Fifty Shades of Unsurprised

I was waiting for it to happen ever since it entered the pop culture mainstream and so it has finally come to pass:

Florida Library Removes ‘Fifty Shades of Grey,’ Erotic Trilogy, From Shelves

The Brevard County Public Library system in east central Florida has pulled copies of the books from its shelves after officials decided they were not suitable for public circulation.

“We view this as pornographic material,” Don Walker, a spokesman for the Brevard County government, said in an interview on Friday. “I have not read ‘Fifty Shades of Grey,’ but I’ve read reviews of ‘Fifty Shades of Grey.’ From what I understand, it’s a lot about male dominance and female submissiveness.”

Brevard public libraries ban bestselling book over sexually explicit content

The Brevard County Library director decided to take it off the shelves of the county’s 19 library branches.

They originally had bought 17 copies of the trilogy.

But after ready reviews, they decided the book didn’t belong in their collection.

“Well the criteria is we don’t put pornography on our bookshelves and that’s in general right now what the tone of this book is,” said Brevard Co. Government Communications Director Don Walker. “I mean if you read any of the reviews, they’re saying that it’s a book that’s based largely on male dominance, female submissiveness, soft porn. I’ve heard it described as mommy porn.”

Fond du Lac Public Library says ‘no’ to controversial bestseller

The best-selling book “Fifty Shades of Grey” will not be found on the shelves at Fond du Lac Public Library.

Library Director Ken Hall said there were no plans to purchase the controversial book, which delves into romance and sadomasochism.

“‘We don’t collect erotica’,” Hall said he was told by the person who orders books for the library — and he supports the decision.

Fond du Lac Library Declines to Buy Controversial Bestseller

Public Library officials are explaining their decision not to purchase a popular, yet controversial, romance novel. ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ is a New York Times best selling book and will soon become a major motion picture.

The novel also contains a lot of sex. One book reviewer even dubbed it “mommy porn.”

“We have to take a look at the work as a whole,” FDL Public Library Director Ken Hall said. “What is in the book other than salacious material? So far, we haven’t found anything in it(other than salacious material).”

Based on anecdotes I’ve heard from librarians over the last couple of years, this whole situation sounds like a replay of the Madonna “Sex” book controversy from the 1990’s. Some libraries won’t order it, some will find the book being challenged (both successfully and unsuccessfully), some libraries circulate it and then realize what they’ve done and pull it (opening themselves up to another kind of controversy), and the rest libraries will just treat it like any other material. Over the next year or so, there will be a steady output of librarian based intellectual freedom naval gazing in which the objective and theoretical principles of collection development will square off against the on-the-ground reality of local collection policies and community needs. The tension between the two viewpoints will rise but not resolve itself.

Lather, rinse, and repeat as each successive book comes out in this trilogy. We’re in for a couple of iterations of this issue.

Personally, this sort of controversy brings up the question, “How is this book different than anything else in your average romance section?” Apparently, based on quote above from FDL Director Ken Hall, the difference between Fifty Shades and those other romance books is that the latter actually have something called a plot.  So long as Jane is trying to find her place in publishing world or Bob is trying to overcome the death of his wife, they can get all the nookie they want. But if I was to cut out all of the plot elements and just palce the erotic scenes run back to back, it would be potentially unacceptable for inclusion. I’m glad to know there is such a fine distinction between romance and smut.

In any case, I feel that Banned Books week should be paired with “National Update Your Collection and Challenge Material Policies Because You Probably Need To (No, Seriously, Do It)” week. While Fond du Lac can point to a policy in place, Brevard just looks incompetent by adding the book to the collection and then unilaterally removing it based on reviews (the same reviews available to anyone with an internet connection). I have a feeling that there is more to the Brevard decision since the quotes from officials down there don’t pass the smell test for me, but that’s something for time to tell.

My prediction is that, in ten years time, this will be another fabulous footnote in some library science textbook on intellectual freedom. What do you think?

UPDATE: The lovely and awesome people of Twitter have pointed out a post on Heroes and Heartbreakers linking to a search of the Brevard County Libraries catalog showing books that are erotically on par or even more explicit than Fifty Shades of Grey. In responding to my post on Twitter,  Robin Bradford and glossaria note that library carries authors such as Zane (specifically The Sisters of APF: “the indoctrination of soro ride dick”), Lora Leigh (“known (specifically) for her hot anal sex scenes”), Anne Rice/Roqualaure (Sleeping Beauty trilogy), Anais Nin (including Delta of Venus), and Joey Hill. This does beg the question as to whether this removal is more about this particular book than erotic literature collection in general.

(h/t to Robin and glossaria for sharing their expertise!)

UPDATE: Sarah Mae Harper shared a link to this story on the Brevard Library System book removal. Pull quote:

While the naughty novel doesn’t check out with local library officials, a quick look at the Brevard system’s online catalogue reveals a solid stash of some of the most erotic and enduring literature.

Copies of “The Complete Kama Sutra” are available through the Cocoa Beach, Mims/Scottsmoor, Palm Bay and Titusville branches. Also up for grabs countywide: “Fanny Hill,” “Lady Chatterley’s Lover,” “Fear of Flying,” “Tropic of Cancer” and “Lolita.”

So what makes “Fifty Shades of Grey” different?

“I think because those other books were written years ago and became classics because of the quality of the writing,” Schweinsberg said. “This is not a classic.”

(Thanks Sarah!)

22 thoughts on “Fifty Shades of Unsurprised

  1. I’d call it Fifty Shades of Boring. And I agree with you. The hoopla over this book is ridiculous. It’s not groundbreaking–it’s been done before and by better authors. As for why it has struck such a chord…I don’t know. I do know that I am part of the target group–a 50-year-old suburban woman. And my book group picked this book, much to my chagrin, for our April selection. Not that I have any objection to the book itself–read it, don’t read it, whatever. But I wasn’t exactly excited about discussing the “plot” in a group setting. But any objections based on a perception of male dominance are largely misplaced, in my opinion. Any woman who agrees to this sort of consensual arrangement (however fictional) is completely in control. But that determination is subjective, too. Just like any determination about the merits of this book. And I don’t think that sort of determination is necessarily in the purview of libraries or librarians.

    • To argue in another direction, it could be said that it does fall into the purview of librarians. The close identity to books and reader’s advisory services puts the profession in the position to make determinations about literature; specifically, what to get and what to keep. We cannot renounce our expertise in favor of saying that it is a subjective measurement for the community to decide on. Either we are literature experts who can make recommendations or we aren’t.

      • But as “literature experts who can make recommendations” we do include material in our collections that does not necessarily have much merit but isn’t controversial and therefore widely viewed as acceptable. And I don’t think we are recommending everything in our collections. We are providing access. I know there’s a fine line to be drawn. But I suspect that some of the libraries that are not going to collect the book have other books with similar content in their collections that simply don’t have the notoriety (and risk of protest) that this book has garnered. Not saying the solution is simple or should be the same for every library.

  2. I just find it curious that in all the stories you quoted above, no one mentions having read it themselves. Isn’t that the cornerstone of any material reconsideration policy? It is in my school. (Not that I would buy this for a school… ;) It’s just hard to evaluate a material that is controversial without having actually READ it. But that’s usually the story, isn’t it? Austin Public Library was rocked by the Madonna book controversy, and I do think you are right…this is just the latest flavor of the same debate. The important thing, I believe, for any community is to, as you mention, have a process and procedure and then following it.

    • Material reconsideration doesn’t require reading the book in question when the decision has been made to pull it; it would make more sense if they were on the fence about whether to keep it or not. If you’re going to pull it from circulation, why bother reading it? The mention of reviews is rather amusing to me (in that awful way) because it sounds like they just discovered what the hubbub was.

      I do believe it is a matter of having policies in place so as to justify getting or not getting a particular title. Although, that is still a dangerous area since libraries still cannot purchase everything. In this cynical age, would you believe a library that says it is tapped out for purchasing titles? Probably, but that is in the absence of inside knowledge as to their budgeting and collection development, it can be a reasonable explanation. It’s still such a tough area.

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  4. To clarify, most school policies require that if a book is challenged, it stays on the shelf until a committee reconsiders it. As part of the committee, staff/parents/student read it and recommend whether or not to keep it. That policy isn’t always followed when staff is withdrawing something from within the library(although it should be), but the point is that those concerned actually read it and make the determination before pulling it. The book gets “due process” so to speak ;)

  5. So very, very amusing; I even wrote a paper about this double-standard for a class in my master’s program. Anyone familiar with the romance genre can easily point out some really raunchy titles on the shelves of your local library, so it has nothing to do with local “moral standards” or whatever the nutcases are calling it this year. It has to do with *control*, with dictating what/when/why a library will carry certain titles but not others. So, I suppose it is a battle that will never really end.

  6. I was surprised that libraries were pulling the title. I was maybe expecting a challenge or something of the sort. For libraries to pull this without any kind of challenge or input from the public first is very surprising. It definitely demonstrates a lack of understanding of one’s own collection. Good fodder for your ALA initiative.

  7. I am completely opposed to book banning and I have not read this book, although I’ve been hearing about nothing but this book all week.It sounds degrading to women and of no intrinsic social value, but I think that each person must decide whether or not to read it. I agree that libraries need to make their collection development policies absolutely clear. As a Floridian, I am not surprised that Brevard stocked the book then pulled it, like a hanging chad.

  8. Another consideration that hasn’t been mentioned so far, is that some public libraries don’t have the option to buy 50 Shades of Grey, not because they are afraid of controversy or challenges, or due to censorship, but simply because they don’t have the means to purchase independent self-published titles. For those libraries, if a title, any title, isn’t available through the larger publishing distributors, it isn’t an option to add it to their collections.

  9. Oh good grief. We bought the silly book and will keep it. It is is boring. When someone asked me what I thought I told her we had a lot better dirty books than that if she was interested. But to not buy it. That’s absurd.

  10. I haven’t read the book, and it doesn’t sound like my cup of tea, but is it really necessary to pull it. I was at our local library just this past weekend looking through the graphic novels to find something for my son and I came across one that was quite lewd. I was a bit offended that it was in the section where my kids could see it, but I would never suggest to ban a book. Can’t they just mark it in their database for over age 18?

    • Some libraries have a policy in place where only those who are 17 and older can borrow R rated movies. However, when it comes to books, it’s a bit harder to grade and certainly something that doesn’t have much of a history of attempting. My fear for that kind of solution is an eruption of battles of people trying to get books marked as 18 and older which can be a complete distraction to the mission of a library. My library’s catalog system doesn’t allow for such tagging, but I’m sure it’s possible. Whether we should do it or not is another question.

      • That’s where parents come in to play. If a parent really cares about what their children read, then they should supervise what they check out.

  11. So, a brief look at Fond du Lac and Brevard County shows that both own Lora Leigh’s books which are definitely erotic. Also, Fond du Lac has 50 shades of Grey as an ebook. So, they only collect e-erotica? I also see Vox by Nicholson Baker at Brevard. So, I guess I think their reasoning doesn’t really hold up under scrutiny.

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