Book Review

The End of Obscenity by Charles Rembar

interesting book of the legal history of removing literary censorship

Written August 22nd

I bought this book a couple of months ago from one of my favourite bookstores, Biblioasis in Windsor, Ontario. Why this bookshop is a particular favourite of mine is for a very simple reason – it’s quite possibly the only new books and secondhand books combined shop that doesn’t just rely on remaindered stock to fill the “new” shelves. It’s a well curated, good sized bookshop, with an excellent, varied and very affordable secondhand bookstore at the rear, in a space I imagine was historically used for the sale of pornographic (or otherwise contraband) books.

I’m thinking about banned books, about sex books, about dingy little backrooms stacked with slimy paperbacks that smell a little seminal (as in “like semen” not “important” – are the two meanings of that homonym/homophone/homograph the English language’s starkest example of linguistic patriarchy?), because the book I just read was all about those kind of books, and about how – in the US at least – censorship slackened and people became able to access literary descriptions of hardcore super sex with much more ease.

Like the loosening of British censorship a couple of years later, the dirty book that really got things rolling was Lady Chatterley’s Lover, which is one of my all time favourite reads.

On the rare occasions where I can’t work out the source of a pressing need to cry but have to have something to focus on so that the purging catharsis of a cry still happens, I think about the ending of Lawrence’s final novel and weep.

It’s a beautiful novel about sexual love and about classism and about the destructive effects of repression, silence and a failure to adapt to the self. I’ve probably written that exact same sentence on this blog a thousand times, but it holds up: there are few novels that have such a potent hold on my literary mind. Some others? Tender is the Night, the two “serious” books I’ve had published and I don’t know, there have to be others. There have to be, right?

This book – which is a little too long tbh – is a fascinating insight into the erosion of censorship laws, written by a lawyer who led many landmark cases to encourage the liberalisation of publishing. He goes through the process to reverse bans for Chatterley, then Anaïs Nin’s boyfriend’s Tropic of Cancer and the infamous eighteenth century masturbatory aid, Fanny Hill, or, The Memoirs of A Woman of Pleasure.

The reason why the book drags a bit is because, essentially, the same argument is used to secure the legal publication of all three books: that the First Amendment of the American Constitution protects free speech, and that a book cannot be dismissed as obscene and banned if it has any redeeming qualities at all. 

There’s lots of fun to be had as Rembar details the dull prudes he is repeatedly arguing against, but his legal claim is upheld repeatedly by multiple smaller courts and then, eventually by the Supreme Court: a book may not be considered illegally obscene if it has “any merit at all”.

The thing is, though, is that this is an inherently repressive and conservative argument: that Chatterley is a beautiful work of prose fiction about love and sex is not “in spite of” all the graphic descriptions of sex and an Australianesque use of the word “cunt”, it is because of this. That books should only be permitted to be published if they have “some literary quality” is not only elitist, but it’s also bullshit: the vast majority of books, even the ones with no rude words or descriptions of oral sex, are absolutely trash, and I’m sure anyone who’s read more than ten novels will be able to attest to that. If terrible, chaste, fiction does not need to justify its own existence, why must average, mediocre or even excellent fiction that happens to have sex in claim its own intellectual value?

This isn’t something Rembar is ignorant of, and he acknowledges this, slightly, in the text. There are lots of asides and digressions about standard legal practice, about relevant historical cases, but ultimately Rembar is writing a book about mainstream fiction to be published by a mainstream press (this is a Random House first edition): the bluntness of my own words would not have been appropriate for him.

Also, it was written over 50 years ago, and times change.

Rembar wrote about the purpose of his role: it was to win the trial within the traditional modes of American law, and though I understand that this was the situation he was in, the fact that the government used to be able to seize books they deemed to contain “excess sex” is crazy.

If people want to read a book to get themselves turned on for a wank, then let them. Who cares? Too many people, it turns out, and this is still something that persists today, with a famous porn website this week moving to ban sexually explicit content (a decision that was very publicly reversed in the time between typing this blog and me remembering to publish it).

Prudes are still around, and they still exert control.

When I asked Open Pen to include a professionally-shot photograph of my naked, tho flaccid, penis in the first edition of Bad Boy Poet, they refused. Luckily, tho, I was able to release those photos in a book I self-published, which is something no government on earth can control (maybe?).

Thank god, I suppose, for Charles Rembar. Without him, my book of “comedy poems” and full frontal nudes would be illegal. And I think we can all agree that without Because Earth Is Flat, the world would be a much sadder – and rounder – place.

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