50 Shades of What? The Great Library Circ Desk Fiasco of 2012

by | Jun 1, 2012 | Book Publishing | 27 comments

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Deadline: Thursday, December 22nd

50ShadesOfGreyBy now, you’ve probably heard rumblings (or perhaps we should say roarings) about the BDSM erotica trilogy, 50 Shades of Grey, by E L James.

The story line of 50 Shades of Grey might be a little light on plot (and heavy on whips and handcuffs). But the story of the book itself is riveting.

Here’s how the book originated, according to Wikipedia:

The Fifty Shades trilogy was developed from a Twilight fanfiction originally titled Master of the Universe and published episodically on fanfiction websites under the penname “Snowqueens Icedragon.” The piece featured characters named after Stephenie Meyer’s characters in Twilight, Edward Cullen and Bella Swan.

Now, everyone’s reading the book—some with joy, some with groans over prose that’s been called “clunky,” among other things.

50 Shades of Grey found a home at a small press, then exploded into the public eye. Now, Random House is distributing it. Over 10 million copies and  movie rights have been sold. People are going all weak in the knees over its troubled, twisted hero and its, um, accommodating heroine.

Yet, in spite of the book’s popularity, some libraries are refusing to stock it. And the arguments over whether or not the book should sit on library shelves are reminiscent of old-timey hullabaloo over the great banned books of literature.

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Here’s what the New York Times tells us about one big problem that 50 Shades is stirring up.

Despite his assessment that the works are “of mixed literary merit,” Tim Cole, the collections manager for the Greensboro Public Library in North Carolina, explains his decision to stock 21 copies: “This is the Lady Chatterley’s Lover of 2012. Demand is a big issue with us, because we want to be able to provide popular best-selling material to our patrons.”

Bucking the trend, Ken Hall, library director in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, commented on responses to his decision not to stock the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy by E L James (on the basis of perceived lack of literary or artistic merit): “With this type of book, we will get somebody questioning our decision no matter what decision we make. We live in an age where people don’t like to talk about gray areas. No pun intended.”

From where we stand, the gray areas surrounding 50 Shades are more than gray: They’re a black hole. This underdog novel may come to affect the industry for years to come.

Libraries have increasingly small budgets for books: Should they stock the texts the people need? Or the ones they want?

And is it a librarian’s job to determine what gives a book its merit (or lack there of)? Or is the entire debate just the effect of trickle-down Puritanism about behind-the-bedroom-door behaviors?

Writer QuestionsQUESTION: Should libraries stock a book like 50 Shades of Grey? Or should librarians not stock books that they feel are without literary merit? 

27 Comments

  1. Pola

    As Mark Twain once said: “Censorship is telling a man he can’t have a steak just because a baby can’t chew it.” Why should libraries decided what ADULTS can and cannot read?

    With that said, this book has become such a guilty pleasure of mine (no pun intended). Although I’ve found myself a bit frustrated at times with the writing, somehow the story is so compelling – and I’m not even a ‘Twilight’ fan. (Also, Christian Grey has become my new literary crush. =P)

    Reply
  2. Alexa

    Although I would never touch this book, even with a fifty foot pole, I don’t think libraries should have a say over what someone can or cannot read. What gives them the power to stock books that are “readable;” it just aggrivates me.

    Reply
  3. Fantasia

    It’s a popular book that people want to read. If it’s in demand, it should be at the library. Period.

    Reply
  4. Lesley

    I have read all three bks in the trilogy and I absolutely loved them! It is not up to a library what its patrons, who pay for access with their taxes, should or should not read. If someone asks for it, it should be provided. Yes, the book is full of BDSM but the characters and why they are the way they are is really what the bks are about. This is something a reader should determine for their selves, not be dictated to. This “ban” on 50 Shades of Grey just illustrates the censorship that has taken some of our classics off of our shelves as well.

    Reply
  5. Lisa

    Any fanfiction story that can generate the kind of attention as Fifty Shades is worthy of investigation. This story had 60,000 reviews in its fan fiction days.

    Twilight was not one of the best quality reads, and the movies were not worth spending a dime to see, but Stephanie Meyer is enjoying the results of all those book sale profits. Perhaps publishing houses don’t “get” what women enjoy and these two writers do.

    Reply
  6. Maria Kaplun

    Readers will not learn to discern merit for themselves if librarians decide for them what merit is. A library’s job is to make literature accessible. I do understand that a librarian must make choices on what to stock because of budgetary issues, but personal preference in the face of widespread demand, especially if any aspect of it is veiled censorship, is not a good enough reason to keep a book off the shelves. I say, stock it — in modest numbers, if you must.

    Reply
  7. Eve (Bee) Beltane

    Stock the books people need and let people purchase the books they want, end of story.

    Reply
  8. Janine

    I have perused the book and don’t feel it is for children. Should the libraries check ages or what?

    Reply
  9. Amy

    I will not read this book, but I do think libraries should carry one copy of it. There is plenty of other erotica in the library; I’m not reading that either. Deciding to censor a book only increases interest, even from people who wouldn’t normally read this kind of book. I say put one copy on the shelf. Let people decide if they want to borrow it or not. Why order twenty copies now? If people want to read it so badly without purchasing it, let them wait two weeks while someone else reads it.

    Chances are it won’t take a fan that long to read a book with which they are so obsessed. And if it has great literary merit, it will still be popular in two months or two decades. My guess is this one will fizzle out like Bridges of Madison County. Remember the hubbub over that one? My library still has numerous copies of it on sale. Why make things more difficult for our financially fragile libraries? They are precious resources we can’t afford to lose.

    Reply
  10. Alexes

    I’m sure most libraries have at least one Anne Rice novel. Anne Rice books aren’t pure smut and (I think) she’s a much better writer, but my point is that there is plenty of other sex in other books that libraries already have. As long as libraries don’t start stocking Playboy, I think they should do what will bring people in. As long as people are reading, even if what they’re reading has questionable literary merit, then the library is fulfilling its purpose.

    Reply
  11. Mi West

    With modest numbers, I’m on the same page as Maria.

    More or less explicit (no pun intended) accusations of indecency etc. are equally frequent as writers. Milan “Le” Kundera got the pornographer label once upon a time, because he had written that peeing in a forest is a ritual whereby Man confirms he springs from mother Earth and will return into her in the future. Often, the trenches on both sides seem dug before the book is even completed…

    Reply
  12. Carol

    I read the first Fifty Shades to see what all the talk was about…I will not waste my time on the other two. The BDSM doesn’t bother me in the slightest, the complete lack of originality and story really let me down. This was better as Twilight and Pretty Woman not as Fifty Shades of Grey.

    Reply
  13. Phyllis K Twombly

    This is part of the reason that public libraries are not run by special interest groups. This book sounds like it has no appeal to me personally and I don’t wish to read it. That does not give me the ‘right’ to prevent others from choosing to read it…nor does it give anyone else the right to force me to read it.

    Libraries have adult sections so it’s not as if children will be exposed to this content by virtue (pun intended) of the book being there.

    As for the issue of writing quality, many poorly written books still end in local libraries, seemingly for no other reason than having been published.

    Reply
  14. Margaret Garside

    Libraries DON’T decide ‘what adults can read’. Declining to stock a book of dubious merit is not censorship. No one’s stopping readers from buying their own copies. I suspect cheap used ones will be easy to find for a long time to come.

    Which leads to another point. No library should buy 21 copies of anything. Demand may be high now, but next year? They might never go back and order other worthy books they didn’t buy because most of the budget went into one best-seller.

    Reply
  15. Ian

    The line “Should they stock the texts the people need? Or the ones they want?” reminds me of the oft quoted maxim that ‘we’ should write the books that people want, NOT the books that we think they need. Subtle difference that has huge impact on what sells.

    So libraries have to stock the books we want, or they’ll cease to be relevant, or even exist if they are abandoned by the masses.

    And lets be realistic, it’s only one book amongst millions 🙂

    Reply
  16. Albert J. Rothman, PhD

    I object to any action that smells of censorship in any guise. I haven’t read it—I probably will at least look at it

    Reply
  17. Angela

    People will read what they want whether it can be found in a library or not. The fact that libraries censor some books will make them all the more popular because that’s the nature
    of the beast; the more something is denied, the more it’s desired.

    Reply
  18. Amy

    Ian raises a good point. I wonder if we can go on a rabbit trail here. . .How many people here want to write a book that people want and how many want to write one that they think people need?

    Put another way. . .do you write for love or money?

    Reply
  19. Margaret Garside

    Dr. Johnson once observed that ‘no man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money’.
    I assume he was joking.

    We don’t write for either love or money-we write because that’s what we do. You can no more tell the writer from the writing than you can tell the dancer from the dance.

    As for writing the books people want vs books they need, this idea is new to me. People need cookbooks and medical guides. Avid readers need good fiction; there’s no divide at all.

    Reply
  20. A. Strous

    My public library is already buying in multiple copies of popular junk, while deleting classics and still-important nonfiction titles from its holdings. I don’t want to see this (further) established as an operating principle.

    Reply
  21. Margaret Garside

    Thanks, Pat.

    Years ago, when my financial resources were much less than they are today, I got most of my books from the library. I had to wait three years for the sole copy of ‘A Thousand Acres’ to become available. In the meantime, the library bought multiple copies of trashy best-sellers. Most of those copies ended up at the annual book sale (or Goodwill.)

    ‘A Thousand Acres’ is still there.

    Reply
  22. stephanny

    Libraries and even book stores are having more and more trouble staying open. Whethdr economy or just the fact that technology is making these services slowly die a quiet death. It coming down to the fact if libraries don’t carry popular books there just not going to be able to retain business.

    Like where I currently live we have a town library but the closest bookstore is an hour and a half away. People just don’t want to have to travel that far to look a a book or buy one. Not everyone has a computer or wants to buy via internet.

    Reply
  23. ChildFree23

    Fifty Shades Of Gray isn’t my thing. I’m not the least bit interested in BDSM. I have no plans to ever read it or its two sequels. However, other people should certainly have the right to. Libraries should stock the books. The patrons should have the right to make their own decision as to whether or not to read the Fifty Shades trilogy. As for children getting hold of the trilogy, one would think that it should be their parents’ responsibility to keep them from doing so. Wouldn’t you?

    Reply
  24. Chris

    Me personally the book is not something I would read but my wife read three books in as many days and loves them.

    Reply
  25. Daniela

    Amazing … it seems everyone is writing about this book (or books since it is a trilogy) at the moment. From the huge outfits like Huffington Post, to various blogs, websites, etc. I admit even I did on my fledgling blog (‘On fifty shades of grey’ dated 16 June). If books were not already hugely popular – they surely will be now. Nothing works better (and faster) to create popularity and thus reach masses (read: create huge profits) than ‘banning it’. Pronouncing it somehow ‘doubtful’, contrary to prevailing tastes, offensive to ‘puritans.’ Splendid strategy. Actually, the whole book or books is cleverly packaged ordinary and often repetitive prose, spiced with so called ‘forbidden pleasures’ and wow – everyone is talking about it. For that reason alone the author did well. There is however other, less obvious and probably unintended aspect of that book. Interestingly enough only very few are talking about. It is not whether or not it should be available in a public library.

    Regards,
    Daniela

    Reply
  26. karen Cane

    Banning the trilogy is somewhat amusing to me.
    These books are packaged in a plain manner, contain repetitive prose, liberally spiced with forbidden pleasures. Interestingly enough, the sexual activity is fairly tame, unless one has only practiced a puritan sex themselves.
    It should be available in public libraries…there are already far racier books stocked on the shelves.

    Reply
  27. Ernest Latta

    I found myself being somewhat surprised by the generally high caliber of the writing and opinions expressed by the respondents herein contained.
    Pornography in general and hardcore in particular is generally very poorly written and the spelling would bring tears to the eyes of anyone educated above grade two level. I don’t think ‘Grey’ will ever be listed as deathless prose and will probably never gain popularity as an adolescent’s bathroom book of choice.

    Reply

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