Fifty Shades bonfire call ignites censorship fears
Book burning has worrying totalitarian connotations, reports Claire Coughlan
To say that the success of the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy is a publishing phenomenon is an understatement. The series of erotic novels has outsold every other book in history, put BDSM on the map and has presumably made EL James a very rich woman. Everyone has a view on it; it would be impossible not to.
For the majority of people, hating a book means they might tweet about it or if it isn't to their taste, they might bypass it on a trip to the bookshop. However, a UK-based women's refuge feel so strongly about the perceived message in Fifty Shades of Grey that they are planning a bonfire of the popular novel on November 5 of this year. They are encouraging people to burn their copies of the book, claiming that it glamorises abusive relationships and Clare Phillipson, director of Wearside Women in Need, has even compared what happens in Christian Grey's "red room of pain" to what serial killer Fred West inflicted on his victims.
"Our concern is not the graphic depiction of sex -- this is an abusive relationship presented as a love story," she has said. "It normalises abuse, degrades women and encourages sexual violence ... Some of what happens in the book, Fred West did to his victims in his cellar. I fail to see what is erotic about that."
Fifty Shades publisher Random House has responded to the claims with the following statement: "The Fifty Shades trilogy is a work of romantic fiction which explores a consensual relationship between two willing adult participants. The books are being enjoyed by millions of readers -- primarily women -- around the world."
Crime fiction author Sophie Hannah, whose latest book, Kind of Cruel, is out in paperback (Hodder) tweeted her disapproval of the proposed book burning to her followers, saying that she had contacted the organisation in question, asking them not to go ahead with their book bonfire.
"I actually emailed Wearside Women in Need and I said: 'Please don't burn any books, it's a really uncivilised thing to do'," explained Sophie, when contacted for a comment. "And I got their stock response back, saying: 'We're considering a number of possibilities.' I'm not at all convinced that they're going to do it [burn Fifty Shades of Grey]; if they wanted to draw attention to their campaign, they've done that."
Sophie is, she explained, so against the idea of burning the books because of the symbolism and connotations of censorship and totalitarianism attached to such an act.
"There are the obvious connotations and symbolism that you can't ignore. In Ray Bradbury's novel, Fahrenheit 451, which depicts a society where books are banned, the police in that society burn books -- that's one connotation. Another connotation is the Nazis -- any oppressive, totalitarian regime throughout history, or at least most of them anyway, are associated with burning books."
Biblioclasm or libricide are the precise terms for the practice of destroying books (or other written material), usually ceremoniously, in public and with a political, religious or moral agenda.
From the bishop of Alexandria in AD367 ordering that Egyptian monks destroy all "unacceptable" writings, to the burning of books under China's Qin Dynasty, the practice has a long history. More recently, the Nazi book burnings in Germany in the Thirties were an attempt to suppress the ideologies of those who might be opposed to National Socialism. On May 10, 1933, the German Student Association burned up to 25,000 volumes of "un-German" books, which was described by Joseph Goebbels as "a strong, great and symbolic deed". Authors whose books the students burned included Bertolt Brecht, Karl Marx, Ernest Hemingway, HG Wells and Heinrich Heine, who had said more than 100 years earlier in his 1821 play, Almansor: "Where they burn books, so too will they in the end burn human beings."
When The Country Girls was published in 1960, it was acclaimed as the work of a promising new writer, Edna O'Brien. The world was on the brink of a sexual revolution, however, back in Ireland, the book was roundly condemned and banned by the Irish Censorship Board shortly after publication, for its frank depiction of female sexuality. Copies of The Country Girls were even said to have been ritually burned in O'Brien's home county of Clare. However, a recent documentary on the famous author, now aged 82, whose memoirs are forthcoming in October, debunked the claim that O'Brien's own mother participated in the book burnings.
Irish PEN, which is part of a worldwide organisation to promote freedom of expression, counts President Michael D Higgins, novelists Joseph O'Connor, John Banville, Colm Toibin, Neil Jordan and poet Seamus Heaney among its members.
In a statement about the controversy surrounding the burning of Fifty Shades of Grey, Irish PEN said that the move to burn books is a "step backwards". "In this case it simplifies the issue of domestic abuse. We ultimately support the freedom of writers and readers, and it is repugnant to PEN to burn books, persecute writers, and support censorship in today's world. Each year, with this objective, PEN marks the Day of the Imprisoned Writer on November 15 and we look forward to doing so again this year in Dublin."
President of English PEN, Jo Glanville, echoed this sentiment, and added that the proposed book bonfire is "a very clever bit of campaigning".
"But it's very short-sighted from the point of view that book burning is an act of intolerance. Any society that respects human rights, which also includes the rights of women, must also respect the right to freedom of expression," she said.
Whatever your views about Fifty Shades, book burning is a step too far, it would seem; an extreme form of censorship that is as destructive and it is intolerant.
As Sophie Hannah puts it: "Fifty Shades of Grey depicts a relationship -- is it a relationship so terrible that it merits such disapproval?"
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