Fifty Shades of Grey, Erotica, & Censorship

Unless you’re living under a rock you’ve surely heard of the latest splash of erotica sweeping the nation: Fifty Shades of Grey, a novel (the first in a trilogy) that explores, among other things, a BDSM relationship. Interestingly, despite the book’s massive success and popularity, many libraries are choosing to not purchase the book, while others have purchased it but then taken it off their shelves. This has sparked a debate about what constitutes literature, erotica, and censorship all over the country.

Many proponents of the book argue that libraries who refuse to buy it are “banning” it and librarians who snub it are guilty of “censorship.” However, many people forget that libraries acquire books according to a carefully written Collection Development Policy that outlines which books they will allocate resources to. Libraries cannot and do not acquire every new book. And their collection development policies, which usually include some provisions for cultivating a variety of subject areas, hardly dictate that they represent every distinguishable idea and topic. When librarians choose how to spend their resources, they are making a decision about what ideas, values, and authors will be represented in their collection.

When done appropriately, this everyday action of many librarians can hardly be characterized as “censorship.” And unless a library has put out a press release saying that they will not ever acquire a book that, regardless, fits their collection development policy, it has not “banned” a book. As a librarian, when in doubt, cite the policy; if you are backed up by the policy, you are doing a good job. If there is no policy backing you up, you need to check your ethics and level of bias.

Where many libraries and librarians are getting into a troublesome grey area (BAZINGA!) is when they cite policy but they are easily contradicted. For instance, a Maryland library that refused to buy the books cited policy. “[I] looked at our [selection] policy and it’s clear that we don’t buy pornography for the library,” said the library system director, Mary Hastler. However, the book’s publisher and many others have labeled Fifty Shades of Grey “erotica,” not “pornography.” Additionally, an intrepid editorial writer points out that the library catalog contains numerous “bodice-rippers” and erotic novels, which have apparently escaped the “pornography” label. Hence, considering the popularity of the Grey trilogy, it would seem unusual and even suspect that it would not be acquired by the library.

These recent stories of “censorship” and “pornography in our libraries” have me somewhat torn. On the one hand, I think people should be more aware of what a collection policy is, how it is carried out when purchasing books, and what they can do to change or amend their library’s if they don’t like it. I think people should be careful to instantly cry “censorship!” and instead see collection development for the multifaceted process that it is. But on the other hand, I think it is ridiculous for sanctimonious and judgmental “librarians” (if they even still deserve the title) to blindly cite policy and not acquire a novel based on nothing but narrow-mindedness and an aversion for erotica that isn’t a “classic.”

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