From ‘Library’s shades of double standards’, 2 June 2012, ST Life!
(Dr Oh Jen Jen): While I understand the National Library Board’s reluctance to add the Fifty Shades trilogy to its catalogue, I cannot quite accept its practice of double standards (No Fifty Shades For Library, Life!, May 29).
I consider novels by Sidney Sheldon, Jackie Collins and Harold Robbins, available at public libraries here, equally, if not more, sexually explicit than E.L. James’ fluff. Another title I spotted on the shelf is Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho, which contains graphic violence and sexual content.
As already mentioned by another avid reader, Anne Rice’s Sleeping Beauty series is also easily available. Protecting young, impressionable minds from undesirable influences is important, but the above examples demonstrate the NLB’s inconsistency in its choices.
Young adult fiction is now dominated by the likes of Stephenie Meyer and Suzanne Collins. Meyer wrote Breaking Dawn, which features a childbirth scene that I found positively horrifying despite the nature of my job. Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy, on the other hand, describes a world where teenagers participate in government-sanctioned slaughter-fests, and the novel appears on the American Library Association’s list of frequently challenged books for 2010, citing ‘sexually explicit, unsuited to age group, and violence’ as reasons.
And, yes, both authors’ series are found in the National Library’s catalogue. My parents never restricted my reading choices and I believe that open dialogue and guidance are far more beneficial than an outright ban.
As a hugely popular blockbuster series that started off as Twilight fan fiction, it is unlikely that ‘young impressionable minds’ will get their hands on 50 Shades without making reservations way in advance. If the kids can’t wait to read BDSM prose in a series that brings new meaning to ‘young ADULT fiction’, or if bored housewives long to fulfill their darkest desires vicariously through a tortured ‘heroine’, they can always try their luck at Kinokuniya for a quickie browse, if not download the e-version online.
If we need some sleazy teenage prose to save the book format , get people to read on the trains instead of playing with their phones, and keep our bookstores, but more importantly the entire paperback industry, alive, then so be it. In fact, in the original Life! article, a book publisher quipped that this ban is a ‘welcome shot in the arm for struggling bookstores’. So even if the library decides to put M18 warning labels or place 50 Shades so high up on the shelves that kids can’t reach it, you will have Ye Ol’ Bookshops shouting the promo poster shamelessly behind stacks of this adolescent smut in display windows everywhere, at discounted prices if necessary, maybe bundled with some handcuffs or leather straps for good measure.
Here are other ‘classics’ which were deemed too ‘pornographic’ or offensive for our library collections:
1) Henry Miller’s Tropic of Capricorn (1938): Banned in America for almost 30 years, Tropic is an autobiography of its very horny, misogynistic author and his sexcapades in New York City, where women are described by Miller as ‘supercunts’. Another novel, Plexus, was described by a blogger reviewer as containing ‘unapologetically group sex, drunken abuse of colleagues, scatological enterprise, what may amount to rape in the modern context..’
2) DH Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928) : This literary romp-fest needs no introduction.
3) Nikos Kazantzakis’ The Last Temptation of Christ (1953 ): Adapted into a movie of the same name which was also banned for blasphemous depictions of the Lord Jesus Christ. Goes without saying that some sex is involved.
4) Judy Blume’s books: Accused of promoting underage dating and eventually sex, Judy Blume at first glance appears to be the most innocent of the lot, that is, until you read ‘Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret‘ where a tween prays to dance with the hottest boy in school ‘just once or twice’. She even has a book titled ‘Freckle Juice’, which could be mistaken for the title of a Barely Legal porn DVD series. If 50 Shades advocates hollow, brutal sex among consenting adults, then Blume’s puberty fantasies are baby steps towards ultimate debauchery.
5) Helen Bannerman’s The Story of Little Black Sambo (1899): A children’s picture book which was allowed for loan in our libraries (Book that raised storm abroad is popular in Singapore, 7 Jan 1991, ST) but, as the title suggests, slammed for racist depictions of dark-skinned people elsewhere. Do kids these days still read Noddy?
As social norms of what distinguishes ‘art’ from ‘porn’ evolve, what was once unacceptable (infidelity, multiple partners, inter-species sex) is now commonplace in ‘young adult fiction’, and it’s only a matter of time before voluntary degradation and humiliation that are the hallmarks of sadomasochism join the rest of the erotica bandwagon in toeing the line of public decency. If prestige is at stake, and if NLB insists on portraying itself as a responsible purveyor of wholesome literary entertainment, then banning a book like 50 shades makes sense, though one should question whether we should rely on librarians to decide for a bunch of uncontrollable, sex-crazy teens as to how far one should relent on graphic sex for the sake of ‘artistic merit’. By fuddy-duddily clamping down on such popular literature, the library is not so much a place to cultivate the reading habit anymore, nevermind the rainbow murals and funky furniture. With reference materials available at the click of a mouse, what was once a nourishing wellspring of information and imagination has turned into a study centre, a lounge for uncles to read newspapers, or an internet cafe for schoolkids to log on to Facebook when their parents aren’t around.
Until the day when those dark smudges around fashionable young girls’ eyes are no longer vampire goth-inspired makeup but actual bruises, or if you no longer see bracelets around their wrists but rope burns , 50 shades and its torture-kiddy-porn SM spinoffs are here to stay. We’re no longer in Sweet Valley High territory anymore.