Cottonmouth simply made Cleis Press nervous. But why?
In June of this year I sent out a story to be considered for Best Lesbian Erotica 2014, a popular anthology put out by Cleis Press. The largest independent queer publisher in the US, Cleis has established itself as the de facto clearinghouse for lesbian erotica. BLE’s call for work had no content constraints, no limits on subject matter, and so I assumed the bottom line was simply whether or not the words on the page had the power to make the clit jump. I could not have imagined the tangled internal politics that would ensue, nor could I have imagined that those politics would culminate in the censorship of my work. The fight with Cleis is emblematic of a broader schism in the queer community, one that calls up all the old questions of assimilation versus liberation.
The story I submitted, called Cottonmouth, was inspired by a scene from Truman Capote’s Other Voices Other Rooms that had never left my head, in which two teenagers have a freaky encounter with a snake. I took this scene and ran with it. Cottonmouth is about two teenage cousins who go for a walk in the Mississippi woods to escape the afternoon heat, and end up face to face with the mystery of sexuality, of nature, and the myths created about the two. The story was accepted by the guest editor, Sarah Schulman. While Sarah loved it, she had a tussle with the publishers about whether or not the story’s focus was “bestiality”. Sarah’s position was: “So what?” Cleis had no real argument against her, so I received a contract and went through line edits. I was excited and looking forward to coming out to my mother as a pervert all over again (I finally settled on an email with the subject line: Congratulations! Your daughter is a published pornographer!).
Two summer months slipped by without incident. Then August came, and I received another e-mail from Sarah saying that Cleis Press, the publisher of Best Lesbian Erotica, wanted to remove Cottonmouth from the collection because the characters were underage, claiming that Cleis faced “legal vulnerability”. Sarah, whose novel The Child, about a sexual relationship between a 15 year old boy and a 40 year old man, faced no legal consequences immediately recognized this as censorship and wrote: “I cannot permit this and will go to the wall.” After some wrangling, it was decided that the story would be sent to the newly appointed Publisher of Cleis, Brenda Knight, who would review it to determine whether she thought the Press would in fact face legal vulnerability. Having never had to deal with issues of legality in my work before, I panicked. But after spending some quality time brushing up on US obscenity law, it became clear to me that there was indeed no legal issue with my story. Cottonmouth simply made Cleis Press nervous. But why?
One of the arguments I have heard repeatedly in hashing out this situation among friends, colleagues and peers is that Cleis is just a middle of the road publisher that hasn’t done anything exciting in a long time and therefore my “edgy” and “out there” piece just needs to find a different home. The reason this argument bothers me is that it ignores what Cleis has done historically. This is, after all, a press whose focus is queer erotica, and was the publisher of such bad-asses as Susie Bright, Annie Sprinkle, and Patrick Califia. We now recognize these authors to be the forebears of sex-positivity, but it is easy to forget that Cleis published them during a time when the politics of respectability reigned in both feminist and lesbian anti-porn movements. Publishing these authors, among others, was a risk that Cleis took because they recognized that sexual deviance is intrinsic to queer identity and that to ignore this fact is to ignore the potency of our difference, which is what has always given our art a unique vantage point on what it means to be human. Taking this risk paid off for them in the long run. It is upon the politics of deviance, of outsider perspectives, that Cleis built their reputation. I believe this is why their slogan was and remains “Outliers. Outwriters. Outriders”. Because of this history, I thought I knew on what side of the schism Cleis came down. However their attempt to censor my story made me have to rethink that assumption, as well as the assumption that the word “queer” is still automatically shorthand for distinguishing oneself as anti-assimilation. I waited for news of Cottonmouth’s fate with a sense of foreboding.
Finally, in early September, Sarah called me with a letter she received from Ms. Knight and read it out to me. Essentially, the press had changed horses midstream. Brenda wrote: “On second consideration I do realize there is no legal issue here. The real issue with Cottonmouth is the quality of the writing, not the subject”. Here Brenda admits that Cleis’ first and second issues with my story were baseless and so, instead of dropping it, she switched tactics, making vague arguments that my voice is not authentic because I am not from the South, before summing up with: “This dispute is a matter of aesthetics.”
Sarah could not go along with this censorship and in response, gave them three options:
- They could publish the story
- They could provide a link to the story and she would address the censorship in her introduction
- She could resign as editor.
Cleis chose the third option, and Sarah was removed as editor of the volume.
It would be easy to say that the press did nothing wrong, just pulled a story that did not go with their image. An independent press has the right to edit its own content. Simple as that. But if their impulse was truly not to censor, instead only to edit out a story they did not think strong enough, why first insist that there was some kind of legal issue so worrying that one of the heads of the entire press needed to take a look at it? Why go to the extreme of overriding Sarah’s role as curator of the collection when she argued so fiercely to include it? Why not at least agree to let her address the dispute in her introduction, rather than shut down all possible avenues of discussion? The numerous unrelated roadblocks and objections thrown in the way of my story’s publication make it clear that this is not a story of rejection based on quality. The press was simply trying to repress based on content, and when they were accused of being censorious they settled on “aesthetics”. Here, aesthetics is a last resort, a straw argument, a smokescreen. It says: “This is not art” instead of “This art makes me uncomfortable”.
Now I see that the discomfort generated by my story marks a shift in what Cleis Press is targeting as their main audience. The queer label associated with the publisher is no longer so much about making a space for outsiders to be heard as it is about niche marketing. This is where the fear comes in. Ultimately, the anxiety around the homosexual as pedophile and the uncomfortable linkage of homosexuality with bestiality still looms large in a certain sector of the American public’s imagination. Because it is this population that Cleis now has in purview, Perhaps it is these anxieties that drove them to respond so negatively and simplistically to my story. The “quality” of my writing has nothing to do with it.
It is that preemption that I find troubling and familiar. It is a closeted way of operating that is at odds with Cleis’ roots.
This leaves writers like me who have no qualms about playing with the darker side of sexuality, to awkwardly do the original work of that institution, which is to defend the integrity of our own voices. Only now we must do so in the very community where we first sought relief from this kind of defense. I shouldn’t have had to write this article. Sarah should not have had to resign as editor.
I want to know why we so easily let go of the institutions whose reputations were forged in our community once they start to serve mainstream interests, instead of demanding accountability. I want to know where a writer like me can get a break and be read outside the 50 or so people who have come into contact with me through readings or parties or other local gatherings. I want to know why the walls to accessibility are now being built by the very people who were once trying to tear them down.