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FREEDOM STEPS OUT
By Scott Nicholson

Writers in the horror genre often have to play the devil’s advocate. Sometimes you must play advocate for the other side as well.

Robert Devereaux’s novel "Santa Steps Out" has caused a controversy after a Cincinnati man bought the book off the mass market paperback rack at a Kroger grocery store. The man thought the book was pornographic filth. He went to the local TV news, the TV news producer did a canned "field investigation," and Kroger promptly removed the book from more than 100 stores in the region.

Now the battle lines are drawn as the horror community screams "censorship" and the citizens of alleged decency poke their noses in the air. The real question may be whether or not marketing and public relations decisions amount to censorship. (How would you react if your business was mentioned alongside the words "child pornography" on local network news?) A different question that probably won’t be widely asked is this: Is "Santa Steps Out" suitable for a mass audience?

I have not read the book, and I am not here to judge the content of the book. I have read several reviews, jacket copy, and promotional material when the book was released in limited edition by Dark Highways Press. I knew immediately that I was not interested in reading the book. I am not a prude. I solely judged the book in the same way I make most of my purchasing decisions, on scattered bits of information and blurbs. And I could see from a mile away that I wouldn’t buy this book.

When I heard that Leisure was releasing it as a mass market paperback, I was genuinely surprised. Because, in my opinion, the subject matter is not the kind of thing that an overwhelming majority of Americans are interested in reading. I have read some of Robert Devereaux’s work and think he is an excellent writer. In fact, he is better than the bulk of mass market authors.

We all live in the real world where quality and commerce don’t always meet. Otherwise, the band XTC would be outselling Mariah Carey and no Aaron Spelling television show would last past mid-season. The ghost of V.C. Andrews would have rested in its shallow grave. Sport utility vehicles wouldn’t exist.

So here we have a product vying for dollars in the best of all outlets, the mass market. I can name several dozen books that are well-written and catchy enough to appeal to thousands, yet are relegated to the small press. I know a greater number of books that will appeal only to a very narrow segment of readers. The market isn’t the only reason for writing a book, but neither must every book appeal to the average grocery shopper.

The very marketing handle of the book is the controversy it courts. "It wishes to offend, and thereby destroy certain normal defenses against deep involvement in art by shock and surprise," writes David G. Hartwell in the book’s foreword. Patrick LoBrutto sagely foresaw that the book would cause ripples and a lot of people would be "offended...deeply." Poppy Z. Brite hailed the book’s perversity. I don’t see how anyone is surprised that this book would cause a protest somewhere in the land of the free.

That freedom not only embraces the right to pen, publish, and sell. That freedom also includes the right to refrain from purchasing. In the land of the free, you can also create a stir, boycott, protest, and wave whatever banner you think is fit. When indignant voices are stifled, books are burned. The order of the equation can be reversed and still be just as frightful.

A related issue is the media’s self-imposed mission of being the "voice of society." The media is a shaper of mass opinion and has the advantage of never having to say "I’m sorry."

For his part, Devereaux said on his Masters of Terror message board that he’s avoiding comment on the issue while investigating the potential for filing a libel suit.

I hope that "Santa Steps Out" gets a ton of publicity and sells a bunch of copies. I hope that those outraged by the power of a lone pious man and a reporter with an agenda will buy the book in "protest to the protest." I hope Robert Devereaux takes the challenge to write another book that pushes the boundaries even more, or, in what is probably a more difficult task, takes the challenge to write a book that doesn't require controversy to sell.

However it plays out, let’s not call it censorship. Let's call it freedom of speech instead: the freedom to rant and the freedom to shut up are both exquisitely valuable. Let’s pray the voices of reason and open-mindedness are ultimately louder than those driven by proselytization. But don't unilaterally condemn those who exercise their right to be offended. In the mass market, we are the mass. Buy what you want, and let the next person do the same. Boycott what you want, and be grateful you have that right.

Always remember that unpopular opinions are just as important and valid as popular ones, no matter which side you stand on.

--copyright 2001 by Scott Nicholson. This article originally appeared at Twilight Showcase

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