Censorship

It’s a hot topic. Some say it’s the only way to protect people, others say it’s an insult and a violation of the freedom of expression- a basic human right. Censorship has existed for many years and has evolved across time. What once was considered as blasphemous and shocking- such as D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterly’s Lover- no longer possesses that same power to horrify. I can’t help but wonder what kind of reception Fifty Shades of Grey would have received in 1929, but I know almost for certain that it would have been banned.

In my opinion, banning books for being too sexually explicit is wrong. People can decide for themselves whether or not they want to read erotica. However, in the United Kingdom at least, the banning of an erotic novel hasn’t happened for a long time (Fifty Shades of Grey is currently being displayed in almost every bookshop and supermarket), which I’m glad about. I understand the concerns over young people reading this kind of material, but banning a book is probably the worst way to get people to stop reading it.

Things get a little more blurry, however, when it comes to issues of race. I am completely against the publishing of any racist books, but a ‘racist book’ is difficult to define. Recently there have been concerns over the use of the word ‘nigger’ in John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, with some suggesting that the word ought to be removed from the book. I am against this for two reasons, the first of which being that Steinbeck himself wasn’t calling Crooks a ‘nigger’- the label was given to him by other characters; the narrator does not refer to the character in this way. Secondly, one must consider when the book was written. At the time of writing, racism was rife in America and sometimes people didn’t even call black people ‘niggers’ out of spite- it was just the done thing back then and no-one really thought about it. Nowadays, of course, if you call someone the n-word then it’s a completely different matter. Books written in the twenty-first century citing views that are racist shouldn’t be published, in my opinion. However, how do we discern which works of literature are and are not racist? If a character in a book says the word ‘nigger’ then that doesn’t mean that the author is trying to put across any racist ideas, and if the antagonist in a book is black that doesn’t mean that the author is racist. It’s difficult to know where to draw the line. 

Swearing, too, is a difficult one. Today in the UK I don’t think too much censorship goes on in terms of the use of language in books but I am aware that it perhaps does in other places. Personally, I do not think that potentially offensive language should be removed from a book- we all hear it in our everyday life, regardless of the walk of life from which we hail, and there are very few words left today with a real power to shock. However, I can understand that repeated offensive language could put some people off of a book and thus put a potential publisher off.

All in all, I think censorship should only be used in extreme cases. People are intelligent enough to make their own minds up about what they read and react to it appropriate. A poem in which the speaker grabs a kitchen knife and is suggested to have the intention of using it as a weapon was removed form my GCSE poetry anthology, but I read it anyway and after reading it I did not take to the streets with a knife. However, in extreme cases I can see the need for censorship, namely to prevent an indoctrination of the people- I wouldn’t like to see Mein Kampf on the shelves at Waterstone’s.

What are YOUR views on censorship? Please let me know!

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Fifty Shades of… What?

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It’s been dubbed Fifty Shades of Sex and Fifty Shades of Shit but for this review I think its original title, Fifty Shades of Grey, is more apt- grey because I’m not really sure how I feel about this book. It is, as I’ve said before, not very well written, and it’s just not distinctive. You wouldn’t read something by an unknown author and say “this is definitely the work of E.L. James!” because it could easily be the work of any young teenager (if it didn’t contain so much sex).  Jessica Reaves claimed that the book is “sprinkled liberally and repeatedly with asinine phrases” and I have to agree- too many repetitions of “holy crap!” make it sound like a bad fan fiction. In fairness to James, this did start out as fan fiction which makes the terrible writing style forgivable…. just.

Furthermore, I can’t work out my feelings about the protagonists. Anastasia Steele is almost identical to every other fan fiction heroine- she’s shy, intelligent, insecure, occasionally witty, frequently at odds with her subconscious (don’t even get me started on her ‘inner goddess’) and hopelessly beautiful, but of course, she doesn’t know it. Whilst Christian Grey claims that she doesn’t “have a submissive bone in [her] body”, I wouldn’t exactly call her dominant either- she’s eager to make him happy and she certainly lets her best friend, Kate, push her around. She also cries whenever Christian leaves her, which I think is a little pathetic. However, it’s her “smart mouth” that saves her. Her email exchanges with Christian are genuinely funny and I did giggle a few times at what she came out with, but having said that, surely someone with a truly smart mouth wouldn’t keep repeating the same few expressions over and over again (but this is more a criticism of James’ writing style). Having said that, some of the expressions the pair use put a smile on my face, such as “laters baby” and I loved the way Christian signed off his emails with things like “Christian Grey, Cad and CEO”. Which brings me nicely onto the subject of our… hero? Villain? Deep down, we all know he’s a hero. He’s caring, he’s occasionally funny and he wants to make Ana happy. He’s certainly attractive (in every chapter there is, without fail, a description of his stomach-melting, heart-wrenching beauty) and he is, in Ana’s own too-often-repeated words “mercurial”. His mood changes swiftly and for all his I’m-the-dominant talk, he sometimes reminds me of a toddler bossing everyone around, wanting desperately to be in charge and everyone just indulges him to keep him happy. James certainly has created an interesting protagonist here and I’m dying to learn more in particular about his relationship with his adoptive mother- there’s definitely more to explore there. Overall, Christian is like a romcom hero with a kinky twist- he starts off all cynical and moody and then softens and becomes all romantic but still won’t admit that he’s fallen for the heroine.

Christian’s volatility and Ana’s vulnerability make them an interesting pair. There relationship is like a see-saw- if someone puts a foot wrong, or a bit too much weight down at one end, the whole thing is unbalanced. Their relationship starts off tense and awkward, then becomes hot and complicated and towards the end it begins to seem almost like a warm, fuzzy, romcom relationship. Were this real, a relationship counsellor would probably have a field day.

Of course, sex is a big aspect of their relationship. Ana loses her virginity to Christian and he awakens desire within her that she never knew existed. They also have sex very frequently, but the book is about more than S&M. However, it is, of course, probably the main reason that the book has accumulated such notoriety within such a short space of time. This book is definitely not one for younger readers!

Sex wasn’t actually my main issue with this book- it was the way in which James desperately tried to prove herself to be intelligent. I believe that Stephanie Meyer does this in Twilight too, with her prophases and anaphases and chromosomes- another similarity between the two series. James throws in several mentions of the medulla oblongata just to show, it seems, that she knows something about anatomy and references several classical writers, mainly Thomas Hardy, in an obvious attempt to seem well-read. I can’t quite put my finger on why this annoy me but perhaps it’s because the author is trying to pretend to be something she’s not. She may be a genius for all I know, but Fifty Shades of Grey isn’t an intellectual book and a few literary references isn’t going to change that- she’d be better off just calling a spade a spade.

In spite of all my criticisms, Fifty Shades is strangely addictive and very easy to read, which has probably contributed hugely to its popularity. You don’t have to be an avid reader to read it, unlike some of the classics, you can just pick it up and go. It’s not a challenge, which is perhaps a factor in its addictiveness.

All in all, Fifty Shades of Grey can only be summed up as a guilty pleasure. It does have a few good ideas in it- I particularly like that Christian tells Ana she shouldn’t feel guilty for enjoying S&M. It’s also got the feminist critics going crazy- is it feminist, is it not?- so it’s interesting from that perspective too but essentially I don’t feel that it’s one of the greats of literature. As April Alliston wrote “though no literary masterpiece, Fifty Shades is more than parasitic fan fiction based on the recent Twilight vampire series.”

This is my seco…

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This is my second Jane Eyre post today and my third overall so you’re probably sick of the sight of her now, but it’s such an interesting book that I wanted to do a more in-depth post about it.

Charlotte Brontë did not lead a charmed life- she was well-educated and respectable but she wasn’t involved in ‘high society’- much like Jane herself. She was welcome to observe the fun but she was merely a spectator- she wasn’t to play the game. Writing was her way of imagining a better life and although she originally published Jane Eyre under the male pseudonym of Curer Bell, when her gender was revealed Jane Eyre became something of a milestone for women’s writing.

Jane is able to transcend the social boundaries, starting off as an orphan living off the charity of others and ending up as the wife of a rich man, Mr. Rochester. What poor, orphan Jane ends up with is essentially every girl’s dream- a rich and loving husband and a fantastic romance. It’s no wonder that this book was written during a time of rigid class boundaries- I imagine it would have been a welcome escape from the insurmountable social barriers.

The novel also explores the idea that women are independent, intellectual creatures with strong feelings of their own. Jane experiences hate and desire which at the time were seen as vulgar in a young woman. However, she also has a strong sense of morality, leaving Mr. Rochester when she finds out they cannot be married. There is also a moment with her cousin, St. John, which is supposed to be a religious experience but I feel is actually sexual on many levels. When he touches her she is “paralysed” and forgets her refusals, almost like she is being seduced. She describes Angels beckoning and a future of “safety and bliss”- she is swept off of her feet by this attractive, if cold, man. Religion and sexuality seem to intermingle here, as St. John is a clergyman but he is also an attractive man and so it is natural that what he makes Jane feel is a mixture of the two. This harks back to the incestuous theme found in so much of the Gothic and I honestly thought for a moment that Jane was going to fall into St. John’s arms and run off to India with him!

Jane Eyre is not just a tale of romance- it is also a social criticism and an examination of the conflict between passion and morality in 19th century Britain, as well as a turning point in women’s literature. If you haven’t read it- what are you waiting for?

Advertising in books…

We all know about product placement- it’s a sneaky and ingenious way of advertising. If Lea Michele tells you that she loves a product, you know it’s because she’s being paid millions to do so; but if Rachel Berry (her character in Glee) is seen using a product in the episode, it seems more authentic somehow and people want to buy it because Rachel Berry has it. It’s the same with British reality show Made in Chelsea (http://www.e4.com/chelsea/) – two of the characters, Cheska and Binky, used Shake Weights (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shake_Weight)  in an episode and sales of the product subsequently rocketed. This boosted sales much more than Alex Gerrard appearing on the packaging. But this isn’t about product placement on television, I’ve been thinking about the product placement that sort-of appears in books. This is a generalisation, but it does tend to be trashy, teenage books that are filled with names like BlackBerryLa Coste and iPod. I assume that the authors aren’t being paid to advertise and I appreciate that they probably only include these names to add an element of glamour to their novels, but it all boils down to the same thing. I’m not saying that brands should be banned from books or anything like that; I’m just musing about the ‘product placement’ in literature.

However, I do wonder whether the government has considered the advertising of drugs and alcohol in books. Don’t get me wrong; I don’t think that because advertising cigarettes is banned, cigarettes should not be mentioned in books. I do, however, appreciate that perhaps the chain-smoking socialites in the Gossip Girl books glamorise smoking. Again, I admit that I didn’t read the books and then go on a hunt for cigarettes, but reading about the coolest girls in New York City chain smoking Marlboro Lights did make smoking seem a lot more glamorous.

But don’t get me wrong; I’m just exploring an idea. I am totally against censorship of books and I know that literary figures drinking or smoking won’t make anyone go off the rails, but I think it might make people want to try it because it is so often glamorised by teenage authors. There’s no harm in trying something and I firmly believe that we can make our own decisions, so I don’t really think there’s anything wrong with this, but this issue is just one I’ve been wondering about for a while.

What do YOU think? Let me know in a comment!

Books and movies; can they ever be friends?

I’m of mixed opinion about film adaptations of books. I know that a film can never measure up to the book version (in my eyes, at least) but on the other hand I still get excited when I find out that a book I’ve read is being made into a film. I also think that films often eclipse their literary counterparts (yes, Gone with the Wind is a book too, you know) but then again they also attract lots of readers to a book. It irritates me when people scorn those who read the book after seeing the film, because as long as they actually read the book, what does it matter? But it also irritates me when people declare themselves to be a “MASSIVE HARRY POTTER FAN” but have never read the novels. I also think it’s important to bear in mind that it’s not possible to stay entirely faithful to the novel when adapting it into a film, but sometimes the changes go too far. For example, in My Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Picoult, it’s Anna, the protagonist, who dies at the end but in the film version, her sister, Kate, loses her battle with cancer whilst Anna lives. Such a huge change seems unnecessary and I couldn’t help thinking that the film shouldn’t claim to be based on the book. Another problem is that when you read a book, the world you create doesn’t match up to the one on the big screen. The characters look different, although that can’t really be helped, and the places aren’t the same; with a film, I think there is less room for interpretation. Nevertheless I think books and movies can be friends because there’s something hugely satisfying about seeing your favourite book being played out in front of you. You wonder what the producers will change, what will stay the same and who will be cast as who… Sometimes people like the way they do a kiss, or a fight and other times they don’t, but it makes for interesting conversation. You’ve just got to accept that books and films are different, and enjoy them even so. Accept that the director’s vision won’t match your own and if you don’t like the film, you’ve still got the book!