opinion

A Rose by Any Other Name

Tom Hymes
I have not read her stuff, but I am pretty sure I would not be bowled over by Karen Fletcher's literary style. (She is the one who is under a federal obscenity indictment in Florida for posting a series of Red Rose stories to her website that depict graphic sexual acts with very young children.) But who knows, maybe she's a genius. Over the years, I have read many stories and novels with subject matter not to my taste but whose language and style brought me to the edge of epiphany, often inspiring the sort of reverberation of bliss up and down my spine that Vladimir Nabokov spoke of as a desirable, even obligatory, endgame of good writing. "Lolita," for those who have not read it, is one of the greatest novels ever written in any language, a forest of enchantment from first sentence to last, and my own favorite.

Speaking of Nabokov, the great man himself was certainly no stranger to courting (and finding) controversy. He was, one might say, the Rob Black of his day, albeit wielding a far more imposing product than the latter-day devil (saint?), but similar in that he too thumbed his nose at the authorities by purposefully creating intellectual property that would be considered inherently immoral to some and illegal to many. Nabokov's "Lolita" achieved tremendous public notoriety, not least by being denounced on the floor of the Senate as an example of writing that would add to the moral turpitude of the nation, and it became an issue in other countries as well, often reaching their highest courts.

There have, of course, been many writers, good and bad, over the centuries whose works have been censored or pressure brought to bear upon them such that publishing houses refused to print their manuscripts, or worse. But now we have entered the digital age, and the Internet has made publishers of us all, with the ability to attract our own readership. Predictably, groups of vile-minded individuals have wasted no time in forming online coffee klatches where they can share their various likes and dislikes. In some cases, their activities are clearly illegal because the sharing goes beyond words to actual images and videos of criminal activity, such as child pornography. But often, as ostensibly with the Fletcher situation, the offense is one of preoccupation, with no actual activity or behavior being considered.

So the question is whether the authorities should prosecute utterly offensive writing, which is exactly what they are doing to Fletcher. The charges have inspired a few threads on adult boards, with a surprising number of posters taking the "lock her up and throw away the key" line of reasoning. Some have expressed exasperation with those taking a 1st Amendment "slippery slope" stance, and some have tried to own the middle ground.

But there is no middle ground in this debate. You cannot be a little bit pregnant, and you cannot make some writing subject to criminal prosecution while absolving other writing that stays within some arbitrary line. In such a situation, where obscenity charges succeed or fail depending on community standards, the survival of edgy literature would be dependent upon the whim of a jury, and the only imaginable result would be a chill of such magnitude that it could alter forever the literary production of the entire country.

Because such a chill would be inevitable, I do not think the prosecutors will succeed in this case. Or maybe I think that because I simply cannot imagine the alternative.

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