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?
As you may already know, it's Banned Books Week, during which the freedom to read is celebrated by those opposed to censorship.
There are certain books that have been creating a stir since they were first published, generating fusses because of their language, obscenity, age (in)appropriateness or some other aspect deemed "offensive." One such book is Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, still controversial nearly 130 years after its publication.
We asked Benjamin Griffin, one of the editors of the Autobiography of Mark Twain (the second volume of which releases next month—read about it here) to share his thoughts on the controversy.
United States v. Mark Twain
No such case as my title implies was ever brought, of course. The United States has no banning—that is, no centralized prohibition of books. Here, a ban has come to mean any decision to eliminate a book from a library or a school reading list.
It’s true that, until fairly recently, the Postal Service exercised a censoring function by enforcing laws against sending obscene matter through the mail. But Supreme Court decisions of the ’60s and ’70s have rendered obscenity pretty ungainly to work with as a criminal charge.
Huckleberry Finn was “banned” several times in Mark Twain’s lifetime—always by librarians. In 1885, when the book was new, the public library in Concord, Massachusetts, withdrew it, citing the characters’ “low grade of morality” and “irreverence.” Huck lies, talks dialect, is friends with a black man, steals and fails to return stolen property (the black man).
Mark Twain’s response to the ban was immediate. He told his publisher: “That will sell 25,000 copies for us, sure.” The commercial blessings of banning, in this country, are well known. Howard Hughes campaigned to ban his own film, The Outlaw, in order to get it released.
The early twentieth century saw some more Huck bans. They were short-lived; but Mark Twain’s Eve’s Diary, published in 1906 and banned by the Charlton, Massachusetts, public library, was restored to the shelves just two years ago. It was the illustrations (by Lester Ralph) that offended: They depicted Eve as a naked woman—stylized, but naked.
Today, Huckleberry Finn gets challenged, not in the name of public morals, but to protect something (the student, or the classroom atmosphere, or the school) against the unpredictable effects of the word “nigger,” which makes some students—I quote from a report by the Newsletter on Intellectual Freedom—“uncomfortable.”
Back in 1885, the book’s detractors feared that children would become too comfortable with Huck: with his “low” company—and, I suspect, with Jim’s. Mark Twain’s response to this criticism, in his Autobiography, was that children were already routinely damaged by a book the library kept on open shelves—the Bible:
"The mind that becomes soiled in youth can never again be washed clean; I know this by my own experience, and to this day I cherish an unappeasable bitterness against the unfaithful guardians of my young life, who not only permitted but compelled me to read an unexpurgated Bible through before I was 15 years old."
It was only right, he said, for librarians to escort Huck and Tom out of that book’s “questionable company.”
In my opinion, at the core of our contemporary debate over Huckleberry Finn in schools is a confusion between, on the school’s side, encountering racism and legitimating racism; and a confusion, on the students’ side, between reading words—even heavily ironized ones—and being attacked by words.
This is certain: Mark Twain wouldn’t understand our solicitousness about “comfort level.” He might have wondered what comfort had to do with school, the discomforts of which had caused him to pack out at age twelve. No “Stay in school, kids” for Mark Twain!
Banned Books Week is one of my favorite celebrations of the year—an important reminder that we shouldn't take our freedom to read for granted. This year marks the 30th celebration of the week.
According to the American Library Association, "Banned Books Week brings together the entire book community . . . in shared support of the freedom to seek and to express ideas, even those some consider unorthodox or unpopular."
Check out this list to see the "most frequently challenged authors of the 21st century." It's fascinating to look at these graphs detailing the specifics of challenged books. For example, from the years 1990-2010, the most number of challenges were in 1995. During that time frame the most common reason for challenges was "sexually explicit content," followed by "offensive language." Most challenges were by parents.
One of my favorite features of my local library growing up (CALS, represent!) was the library-distributed bookmark listing names of banned books. Of course, the fact that the books had been banned at one point only increased my interest in reading these subversive titles. And I appreciated that I could get them for free at the library.
Here's another thought for you to consider during Banned Books Week. Reading is educational and fun, and it can be hard to understand why anybody would want to limit our access to good books. But as Barbara Kingsolver says, fiction is political. Here's an explanation in her own words, which I love:
Fiction cultivates empathy for a theoretical stranger by putting you inside his head, allowing you to experience life from his point of view. It can broaden your view of gender, ethnicity, place and time, power and vulnerability, things that influence social interaction. What could be more political than that?
To enter to win 30 banned books (in eBook form), visit Open Road Media's Banned Books Week website. Also, enjoy this video of authors talking about censured books:
Why do you think it's important to celebrate Banned Books Week?
Happy Banned Books Week! Since 1982, the American Library Association has celebrated our freedom to read by calling attention to the books that are most frequently banned in the United States. This year's BBW runs from September 25-October 2.
Here's a bit more on the purpose of BBW, from the ALA website:
Intellectual freedom—the freedom to access information and express ideas, even if the information and ideas might be considered unorthodox or unpopular—provides the foundation for Banned Books Week. BBW stresses the importance of ensuring the availability of unorthodox or unpopular viewpoints for all who wish to read and access them.
See this list for BBW library events around the country.
Also, Judy Blume—a personal favorite author of mine, and no stranger to censorship—maintains a great website on why books are challenged and why it's important to speak up for intellectual freedom.
Have any of your favorite books been challenged? (Hello, Harry Potter!)