Don’t tell me what I can read

I read an article in today’s paper. It was about a book called Tampa by Alissa Nutting. The book is about a female teacher who preys on teenage boys. The author has apparently described it as a contemporary Lolita. It certainly has a provocative cover.

This article was partly an interview with a bookseller in Sydney, who has refused to stock the book. Why? Because she says, ‘ Sometimes I take what I define as the moral high ground. I just felt I’m in an environment where I couldn’t personally promote this.’ She goes on to say her store is surrounded by many churches and she sees the ‘enormous stress of this ongoing problem of child abuse’. There has been some press in the US about the book although it’s not published here until 24 July. And she’s apparently not the only Australian bookseller to refuse to stock the book on the back of this.

Obviously as a bookseller there are a lot of opportunities to ‘take the moral high ground’. Do we stock books on guns? Fictional stories of murders, mass murders of both adults and children? For that matter, graphic, confronting true stories? I remember fellow booksellers who refused to stock L Ron Hubbard’s books as he was a Scientologist. I also recall when American Psycho was released it was wrapped in plastic with an R rating plastered over it after much chatter about the level of violent content. The plastic, and the rating, seemed only to achieve higher sales for the book.

I don’t know, for my mind, I never felt I had the right to dictate what people who visited my bookstore wanted to and could read. It’s a freedom of choice for me. Readers make their own objective choices.

What do you think?


24 responses to “Don’t tell me what I can read

  1. Tough one. If the book was banned outright, I would have a big problem with it, but if a business-owner wants to run their business to their own rules, I think that’s ok. Further, the fact that they’ve spoken out only helps people be more informed about where they shop. For instance, if this happened to a store near where I live, I would now know, to my benefit, that their selection is edited and I might not want to shop there anymore!

  2. I think a bookseller has the right to choose what they sell. It’s their business, and if they find a book’s theme repulsive enough to refuse it, they have the right to do so. To a bookseller, their shop represents them, and they could well find that handing over such a book an act against their own standards. It’s up to the individual.

  3. I think it’s a form of censorship. Nobody has the right to tell me what I can buy or borrow to read. It’s not someone else’s choice what I read or have access to.

  4. I’m torn. On the one hand, I don’t want a bookseller to tell me what I can and cannot read, but on the other hand it is their choice. No bookstore is able to sell EVERY book that is in print and they must make choices – they choose which books to stock, which ones to have available only by order, and which ones to skip completely. One of the beautiful things about owning your own business is that you can make these choices yourself.

    Sure, it’s inconvenient for the reader, but at the end of the day the seller has to be comfortable with their choices, not yours.

  5. I also see it as censorship. On the othe hand, if it is a private business, the owner of the bookshop has the right to decide what to sell and not. I think the responsability should lay more in the reader rather than the seller. If you have a hint that the book contains things that might offend you or upset you: don’t buy it. You can’t just get offended by a book’s content and blame the bookseller…

  6. But not stocking the book isn’t going to make the issue/problem/subject go away. Isn’t that like an ostrich burying its head in the sand?

    • And if you think about it, many other books people have objections too are stocked. I think this has potential to lead to more censoring of what we are able to choose. I always say, it starts as one and then snowballs as each person objects to a book being sold or available

  7. Reading the comments above, this issue is about ‘choice’ and the right to choose. We have a right as readers to choose what we enjoy to read just as booksellers have a right not to stock a book they don’t enjoy having on the shelf. The difference is as readers we can go elsewhere online, another (less discriminating/censorial?) bookshop or the local library to access any book we like. Booksellers censor and limit their stocks all the time according to the special interests of the owner and the demands of the clientelle. My point is if you can’t find what you want and the bookseller doesn’t stock it then simply go elsewhere!

  8. Interesting that people take such a negative view of this bookseller’s reaction. I actually think it is great that in this contemporary setting, with SO many ways to purchase books, booksellers can decide not to stock something with the knowledge that they aren’t really restricting anyone. If people really want the book they can find it elsewhere.

    Personally, if I owned a bookstore and chose to not stock a book (unlikely), I would keep a list of the books I wasn’t stocking and would gladly present it to anyone who wanted to see it and tell them where they could buy it. In this way you can take a ‘moral high ground’ but not really censor anything.

      • So what? I tend to think telling people what they can and can’t stock is more restrictive than a store deciding not to stock something.

        Besides, we live in a time where there are huge corporations, who will never censor, selling these books online. And even if they did decide to censor, an author could pen the most objectional piece in the world, censored by everyone, and still sell it by loading up digital copies onto their own website.

        I would personally never censor a book. But booksellers have the right to sell what they want, just as I have the right to read what I want. Booksellers are not the government, bound to protect our rights.

  9. I’ve read a pre-release copy of this book and my review will soon be posted to The Reading Room blog. I can understand booksellers refusing to stock it. It’s one of those ‘dangerous’ books that will cause significant discussion around censorship. It’s in a similar vein to Lolita, which was banned for a long time, only it’s more explicit and I personally think it’s the explicit content that makes the book so contentious. Could the author have got her point across without the gory details? I think she’s talented enough to, yes. To be honest, I think it will be a very hard book to sell from a booksellers point of view. I’m not sure who will want to read it. It’s definitely not for the faint-hearted bookseller or reader.

    • You’ve hit the nail on the head Kate,
      The question is not whether the book store owner as the right to determine what books she does or does not have in her store (of course she does). The issue comes down to the book itself.

      What is the purpose of Tampa? What did the author have in mind?

      Is it to provide an object lesson about misdirected desire and its consequences? (As one could argue Lolita did).

      Or is the object of the book to titillate middle-aged female (and some male) readers to foster fantasies about easy sexual access to young flesh? (And if that sounds creepy, it was meant to be).

      There is no harm at all for adults to discuss ‘dangerous’ ideas – and indeed they should – but until one addresses the primary motive in raising them, then people ought to be cautious and ask what the intended ‘take home’ is for the reader.

      I’m looking forward to reading your review.

  10. Congratulations to the bookseller for taking the ‘moral high-ground’. It is a choice that we all have to make at some stage in life, not many of us have the guts to stand up for moral values. Kudos!

  11. I believe nobody has the right to tell me what to read but I also believe nobody has the right to tell a shopkeeper what to sell. This bookseller has decided not to stock this book, they have decided it does not suit the local demographic and is offensive. This will have no impact on libraries stocking the book because libraries have guidelines and policies about censorship, it is not decided on a whim what will or will not be part of the collection.

  12. I migrated from my home country because, amongst many other reasons, the government of the day decided what I could and couldn’t read. One day I went into a very well known popular bookshop, and on the shelves were medical text books with large holes gouged out of the front cover of all copies. The government had decided the ‘graphic medical diagrams’ were not for public viewing!
    That was the last straw for me and I left soon after.

  13. There have been many books that have been banned because they were provocative; and yet, years – sometimes decades later – they were let out into circulation because people wanted to know what the fuss was about.
    I love to read books that are on the edge of life because if we don’t push the envelope a little, we don’t learn how to push the envelope – as writers. And being a writer of vampire-romance and horror, exactly how far will censoring go until our governments tell us what to say, dress in, eat and watch on television… and speaking of which, the fashion industry is more slutty that what’s in a book.

    What we have to do is know what is right and what is wrong – as adults and writers – and judge for ourselves what should be sent off to the publishers before we send it off; then there won’t be problems like this cropping up.

  14. Congratulations Ladies and Gentlemen. In an era where the rights of the individual are continually deemed to trump the rights of the common good it is refreshing to read such balanced and reasonable posts. Censorship is one of those very tricky issues, like discrimination, as it could be argued that, theoretically at least, making a choice is a form of censorship; I choose A over B so hence discriminate positively in favour of A and negatively against B. For me in relation to this context true censorship would occur only if this novel was banned. A bookseller choosing to not stock it, for whatever reason is no different to a reader choosing to not buy it.

  15. Just as each of us has the right to decide what we will or won’t read, I think the bookseller has the right to decide what they will or won’lt stock. People who are desperate to read it can always buy it elsewhere.

  16. Booksellers, libraries already choose what they have available, not based on censorship but more mundane reasons eg space, cost. coverage and quality. if a bookseller believers a book is is likely to put off others from purchasing books at that store it is not censorship but good business for them not to stock that book. Also if the bookseller doesn’t, for their own moral values want to sell a book then what right have we to insist they do? Surely that is a restriction of their freedom?

    • I suppose. I’m just worried what this might lead to for other providers of books, that’s all. Just thinking of will this put pressure on others not to sell it or for the book to be banned, and then, I always wonder, where will that end because a situation like that will never please everyone. Just my thoughts

      • Ashleigh,
        Lady’s Chatterley’s Lover may have been banned but it still didn’t stop people get a hold of it. The human will is very strong in that regard.

        The Bible was banned in the Soviet Union and it still didn’t stop people successfully smuggling it in.

        And these two examples were pre-Internet days. If your bookseller doesn’t have it, it’s no great hardship to either go to another or simply purchase it online.

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