastasia says:

    For what is worth (and this is purely my speculation here), I don’t think they really considered themselves real publishers before. This event stared as a fun thing for the summer and quickly grown into a huge labor of love run by a few overworked volunteers for some thanks and no pay. To my knowledge, this is the first time they faced such a big controversy, clearly unprepared for it, and had to suddenly take a hard look at what they’re doing. And, well, change is slower in coming when you have thousands of members, many of them angrily arguing in circles, and the same group of overworked volunteers living in different time zones, with none of their previous work or group obligations taken away.
    I’m not trying to excuse them, but it’s frustrating to see many people (and I don’t mean anyone here) condemning them for not being speedy and deceisive enough without helping.

    • EE Ottoman
      EE Ottoman says:

      So I don’t know about this specific event but this is not the first time the GR m/m romance group has been involved in a controversial conversation. The way they’ve chosen to deal with this specific issue has been hugely problematic in all sorts of ways and I don’t feel like I have to be an active member of the group to point that out.

    • KJ Charles
      KJ Charles says:

      I’m sure you’re right and they didn’t consider themselves publishers. But, they are. Stories released under your group name, delivered directly to a 19K audience? Publisher.

      And at this point there are three options: don’t publish anything; publish mindfully; publish without restraint and watch the world burn. Option 2 is hard work, but I assume they’re not finding option 3 a lot of fun right now either. But this is the price of success. Nobody would have cared about the slave book or Nazi book if they’d been self published; it’s the imprimatur of the massive group and the RITA nomination that caused the problems.

      Fundamentally, the MM Romance group is not a little niche of vulnerable people. It’s a massive reading group with huge reach, which is based around stories about an *actual* vulnerable group, and the admins need a step change to acknowledge that. I know they’re volunteers, I’m quite sure this crept up on them, but as EE says, this isn’t the first time. They need to acknowledge their position of authority and use it responsibly. Recruit more volunteers as moderators, actively asking for people who aren’t white cis het, and set some clear guidelines. Every tolerable forum on the internet has guidelines and behaviour standards, and more or less all of them are run by volunteers. I don’t see why this group should be any different.

      Easy for me to say, I know, but the fact is, the bigger you get, the more responsibility you have. That’s just how it is.

      • Anastasia
        Anastasia says:

        Before I type a reply, there’s been a new message from all moderators, which I’m going to partially quote below for those not in the group:

        First, and foremost, we want to apologize to anyone and everyone who has been hurt by the topic of the story and by the resulting discussions. The mods have been reading the posts in the two threads and we have taken your thoughts and concerns into consideration. All of them. We may appear to be silent, but we assure you we have done nothing but discuss the issues addressed nonstop over the past several days. But that’s just it, there is the rest of the group to consider.

        We now have an even bigger and much more alarming concern that many members are PM’ing us about and that is the fear and hostility that these two threads have created for them in their real lives. They have come to us and have expressed their absolute fear, and this is unacceptable in this group. We have to consider the entire group, not just the thirty or so who have been posting here. It was one thing when members were stating their positions, no matter how passionately, within the safety of this group, but when members chose to take their grievances outside the walls of this private group using screenshots of other members names, private posts, and of avatars, the discussions were no longer private and became an open Internet discussion. Outing someone against their will in the GLBT community has to be one of the most egregious acts that can be done in the GLBT community simply to make your own point. For those of you who don’t think this is a very real concern, here is a website, which was last updated on July 9, 2015, that lists 79 countries where it is illegal to be a homosexual as well as the independent political entities with anti-homosexuality laws.”

        *next is some info on what countries are these*

        “The mods are in the process of making some alterations to the DRitC event based on many of your suggestions. It is our hope that these changes will prevent future harm to all members, take into account everyone’s feelings, and ensure a fair process. We appreciate all of your suggestions. As soon as we have the updates ready, we will let you know what they are. Some of the mods have tried to apologize privately to some of the members and suggest solutions only to get no response in return. It has become clear that these threads are causing more hurt and harm than doing any good. It has served it’s purpose and now we must take into consideration the requests of the many members who have PM’d us. It’s time to end the discussion.

        We mods are human. We make mistakes and try to learn from them. We don’t doubt that we will make them again. We try to do the best we can.

        Now it’s time to get back to the reason we are all here, which is to read really good gay romance, chat with friends about the latest releases, join challenges, visit all of the other gay romance folders, and look forward to the next big event, the Members Choice Awards.”

      • Anastasia
        Anastasia says:

        And my intended reply.
        I haven’t been a member that long and I don’t know about previous controversy, although I’m pretty sure it was never of such scale, causing the head moderator/the founder of the group to step down. And I’m thinking it probably didn’t revolve around guidelines or racism, otherwise now people would be all over it. Well, no use to talk about coulds, shoulda, woulda now, anyway. History doesn’t tolerate conjunctive mood.

        Regarding volunteers, KJ, you will be surpried how few people want to volunteer even now, at least in public. As a firm believer about changing the system from the inside, if I belonged to the affected minority, I know I would’ve offered my help right away. Well, I’m still going to volunteer for the next year event, if there would be one (as much as I can, not being a native English speaker and all). I was thinking about it even before this, and now I’m planning to.
        It was said that the author of this story also asked for some input of a POC and, seeing the result, I don’t think anyone stepped forward then.

        And, E.E., you’re absolutely right about pointing it out. However, if you been following the discussion you saw how it was playing out – someone will point out, and then someone else, and they’ll write posts of agreement, then someone from opposing side will come and question their points, and argument quickly escalates, with both sides at times not really careful with their wording. And when some sort of tentative agreement will be reached, someone new, who didn’t read all the previous pages of long posts, will come and question the same things with different words. Thanks to the time zones, this is going 24/7.
        And the sad thing is, almost no one of all these people, from both sides, just come and say clearly “Here is what I think should be done and how”. Or if they do, it got buried under rehashed arguments very fast.
        And it just postpones the solution, since when a mod finally gets some free time, she has to deal with discussion going out of hand again and all vitriol that, I’m pretty sure, has been hitting them in PM before working on resolving this. It already resulted in health problems for at least one of them.

        Well, there’s been noticable improvement, both in constructive discussion and updates from mods, so fingers crossed!

      • KJ Charles
        KJ Charles says:

        I am struggling with what to say re that moderator statement. I’m not sure I can muster a civil response. In fact, I can’t, so I shall leave this and go kill some fictional people really unpleasantly.

    • KJ Charles
      KJ Charles says:

      Well, I do take sides on this particular issue, very strongly. But I think it helps if we clear away the undergrowth in any discussion, and make sure we all know what we’re talking about, wherever we’re coming from. Issues of ‘free speech’ and ‘censorship’ are used too easily to derail conversations when they just aren’t the point.

  10. Rhiann
    Rhiann says:

    So the mod Jason stepped down because of this? I would offer to help but my English isn’t so good.

    Kj, when you can please could you share you share your thoughts on the moderator statement.

    • KJ Charles
      KJ Charles says:

      I think it was another mod who left. I’ve already left the group so I can’t check.

      My issues with the moderator statement: I cannot accept the comparison of membership of an online book group, on a site you choose to join, using a username and avatar you have freely selected, to the legalised murder of LGBT people. Not even slightly. I’m really amazed that anyone could draw this comparison. Belonging to a book group is not equivalent to being an LGBT+ person. At all.

      I also feel that if you are concerned about ensuring the atmosphere of your group is not hostile or unsafe, which is absolutely a good thing, you should *act* clearly and unequivocally when trans people, gay people or people of colour specifically tell you that your group feels like a hostile place for them. Which has not been done.


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