Reykjavík City Library has rejected books, deeming them too sexually explicit. One of the authors has stepped forward and criticised the decision.
“I never thought I’d meet this kind of restriction in Iceland because we’re known for being open minded, so it was a bit of a shock,” says writer Sigríður Jóhanna Valdimarsdóttir, who has written three romance novels and a number of short stories about gay men under the pseudonym Erica Pike. Only one book from her repertoire was accepted by the library. The answer she was given seemed to point toward too much explicit sex in her other books.
“The funny thing is that there are gay erotic romances available in conservative states in the USA, but in Iceland they’re considered inappropriate,” she points out and adds that one of the staff members of the library told her that they have a policy against accepting explicit sexual prose, be it LGBTQ+ books or hetero books.
“So it’s clearly not prejudice,” she says.
“But it seems that violence in books is okay; kids killing each other like in “The Hunger Games” or the art of murdering someone like in “Dexter”; romances with massive power-imbalance, for example “Fifty Shades of Grey”. Even a sexual relationship between an adult man and an underage girl, like in “Lolita”,” she says, referring to books already available at Reykjavík City Library (i. Borgarbókasafnið).
“But beautiful, passionate sex between two consenting adults who love each other is NOT okay. It doesn’t make much sense to me!”
Different levels of sex
Sigríður’s works were a part of 1.400 books that Samtökin ’78, the national queer organization, decided to donate to Reykjavík City Library, when the organization moved to its current location at Suðurgata 3 in Reykjavík. However, in the end the library accepted about two-thirds of the books. A large amount of rejected bookes fall into the category of gay romance novels.
Sigríður acknowledges that the sex in her books is graphic, but says that is actually the norm for gay romances. “We have different levels of sex in our books: “Sweet Romance” where there is no sex; “Romance” where there is tame sex; “Erotic Romance” where there are explicit scenes, but they are first and foremost romances (if you remove the sex you still have a great story); and “Erotica” where the story almost only revolves around sex. Most gay male romances are erotic romances. Most of mine are erotic romances,” explains Sigríður and because of that Reykjavík City Library would only accept one of her books, “Black Hurricane”, which has the least explicit sex.
Would you say that gay erotic romances are more explicit than the hetero ones?
“I don’t know. I never read hetero romances before I started reading gay romances. One of the libraries told me that “Fifty Shades of Grey” was acceptable because the sex scenes weren’t so direct. It was written as ”purple prose” – which means that the laguage is indirect, flowery – whereas my books aren’t. The problem with this is that I write primarily for gay men, and if I were to write the sex scenes in purple prose, I’d be laughed at,” she says.
According to Sigríður gay romances aren’t generelly writtine in the so called purple prose style. “We call body parts by their real names or the most common terms used for them. Musicians in Iceland are allowed to use those words, painters are allowed to showcase paintings of them in galleries, but somehow it’s inappropriate for Icelanders to borrow books with such language.” Sigríður shakes her head.
“I’ve wondered if I should write tame sex or none at all in my future romances so they can be available […], but I don’t want to censor myself that way. .”
Isn’t possible then that these books are simply too graphic for public libraries?
“If it’s a school library then they certainly aren’t appropriate. But adults are adults and they should be able to read what they like. One of the librarians I gave my books to accepted them with a smile and told me it wasn’t their job to censor books when I warned them about the sex. They ended up rejecting the books anyway.”
Important books not accessible
Sigríður says she’s fine with the library declining her own books. But she thinks it’s sad that the library is declining books by bestselling authors of gay romance. “Books that have important messages and shine a light on massive issues in the LGBTQ+ community; such as gay bashing, ostracism, bullying, homophobia, internalized homophobia, coming out of the closet, prejudice, etc. Most gay romances include one or more of these issues.
And many have happy endings, which is important for gay men and the general public to read about,” she points out. “But because of this rule against books with explicit sex people won’t be able to rent them now.”
Sigríður doesn’t think prejudice has anything to do with it. “Definately not. I think it has more to do with lack of knowledge and understanding of these books and the people who read them.”
Main photo: Author Sigríður Jóhanna Valdimarsdóttir criticises Reykjavík City Library for rejecting romances when it offers books like The Hunger Games and Fifty Shades of Grey which she finds violent. Photo of City Library by Jóhann Heiðar Árnason.