Sunday, April 27, 2008

Joseph Beth Bookstore and Women Shutting Up

This past Sunday, the Post-Gazette featured the story of Jan Beatty and Joseph-Beth Bookstore, a flagship shop over at the Southside Works. Beatty, a highly regarded Pittsburgh based poet, has recently released a new poetry collection "Red Sugar" which includes some sexually explicit poems. I haven't read the collection so I cannot clarify exactly what that means.

However, Joseph-Beth wanted to invite Beatty to give a reading at her store. With a few "caveats" such as the store selecting the poems to be read, turning off the sound system or even a simple book signing without a reading.

Joseph-Beth is afraid of offending little pitchers. Or, let's be honest, offending their credit card bearing parents. They aren't so afraid that it keeps them from booking David Sedaris, who is no pansy when it comes to ribald and raunch. Or porn-star Ron Jeremy.

But, after all, they are men. I mean that's what I'm seeing here ... a little anti-Vagina Monologues backlash in the guide of private censorship.

Let me be precise. I am well-aware that Joseph-Beth has the right to discriminate against whomever they please in terms of setting up book readings. They can invite the porn star, but tell the female poet that her words don't warrant a microphone or that she should shut up and sit quietly signing her books. That's their right.

But let us not here make the misstep of parsing censorship. This isn't about protecting children from naughty words and sex. This is about protecting grown adults from their own distorted ability to embrace sexuality as a healthy part of our lives. They don't want the grown ups to freak out when little Susie overhears the words labia or nubile or whatever else she might possibly say. The kids aren't going to pay attention, assuming their parents are doing a reasonably good job of keeping them occupied and focused on their own books.

Let us also not forget that Jan Beatty is a well-regarded poet who has probably given many readings. In spite of that, Joseph-Beth doesn't trust Beatty to make good decisions about what materials to read in a family friendly bookstore. They trusted a male porn star, but they aren't trusting a female academic with a litany of professional credits.

So it clearly isn't about sex. It is about women and sex. Or women's views on sex. Or women's experiences of sex. That's what need to be kept hushed up. That is what might offend. Women's sexuality might hurt Joseph-Beth's bottom line. Women as sexual objects in male oriented pornography, well that probably brought in some new customers, after all.

Kudos to Jan Beatty for sticking to her ovaries and refusing to bow in the face of censorship.


  1. i read that in the paper and i was floored. i would have thought that of all people, a bookstore owner would understand not only freedom and the whole idea of how anything banned lit- wise is just terrible but also know that a poet's poems are us, they our like a piece of our spirits, our children, and we will defend them with a fierce love.
    i cheered her!!!!

  2. some years ago,i had some long discussions via e-mails with a friend and member of my poetry workgroup. he wanted to publish one of my poems in a on-line lit mag but i had used the work fuck in the poem and tho it did not bother him he was afraid that because some of the subscribers to the e-zine were still in high school it might cause some problems. he was(and is quite kind)
    and so we discussed it and he (being fellow a poet)decided i should keep it as it was and he would deal with any negative commments if they came our way.
    they didn't but i have no doubt that he would have defended my rights with every thing he had.

    he is an example of a person that understands how important our rights of speech are.

  3. Does anyone know for a fact that they let Ron Jeremy talk about whatever he wanted? Common sense tells me they sent guidlines for him to follow.
    I respect any persons right to think something is art if that is what they choose to think. But they also need to respect my right to think it isn't.
    No one is telling her she couldn't read her poetry, they are telling her there might be people in the store (like me) who might not appreciate it.
    It's a personal thing. One is not better than the other. Each one of us are different and we have our own likes and dislikes.
    They should provide a separate room for her to read so those who want to hear her, do, and those who don't well, they shouldn't have to.
    This is by no means censorship. Just a little respectful of other people.

  4. I'm more interested in bookstores that are interested in freedom of expression, myself, and was pretty surprised to hear this story. Interesting to note: Jan Beatty has read there before, without problems, and I did a reading there last summer, with two quite-raunchy male readers. We received enthusiastic thanks from the events coordinator after our reading, sold a number of books, etc. But when I contacted the store more recently to set up a 'small press' reading (as was our reading last summer), I learned that the events coordinator had changed. I wonder if there has been a policy shift at the store recently, since the new events person is clearly being backed by the owner's opinion about Beatty's reading.

  5. could be. i've never read any of my stuff in public. panic sets in but if it's an adult reading the poetry and it isn't advertised as a reading for children then i really don't understand the problem.

  6. Eileen,

    I doubt Jan Beatty is unaware of the fact that some people dislike her poetry or are offended by it. If Joseph-Beth wanted to protect the sensibilities of people who are offended by, well, whatever, they'd have to shut down.

    There is no such thing as the right to not be offended. Where would it end? How do you decide? Majority vote? Highest credit card limits?

    The scenario you describe is censorship -- moving the potentially offensive material to a separate room. Why not move the materials you choose to peruse to a separate room --- you could simply log on to Amazon, do some shopping and pick up your purchases at the front register on your way out. Why should I be denied the book store reading experience to protect your sensibilities?

    It is a slippery slope. I still say Joseph-Beth's choices with Ron Jeremy and David Sedaris make this a little more about women than simply sex.

  7. I think common sense has to take over here.
    This is a private business, therefore they get to choose what goes on inside their place of business. Just the same as I decide what goes on in my place of business. Customers who don't like it can go elsewhere. No big deal.
    We all have choices, that's what great about this country.

  8. Well, that's not entirely true. The marketplace has some impact on what happens in your place of business b/c its improbable that your personal preferences and choices would be an identical match for your customers.

    However, you may be right about common sense. Common sense tells me that this is a decision based on gender, not just sexuality. Do we as women want to patronize a business that stifles women's expression of sexuality, but promotes male expressions of sexuality?

  9. As a guy (really), I'd be much more offended having Ron Jeremy speak with my kids present than a poet -- and it doesn't matter that she speaks from a woman's perspective or mentions the word "vagina," heaven forbid. While I don't know that I agree with you on the gender angle, I think our culture -- and probably mainstream bookstores -- are extremely hung up on sex of any kind (and I would say esp. gay sex). A silly "wardrobe malfunction" causes a moral meltdown, let's not forget. How much healthier we'd all be if we all weren't so damn repressed about sex.