Wednesday, September 24, 2014

50 Shades of Grey - by E L James

Coming in at number four on the list of most frequently challenged books of 2013 James' books have caused quite a bit of controversy for its theme of sexual bondage and domination. Most works that show up on the New York Times bestseller list will be purchased by public libraries without any librarians reading them first to determine if they are good enough. If there is a clear demand, they are purchased. There is no doubt about the demand for the "50 Shades" trilogy (which also includes 50 Shades Darker, and 50 Shades Freed). The question is why are some libraries refusing to purchase it? Some question the "literary merits" of the book. I agree that those merits are questionable, but do libraries really apply those standards to all of their purchases? One could also rightly question the literary merit of Stephen King, or Danielle Steele. Others have stood behind their "no erotica" policy. I agree that collection development policies are important and should be used to make purchasing decisions, but here I question who is deciding what constitutes erotica. Do these libraries not carry any bodice-ripping romances? Or do those get a pass simply because they are classified under the genre of "romance" rather than "erotica"? As a little test, I checked the Gwinnet County (GA) Public Library catalog for Pamela Morsi's Love Overdue (which includes at least two sexually explicit scenes). And indeed, I discovered that this Harlequin Romance is in the catalog, but the Library is apparently steadfast in its refusal to order 50 Shades. 

Personally, I was prepared to never read 50 Shades myself, but when I saw it on the banned books list I felt that I should (strictly as an academic exercise, of course). I discovered that the book's narrator, Anastasia Steele (Ana), not only loved books, but that she also claimed to not like being in crowds and "prefer[red] her own company reading a classic British novel, curled up in a chair in the campus library." She also makes a passing reference, while interviewing for an internship at a publishing house, to the fact that she worked in the library as a student at Washington State University. This revelation comes late in the book, and is so subtle one might not even notice it unless one is specifically looking for the word "library" (or its variations) while reading. For those of us who were looking for such connections, it suddenly turned Ana into the trope of the stuck-up-virgin-librarian-who-just-needs-to-let-her-hair-down. It did make me wonder, also, why she had to ask Christian Grey where she should do research about his "alternative lifestyle". He simply tells her to start with Wikipedia. Really? She couldn't come up with that on her own? Are we left to believe that a graduate of WSU, who worked in the library no less, doesn't know where to begin doing basic research?

Ultimately, I saw this book as a strange mash-up of Twilight and Nine and a Half Weeks.

Read more about some of the libraries that have banned this book here. 

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