Should We Protect the Grown-Ups?

Elizabeth Bluemle -- July 7th, 2011

As a children’s bookseller, I’m used to dancing the delicate line between guidance and censorship, championing readers’ freedom and respecting/honoring their choices while also trying to steer young people toward books that will most resonate with who and where they are personally and developmentally. Basically, I’ve had fifteen years’ experience doing gut-checks on readers and books when I’m asked for help. What I never expected was to find myself needing to do the same for adults, with adult reading.

Recently, I become enamored of an adult nonfiction title called Shameless: How I Ditched the Diet, Got Naked, Found True Pleasure, and Somehow Got Home in Time to Cook Dinner, by Pamela Madsen. It’s the story of the author’s midlife crisis, her growing realization that somewhere along the way, she’d lost an important piece of herself: the full sense of her identity independent of her societal roles. Most notably, her sense of self as a sexual being. A successful fertility advocate and happy wife and mother, the author had her act together but felt that something big was missing, and she set out to find it.

I love this book as an adult book-group choice because it addresses so many issues familiar to women in our community’s book groups: sex, marriage, motherhood, aging, weight, body image, identity, shame, fear, courage, risk. Even better—in terms of fodder for discussion—is that it’s wildly controversial; I guarantee you that no group of readers will all be in agreement on the nature of the path of self-discovery on which Madsen embarks. (That’s a convoluted way of saying she gets sexy, big-time, and in unconventional, sometimes uncomfortable, ways.) The book is direct and fearless and does not always portray the author in the best possible light. Whether or not you agree with her methods or conclusions, there’s no denying that the memoir takes on a goodly number of personal preoccupations likely to be on the minds of American women over the age of forty. Book group gold! Right? Well, sort of.

While the reaction of individual readers I’ve recommended this book to has been almost uniformly appreciative (one woman did feel guilty even leafing through it), my book-group success has been mixed. I have one book group who wants the author in Vermont yesterday to talk about Shameless; another wants to string me up by my thumbs for recommending such salacious “trash.” Now, I understand that not everyone wants to spend his or her book group time reading and talking about sexuality, but what’s got me puzzling is the intense discomfort of this latter book group.

I was told about a burst of shocked and angry emails that flew fast and furiously after Shameless was announced as the next read. What struck both me and the book group member who talked to me about these emails was the reaction to its very topic — as though sexuality should be recognized as too taboo, too charged, to serve as an appropriate part of a book worth reading and discussing. At most, I expected people to say, “It’s not my cup of tea.” What I wasn’t prepared for is the sense that I should be censoring recommendations to adults, the sense that I would somehow be disturbing the fabric of the universe by suggesting that women might be interested in reading about the experiences of a peer who made different choices from the ones they themselves might make.

I’ve noticed this also with politics, religion, and other hot-button issues: a discomfort (among very well-educated people) to discuss dissenting ideas. Fear of disagreement. An end-run around controversy. Have I been desensitized by my college years at UC Berkeley, or by spending the bulk of my life in large, liberal cities? Is it just me, or has America swung a bit backward on the pendulum, toward Puritanism and discomfort with ideas different from those held by the reader? Heck, maybe I’m expecting us to be western Europe. Whatever the case, I’m surprised. I guess that’s the nub of what this blog post is about: wondering if we are all seeing a creeping increase in closed-mindedness. Do we want every book to be a mirror of ourselves?

How is this related to children’s bookselling? Well, dear readers, I suppose my mind travels down this path: If we adults are so averse to controversy, so alarmed by that which might prove to be uncomfortable, how will we raise our children to think critically, to discern, to debate, to wonder and explore?

And do I now need to worry not only about what I recommend to kids, but to adults?

12 thoughts on “Should We Protect the Grown-Ups?

  1. Rex Ryan

    An interesting discussion is worth comment. I think that you should write more on this topic, it might not be a taboo subject but generally people are not enough to speak on such topics. To the next. Cheers

  2. Pingback: Update on the Topic of Shameless(ness) « ShelfTalker

  3. Anne Violette

    Your post is well written and subjective. I like the fact that you are taking a neutral position and trying to see both sides from the perspective of the author, as well as the readers and even from those who oppose or reject the book.

    As a writer myself, it can be difficult to step into this role. It is tempting as part of human nature to inject our own views and opinions to others, rather than letting people form their own opinions. As a ghostwriter I am often stifled by what my clients will “allow” me to put in their stories. I have a unique perspective of seeing the whole picture but very often when people write or publish a book they “leave out” those parts of their lives that are too embarrassing or taboo to talk about. Are we leaving out the truth by leaving out pieces of our lives?

    Although I have not read Shameless, I can get a sense from your blog and the readers who have commented that the author is presenting her true self, even those things for which she may not be proud of. I’ve had clients request to leave out entire pieces of their lives that they do not want everyone to know about. How compelling is that?

    As humans we can’t go into the past and change things after the fact. Of course we can make better decisions for our actions at the time they occur, but everyone has a skeleton in the closet. Even Christians. Even politicians. Everyone. No matter their race, religion, culture, zodiac sign or the way they were raised… everyone has something they feel shameful for but most people lock it far away for no one to know about or see. I’m not saying this is neither good, nor bad. It is just REALITY.

  4. Carol B. Chittenden

    Our bookstore’s reading group is all women, but there’s a variety of views and life experiences within that. Some would find Shameless interesting, some would rather die than carry such a book into their homes, some would read it with a nervous giggle. But all want to sit down together for a relaxing evening of literary conversation, friends at the beginning and friends at the end. A subject so personal would feel very risky.

    Perhaps the bitter, intolerant polarization of our national political conversation is all the intellectual risk we can stand, leaving little margin for the rest of our social experiences. It will be interesting to see how those attitudes rub off on the next generation.

  5. Mike Perry

    Perhaps we all need to be less libertine in our literary tastes. That’d do each us some good and be a great boon for our society. Those tastes are more than a little responsible for our one-miilion-plus yearly abortions, as well as all the kids growing up miserably in broken homes. Why? Undoubtedly because one of both their parents were “Shameless” when they abandoned what Elizabeth Bluemle so unfeelingly dismisses as “our societal roles.” Sorry, but umping one’s wife and three kids for a 20-year old dyed-blonde waitress is a bit more than that.

    In comparison, the Puritans’ worst crime, the 1692 Salem Witch Trials, led to about three dozens deaths. Even more important, public opinion, including that of the clergy, quickly turned against the witch hunt. We’ve had legalized abortion for almost forty years. Where’s the shame there? I certainly see none.

    No, the modern champions of “shameless” sexuality really are true to that name. They show no indication of having any sense of shame about the harm they inflict on millions of others. They’d rather rise up self-righteously and blame their critics for being “averse to controversy, so alarmed by that which might prove to be uncomfortable.”

    We don’t need to sneeringly “protect the grownups” who dislike books such as Shameless. There’s a lot of good sense in what they’re saying. Instead, we need to criticize much more loudly those librarians and others who’re oblivious to all the pain and suffering that a libertine society creates.

    1. Elizabeth Bluemle Post author

      My post wasn’t about the moral underpinnings of Shameless (which you likely haven’t read, since your examples don’t really apply to what this book addresses), but about the curious reaction of adults to reading and discussing any kind of subject matter that may differ from their own codes, credos, beliefs, or experiences. It’s a concern about losing the art of spirited debate, and puzzlement over the idea of being threatened by ideas themselves.

  6. Janet

    I think the more open, sex-positive discussions we have as adults and then with our children, the healthier we will all become in our attitudes and expressions of sexuality. Shameless was respectful, thoughtful, and wonderfully honest. I applaud Madsen for writing it, and you for recommending it. If a reader doesn’t want to read it, fair enough. But to suggest it shouldn’t be recommended- no way.

  7. Stephanie Scott

    You hit when you said Puritanical; I absolutely agree there is an undercurrent of not only shame about sexuality, but a desire to censor it even from adults. I think it’s evident in certain regions of the country where sex education is not allowed in public schools, or highly discouraged. We are even afraid to educate about sexuality, let alone discuss or explore it!

    Unfortunately, the disconnect arises when the negative sexual images get free reign and there’s a lack of education for a balance. I’m glad you are suggesting the book, but I’m not surprised at all by pushback against it. I have a background in Christian faith and see a lot of mixed messages, fear and shame. Some people grow up being told sex is wrong and bad and then magically have to alter that thinking when they get married and sex is deemed “Ok.” More often than not, people aren’t waiting to get married anyway, and the lack of education and resources leads to a whole host of other issues…

  8. Sandy

    What an interesting post!
    Does this also suggest that readers are self-selecting the circles in which they meet/socialize, share reading choices? I inferred that from the indication that the rash of emails were from members of particular groups (vs. other groups). It’s a sad thought that not only does “new” media allow us to intentionally narrow our exposure to ideas/beliefs beyond our own, but that social/structured encounters are doing the same.
    As a retired teacher it reminds me of why I always preferred working with kids rather than adults- more open, eager to learn, and with MUCH more potential for growth, in most cases. Keep at the stretching/discovery choices for young readers, Josie- they are our only hope, I fear.

  9. William Belle

    An interesting review and some unsurprising feedback from your book group. We in North America remain very much hung up about our sexuality. It is disgusting, dirty and should remain locked up in the confines of our own homes. It is precisely this puritanical attitude which I see so often translated into a general sky is falling assessment of our society and its issues. We’re all going to somewhere in a hand cart. Rather than addressing the issues head on, we try to avoid them or cover them up. It’s the skeleton in the closet we hope never sees the light of day. What an unfortunate legacy we are passing on to the next generation.

  10. Dike Drummond

    What a great functional midlife crisis parable. When it is done well, your midlife crisis is about finding the “true pleasure” the title references.

    It is not about running away from something, it is about figuring out what to “run towards” … what to build into your life as we change over time. That process takes a LOT of questioning the status quo and pushing beyond your current comfort zone. If you don’t take on this exploration as you age … I believe it leads to that “life of quiet desperation”

    My two cents,

    Dike
    Dike Drummond MD
    http://www.threehourmidlifecrisis.com

  11. Brian

    Dear Ms. Blumle,

    Thanks for your post. I’d say that the way out of the conundrum is to expose everyone, children included, to any written material that exists. (I could make a case for “protecting” kids from visual materials) I learned discernment, debate, and critical thinking because my parents did not censor my reading. I learned about sex from Kinsey, war from Churchill and inhumanity from the Nazis (with pictures).

    I don’t know if you are correct about a social trend towards less comfort with controversy. Perhaps Berkeley (apostrophized) is to blame in teaching us “political correctness” to an excessive degree, such that actual honest disagreement on deeply important matters risks too much in the way of hurt feelings.

    Brian

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