50 Shades of Burning Books

Hello, and welcome to Banned Books Week at Book View Cafe.

I’m Marissa Day, and I write erotic romance.  Given what I write, it’s probably no surprise that I took it personally when I heard a number of groups either had burned or were planning to burn copies of 50 SHADES OF GRAY.

Let’s start by being absolutely clear about one thing.  50 SHADES OF GRAY, by E.L. James is a trashy book.  It’s a trashy book that goes on at great length about sexual acts that have been around since, well, forever, but that it is still not considered polite to talk about.  It was written by a woman and aimed at a female audience, which automatically ramps up its PTI (Perceived Trashiness Index).  It’s also a runaway bestseller.  This has caused the wider media landscape to gasp in collective surprise at the unexpected and wholly unpredicted revelation that women, even middle-aged women, even, even…Moms, are interested in depictions of orgasms of unusual size.

As with many popular books that shock the media landscape, somebody felt that they had to go demonstrate their righteousness — and incidentally make a blatant attempt to grab a few extra minutes of fame — by burning the thing.


I’m really torn about the persistence of book burning as a phenomenon in the USA.  On the one hand, most authors I know joke about it.  They might even wish to have their books burned, or banned, or denounced from the pulpit.  It is a, you should excuse the expression, sure-fire way to call attention to the book, which ramps up sales.  On the other hand, the attempt by any would-be moral elite to control access to ideas, even profoundly icky ideas like women expressing their sexuality in a socially unapproved fashion, is profoundly dangerous.  Because it never happens once.  Sure, it starts with banning depictions of women enjoying recreational sex, but after that it spreads to banning depictions of homosexuality as a normal variant on human behavior (an ongoing effort) or to depictions of racial tension written where kids can see them, (as in the Arizona public schools), or positive depictions of other religions, or political systems.

The reasons cited for the absolute necessity of controlling even frivolous ideas never change.  We’ve all heard them.  Gotta protect the children, of course.  Gotta keep society pure and moral.  Gotta keep our daughters virginal.  Gotta practice that old time religion and prevent the fall of civilization.  And on, and on, and on.

There is, of course, a difference between passing censorship ordinances and burning books.  In this time and this country, burning books stops nothing.  It does, however, provide a handy framework for a public expression of outrage at a set of ideas.  It ramps up the fervor and reinforces group unity among the participants, which in turn gives them the energy to go out and get actual ordinances past or books removed from libraries.  It helps make the notion that banning ideas is normal, even laudable.  Even necessary, for all the reasons cited above.

Book burning is also a form of speech.  The answer to bad speech, of course, is not silence.  The answer is more speech.  In that spirit, I’d like to answer attempts to repress 50 Shades by recommending some other authors readers of romance and erotica might enjoy.  I’m creating this list by author rather than title, because most of these writers have a fairly large body of work across a range of intensities, so I’ll leave it up to the reader to search or browse for something that suits.  All of these authors come out pretty high on the PTI.  Most are  women, and all their books are aimed at a female audience.  All are explicit, but most of them have pretty tame covers.

If you read a title or author, and like what you read, please post about it somewhere.  If you have a high PTI book you’d recommend, please, comment here.  The more copies of these books we get into circulation, the wider we spread the conversation.  The wider we spread the conversation, the harder it will be for the over-eager firebugs to attempt to enforce their personal prohibitions on the rest of us.


Maya Banks.  Banks handles both her sex and the characters in an engaging manner, and uses the erotic moments as insight into the people and the relationships.

Opal Carew.  I enjoy Carew.  She actually was the first erotica author I read, and remains one of my favorite high PTI writers.  Her characters are engaging, the situations are upbeat.  Sometimes the positive psych talk around the sex gets to be a bit heavy, but in general, I find her work a lot of fun.

Lora Leigh.  Leigh is terrific not only at the sex, but at the suspense.  Her plots are high action, and high intensity on a whole lot of levels.

Jennifer Stevenson.  I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention BVC’s own Jennifer Stevenson here.  She’s lower on the PTI than most of the other authors listed, but her books are fun, sexy entertainment and good reads.

Leda Swann.  Swann is actually a husband-wife writing team.  They write historicals, and along with the good realationships, and intense sex, the history in these is well researched and well executed.




50 Shades of Burning Books — 13 Comments

  1. Book burning is revolting. It is an act of violence borne out of fear. And really, it’s symbolic of saying ‘what’s inside your head should be destroyed,’ about the author and about anyone who holds that book in esteem. But they only have access to the book. It makes you wonder what would they do to your head if they had it.

  2. Cara: I agree. It is revolting. It is a violent demonstration of hatred toward a set of ideas, and a person or people. So, IMHO, we have to ask ourselves, what is the best, most productive answer to that violence? In this case, I’d say the answer is read more. Read widely. Encourage other people to read. Get the books out there. Spread the word.

    The first time I read a book specifically because I’d heard it had been banned was in high school. The book was JOHNNY GOT HIS GUN, and I’d heard it got pulled from shelves when the US went to war. We did have it in our high school library and I read it cover to cover. I can’t recommend it highly enough. An amazing book.

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  4. Marissa, I heartily agree with all your (and Cara and Sarah’s) arguments against burning books and I offer one more reason not to burn (specifically) 50 Shades of Grey. In order to burn the book presumably people first have to BUY it. I would not wish to increase Ms James’ sales in any way.

    Erotica is fine if it’s well written, but I have an aversion to the idea that indifferent Twilight-fanfic-with-the-numbers-filed-off can become a runaway best seller and can only assume it’s because until now, many of the readers who have picked up 50 Shades in the supermarket didn’t know where to start looking for the good stuff. Thanks for your recommendations.

    (You can make a pun on ‘indifferent’ in any way you wish.)

  5. Emma Holly – whether her straight erotica, or erotic romance or paranormal erotic romance or historical erotic romance or fantasy erotic romance – they may not all make perfect sense in their plot (although there are some really good books by her) but the ladies ALWAYS decide how far they want to go and enjoy themselves (even if its with multiple men) and the men have no problems in a menage with enjoying each other.

    Sometimes the sex does get somewhat ridiculous though and you wonder if the private parts are made of asbestos ^^

  6. Most of the time, I have no clue as to why a poorly-written book becomes a runaway best seller. However, I have noticed that many, many people are interested in sex. They want to experience it, imagine it, explore it, understand it. The more attempts at censorship of books and movies portraying sex, the less likely it is for thoughtful, well-written/acted (etc.) works to be freely available and the less discriminating the readers/viewers become. Desperate, one might say, and ready to latch on to even the most drekful of stories. So that’s my theory until a better one comes along.

  7. Terry Prachett had a great passage in one of his books where he compared sex to cooking. People, he says, will read tons of really elaborate cookbooks and fantasize about the most incredible royal banquets, but when it comes down to it, will be made very happy by a good plate of chips. There is a great deal in this.

    And I think, Deborah, you bring up an interesting thought about the relationship between censorship and thoughtful writing about sex and sexual relationships. When an idea cannot be discussed openly, then there’s less of a chance of it being discussed at all thoughtfully. And when simple shock and titillation become the limit and the norm, how is anyone to gain taste or discrimination?

    Now, IMHO, a well-done sex scene serves a similar purpose in the plot to a well-done action scene of any sort. That is, it shows the characters at an extreme, an emotional or a physical extreme, and allows the author to present and consider them at the edges of their experience and behavior.

    Estara: I’ll have to check Emma Holly out. Thanks.

  8. You know, I think we might be moving into an era when this isn’t really an issue anymore. I remember about twenty-some years ago, an indie game designer/publisher had created and published a game that all the conservative watchdog groups were angry over. (I don’t even remember what it was, honestly.) Some groups made a big deal over the fact that they were collecting copies of the game to burn. The author/publisher told the press that he was perfectly okay with them purchasing and burning as many copies as they wanted, and he’d keep printing more so long as the demand lasted. 🙂

    With more of publishing moving into e-books and POD paper books, book burning, while certainly a strong way to communicate one’s hatred for a book, is less and less of an actual problem for people who want to read a book. E-books can’t be burned, obviously, so there’s no danger there of the book being lost to readers through book-burning parties. And if a book is available through a POD service, will the author really care if some watchdog groups buys (first ordering, and causing to be printed and bound) however many copies they want to burn? I sure wouldn’t. Hey, any watchdog groups that have a problem with gay romance are, as a game publisher once said, welcome to purchase and burn as many copies of my books as they want. [wry smile]


  9. Also, e-books are =private=. Nobody can see you buying that racy literature, if you’re clicking the checkout button in the privacy of your own home. When you are sitting on a bus reading a Kindle, nobody can tell if you’re reading ADOLF HITLER’S GREATEST HITS. And electronic purchases rise above border controls. No censor at the ports can confiscate those volumes of ULYSSES or FANNY HILL if they’re being emailed as pdfs to you. No, it is all going to change within the lifetime of everybody reading this, possibly within this decade.

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  11. One wonders: will book-banning adherents change their tactics as more books are only pubbed digitally? Frustrated fanatics can be very dangerous; will such groups move from burning paper books to setting fires to any structure where ebooks can be accessed (i.e. libraries)? Pro-life “zealots” moved from protesting at clinics to blowing them up without much hesitation…


    Maybe there’s a story in there somewhere…:)