There is a pornographic book that is flying off the bookshelves in Edinburgh and, I imagine, every other city in the English-speaking world. It is called Fifty Shades of Grey, and I will not read it.
I will not read it both because it is a sin to read pornographic novels and because I do not wish to encourage the proliferation of pornographic novels by indulging in them myself. Not only do these novels create troubling images in the mind that are difficult to erase, they perpetuate lies about men, women and sexuality.
Fifty Shades of Grey, I am informed by book reviews, is about a college-educated virgin who becomes the sex-slave of an attractive, fabulously wealthy man in his late 20s who gives her lavish presents in exchange for their sado-masochistic relationship. She later abandons their deal, head high and conscience clear. There are two sequels; together they have sold more than 40 million copies.
Although I have not read these books, I can see the impact they have had on daily life. First, my local supermarket has filled its sales bin, right beside the checkout line and at the height of children’s eyes, with them. Second, my formerly favourite bookshop has compiled a table piled high with “women’s erotica” in plain view of the front door. Third, I have received an e-mail from a male stranger claiming that it is easier to seduce women by being cruel to us than being nice and that the proof lies both in his own experience and “the book women are so hot and bothered about these days.”
What we read and buy has an impact on society. I am sorry to use the word “impact,” but I think it fittingly conveys the sense of a metorite smacking into the Earth, altering a landscape forever. Every woman who bought Fifty Shades of Grey contributed to its being made available to curious children in my grocery store. She contributed to an interest in booksellers for pornography over other kinds of writing. She contributed to my unpleasant correspondent’s idea that women enjoy being treated badly by men.
I am sorry if that sounds harsh, and I acknowledge that men may have bought some of the 40 million copies, but women too have to take responsibility for the blasted, overly sexualized landscape we have created for our children to play in. And it is no use protesting “It’s just a book” because Sex & the City was just a television show, and its opening premise, that “women should have sex just like (promiscuous) men,” has been parroted everywhere. Its own lies have been absorbed by a trusting generation.
This is not to say that any reference to sexual themes should be expunged from novels, even novels by Catholics. One of my Seraphic Singles readers wrote to me of an editor at a Catholic publishing house who had complained to her that she could not find the “Graham Greenes” and “Evelyn Waughs” of our generation. Having written a novel very much in tribute to Graham Greene, I sent it to this editor in hopeful expectation. My Greene-ish work was rejected on the grounds that the heroine is morally ambiguous and living with her boyfriend.
At the time I raged, but my manuscript has since been accepted by Ignatius Press, so now I chortle. Anyone who has seriously read the work of Waugh and Greene knows that they wrote often about morally ambiguous protagonists, some of whom lived with their girlfriends. Moral ambiguity, no less than sexual sin, is a pressing problem of life, and serious, thoughtful novellists have light to shed on both.
Waugh and Greene, of course, were of a different era, and their writing was governed not only by their Catholic consciences, but by more modest community standards and the Obscene Publications Act. The very fact that there is legislation about what sexually themed work can be published points to the understanding that certain works of the imagination, even ones without illustrations or photographs, are not in the public interest. Once it meant that writers who wanted to write about the sexual side of human life had to do so with modesty and sensitivity.
But times, community standards and interpretations of such laws have changed. Although no one is forcing us to read or watch pornographic material, it has moved from the back of the bookshop to the front. I find this very demoralizing, speaking as a Catholic who both reads fiction and writes it. Not only are women’s imaginations being debauched, millions are being spent on trash instead of on literature, including literature written by ever more marginalized Catholics. Women, literature and Catholic writers will be the poorer for it.