Jun 6, 2012 ... The FSOG books were written by E. L James, a former British ... Fifty Shades of
Grey was originally published by a small Australian press, and ...
Graham 1 Banning Fifty Shades of Grey: A Black and White Issue? Chances are that mentions of a literary supernova titled Fifty Shades of Grey has passed through your culture orbit at some point recently. FSOG (and its two sequels, Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed), which began life as one fan’s speculative fiction involving the characters of the hugely popular book and film series, Twilight, has become a publishing juggernaut. It also has drawn battle lines between some communities and their public libraries institutions that have decided to practice self-censorship, a concept that conflicts with, and devalues, the principles of intellectual freedom on which they are built. The FSOG books were written by E. L James, a former British television executive (J. Bosman), who originally began the series as fan fiction—amateur works based on the characters and settings from other fictional genres, created by professional writers (Alter) Her creation began online three years ago as a take on the world and characters created by author Stephanie Meyer in her Twilight novels. James’ version morphed into a standalone series, which involved a powerful CEO, Christian Grey, and a college student, Anastasia Steele, who enter into a sadomasochistic relationship. (Alter) Fifty Shades of Grey was originally published by a small Australian press, and print copies were initially hard to obtain. However, e-copies became soon available and by the first week of March 2012, the novel dominated the top of the New York Times and Amazon e-book fiction best-seller lists. (J. Bosman) In April, American publishers finally got a crack at the trilogy, releasing it under the Vintage Books imprint, part of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, sending sales “through the roof” (J. Bosman), and by the first week of May, the books held the first three spots on the New York Times best seller list (Associated Press), despite decidedly mixed reviews. For example, in the author’s homeland, while The Guardian of London called it "jolly" and "eminently readable," the U.K. newspaper The Telegraph, said the writing was "appalling,"
Graham 2 ''hackneyed" and readers would have to wade through "pages of treacly clichés" (WISN TVMilwaukee) The books’ cultural effect has been noteworthy, as well. Because of its popularity among middle-age women, the press has dubbed it “mommy porn” (Associated Press), exacerbated by the fact that since the novels were initially available via e-books, the implication was that the erotic story had gained even more female readership due its anonymity of consumption on the reading devices. The popular (and zeitgeist barometer) comedy show, Saturday Night Live, even performed a segment about FSOG, joking that a Kindle with the novel uploaded on it was the perfect Mother's Day gift. (Associated Press) Similar effects have been seen in the nation’s public libraries, causing circulation logjams for patrons trying to get their hands on the books. For instance, in the first week of April 2012, the Hennequin Public Library, which also serves Minneapolis, registered 2,121 holds; as of mid-May, Robert J. Rua, an employee for the Cuyahoga County (Cleveland area) library, said they had bought 539 copies of the trilogy’s first book to meet the demand. (J. Bosman) However, not all libraries have responded to the phenomenom, even though one would assume that they would celebrate any increase in usage by the communities they serve. Surprisingly, some librarians have put the brakes on the FSOG phenomenon, by either removing the books from their shelves or refusing to carry them altogether, leading to cries of censorship by patrons and various free-speech groups, as well as concern by the profession’s largest, and most influential advocacy organization, the American Library Association. (Jones) Restriction or banning of materials in public libraries is not new. A sampling of relevant articles from national press in the nineteenth century., compiled by Cora McAndrews Moellendick, reported that certain library books were being “excluded” due to lack of religious orthodoxy, burned due to pro-slavery themes, or denied shelf space, because of “"false ideas of life" and "ultra sensationalism of plot." (Moellendick)
Graham 3 For a time, the public librarian was fighting a war on several fronts. Not only did s/he battle to promote reading, which many found unnecessary, but also to justify libraries’ existences against those who couldn’t understand the intangible value in exchange for the money being spent to support them. And to curry favor with an indifferent, sometime resentful, public, the librarian had to ensure that the contents of his materials were not at odds with the moral values of the community served. (Moellendick) However, national attitudes about free speech were eventually challenged, and in 1939, the ALA Council produced the first draft of The Library Bill of Rights, which established the librarian as the guardian of the people’s right to read, and have available, any materials that they desired. (Moellendick) The Bill of Rights has been revised several times to reflect societal changes (the most recent in 1996), but here are the tenets that deal with our discussion: The American Library Association affirms that all libraries are forums for information and ideas, and that the following basic policies should guide their services. I. Books and other library resources should be provided for the interest, information, and enlightenment of all people of the community the library serves. Materials should not be excluded because of the origin, background, or views of those contributing to their creation. II. Libraries should provide materials and information presenting all points of view on current and historical issues. Materials should not be proscribed or removed because of partisan or doctrinal disapproval. III. Libraries should challenge censorship in the fulfillment of their responsibility to provide information and enlightenment. IV. Libraries should cooperate with all persons and groups concerned with resisting abridgment of free expression and free access to ideas. (American Library Association) Despite this admonition to its ranks, librarians continued to struggle with conflicts between popular tastes and perceived community values, as well as their own personal feelings. Just a few years after the 1948 revision of the Library Bill of Rights, the profession faced a dilemma quite similar to the FSOG controversy, with the publication of Grace Metalious’ Peyton Place.
Graham 4 Peyton Place, like FSOG, was somewhat of a Cinderella story in publishing. Metalious’ first manuscript was lying in a “slush pile” on a small publisher’s desk, when it was picked up by a young editor. (Cassuto) Despite its unflinching portrayal of small New England town, including instances of incest, suicide, abortion, statutory rape, sexual frankness, and other topics considered taboo in Eisenhower-era America, the novel was published in September 1956, and became an instant best seller, “ringing up 60,000 hardcover sales in its first 10 days and more than 100,000 in its first month.” (Cassuto) Also, like FSOG, the book suffered many critical blows; it was dismissed by the New York Times as a “small town peep show”; Metalious’ husband lost his job as a school principal (Baker) while others charged that she hadn’t written it herself. More to the point, it was banned by numerous libraries, as well as in many states and several countries, including Canada, for being obscene. Some locales even attempted measures to make the book’s sale a criminal act. (Truax) However, in 1958, Peyton Place passed Gone with the Wind and became the top-selling novel of all time, and it remained in that position for almost 20 years, while the book became a film, a television series and a cultural synonym for any place with a sordid reputation. To her detractors, Metalious famously announced, “if I'm a lousy writer, then a hell of a lot of people have got lousy taste.” (Anderson)---something authors such as E. L. James or Stephenie Meyer would no doubt love to say themselves. But the troubling point is that a half-century after Peyton Place, and in light of the ALA Library Bill of Rights, why are public librarians still practicing self-censorship? On a simple, but powerfully fundamental level, the basis for materials selection in any library should be, and is usually, mandated by its collection development policy (Moellendick), here explained in its broadest terms: No library can make everything available, and selection decisions must be made. Selection is an inclusive process, where the library affirmatively seeks out
Graham 5 materials which will serve its mission of providing a broad diversity of points of view and subject matter. (American Library Association) In a more specific example, the following is a press account of collection development at two Washington libraries: Both libraries make decisions on whether to buy materials using a set of selection criteria. This criteria, outlined by Sno-Isle Libraries in its Collection Development Policy, includes support for the library's mission and roles; accuracy and timeliness of material; and expressed and perceived interest or demand for the material based on requests or other data, among other benchmarks. (Daybert) More importantly, a collection development policy that strives for balance “can help the librarian make selection decisions without self-censoring.” (Arizona State Library, Archives and Public Records) So let us look at what happened with one public library with regards to collection development policy and Fifty Shades of Grey, while attempting to ascertain what went awry. In May 2012, Mary Hastler, director of the Harford County (Maine) Public Library made the decision to keep the FSOG trilogy off her shelves, despite public outcry, and the fact that all other libraries in the region carried the books, with hundreds of patrons on wait lists. (McCauley) In an interview, she told the Baltimore Sun: In my personal opinion, it’s almost like a how-to manual in terms of describing bondage and submissive relationships. A lot of the reviews that came out very publicly and quickly identified these books as ‘mommy porn.’ Since our policy is that we don’t buy porn, we made the decision not to purchase the series. (McCauley) Note the use of several phrases in Hastler’s quote: “personal opinion”, “reviews” and “our policy is that we don’t buy porn,”--- we will return to these in a moment. Perhaps continuing to feel pressure, Hastler then sent a letter to the editorial board of the Sun, again defending her position, which was published on June 6, 2012. She contended: The decision to not purchase "Fifty Shades of Grey" was made after careful review and research following our materials selection process. The professional reviews characterized the content of the book as pornography. Since the Harford County Public Library does not purchase pornography; we did not buy the printed edition of the book. (Hastler)
The Hartford County Public Library Materials Selection Policy is an eight-page document, which, besides the model of fairness and intellectual freedom composed by the library, also includes the Freedom to Read Statement from the 1953 Westchester Conference of the ALA, the Freedom to View Statement (Freedom to View Committee of the American Film and Video Association) and the ALA Library Bill of Rights. (Hartford County Public Library) Together, the parts form a compelling contract with the library user, promising the availability of an inclusive, uncensored collection. However, when comparing Mary Hastler’s published remarks on FSOG, we find a few discrepancies. The first one is easy—nowhere in the policy is the word “pornography” mentioned. That may seem picky, but consider that some regard pornography and “erotica” to be different things, altogether. Chloe Thurlow, author of The Secret Life of Girls, comments on this in a recent blog post: Pornography is usually about men hunting down women, conquering them, brutalizing them. Oh, she wants it all right. But porn is rarely sensuous or sexy. Erotica must conjure up erotic situations through desire, daring, atmosphere, clothing, aromas, the feel of silk, satin, leather and rope. It is subtle, understated... (Thurlow) In the case of FSOG, many reviews both contain the words “erotic” or “erotica”, as well as the phrase “mommy porn”, (Grey) which as earlier noted, was a media creation referring to the material’s popularity with a certain female demographic. (Associated Press) The point is that the Hartford County Public Library policy discourages the selection of neither pornography nor “erotica”, which may be the more suitable label for FSOG. And so did Hastler base her decision of exclusion (Moellendick) on the frequency of “mommy porn” mentions in the reviews that she consulted? More importantly, upon which reviews did Hastler base her opinion? The HCPL policy states in its standards for selection criteria: “Favorable reviews from professional sources, or reviews which point to particular
Graham 7 significance of material (see Procedures for list of review sources).” (Hartford County Public Library) However, I found no such “Procedures” section on the HCPL site to lead me the approved review sources. No doubt a technical or editorial glitch, but the review sources would have added needed depth to Hastler’s argument. Also, as a matter of further curiosity, consider Hastler’s comments on FSOG as being “a how-to manual in terms of describing bondage and submissive relationships.” (McCauley) A search of the HCPL Open Public Access Catalog for other well-known works with similar themes, such The Story of O, Venus in Furs, or any books in the Sleeping Beauty trilogy, published by renowned author, Anne Rice, under the pseudonym, A. N. Roquelaure, showed none to be in the collection. (Hartford County Public Library) In addition, three other classic novels of known controversy, Tropic of Cancer, Fanny Hill, and Lady Chatterley’s Lover were also absent, as well, but were available through interlibrary loan. (Hartford County Public Library) So one could, perhaps muse that if Hastler and the HCPL are practicing self-censorship, they are at least being consistent. What might be the deeper reasons behind this behavior? Perhaps Hastler actually wanted to acquire FSOG, but feared having to do battle with concerned parents and angry library members. Or perhaps, she feared wasting money on copies of books that would quietly disappear from the shelves in a silent show of protest. Maybe she really believes FSOG to be “pornography” and unworthy of her reading community. Whatever the reason, Hastler’s decision blatantly appeared to be in direct conflict with the HCPL Materials Selection policy, which ultimately must serve as her rule of law, when debating issues of exclusion. Finally, if Hastler never sought guidance or support from the ALA Office of Intellectual Freedom regarding this issue, it would have behooved her to have at least consulted SelfCensorship: Take the Test!, developed by the New York State Library Association to help
Graham 8 libraries determine whether intellectual freedom policies should be reviewed; a “yes’ to any question on it should be grounds for doing so, according to the test. Not surprisingly, the first item on the checklist asks: Has your library ever not purchased material because a review or publisher's catalog indicated that it was for "mature readers," had explicit language or illustrations, or might be controversial? (New York Public Library Association) In any event, Mary Hastler and numerous other librarians in Florida, Georgia, Wisconsin, and other locales (WISN TV-Milwaukee) are doing a grave disservice to our profession’s commitment to, and fight for, intellectual freedom by refusing to carry Fifty Shades of Grey. As Barbara Jones of the ALA put it, “Call it what you will—“erotica,” “mommy porn,” whatever—Fifty Shades of Grey has not been declared obscene or child pornography by any court of law.” (Jones) Let us hope that with time and concerted effort on the part of the library profession, Fifty Shades of Grey will one day, for good or bad, take its place on all library shelves (or wherever its formats are housed) beside Peyton Place, while future generations wonder what all the fuss was about.
Works Cited Alter, Alexandra. "The Weird World of Fan Fiction." Wall Street Journal 15 June 2012: D1. . American Library Association. "Intellectual Freedom and Censorship Q&A." n.d. American Library Association. . —. "Library Bill of Rights." rev. 23 January 1996. American Library Association. . Anderson, Stacey Stanfield. "Toxic Togetherness in a Postwar "Potboiler": Grace Metalious's Peyton Place." Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture (1900-present) 2.5 (2006). . Arizona State Library, Archives and Public Records. "Intellectual Freedom & Censorship." n.d. Arizona State Library, Archives and Public Records. . Associated Press. "Steamy ‘Fifty Shades’ banned from some library shelves." 9 May 2012. Chicago Sun-Times.com. . Baker, Carlos. "Small Town Peep Show." New York Times Book Review 23 September 1956: 4. Bosman, Jule. "Discreetly Digital, Erotic Novel Sets American Women Abuzz." New York Times 9 March 2012. .
Graham 10 Bosman, Julie. "Libraries Debate Stocking ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ Trilogy." New York Times 21 May 2012. . Cassuto, Leonard. "Beyond 'Peyton Place'." Chronicle of Higher Education 11 August 2006: B11. . Daybert, Amy. "How your libraries pick their books." The Herald 17 June 2012. . Grey, Jennifer . "Review: Why the sensation over 'Fifty Shades of Grey'?" The Florida Times Union 31 May 2012. . Hartford County Public Library. "Harford County Public Library Materials Selection Policy." Revised 13 May 1999. HCPLonline.org. 15 June 2012. . —. Search Page. n.d. . Hastler, Mary. "Harford County Library did not censor 'Fifty Shades of Grey'." 6 June 2012. Baltimore Sun.com. . Jones, Barbara M. . "Controversy in Fifty Shades of Grey." 15 May 2012. American Libraries Association Magazine. . McCauley, Mary Carole. "Harford County libraries won't stock 'Fifty Shades of Grey' and sequels." 30 May 2012. Baltimore Sun.com. .
Graham 11 Moellendick, Cora McAndrews. "Libraries, Censors, and Self-Censorship." PNLA Quarterly 73.4 (2009): 68-76. . New York Public Library Association. "SSL Advocacy: Crisis Toolkit." n.d. Sefl Censorship: Take the Test! . Thurlow, Chloe. "Porn v Erotica." 24 January 2011. Goodreads. . Truax, Tammi . "Revisiting Peyton Place." UNH Magazine Online Winter 2011. . WiISN TV-Milwaukee. "Some Wisconsin public libraries pull '50 Shades of Grey'." 10 May 2012. .