Book Banning and Romance Fiction in the United States
By Nadia Ford
The history of banned books dates back to, as some would argue, over 400 years ago with the publication of Thomas Morton’s New English Canaan. Although this may not be the starting point of banning books, it is true to say that the history of book banning has grown in the past 100 years. We have come from a time when books were burned in order to keep them out of the hands of innocent individuals, to a period when challenged and banned books are celebrated each year. The history of banned books is a long one, but one thing studies have consistently shown is that the some popular reasons for banning books includes sexually explicit commentary and not having content deemed suitable for age groups (Crum, 2014).
This report will explore book banning, from a process which is severely scrutinized to a politically charged history. Then, the report will explore the ways in which romance novels are effected by book banning and the conversations sparked from the process. There is reason to believe that the current practice of book banning allows romance novels to become the center of conversation, allowing the material inside of them to become the staple of what people want to learn more about. After completing this report, the reader should be able to pinpoint the positive effects of the current book banning era.
The process of banning a book begins with the individual who is issuing the challenge, usually a parent or librarian. A challenge is “an attempt to remove or restrict materials, based upon the objections of a person or group”. (Banned & Challenged Books, n.d.) A challenge is the beginning of the process towards getting a book banned, which means that many challenges do not fall through. The case is reported to the American Library Association, but this organization does not ban books. The ALA keeps track of all challenges and bans taken out each year in order to keep the public informed on what is happening in the literary community. Schools, book stores and libraries are the only places that can ban books which have been challenged. Once a challenge is made, the institution in question can either ban the book from the premises, or deny the challenge. Bans are done on an institutional basis, which means if a book is banned in one library, it is not banned in all others. A book can be banned for one or more of the following reasons: racial issues, encouragement of “damaging” lifestyles, blasphemous dialog, sexual situations or dialog, violence or negativity, presence of witchcraft, religious affiliations (unpopular religions), political bias, or age inappropriateness. B. (2014, February 20). Along with the reasons mentioned above, in a book must have violated The Miller Test, a three-point obscenity test. The book must meet one of the following criteria: material must appeal to the prurient interests when taken as a whole, involve patently offensive sexual conduct, and/or contain to literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.” (Banned books week: defining ‘banned’, 2014) In the event that a book is banned, it is then removed from the curriculum, library, or store in question, thereby preventing others from accessing the material. Due to the hard work of those at the ALA, anyone in the public can find a list of books which have been challenged and banned each year on their website. Books are banned across the world, but for the purpose of this report, the US literary industry will be the only focus.
The history of book banning and the law of the act occurred in 1957 when the Supreme Court tried Roth vs. The United States. Roth, who operated a business where he sold books, was tried for the distribution of obscene materials, which went against the federal obscenity statute. The conclusion of the case found Roth guilty, while it also created a more direct law on what exactly could be considered obscene or not. The definition the court decided was that something is considered obscene if it is “utterly without redeeming social importance”. Although this outcome was not ideal for Roth, it did mean that writers and novelists were able to create work which contained sex and violence. The election of Ronald Reagan allowed individuals the opportunity to challenge books which they believed were damaging to the American way. ““Reagan didn’t run on a campaign of anti-pornography,” Finan clarifies. “But he nevertheless ran an election that de-powered those who fought for First Amendment freedoms. (Brady, 2016) The extreme rise in banned and challenged books led to the American Library Association to respond with the creation of Banned Books Week in 1982. When Banned Books Week was first implemented, it consisted of libraries and book stores displaying books which had been banned. The purpose of doing so was that people who passed by would see what books were banned. “Those displays were enormously effective communication tools,” says Finan, “because people would wander over and find out that the books they love had been challenged. Suddenly they understood that censorship isn’t just about fringe literature.” (Brady, 2016)
As of 2017, Banned Books Week has sponsors and events such as city-wide scavenger hunts in order to get the public motivated and involved with learning about banned books and becoming aware of how hard it is to find some of them. Keeping the public informed on books which are in the process of being banned, or which have been banned, allows them to understand that literature which is made to broaden the mind is at risk of being taken away. In an interview given on the condition of anonymity, an employee of a local bookstore noted, “we do it every year because we know it’s important…we make sure it goes front and center.” (Quail Ridge Books, 2017)
Although fewer books are being banned each year, many are still being challenged at the state and local levels. “Between 1990 and 2000, there were 6,364 challenges reported to or recorded by the Office for Intellectual Freedom.” (Schools and Censorship: Banned Books, 2008) The Office for Intellectual Freedom is responsible for carrying out ALA policies regarding individuals’ free access to libraries and the materials they carry. “Seventy-one percent of the challenges were to materials in schools or school libraries. Another twenty-four percent were to material in public libraries. Sixty percent of the challenges were brought by parents, fifteen percent by patrons, and nine percent by administrators.” (Schools and Censorship: Banned Books, 2008) Librarians, school officials, and parents are working to keep literature out of the hands of those they believe are at risk. Free speech is a right and to this day is it continuously debated over. The most common reasons for books to be challenged is on the basis of: “sexually explicit material, offensive language, or lack of material deemed age appropriate.” (Schools and Censorship: Banned Books, 2008) Libraries are institutions which are most often found to have books being challenged. “When filling their shelves, librarians do not judge the content of books on whether it would be suitable for all audiences. As public institutions, libraries may not discriminate on disseminating information on the basis of age, sex or race, which means that people can check out whatever materials they choose.” (Conger, 2008) Libraries usually have boards which approve or disapprove of the addition of new titles, yet many books fall through the cracks.
Today, roughly 250-350 books are challenged each year. (Top Ten Most Frequently Challenged Books List, n.d.) The following infographic displays reasons books were challenged in 2013, confirming the fact that some of the most common reasons include ‘sexually explicit’ and ‘offensive language’. (Crum, 2014)
Among the states which ban books the most are Texas, Oregon, North Carolina and Connecticut. (Crum, 2014) As previously stated, parents and librarians are those who are most often found to ban books. In an excerpt of an interview from Scott DiMarco, a librarian and library director, we learn why banning books can sometimes be used to prove a point. “By using a familiar and well-liked local author [Dennis Miller], the sharp point of what harm censorship can really do to a community could be driven home in a way that it never could with the standard list that we all hang up every year.” (DiMarco, 2013) DiMarco banned a book in order to make his community aware of the effects of having free speech taken away. “In conclusion, a typical set of programs on the topic of censorship were met by our campus community with general apathy and pleasant indifference. Our unorthodox (okay, heretical) experiment was very successful in highlighting how a simple bureaucratic decision can curb our freedom to read.” (DiMarco, 2013) This is not the only type of action people have taken in response to book banning. “The Banned Books Week Coalition is a national alliance of diverse organizations joined by a commitment to increase awareness of the annual celebration of the freedom to read. The Coalition seeks to engage various communities and inspire participation in Banned Books Week through education, advocacy, and the creation of programming about the problem of book censorship.” (J, 2013) This retaliation against those who are trying to challenge and ban books has been immensely effective across the country.
From novels such as A Bad Boy Can Be Good for a Girl, to Lolita and Fifty Shades of Grey, romance novels, particularly those within the erotic subgenre, have been challenged since their rise in popularity. This begs the question, are parents and librarians challenging the books simply against sex?
Challenged Romance Novels
Fifty Shades of Grey is a novel which has been challenged many times. Despite this, the book had sold over 10 million copies in its first 6 weeks in the market, and this number raised to over 100 million by the end of 2014. (Lewis, 2014) In an interview with a blogger, novelist Beth Kery tried explaining the lack of substantial evidence to support the removal of Fifty Shades from libraries. “As I began to look into the banning of the Fifty Shades trilogy further, I realized there was a lot more complexity to it than mere moral outrage over sexual content, although that was certainly a major component. Reasons that I read for libraries not buying the book included substandard writing and ‘poor reviews.’ I’ll admit to being surprised by the latter, as I’ve never heard of that being a reason to censor a book from a community.” (J, 2013)
Another romance novel that was banned is A Bad Boy Can Be Good for a Girl. This novel depicts the story of how three girls come together and help each other cope after all being dumped by the same football star right after having sex with him. Upon reading this book, a blogger under the username ‘pladd’ noted that this is exactly the type of novel young women should be engaged in, even though it has sex. “The challenge went all the way to the Currituck County Board of Education, which voted 4-1 to retain the book. I’m really glad, because I think some girls truly need this book. It’s not just about sex–although, really, what teen hasn’t felt pressure to have sex/not have sex and wondered the best way to deal with it? This book shows three different girls dealing with the same player senior boy in different ways. All of them get hurt, but all of them also come out stronger. That’s why a bad boy can be good for a girl.” (P, 2014)
The most common reason for a book to be challenged or banned is due to sexually explicit content (Crum, 2014). Over the decades, though, the definition of sexually explicit has changed. Fanny Hill for example, was banned when it was first released. “Fanny Hill, depicts a broader range of sexual experiences than any available book written before it in English.” (Graham, 2013) John Cleland was arrested when the novel was first printed in 1748, for its lewd nature. It still spread as contraband, eventually becoming so popular that, 200 years later, it was still circulating “quite freely in both England and America, although always in pirate editions.” (Graham, 2013) At the end of 1965, after Fanny Hill had been taken to court for being obscene, it was found not obscene based on its “historical importance and literary merit”. (Graham, 2013) “Law enforcement around obscenity is now primarily concerned with child pornography, and the only other major restrictions on adult pornography have to do with where it is displayed and advertised. Today, obscenity charges for text-based materials, let alone historic literature, are almost unheard of.” (Graham, 2013) It is shown that novels are less likely to be challenged if an individual can see that the work is artistic and of importance. Why, then has 50 Shades of Grey been banned since its popularity grew? 50 Shades of Grey, like Fanny Hill when it was first published, is different that what people are accustomed to seeing. Other banned books, such as Lolita, which were banned for their sexual content are no longer in question because they have been deemed classics. When a Florida library was questioned as to why they keep Lolita on their shelves and not Fifty Shades, they responded with “because those other books were written years ago and became classics because of the quality of the writing”. (Flood, 2012) This sort of attitude reflects an idea which may come to harm the romance industry in the future. Already nicknamed “trashy”, romance novels could possibly be kept from shelves because they are seen as not good enough quality for communities. Had 50 Shades of Grey not earned as much popularity, it may have gone unnoticed like many other novels of its nature, but its popularity allowed it to enter the hands of those who do not see its purpose. Although there are those who critique the writing of the book, it did get people talking “Working women, if you believe Newsweek and Katie Roiphe, are not only clamoring for the book, they want the BDSM described within it, too. The New Yorker found them lining up outside a SoHo sex shop waiting for instruction.”. (Doll, 2012) There is no denying that 50 Shades of Grey, like Fanny Hill, opened the flood gates for more. “The book is more challenging in terms of how we deal with such a hype-monster as related to the overall publishing industry, what people want to read, and what writers should give them. Surely there will be copycats hoping to achieve similar success; the hope is that 50 Shades’ version of erotica can open the market for better books”. (Doll, 2012)
Although no statistics have reflected that Banned Books Week directly influences the sales of banned romance novels, it can be concluded that the celebration of the novels during that specific week does increase their awareness. Banned Books Week not only has promotional material on their website for those looking to become a part of the movement, but they also do virtual read outs of books and have bookstores and libraries place banned books at the front of their establishments.
Many individuals see book banning as absurd. Banning a book is the equivalent of denying someone access to something on the internet. Books are used to help us learn about other ideas and cultures, and book banning is preventing this from happening. “As a book lover, this is undeniably outrageous. As a human being, this is incredibly disheartening knowing that the opportunity to learn about different cultures and times in an extremely beneficial and increasingly scarce art form, the written word, is being threatened by groups of misguided individuals.” (Petite, 2015) Ironically, parents, who do most of the book banning (Infographics, n.d.), may not know that their children are gaining access to the same times of ‘sexually explicit’ or ‘violent’ materials from their cell phones and the internet. Given the current day and age, book banning will never truly do what it is intended: prevent access to material.
Furthermore, the process of banning a book may bring more attention to the book itself than intended. “Banned books bring attention to the root problems whether the people advocating the ban realize it or not. Discussion commences on the major issues of the work in question, but banning them does not solve the problem. See, because the only way to truly shed light on the controversy is to read the book, to learn from its themes, and gain a new outlook on the world and how to make it better for everyone.” (Petite, 2015) From the previous quote, it is clear that challenging and banning books has evolved. What was once used to ‘protect’ individuals from provocative information may now be used as a tool to get people talking about what matters. In an interview conducted on the condition of anonymity, an employee of Flyleaf Books stated the following: At the moment there is so much to fight. We use book banning for openness, awareness, and conversation. All of these to show that its innocuous that some books could ever thought to be banned. That’s all we do really. (Flyleaf Books, 2017)
Romance fiction is a genre which, more often than not, includes some sort of sexually explicit material. Books containing this type of material are among those that are banned the most. Whether or not it is a parent or librarian, something is trying to be kept from readers. Luckily, Banned Books Week celebrates those novels which have been banned, encouraging their authors and their readers to appreciate the creative works. In this way, whether it is the popularity of a novel which sparks the challenges against it or a single individual not liking what they find, these novels will in no way be kept from the hands of readers.
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