Amazon FAIL: hating on LGBT books

April 12, 2009

Amazon is apparently stripping the sales ranks from GLBT books, thus preventing them from showing up in some bestseller lists and searches (and potentially directly damaging their sales), on the grounds that they are “adult” material.

I got that excellent summary from ryda_wrong here, who found the story from one of the authors affected, Mark Probst, who blogged it here. Mark’s story:

On Amazon.com two days ago, mysteriously, the sales rankings disappeared from two newly-released high profile gay romance books: “Transgressions” by Erastes and “False Colors” by Alex Beecroft. Everybody was perplexed. Was it a glitch of some sort? The very next day HUNDREDS of gay and lesbian books simultaneously lost their sales rankings, including my book “The Filly.” There was buzz, What’s going on? Does Amazon have some sort of campaign to suppress the visibility of gay books? Is it just a major glitch in the system? Many of us decided to write to Amazon questioning why our rankings had disappeared. Most received evasive replies from customer service reps not versed in what was happening. As I am a publisher and have an Amazon Advantage account through which I supply Amazon with my books, I had a special way to contact them. 24 hours later I had a response:

In consideration of our entire customer base, we exclude “adult” material from appearing in some searches and best seller lists. Since these lists are generated using sales ranks, adult materials must also be excluded from that feature.

Hence, if you have further questions, kindly write back to us.

Best regards,

Ashlyn D

Member Services

Amazon.com Advantage

Yes, it is true. Amazon admits they are indeed stripping the sales ranking indicators for what they deem to be “adult” material. Of course they are being hypocritical because there is a multitude of “adult” literature out there that is still being ranked – Harold Robbins, Jackie Collins, come on! They are using categories THEY set up (gay and lesbian) to now target these books as somehow offensive.

Now in fairness I should point out that Amazon has also stopped ranking many books in the “erotica” categories as well which includes straight erotica. But that’s a whole other battle that I’ll leave to the erotica writers to take on.

There’s a full link compilation here as well, detailing the unfolding of the story, if you want more details. It’s also exploding on twitter, via the hashtag #AmazonFAIL, so you can see up-to-the-second discussion here.

Despite the fact that some straight erotica is being stripped of ranking information, I have trouble buying that it’s not mostly a gay thing– for example, Playboy: The Complete Centerfolds (Hardcover!) still has ranking information! (You can tell by scrolling down to the “Product Details” section and looking for the “Amazon.com Sales Rank. The Playboy book is currently ranked #48,390 in Books. Probst’s The Filly, a young adult book (and therefore, by definition, not really an “adult” book!) simply lacks that information.)

What does all this mean? Well, as ryda_wrong said at the beginning, stripping a book of its ranking information prevents it from showing up in bestseller lists and in certain searches, making people much less likely to find the book unless they’re specifically looking for it. It may directly hurt these books’ sales. More than that, though, it reinforces the idea that anything gay is inherently “adult,” and more adult than anything that is similar but straight.

What books are being affected? Meta Writer is compiling a list here. There’s some stuff with Ghey Sexxx. There are some young adult books that feature gay relationships, although it looks like the lesbian ones are less affected than the gay male one. Autobiographies by people who are trans are getting the axe, as well. And a lot of the classics are being cut off. E. M. Forster’s Maurice, for example, has been stripped of its ranking! It was revelatory to me when I read it a few years ago, the first time I had seen myself reflected in an “old” book, and while it features several occasions of gay male sex, it’s from a time period where it was unspeakably crude to refer to a lady’s stomach. They’re really not that raunchy. Even more absurdly, Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness has been stripped of its rankings as well, and the gay sex in that book consists entirely of the line “And that night, they were not divided.”

Truly, someone must protect the children from these horrors. Never mind that some of these books are, in fact, for young adults. Never mind that finding oneself reflected in the classics can be a wonder– as I found with Maurice, when I read it years ago. Never mind that LGBT people are people, too, who deserve to tell their stories and have their stories heard. Apparently, we just can’t handle The Gay, and we have to hide it away where people can’t find it by accident.

What can you do? There’s a petition going here, and you can complain to Amazon directly. Their exec customer service email is ecr@amazon.com  and their customer service phone number is 1-800-201-7575. Folks are trying to google bomb the term Amazon Rank (more info here). And, of course, you can boycott Amazon, which is what I am going to do. I’m going to be awfully friendly with my library in the next couple weeks, until Amazon proves to me that it wants my money again.

Because, right now, what they are saying is that GLBT folks are not important, and that we should be hidden from view. And I won’t hold with that at all.


Quoth Stephen King: “Twilight” author “can’t write.”

February 9, 2009

This just kind of made me laugh. Not necessarily the content (though I agree wholeheartedly), but the over-the-top “journalism.”

Stephen King’s opinion may drive a stake through the heart of “Twilight” author Stephenie Meyer.

Oh ho ho! Get it? It’s because she writes about vampires! And “driving a stake through the heart” is a phrase we use as a synonym for “breaking the heart” in… no situations!

But it gets better:

According to Stephen, “Both Rowling and Meyer, they’re speaking directly to young people… The real difference is that Jo Rowling is a terrific writer and Stephenie Meyer can’t write worth a darn. She’s not very good.”

Meeooww!

Oh yeah. Stephen King/ Stephenie Meyer CATFIGHT! Meeooww! THERE CAN BE ONLY ONE.

(In my head the Meeooww! sounds like the Wilhem Scream. Meeooww!)

Actually, leaving aside the ridiculousness for a moment, it’s interesting that the author went with the “Meeooww!” since the “catfight” framing is usually used when two professional women in the same field are “fighting.” It’s part of how women, and women’s emotions are trivialized– genuine anger is blown off with stupid jokes like, “oh, the claws are coming out! hiss!” It also plays into tokenism in the sense that any two women in remotely similar fields are thought of as “competing,” and perfectly professional, polite disagreements (even slight ones) will get the similar “ooh, catfight!” response, playing into the idea that one woman in the department is enough, or that there are “good reasons” that there are only a few.

I’m honestly curious as to why the author chose to take that framing and apply it to a situation outside that frame.  I suppose there are two women involved (J.K. Rowling and Stephenie Meyer); neither of the women in question has said a word, but that doesn’t generally preclude people from imagining in a “catfight.”

(Putting on my misogyny hat…)

Maybe it’s because Stephen King is a girl! Meeooww!


Reusable Cover Art, reusable females

February 1, 2009

Yes, I know I’ve said before that one shouldn’t use “female” as a noun; don’t worry, I’m doing it on purpose and in an ironic way. You’ll see why in a minute, but first check out this page, brought to me by StumbleUpon: Reusable Cover Art.

Scroll through the whole thing. Yes, really, the whole thing! It’s OK if you start skimming a little, I did too; I just want you to see how many there are.

Okay, done? Great.

At first I found this site interested from the perspective of a graphic designer. I thought it was fascinating seeing how different people came up with such different (or such identical!) covers by working from the same images. How fascinating, I thought, that cropping and color balance can convey such different moods!

But then I noticed a couple other things. For one, these pictures were almost exclusively of women. I originally chalked that up to the fact that a lot of them are very old paintings (public domain!) and the “classics” in art tend to do a lot of lady-ogling. (Hence the need for the Guerilla Girls.) But that’s not true of all of them. And there’s something else going on, too.

Let’s take a look at those lovely titles!

First, woman-as-property, with the bonus that a woman’s identity is defined solely by the man she belongs to:

  • So-and-so’s daughter: 5
  • So-and-so’s wife: 2

Then, how about some hot and spicy virgin/whore dichotomy?

  • Saints and ladies: 6
  • FILTHY WHORES, uh, “courtesans” and other sexy times: 9
  • Mary Magdalene: 3

Minimizing women’s personhood by referring to them by nothing but their job title:

  • “Courtesans” etc: 4
  • Maids and slaves: 2
  • Queens: 1
  • Other employment: 0

Other random statistics:

  • References to love: 3
  • References to stars: 3
  • Dudes pictured: 14
  • Ladies pictured: 83
  • Ladies pictured with their boobs totally showing: 6
  • Dudes with their nipples totally showing: 2

This is out of a total of 90 books, so that those 9 books about “courtesans” make up 10% of all the books featured. And those are just the ones that tell you up-front that they’re about ladies having sex to get stuff (probably quite important stuff– like shelter– but still, you know, not totally consensual.) Looking at these covers, I’d bet you that about 75% of these spend a lot of time talking about ladies and sex (possibly for stuff, at least indirectly). (A note about my use of the word “courtesan”– I think it is a totally ridiculous word that sugar-coats sex work to make it seem glamorous and fun and not at all ever unpleasant like prostitution. I don’t distinguish between prostitution that happened in the past and prostitution that’s happening now, hence the scare quotes.)

What does all this tell us? I mean, not a lot. It’s a pretty random group of books. I just sort of found it on the internet. If we wanted to talk about current trends or something, I’d go out to Barnes & Noble, photograph all the books they have on their main “these books are awesome!” display, and pick them apart. (Note to self: go to Barnes & Noble, and see what they have on display…). It would be Bad Science to suggest that these totally random books somehow Prove Something.

But I do think they’re interesting, especially the way that there seems to be some kind of “agreement” that a certain image shows a Certain Kind of Woman. Like, clearly THIS woman is a wife:

reusablecovers02And THIS woman is a “courtesan”:

reusablecovers04

And THIS woman is a daughter (or a murder victim, funny how well those go together):

reusablecovers032Take a look at that far-left one again, actually. Tom Wasp gets his whole name, first and last, but the woman– who is apparently important enough to be on the cover!– is just a generic “stunner”? This is really a classic case of a woman being “central” but still not important or self-determined the way a man would be. It’s the concept I tried to show with the current header image: the woman is in the center of the composition, so many people would say that there’s nothing to argue with, feminism-wise, but she’s being physically supported by the men around her and (due to my intentional cropping) she has no face, giving her less personality than the men around her and even than the camel. So it is here, and with many murder mysteries with female victims: sure the plot has a woman in the middle of it, but that doesn’t mean that it’s feminist-friendly. Often it means the opposite.

But getting back to the book covers, I wanted to think about how we define women into these categories based on their images. I think it has to do with how much body they’re showing, how much face they’re showing, and how the image is centered. I’m not sure quite how all the aspects go together, though. I’d like to take some of the images and see if I could get any of them to look like a wife in one instance, daughter in another, and “courtesan” in a third. A couple of these novels have already gotten started:

reusablecovers01Josephine Bonaparte isn’t looking too wifely in the first one… until you compare it to the second. Something about the way they zoom in on her body, crop out her face, and take her name out of the title… this is definitely something I’m going to want to look into more methodically.


Trouble and Her Friends, Neuromancer, and what makes sci fi last.

December 12, 2008

I can’t believe I forgot this moment of absolute GLORY at the Science Fiction Museum!

They had a gigantic wall graphic which was a sort of timeline of sci fi, seperating it into different eras based on the general subject matter of the sci fi at the time, and tying it to “current events” in the world at large. They illustrated the whole thing with a gigantic collage of book covers, authors’ photographs, illustrations, and screenshots from movies and TV. It was interesting information, but it was also fantastic geekery to go through everything and exclaim over everything we recognized. They had a nice big picture of the Doctor and some daleks!

They ALSO had the cover for Trouble and Her Friends. I discovered this book in my Gender and Cyberculture class (possibly one of the best classes I’ve ever taken) and it may very well be my favourite book ever. I am actually amazed I haven’t written about it yet. It’s out of print but used copies are starting at $0.01 on Amazon and your library may have a copy as well. You should locate it right now. It’s OK, I can wait.

What’s this? WHY so I adore this book? Well, it’s lesbian cyberpunk! You need more than that? It’s lesbian cyberpunk in which the lesbians neither die nor go insane!

Looking at it, it’s actually gotten some pretty poor reviews on Amazon, mostly for focusing on all this gay stuff instead of plot. What makes me want to laugh is that it’s compared unfavorably to Neuromancer, which is possibly one of the worst books I’ve ever forced myself to read. Seriously, I was on a 22-hour flight and it was my only book, and I just kept putting it down.

I can see the parallels. Both books center around a Second Life-like cyberspace populated with three-dimensional avatars. Both protagonists are former hackers, though Chase (in Neuromancer) wants back into hacking, whereas Cerise (in Trouble) was prepared to stay legit if it weren’t for the fact that her ex-lover, Trouble, was in trouble. From what I remember it’s a similar kind of plot with exciting virtual-reality shootouts and car chases, but a lot of really, really dated predictions for the future.

However, Trouble has something OTHER than plot, which, in my mind, makes it the superior book. Trouble is not just about neat techy stuff, but also about what it means to be an outsider, trying to fit in versus blazing your own trail, the importance of friendship…plus hot lesbian sex. Especially since I was the only lesbian I knew at the time, it was hugely refreshing to see a group of homosexual characters presented with an understanding of what it’s like, culturally, to be gay, and to be presented with protagonists in whose stories I could see my own (if only I was a kick-ass hacker). Actually, even the tech in Trouble is more interesting to me, since it involves two competing ways to interact with cyberspace– the simpler way that Neuromancer proposes, where the metaphor is maintained purely through visual cues, but also a more dangerous (and interesting) way, where one installs a “brainworm” that simulates actual sensations, making cyberspace not just a metaphor, but a reality.

Neuromancer, on the other hand…dear god. It had the sorriest excuse for “characters” that I’ve ever tried to sympathize with. (If I ever have the willpower, I’ll write about Molly and Y.T. from the Gibson books I’ve read. Short version: they have sex with the protagonist for no reason! They’re cool and strong, but not when it actually matters!) At least Snow Crash had an interesting premise to keep me going, but I’m sick of disaffected white guys just wandering through their books aimlessly. Maybe I’ve read too much post-war fiction lately (I tried to get through Catch-22 on that plane, too) but I prefer to read about characters who CARE about things. Something. Anything. Seriously. If the character doesn’t have any goals, or desires, or anything they care about, why in the WORLD should I care about THEM? Oh, right, because of the shiny, shiny “plot.”

Probably at the time, the universe posited in Neuromancer was unique enough to be interesting in its own right. My dad read it when it came out… in 1984. But science fiction has to do more than predict cool technology, if it wants to last. It has to tell us something about ourselves. The technological premises in Neuromancer are no longer new or interesting, and while it surely deserves respect as a groundbreaking work for its time, it’s Trouble and Her Friends that I found compelling even ten years later, and I expect it’s Trouble that will still be interesting when the next generation is my age. Maybe the plot isn’t as shiny and amazing, but it’s the heart of the book that really makes it worth reading.

So go storm your library, and read it!


DailyLit, and how we read

December 11, 2008

I’ve just discovered a site called DailyLit, which will send you books in daily installments so you can read them over time through email or an RSS feed. From their FAQ:

Why read books by email?

Because if you are like us, you spend hours each day reading email but don’t find the time to read books. DailyLit brings books right into your inbox in convenient small messages that take less than 5 minutes to read. This works incredibly well not just on your computer but also on a Treo, Blackberry, Sidekick or whatever the PDA of your choice. In the words of Dr. Seuss: Try it, you might like it!

I tend to do a pretty good job of finding the time to read, but there’s something about this that appeals to me. I like to read serial webnovels because the anticipation of the next chapter really heightens the experience, and this will add some of that feeling. I also find that I read in big spurts, where I’ll read a book (or more!) every day, and then go months without reading at all. This could keep me from becoming totally illiterate during those dry months.

It’ll make it easier for me to blog the books as well, I expect. I tend to have trouble with books, since I devour them all in one go– I can’t figure out how to write about them, except by trying to tackle the whole book at once, and that’s not a good strategy. Blogging a book as I read it will slow me down enough to look at individuals characters, quotes, or storylines, and make the whole things easier to digest.

I’m also really intrigued by the book club possibility. If two (or more!) people arranged to have the same book arriving in the same-sized chunks at the same time every day, and then there was a chat room or something to talk about it together, it could be a really fun shared experience. I’ve never had much success with communal reading experiences in the past since I tend to be an extremely fast reader, but this would ensure that everyone read at the same pace. It also makes it possible to have in-progress conversations without having to worry about spoilers; I find those are a lot more fun to have than after-the-fact conversations, just because of all the wild speculation you can do, but it’s hard to time it…UNTIL NOW!

Does anybody have any interest in a sort of Gender Goggles book club? They have a pretty wide selection, and all the public domain books are free. I’ve signed up for The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and I’m eyeing The Count of Monte Cristo, but I’m very open to suggestion. It looks like the individual installments aren’t too long, so we probably won’t want a daily post, but what about a weekly open thread, to discuss everything that happens until the next week’s open thread is created? We could pick something fantastic and geek out about it, quoting the best lines and all that, or we could pick something terrible (they have Skinny Bitch!) and rip it apart, quoting the best lines and all that.

Shall we?


Princesses as feminist

October 20, 2008

Sarah Haskins’ latest video has gotten me thinking about princesses. On the one hand, they’re the definition of empowerful. On the other hand, it’s better than housework.

Obviously, I am not going to defend the way that we gender-segregate kids’ toys. It’s pretty blatantly wrong: boys can be firefighters and knights and scientists and anything else they want to be; when boys play pretend, they get to be the characters that have cool powers and do cool things. Girls get to be shoppers, mothers, and princesses; when they play pretend, they’re being kidnapped or buying clothes or doing laundry.

So, given that girls’ choices for play pretty uniformly suck– of mothers, shoppers, and princesses, isn’t it better to be a princess?

Maybe I’ve grown up with more subversive princess role models than most, but princesses at least have some institutional authority. Princesses don’t get stuck with the drudge work; princesses have adventures! Okay, in most Disney movies, that means doing drudge work until someone else’s adventure culminates in your rescue, but when I was little my friends and I knew that that wasn’t what being a princess was about. That was just how you became a princess. Once you were one, you had an entire kingdom to explore, and everyone had to do what you said!

It was actually slightly unbalanced in our favor, for a change. Nobody wanted prince dolls; those were boring. Princes are all interchangeable. But princesses are all uniquely fascinating. We would make up tragic curses set upon us, or herculean tasks required by evil relatives, and even though the prince’s story was always the same (he conquers evil and gets the girl) the princess was different every time.

It’s still an obviously problematic narrative, but it at least allowed us to take our princess dolls and imagine stories that were centered around our desires and motivated by our actions.

Now, it’s possible that my friends and I were the sort of girls who would have made up unconsciously-feminist narratives no matter what toys we were given. Except that, thinking back, we received the baby dolls and fashion dolls in equal numbers, but we weren’t interested in them as the princess paraphernalia. There’s not a lot you can do to claim motherhood or shopaholicism as a way expressing your own autonomy. Inherent in the idea is the fact that you are defined by your children or by your things.

So, sure, “princess” isn’t great as a cultural frame, but at least it gave us just enough wiggle room to do our own thing. We could have done worse.


In which I curse like a sailor: “Self-Made Man,” Norah Vincent, and missing the point.

September 26, 2008

On a whim I snagged a book called Self-Made Man: One Woman’s Journey into Manhood and Back.

So many of my worst ideas start “on a whim.” The awesome ones (like the letter game) start that way too, but I nevertheless really regret this one. Especially since it’s a whim that cost me $10 (as I was online at the time, not at the library; I got it for my kindle. Impatience, you get me every time.)

Anyway, the author of this book spent about a year and a half passing for male in various situations to see what it was like, and I heard she had some interesting things to say on the construction of gender roles. Also, I have always wanted to pass as male just for a little while, just to see what it was like. I love being female, but sometimes I get sick and tired of being a woman. (The distinction, by the way, is that my body is female and that’s the way it is, but being a woman is what society makes me do based on the fact that my body is female. I wouldn’t give up my breasts or my vulva for a million dollars but I’d pay a million dollars to take a break from everybody’s expectations.)

Initially, Norah pretty much confirms my suspicions: it’s amazing to walk places, alone, even at night!, and have nobody look at you. If you accidentally make eye contact, they’ll look away right away. You can go to that bar, or that concert, or just your own front yard, and nobody will trespass into your personal space. I’d love to do that– to just be invisible to men.

However, then Norah decides “Ned” needs to actually get to know some men to make the experiment worthwhile, so “he” joins a men’s bowling team. (A note on pronouns: don’t worry, I’m not an asshole. Although she presented male, Norah never identified as male; I would never put “he” in scare quotes for someone who was actually trans, but Norah made her preferred pronouns clear in the introduction.)

And that’s when the stupid, stupid, stupid gender essentialism crops up. I read the entire second chapter but I just wanted to scream. So here I go:

Norah! You of all people should know that men are not from mars and women are not from venus! You’re even gay, for fuck’s sake– why the hell do you feel the need to talk about how catty and competitive women are? Seriously, it’s cool that you thought shaking hands with a man as a man was a sincere, emotional moment– but do you really have to spend three paragraphs talking about how the “supposed intimacy” between your “women friends” is fake and hides a competitive edge? I find it hard to believe that all women everywhere “hold something back” when they shake hands, or even when they hug their friends. And you know, I’d be pretty shocked if all men everywhere had genuine warmth and emotion in all their handshakes. And what’s with going on about how great it is that they try to teach you how to bowl “like a son”? I mean, I get it that at your preppy-rich-kids tennis camp you were the only one there who was interested in the tennis, but did you really have to tell the story about the girl who said “I’d rather look the way I do and serve the way I do, than serve the way she does and look the way she does” as if that’s every woman’s response to competition? I mean, I suck at every sport ever invented, including foosball, but when I’m sucking, people of both genders offer to help me– even people of both gender from the other teams. It’s not only men who are willing to help their opponents improve.

Also, what the hell was up with that introductory chapter about being a tomboy? I was a tomboy as a kid, and I’m a dyke now, but I sure as hell didn’t “instinctively” reject everything feminine, including female friends. Guess what: there’s nothing inherently feminine about dolls or dresses. I was a tomboy in floral prints and lacy socks, and I’m a dyke in pearls and panyhose. I mean, our society does a good job of blaring the message that “feminine” equals “less-than” but you don’t have to agree. And you definitely don’t have to go telling people that all tomboys want to be real boys, and that all dykes hate feminine things. There are already people who think lesbians just want to be men, and I believe you when you say you’re sure you’re a woman (hell, you’ve put it to the test better than most people I know) but I can help but thinking, what kind of lesbian hates everything associated with women?

I guess what my gripe comes down to is this: tell us your experience, sure, I’d love to hear it. I’m hoping to get tips so I can try passing myself some day. Tell us your theories and observations, that’s your right. But cut it would with the absolute, gender-essentialist statements. It’s a very, very bad sign when I can’t tell the difference between you and a troll. “Women are always in competition with each other,” my ass.