Shades of Erotic Fascination

E. L. James

Feminists and religious conservatives may not like this, but sex sells.  That’s certainly evident with E. L. James’ “Fifty Shades” erotica trilogy, which is selling faster than expected.  Book suppliers and libraries are having a tough time keeping pace with it.  Even its British author has been surprised by the popularity.  Last month Vintage Books, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, released “Fifty Shades” in paperback.

“Fifty Shades of Grey” has become the most popular book in library circulation, with more holds than anyone can recall for a single title.  The Hennepin County Public Library, which includes Minneapolis, had 2,121 holds as of May 18.  The books tell the tale of a dominant-submissive affair between a manipulative millionaire and a naïve younger woman.  And, while some libraries such as Hennepin County feel the need to make it available to the public, others have no qualms in pulling it from their shelves.  The Brevard County Library in Florida did just that recently, deeming its subject matter inappropriate for public consumption.  As if adults can’t figure out what’s appropriate for themselves, Don Walker, a spokesman for the Brevard County government, said, “We have criteria that we use, and in this case we view this as pornographic material.”

In Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, the library didn’t order copies, saying the books didn’t meet the standards of the community.  In Georgia the Gwinnett County Public Library, near Atlanta, declined to make the books available in its 15 branches, saying that the trilogy’s graphic writing violated its no-erotica policy.

Last week several organizations, including the National Coalition Against Censorship, sent a letter to the library board in Brevard County scolding it for refusing to stock the book alongside standards like “Tropic of Cancer” or “Fear of Flying.”

“There is no rational basis to provide access to erotic novels like these, and at the same time exclude contemporary fiction with similar content,” the letter said.  “The very act of rejecting erotica as a category suitable for public libraries sends an unmistakable message of condemnation that is moralistic in tone, and totally inappropriate in a public institution dedicated to serving the needs and interests of all members of the community.”

Joan Bertin, the executive director of the National Coalition Against Censorship, said in an interview that it was unusual for a library to remove a book from its section for adults.  “The vast majority of cases that we deal with have to do with removing books to keep kids from seeing them,” she said.  “That’s what makes this so egregious.  There are some possible arguments for trying to keep kids away from certain kinds of content, but in the case of adults, other than the restrictions on obscenity and child pornography, there’s simply no excuse.  This is really very much against the norms in the profession.”

Marcee Challener, the manager of materials and circulation services for the Tampa-Hillsborough County Public Libraries, said that library officials there carefully considered the book before ordering it, but ultimately decided that it was no different from one of the paranormal romances featuring vampires that have been popular for years.

“There’s sex and eroticism in many well-written literary novels,” she said.  “It’s part of the human experience.”

Indeed, it is, and censorship of any kind is antithetical to the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees free speech and a free press.  As a writer, however, I’m still amazed that some self-appointed moral authoritarians feel the need to determine what’s in my best interest.  I don’t care for any religious texts, such as the Christian Bible or Jewish Torah.  But, I would never prevent anyone from reading them if they wanted. For your own enjoyment, you can check out the “Fifty Shades” series here.

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