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
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”
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
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.
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.