Taboo or Not Taboo

In three months EL James sold four million copies of the Fifty Shades trilogy via her UK publisher, Random House, to add to the fifteen million in the US and Canada. In the UK, it’s the fastest-selling book ever in both physical and e-book incarnations. It’s the fastest selling adult novel of all time.

This is particularly impressive seeing as it started out as a Twilight fan fiction, not exactly one of the literary greats. But its content, of course, is very taboo. In the first book, you are introduced to Anastasia (Ana) Steele and Mr. (Christian) Grey. Anastasia Steele is required to sign a contract that allows Grey to have complete control of her life which included fulfilling any desires Grey has in the bedroom. Grey is rather unusual in his sexual desires as he likes sex only if he can accompany it with quite formal, stylised corporal punishment, rather idiosyncratic topics for a novel, as adult as it may be .

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However, the fascination with literature such as this is not a new occurrence: the existence of taboo literature can be traced back through the ages. However, the availability and social acceptance of this type of literature is something that has changed drastically in the past 80 years. In the 20’s books were still being banned for containing “purple passage” that might have a “tendency to deprave and corrupt those whose minds are open to such immoral influences”. The most widely know, of course, being DH Lawrence’s ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’. Women had made social gains in the 1920s, not without opposition from a conservative society.

During the war, attitudes had become more tolerant towards women because they were needed to work in factories. But this changed after the war ended. They may have gained the right to vote, but the prevailing attitude reverted back extremely quickly and soon enough women were expected to quietly care for their husbands and children. Compared to the escapades of Anastasia Steele, Lady Chatterley’s intimate relations were quite tame. Lady Chatterley tried to stay faithful to her paralysed husband but she falls into the arms of a playwright who her husband invited to stay.

When he leaves she starts an affair with the groundskeeper, because of his low status and the general taboo of women having affairs at the time, this was seen as a depraving influence on anyone who may read the book. But is this anywhere near as corrupt as the subject matter in the Fifty Shades series? Although, for DH Lawrence the shock factor had more to do with the language used. The pages were scattered with curse words, with what many would refer to as the worst taboo appearing no less than fourteen times. These vulgarities were used when less colourful language would have sufficed. But Lawrence obviously intended to shock as he re- wrote his book three times, each edition more explicit than the last, all were published but the widely distributed novel was his third attempt.

An unnecessary endeavour which ultimately led to the ban on publishing the novel. Was it really worth it? So, how then did Lady Chatterley come to be published by Penguin Books in 1960? In 1959 the government introduced the Obscene Publications Act that said that any book considered obscene by some but that could be shown to have “redeeming social merit” could still be published. This prompted Penguin to print a number of copies to complete a set of works by DH Lawrence to commemorate the 30th anniversary of his death. Penguin sent twelve of these copies to the Director of Public Prosecutions and challenged him to prosecute. He did, and the six-day trial began on the 27th October at the Old Bailey. Some would say that the publication of DH Lawrence’s ‘masterpiece’ led to the degradation in standards of literature today.

But what classifies a novel as ‘taboo’, and has the word itself, with its many connotations, become obsolete? After all, we’ve read about every kind of sex imaginable. Nothing shocks us anymore. Even Granta has published a sex issue; some are even mourning the Golden Age of literary sex, when there were still taboos left to smash. It is not only confined to literature. We are subjected to so called taboo subjects by all aspects of the media on a daily basis. Even our schooling has some effect on what we would deem inappropriate.

Children are receiving sex education from as young as five, some believe their innocence is being stripped prematurely. Critic’s from the 1920’s would be shocked by how freely we talk about such taboo subjects, and some would say rightly so. After all, aren’t teenage pregnancies on the rise? Could this have something to do with our lack of ‘boundaries’ in literature and society as a whole? It is possible that this literature is an ‘immoral influence’ and is indeed ‘corrupting the minds of the young’. Yes, some of the laws of the past were over-zealous but we cannot generalise. The famous trial of Lady Chatterley was not only a victory for Penguin but for all British publishers, as from then on it became much more difficult to prosecute on grounds of obscenity.

But is this right? And how does this affect the classification of literature published in the present? “Taboo or Not Taboo” the question remains unanswered.