Sunday, April 12, 2009

How Will We Know When Judith Butler Cracks the Bestseller List?

Remember when you were a horny teenager and you went to websites like to look for really sexy adult content, like books on Queer Theory? Then, remember how you used to order boxes of those books, hoping your mom wouldn't open the telltale smiling box?

When I was twelve, my good friend C used to keep a dog-eared copy of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick's Epistemology of the Closet under his mattress. Sometimes, late at night, we would read (by flashlight) sentences like the one below, barely able to keep our hands off our pubescent erections:

At the same time, however, just as it comes to seem questionable to assume that cultural constructs are peculiarly malleable ones, it is also becoming increasingly problematical to assume that grounding an identity in biology or 'essential nature' is a stable way of insulating it from social interference.
Wow, I get hot just hearing those words again.

A few years later, I used to sneak out of the house to attend late night "Queer Theory" parties with some of the more sexually-advanced students at my high school. We never had one of our teen orgies without a copy of Same-Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe. Trust me, there is nothing that gets teens off like a careful historical study of gay marriage in the Middle Ages.

Okay, okay: why am I doing this whole facetious riff? Well, because, as the LA Times reports, has a quiet new policy of labeling certain books as containing "adult" content. As the LAT blog notes, an "adult" content tag removes the book from sales rankings, Amazon's bestseller lists, and "in some cases, being de-ranked also means being removed from Amazon's search results."

At first glance, this may seem reasonable enough: maybe you don't want your tween coming up with Bukake porn when she's searching for the new Jonas Brothers CD. However, the execution of this policy seems to be suspiciously homophobic. As the LAT reports:
Our research shows that these books have lost their ranking: "Running with Scissors" by Augusten Burroughs; "Rubyfruit Jungle" by Rita Mae Brown, "Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic" by Alison Bechdel, "The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1" by Michel Foucault, "Bastard Out of Carolina" by Dorothy Allison (2005 Plume edition), "Little Birds: Erotica" by Anais Nin, "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" by Jean-Dominque Bauby (1997 Knopf edition), "Maurice" by E.M. Forster (2005 W.W. Norton edition) and "Becoming a Man" by Paul Monette, which won the 1992 National Book Award.

Books that remain ranked include: "Naked" by David Sedaris; "Tropic of Cancer" by Henry Miller; "American Psycho" by Bret Easton Ellis; "Wifey" by Judy Blume; "The Kiss" by Kathryn Harrison; the photobooks "Playboy: Helmut Newton" and "Playboy: Six Decades of Centerfolds"; "Naked Lunch" by William Burroughs; "Incest: From 'A Journal of Love'" by Anais Nin; "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" by Jean-Dominque Bauby (2007 Vintage International edition), "Maurice" by E.M. Forster (2005 Penguin Classics edition).

Certianly [sic] many of the books that are no longer ranked are no more "adult" than many of those that are -- as the list above shows, the same book, by different publishers, might meet either fate. And Kindle editions of some books remain ranked. "Unfriendly Fire," for example, is #1 in Gay and Lesbian Nonfiction on the Kindle -- even as the hardcover of the book, which was released on March 3, does not show up at all when searched for.
For those of you who are keeping score at home, there is a suspiciously large number of gay-themed books that end up being labeled "adult"--including academic works like Foucault's History of Sexuality.

Fosco decided to pursue this line of inquiry, testing which books in his academic specialty of queer theory/gay and lesbian studies made it onto the "adult content" list. According to my research, the following important academic texts have been removed from Amazon's ranking system:
Please note that every one of these books is an academic book, dealing with literary interpretation, historical research, or sociological analysis. Some of them are pretty difficult to read--theory-wise, that is. However, there is nothing particularly "adult" about most of these books, unless by "adult" you mean containing language that is over the head of your average teenager (or, for that matter, your average American adult). But that's not what Amazon means, is it?

I suppose it is hard to be too upset about a policy that may prevent teens from learning about obscure academic books. Even so, I would suggest that there are plenty of queer teens who could find books like those of John Boswell to be meaningful and/or useful. A rigorous history that reveals the lies that the Catholic Church tells about the Church's historical attitudes toward homosexuality? For that right teen, that kind of book could even be life-saving.

Even more upsetting is my discovery that Beth Loffreda's Losing Matt Shepard: Life and Politics in the Aftermath of Anti-Gay Murder is also included in this "adult" list. Loffreda's book is not academic: it's beautiful and sad and political. It's an extended meditation on anti-gay hate and how the Matthew Shepard murder revealed certain fault lines across our culture. It's a complicated book that refuses the easy answers. And it is certainly not "adult" or obscene--unless, of course, you consider anti-gay murder to be obscene (but that's not what Amazon means, is it?). What it is, for everyone--gay, straight, youth, adult, is a must-read. And yet, Amazon has tried to make this book harder to find. I think that is unforgivable.

Though I'm not computer scientist, it's pretty clear that Amazon's identification of a book as "adult" is based on some sort of text-based algorithm that presumably scans the titles or descriptions of books for certain "adult" words. And yes, I recognize that any algorithm of this sort will never provide a perfect discrimination between "adult" and "non-adult" books. What is equally clear, however, is that this algorithm is using words like "sexuality" and "queer" and "gay" to define a book as adult. And that is unacceptable. I'm not demanding that Amazon stop using an automated process to determine "adult" books; however, I do demand that Amazon fine-tune this algorithm to reflect the fact that gay themes are not "adult."

And so, until Amazon can demonstrate that they have improved this practice or until they stop doing this at all, I will not purchase anything from them. Nor will I provide Amazon links at this website. I would encourage you to join me in this project. (Besides, this might provide a good temporary excuse to shop at your local independent bookstore!)

UPDATE: As Jeremy notes below, Amazon is calling the whole thing a "glitch." However, as Gawker reports, there are several reasons to question the "glitch" explanation. One of them being that, before this became a PR nightmare, Amazon called the whole thing a policy decision. Oops!

UPDATE (4/14/09): It now seems pretty clear to me that this was either an honest mistake on Amazon's part or an act of malicious hacking beyond Amazon's control. Consequently, I'm going to re-embed my Amazon links on this site.

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Jeremy said...

An update: Amazon is blaming a glitch.

While I think this excuse may not be entirely false, it doesn't really address the fundamental problems with de-ranking books based on perceived "adult" content. And as some of the commenters on the L.A. Times' follow-up have noticed, the "glitch" is highly specific to "gay-themed" content, with pretty ridiculous results.

Maybe the public response will produce greater transparency at Amazon, though. In the meantime I'm going to (try to) join your boycott.

FOSCO said...

And let's hope our boycott is only VERY temporary. It's hard to get obscure academic books on short notice from anywhere BUT Amazon. Sigh.