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The Real Question: Is it Porn?

The biggest news hitting the library world last week, at least as far as I could tell from the headlines, was the book Fifty Shades of Grey being pulled from a Florida county library system for being too pornographic. It must have been big news, because even the New York Times covered it.

The only response from the ALA I saw was a tweet from the OIF announcing the action, but I’m sure they’re preparing a public condemnation of the Florida librarians who made the decision.

Then again, maybe they won’t. If a library patron challenges a porn book in the library, librarians are supposed to fight them off with torches and pitchforks. But if a librarian chooses to remove a book based on a no-porn policy, then maybe that’s okay. Aren’t librarians supposed to choose what books to have in the library?

The comments on the Times article were interesting for what the bad arguments they make for keeping the book in a library. For example:

I don’t see how the library can ban this book? We are not in the early 1900′s anymore, it is the number one book for a reason. If this book isn’t mainstream, what is? Is this library funded by private donations or from local community taxes? The fact that he hasn’t read the book before judging it, is harsh…. If you are not into this kind of book, that is your right, but it shouldn’t be banned from other people. Libraries need to be very careful, because with the new e-readers and internet, they need to keep evolving with society.

That last sentence is in response to a questionable claim from a “spokesman” for the county government, not the library. “We view this as pornographic material,” he said, before adding, “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.”

The commenter thinks it’s problematic because the spokesman hadn’t read the book before judging it. Since the spokesman didn’t make the decision, that doesn’t really matter. I find it more questionable that there was a man who had a book he thought was porn and didn’t read it.

What are we to make about the claim that “We are not in the early 1900′s anymore”? Yes, that’s true. We’re not. So now libraries should be buying porn?

Or, “it is the number one book for a reason.” Yes, the reason is that a couple million people have bought a copy. Do you know what’s a LOT more popular than that book? Internet porn! But libraries don’t set up porn viewing booths, despite the fact these would probably bring a lot more people into the library, which is supposedly the main goal of librarians these days.

“If this book isn’t mainstream, what is?” Books are never mainstream. 300 million Americans, 3 million copies of the book sold. Do the math. But you know what is? According to this article from Forbes, which I found with the extensive research of a Google “I Feel Lucky” search, the website Pornhub gets 16 million hits a month, and the most popular porn site, livejasmin.com, gets 32 million hits a month.

32 million hits a month? Now that’s mainstream. Face it, porn is mainstream, but that doesn’t mean people want their libraries buying it. Being popular and part of the mainstream in itself isn’t an argument for a library to buy a book.

“If you are not into this kind of book, that is your right, but it shouldn’t be banned from other people.” Ahh, now I hear the familiar bad arguments often mouthed by the ALA. Since apparently this book is available just about everywhere that has books except this one county library system in Florida, I’m pretty sure it’s not “banned from other people.” In fact, it’s free on the Internet, and took me all of 30 seconds to find a bootleg copy. No book that popular can ever really be banned.

“Libraries need to be very careful, because with the new e-readers and internet, they need to keep evolving with society.” Huh? This comment is the most confused of the bunch, because it mixes evolving technology and evolving morals together. Libraries are evolving to new reading technology as fast as publishers will let them, which isn’t very fast. But what does that have to do with stocking porn books in the library?

Supposedly there are other similar books in the library system, such as the Kama Sutra, Tropic of Cancer, Lolita, and Lady Chatterly’s Lover. The county spokesman says these are okay because they’re part of the “societal mainstream,” and everyone pounced on that comment, using its popularity to show it was part of the societal mainstream, and thus should be included in the library.

But it was a stupid comment, because none of those books are really part of the “societal mainstream.” How many people have really read Tropic of Cancer in the last 40 years? Has anyone who wasn’t assigned the book to read in school ever managed to make it through Lady Chatterly’s Lover? And the Kama Sutra is only sexy if you have someone with you trying out the suggestions, and even then it’s often more laughable than sexual.

In the article from Florida, the librarian gave a different response to the question.

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.”

Would anyone be willing to say Fifty Shades of Grey was a classic? One could respond that libraries buy mostly non-classics. On the other hand, most of those instant non-classics aren’t porn.

Regardless, none of those books are similar to Fifty Shades as far as I can tell. The most similar porn “classic” would have to be The Story of O, which the county library also doesn’t stock, probably because it’s BDSM porn.

The only real question is whether or not Fifty Shades is porn, but that’s the one avoided by talk of “the mainstream.” Is it porn, and do you think libraries should be buying porn books? Those are the questions to debate. Anything else is just a red herring.

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Comments

  1. pt frawley says:

    Reminds me of the “street lit” debate.

  2. Jane says:

    It’s not porn. It’s no racier than 99% of romance novels I’ve read, which you can find in spades at almost any public library. My library has a decent erotica collection, too. I check them out, patrons check them out, they’re not shelved in the children’s room; I don’t see what the problem is.

    I also wonder about confusing erotica with visual porn – they seem like very different products to me and I’m guessing would present very different reactions if the “wrong” patron stumbled upon them accidentally.

  3. Andrew says:

    Can anybody buy it from a bookstore?

    Yes.

    Is it popular fiction?

    Yes.

    Does it have a restricted rating?

    No.

    Is the content questionable?

    Maybe, but that doesn’t matter. It’s legal for anybody to read, and it’s in high demand. Just do your job, librarians, and put it on the shelf.

    • not a hipster librarian says:

      I wonder if mainstream booksellers are having the same debate? I doubt they care.

  4. Bad Everything says:

    32 million hits is from ALL internet users, not simply Americans.

    32 million hits, 7 billion people on the planet = 0.0045
    300 million Americans, 3 million copies sold = 0.01

    Shades of Grey > Internet porn

    “In fact, it’s free on the Internet, and took me all of 30 seconds to find a bootleg copy.”

    If you can’t find it at the library, are you saying that you should download it? Piracy is not the answer either.

  5. Annie says:

    They don’t stock porn. But do they have a romance section? Anything with a ripped bodice?

  6. Incogneato says:

    Enter the guy from Safe Libraries in 3, 2, …

  7. Nicole says:

    The line between romance novels and erotic fiction has blurred quite a bit. The sex in romances is graphic, some of it probably has some bdsm but they aren’t marketed that way. Are people just pearl clutching because of fiction that actively markets as erotic fiction?

  8. Michelle Sellars says:

    Wonder if they let you get it through ILL.

    • Joneser says:

      No, the owning libraries probably have huge hold lists.

    • Diane Briel says:

      My Florida county system does not allow ILL holds on items published in the current year, so that’s not an option

  9. me says:

    If this is porn than most romance novels are porn.

  10. this is what happens when Oprah goes off the air. the people who read this are the ones who needed Oprah to tell them what to read, so now they’re just reading whatever someone else says to read. Oprah, we forgive you for James Frey. come back and make all this crappy “literature” go away.

  11. Sandy Thatcher says:

    Hmm, “male dominance and female submissiveness”? Isn’t much of the Bible about that. So does that make the Bible pornographic?

    • thelibrarina says:

      The difference is, in Fifty Shades of Grey the uneven power dynamic is actually consensual.

    • elend says:

      Actually, no. In the Bible men and women are shown to have different roles of equal importance, but from time to time when men fail to do their job and if women happen not to be as weak as them then women would step up to take care of things. We see this most prominently with Devora in the book of Judges. She is a prophet and national leader, but urges her husband to lead the troops in battle because that’s the job of a man. He refuses and wants her to lead so she agrees to go with him, and as punishment proclaims that all the honors for that battle will fall to women because a man refused to lead and insisted a woman should lead.

  12. So many news articles are talking about the Florida library and other libraries “banning” the pornography book. The book is not banned. The last book banning in the USA occurred about half a century ago (Fanny Hill).

    In the instant case, the library simply applied library policy and found the book should not have been selected in the first place. As a result it was removed from the library’s collection. It was not banned.

    Now think about all the other false claims of book “banning.” When they shout about book “banning” should people want to keep sexually inappropriate material from children in public schools, keep in mind they also think it is book “banning” to keep pornography that does not meet the library’s selection policy out of the public library.

    And the media headlines that buy the “banning” bull so easily only mislead the readers.

    FYI, here is my post and a large list of articles, including from the Annoyed Librarian, on the American Library Association’s “Banned Books Week” hoax: http://tinyurl.com/Sowell

    • me says:

      The reason they are considering this a “banning” is that it is a popular bestseller that they would normally buy. They wouldn’t avoid purchasing the newest James Patterson or other bestseller would they?

    • Josh says:

      Apparently you don’t understand what the word “banned” means, just like the AL does not understand what the words “censor” and “censorship” mean.

      Ban means to “officially or legally prohibit”.

      “Fifty Shades of Grey” has quite clearly been officially banned from the library system’s collection.

      Just because it’s not banned nation-wide or state-wide doesn’t mean it’s not banned. It is banned. Just not in a way that really matters. Or in a way that deserves national attention.

      Get it?

    • Shell says:

      ACTUALLY, Josh, it isn’t being banned. What is happening here is that the libraries have a policy against erotica. The book is billed as erotica by the author herself. If the author calls it erotica and the library just has a policy not to stock erotica, then yes, it is outside the library’s scope (read: not “banned”). If you want to get mad at a library for not wanting to carry erotica, go ahead, but don’t ride this BS wave of “omg the libraries are banning this book, waaaah” to say that. Just man up and say, “we want porn to be allowed in the library.” Then at least you’d be respectable.

    • Josh says:

      Shell, to have an official policy prohibiting a certain type of material means that the library in question is banning it. See the definition of “ban” above, or in any dictionary.

      If the library determined that books written by black authors or Chinese authors were outside of the collection’s “scope” and then removed them from the shelves, most people would say those authors have been banned.

      I’m not mad 50 Shades is banned at this particular library system. And I do not support pornography in library systems.

      The only wave I’m currently riding is the wave of people who cringe when others re-define words like “ban” because they are too intellectually sloppy to make a proper argument.

    • KatyBee says:

      Josh wrote ““Fifty Shades of Grey” has quite clearly been officially banned from the library system’s collection.”

      What you’re describing could just as easily be written off as “collection development”. Does that make any exclusion of material against a collection development criteria that could possibly be seen as politically motivated a “ban” and thus censorship?

    • elend says:

      There is a difference between a library not providing a book to its patrons and a library prohibiting any presence of that book on its premises. The first isn’t a ban, the second is. As long as patrons are allowed to bring their own copy into the library and read it there then the book isn’t banned.

  13. Joneser says:

    There are 150+ requests at my library, most from frequent patrons. I don’t even want to think about the taxpayer revolt if we were to not have it.

    • KatyBee says:

      Seriously? I would be embarrassed to be a part of any group demanding “We must have our mainstream Mommy Porn!”

  14. Regina says:

    I looked up the catalog for this library system and found far worse “porn” books in their catalog. They own The Erotic adventures of Sleeping Beauty which is far more graphic in contents then the 50 Shades series. I think before pulling them they should have honestly looked into their collection before they stated this does not have a place on their shelf. I typed in “erotic” and had 298 hits.

    A public library is for the community. The citizens should have a say over what goes into their library.

  15. teetop says:

    I’m with Jane. Collections of words, organized to construct ideas and convey meaning, require effort and intention on the part of the reader to decode and process. Sticks and Stones will break your bones, but words in a book are easy to ignore. Photographs and pictures, unlike words, more or less confront whoever is viewing them regardless of their intention to do so. That’s why viewing porn on a screen in public is a behavior issue that should be regulated, while viewing most of the same material in the privacy of your own home or an adult bookstore is not.

  16. “‘50 Shades of Grey’ Speed Read: 14 Naughtiest Bits,” by Lizzie Crocker, The Daily Beast, 16 April 2012:
    http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2012/04/16/50-shades-of-grey-speed-read-14-naughtiest-bits.html

  17. MB says:

    When I was growing up in the 1980s, I read every Jackie Collins novel from my public library. I remember them being pretty racy. I have not read the novel in question, but I am guessing it is along the lines of other romance novels such as Collins’.

  18. GetAClue says:

    32 million hits a month? Now that’s mainstream.

    No. That’s just a few thousand really lonely guys. :D

  19. dan cawley says:

    i’ve never heard of pornography on the internet. is this something new?

  20. Cut Both Ways says:

    Two adults having consensual sex? Stop the presses!

  21. Paigers says:

    There’s better erotic fanfiction on the Internet for free.

  22. I believe we all have to take a collective breath, now let it out…slowly, slowly. Good. This is not porn, it is sexually explicit and for adults only (really, what kid would want to read it anyway). I just finished reading the The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo – Yes I Know a day late and a dollar short. Without giving it away, there are several coerced sex scenes, two bruttal rape scenes, incest, and agood bit of plain old healty fun sex. I don’t recall any uproar to ban this book.

  23. If the public wants it, we get it.

    Art and Literature is a reflection of the society at the time.
    I purchased “The Baroque World of Fernando Botero” which had very explicit imagery of Abu Gharib. No on has complained.

  24. Shell says:

    The libraries aren’t banning the books because they don’t like it. They are taking it out of the system because it doesn’t meet the scope of the library. The libraries specifically don’t stock erotica because their patrons/tax payers have had major fights about it in the past. It is the library’s right to not stock erotica, and if you have a problem with that, deal with that problem.

    To say that 50 Shades is not erotica would actually be opposing what it was written as. It was specifically intended to BE erotica and it is the main purpose of the story.

    Honestly, I’d be a lot angrier if libraries refused to stock all books with sex in it. Do you really want this to be an all or nothing situation? Don’t point fingers at other books that include sex as an addition to the plot as an excuse to stock books where the point is to write as racy sex scenes as possible.

    Any yeah, maybe the sex scenes in 50 Shades are bland or vanilla or badly written, maybe there are better sex scenes in other books, but those other books were not released as erotica. 50 Shades WAS released as erotica. If you really want to complain about libraries not stocking it on the basis that it is erotica, then get mad at the publishers for calling it that, because they’re the ones to blame.