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Fifty Shades of Grey: Why Should We Care About a “Bad” Book?

Posted By Barbara Jones, Executive Director, Friday, November 16, 2012

Fifty Shades of Grey is not Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Unlike Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Fifty Shades will never win the National Book Award. Its author does not write with the brilliant understatement of Mark Twain. And we probably won’t ever say, as we can about To Kill a Mockingbird, that the book inspired many readers to fight for social justice. There is a wide consensus among reviewers that the book has a frustratingly repetitive style. One friend commented: "If (the heroine) bites her lip one more time, I’m going to scream.”

Nonetheless I set aside my book club’s selection, The Cairo Trilogy, by Nobel Laureate Naguib Mahfouz, to delve into this best-selling contemporary Seattle trilogy starring Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele—in an erotic romp written by E.L. James. After all, if I am asking would-be censors to "read the whole book” before making up their minds, why shouldn’t I?

The Freedom to Read Foundation will continue to resist the removal of any constitutionally protected information from libraries—regardless of its literary quality. Trust me, you will be asked this question by your friends and neighbors. They will understand your fighting for Huckleberry Finn. Fifty Shades—maybe not.

Why should free speech advocates expend time and energy on Fifty Shades of Grey?

Professional Principles. The American Library Association’s intellectual freedom policies do not include literary quality as a criterion for defending a book. Instead, libraries use such criteria as community demand and a more formal collection development process to decide what will reside on library shelves, both virtual and physical. Collection development is not censorship—it is professional selection from a vast amount of information. In the case of a school library, the curriculum will be one important selection factor, but not the only one. School librarians also focus on the interests and abilities of their particular age group because they are passionate about engaging young people in reading for pleasure as well as support of their coursework. In the case of a public library, collections are partly based on community demand. When a city library finds that 400 people have requested Fifty Shades of Grey or any other constitutionally protected information, one would hope that the library would make it available in multiple copies. Interlibrary Loan is not an option in this case because such demand will cause an unnecessary delay and reader frustration.

In an academic library the issue of scholarly quality is often a bone of contention, and rightly so. However, the "quality” argument can become a way for faculty to discourage the purchase of books from scholars with whom they disagree—people they don’t want to see get recognition or tenure. I recall the fight over Black Athena, a controversial theory of the geographical origins of human beings. Most libraries bought the book so that students could engage in the controversy, but some faculty grumbled about it. The same is true with including books on creationism in science libraries. But why not include a few? Presumably the science librarian will have plenty of books on evolution. Finally, the quality argument is often a barrier to the inclusion of scholarly work from the developing world, where editing, publishing, and research rigor sometimes differ from that in the West. As the University of Wisconsin Board of Trustees stated so long ago, part of a university’s mission is to teach students the "sifting and winnowing” process—critical thinking.

Some of the same "quality” issues plague Fifty Shades. The novel started out as "fanfic,” posted by the author to an open online archive for Twilight fans. She then published it with a small press. Many collection development policies prohibit the purchase of what is called "vanity” literature. In the age of self-publishing on the Internet, where many great ideas get their start, libraries really should rethink this policy.

Libraries also need to "get real” about their policies’ prohibition of "erotica” in the collections. Much erotica is constitutionally protected; it is not a term of law. Most libraries have what the general public would call "erotica” if they hold any books from the New York Times bestseller list, not to mention works from Nobel authors or National Book Awards.

Economic and Cultural Context.

I have been asked why a library should waste precious resources on a book to be found at most supermarket checkout racks. This gets back to the issue of public access to information in this faltering economy. For many today, buying a $15.00 book is an unaffordable luxury. That is why libraries must remain committed to the ideal of public libraries providing what their community wants and not second-guessing their taste.

I see dozens of daily commuters reading Fifty Shades. NBC Nightly News asked me to participate in a segment on the book because for better or worse, it has become part of the U.S. pop culture conversation. A carpet store in my neighborhood has a sign, "Fifteen Shades of Gray.” Newsstands boast a magazine, "Fifty

Shades of American Women Who Love the Book and Live the Life.” Why should economically marginalized people be left out of the conversation any more than they already are? (That is, if they choose to be part of this conversation!)

I believe that the quality argument is a slippery slope and a convenient excuse for avoiding controversy. As an English major and former academic, I certainly support publications based on solid research and novels with literary merit. But this attitude can lead to librarians who refuse to buy graphic novels or, in at least one case, any books lacking footnotes!

As we seek a broader membership for the Freedom to Read Foundation, let’s remember that we are defending the freedom to read—a best seller, a comic book, or Fifty Shades of Grey.

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ED: Originally published in the October 2012 issue of FTRF News.  Members receive immediate access to the newsletter in print and online formats.  Join today to get the latest news, analysis, and opinions from FTRF.

Tags:  Barbara Jones  freedom of access 

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