The wildly successful, Fifty Shades of Grey series by E.L. James has sold more than 70 million copies, in 50 different languages, worldwide. Despite this astronomical number of copies, there is one place you might have trouble finding one: your local library. In fact, the explicitly erotic books came in at #4 on the American Library Association's list of the most challenged books of 2012.
In light of it being Banned Books Week, we asked Beth Kery—best-selling author of the Because You Are Mine erotic romance series—to share her thoughts on the cloud of controversy that typically hangs over her genre.
Erotic Romance: What, precisely, is being banned?
As an erotic romance author, I was asked by BookPage to comment on banned books in my genre, most notably the wildly commercially successful and equally controversial novel Fifty Shades of Grey. Since I also hold a doctorate in the behavioral sciences, I’m especially interested in how human beings react to certain cultural phenomenon, why something is so terrifically popular or why it is disdained. For instance, I’ve often noticed a trend for a small percent of reviewers to discount a book merely because there is explicit, steamy sex in it, or potentially worse . . . romance. Notably, Fifty Shades of Grey, despite all of the sex and BDSM, follows most of the classic tropes of romance novels. Romance novels are the bread and butter of the publishing industry. According to Business of Consumer Book Publishing, romance novels generated $1.438 billion in sales in 2012, leaving other genres like mystery ($728 million) or classic literary fiction ($470.5 million) leagues behind in revenue.
Does this mean that the instances of Fifty Shades of Grey being banned were due to a hatred of romance novels? No, that’s not what I’m saying at all. But as I began to look into the banning of the Fifty Shades trilogy further, I realized there was a lot more complexity to it than mere moral outrage over sexual content, although that was certainly a major component. Unlike books such as Nabokov’s Lolita, Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon or even Alfred Kinsey’s The Kinsey Report, which were also banned at times for “offensive” sexual content, the stated protests against Fifty Shades were different. I would say they were often of the condescending variety. Yes, the sexual content was termed "pornographic," but the quality of the book was also frequently called into question. I had the feeling in reading some of the rationale provided that there was a good deal of eye-rolling and smirking happening. Reasons that I read for libraries not buying the book included substandard writing and “poor reviews.” I’ll admit to being surprised by the latter, as I’ve never heard of that being a reason to censor a book from a community.
The patronizing tone of many of the stated reasons for the ban of Fifty Shades—in addition to the fact that many library officials admitted to not having read the book—made me wonder about some of the unspoken judgments. By and large, it was women who raced to read Fifty Shades of Grey and other New York Times best-selling books, such as Sylvia Day’s Crossfire series or my own Because You Are Mine series. The term "mommy porn" began to be bandied around, signifying the fact that middle-aged women (ones who obviously should know better) were being swept up in the phenomenon. That’s eye-roll-worthy and funny, because the mothers and lawyers and PTA presidents in our communities shouldn’t be interested in sex, right, even in a fantasy sense? Yes, we already knew that women read fluffy, fantasy-prone romances, but romances with kinky sex? That’s just comical.
I have a lot of familiarity with that attitude, so I couldn’t help but recognize the tone of it in the reasons for banning Fifty Shades of Grey. Not only erotic romance authors, but romance authors of all subgenres, are unfortunately used to the patronizing smirk we see when we say what we write.
Yes, the appeal of erotic romance is, by and large, the fantasy element. However, that does not diminish the validity of the content. If millions of adult readers (largely women) are clamoring to explore this exciting, perhaps liberating genre of fiction, I can’t imagine why a library would stand in their way. If they are acting as gatekeepers, then the question is begged: whom or what are they protecting?
Thanks, Beth! We appreciate your insight. What do you think, readers? Weigh in below with your thoughts on the controversy.