Friday, December 19, 2014

One Project at a Time

by Jean Roberta

As I think I’ve mentioned here before, I am staring at the outline of a book in the genre called “creative non-fiction.” The director of the local university press (at the university where I teach English) wants me to write about censorship in Canada in the 1980s/90s. I sent him an outline for a research-based overview of the subject, but he wants something more personal. He wants me to write about situations I’ve been involved in. At a recent book launch, he asked how my writing was coming, and I could only laugh. (While I’m teaching three large first-year classes? Does he think I’ve learned to live without sleep?) I promised that I would work on this project during the holidays, during my two weeks off from marking essays and nailing student plagiarists.

Conflict over censorship is still a raw subject for me. The anti-porn feminists I knew (and knew of) in the 1980s were honestly appalled by the way many male “sex radicals” depicted women, in words and images, as human toilets, receptacles for men to use. I was queasy about censorship, even then, especially if it were to be imposed by law, but I didn’t believe that being anti-porn meant being anti-sex. Why were so many men angry at women who said no, but disgusted with women who “put out?” What would it take to create a more engaging, sexier discourse on sex?

And then there was the amazing blindness of certain “sex-positive” organizations and businesses (including the few gay/lesbian bookstores in Canada) to racism. In one such store, I saw a series of greeting cards featuring images of fat people who looked androgynous and African, all of whom wore red lipstick, exaggerated expressions, and little else. These cards were clearly intended to be funny. I couldn’t help being reminded of certain male queens who performed on stage as hoochie mamas, or silly little girls, or nagging old biddies, much like white actors in blackface.

When the same store was fire-bombed a few weeks after my visit, the queer press treated this event as a simple expression of homophobia. Bombing any bookstore would not be my style, but I couldn’t help wondering if those explosive devices were meant as a response to being silenced by ridicule.

“Censorship is not the answer” is the slogan of libertarians, and I agree with it in principle. The catch is that being opposed to censorship is sometimes parallel to being opposed to “political correctness,” meaning that ignorance and contempt have to be tolerated as the price of freedom of expression.

“Intersectionality” seems to be the current word for inequality in various forms, all operating simultaneously. Men “of colour” are generally as sexist as white men, but they are genuinely oppressed by racism. Some rich people are not white, and they are capable of class snobbery. Women can be oppressors. So can queers of every gender. A certain local leader of the First Nations community once created an uproar by publicly claiming that Hitler’s massacre of Jews was justified. My Nigerian ex-husband never said that in so many words, but he came dangerously close. (Some folks are clearly blind to historical analogies.)

Wanting to gag an individual or a mob is a logical response to offensive expression. But censorship is the first weapon of any dictatorship, and it doesn’t lead to peace on earth.

These are the issues I will have to wrestle with if I am ever going to write a whole book on this subject, and work on revisions, and see the thing in print, and be regarded as some kind of a published scholar. I would like to be defined that way some time before my death, not that I’m ashamed of being a queer writer of sexually-explicit fiction. But then, shame has a way of sneaking in. Oh, the irony.

One of my colleagues suggested that I apply for a sabbatical leave to work on my book before universities in general abolish the tradition of giving their teaching staff time off for research projects. This could happen, and I’m not getting younger, so I can’t afford to waste time. But putting together a proposal for a sabbatical is a project in itself.

I am still working my way through the last pile of student essays before the deadline. As usual at this time of year, I can hardly see past the next signpost: End of Semester, Christmas, Holiday Get-Togethers, Calls for Submissions, Book Chapters, Yard Maintenance with the New Snow-Blower, Purging of Household Junk, New Classes in January.

I feel as if I can’t afford to spend the time it would take to clarify something called Long-Term Goals. My current life looks like an obstacle course of short-term hurdles, one after another. This might be a good thing. As long as I’m busy, I can’t focus on the possibility that my life is a flurry of movement with no real progress.


  1. Short term goals add up to long term goals, in my experience, Jean. As they say in the Twelve Step programs, take one day at a time.

    I'd definitely love to see you write that book. Though I think I'd like to read your "Elizabeth" book even more. Censorship seems like such a hopeless topic.

  2. Jean:
    Just the short history lesson you reviewed here is all n new to me. I didn't read erotica back in the era you are chronicling. I'd love to read more about the topic. I hope you will find the time, even if it's just to do the condensed version.

  3. Looks like this post could serve as an outline of what you'd want to cover. Jesus- it's all so complicated, isn't it?

  4. Every short-term hurdle overcome is movement. Progress--well, progress is a cultural construct that means only whatever the individual thinks it means. At least I think so.

    Jean, you've already done far more than most people I know to touch the minds of reader, and of students (however many have disappointed you.)

  5. Thanks for the comments, all. Lisabet, I almost forgot about my plan to write a reference book about famous women named Elizabeth, but I haven't given up on it. It would be an obvious gift for all women with that name, and it prob. wouldn't offend anyone. (But I may be fooling myself if I think any book at all is perfectly harmless.) Spencer, if you haven't experienced political conflicts in a broadly Leftist context, you've been spared. :) Daddy X, it is definitely complicated. Sacchi, what a beautiful thought! True enough that by now, I've had contact with thousands of students, & probably had some positive influenc eon some of them.

  6. Hi Jean! Based on the clear way you've laid out the territory re censorship in this post, I'd be really interested to read your book. Also, I feel that the perspective of a queer writer of erotica would be particularly valuable in exploring censorship.

    As far as what you've said about long-term versus short-term goals, I've noticed myself gravitating toward the short term lately as well. I think it's okay. Sometimes, it's a good strategy for dealing with being overwhelmed, or feeling out of control as far as the wider world goes.

    I hope you've had lovely holidays!