The Fanny Hill Phenomenon
by Tevi Troy
MENTION FANNY HILL TODAY and you will be surprised at the number of people who claim familiarity with it. Considering that it is a mildly pornographic, 240-year-old novel that is almost wholly devoid of literary merit, it is surprising that anyone has heard of it, let alone read it.
Fanny Hill's staying power derives entirely from attempts to ban it. The novel was banned in Boston by Anthony Comstock in the late nineteenth century, and it subsequently became treasured by pubescent boys everywhere for the infamous "good parts"—which appear on almost every page. Of course, if Mr. Comstock had not decided to protect the minds of young men from "filth," boys today would never have heard of Fanny Hill (nor, for that matter, would historians have heard of Comstock).
Although the American struggle for independence ended two centuries ago, we are still impelled to resist perceived tyranny as frequently and flagrantly as possible. During the last five years, the most common manifestation of this need has been the way we have dealt with cultural "forbidden fruits"—works decried by protesters as offensive or sacrilegious. This attraction—call it the American Liberty Impulse—recurs, turning sure-fire flops into controversial blockbusters. Fox Broadcasting Company recently benefited from this peculiar American proclivity, much to the chagrin of Terry Rakolta. In early 1989, Rakolta, a Michigan housewife, appeared on the front page of the New York Times and on many major talk shows, decrying the evils of the television sitcom "Married... With Children" for its lewd comments and general perversion of traditional family values. Her protests backfired, in the best tradition of the American Liberty Impulse: Fox scored a ratings coup on its road to respectability; evidently unhurt by a boycott by Pepsi and other sponsors, "Married" increased in popularity, reaching the number-one spot in the ratings soon after Rakolta's objections appeared in the Times.
The surprise success of "Married" drew viewers to Fox and to Matt Groening's irreverent "The Simpsons" as well. The eponymous Simpsons are even more naughty than the Bundys and hence even more repellent to Rakolta and her supporters. Rakolta, who claimed to favor not censorship but "responsible programming," returned to obscurity. Ironically, her attempt to purvey Cosbyesque values indirectly resulted in the greatest challenge yet to Cosby's primetime dominance, from a decidedly anti-Cosby upstart. "The Simpsons" now competes with "Cosby," TV's ratings champ, on Thursday night. Although "Cosby" still leads, "The Simpsons" has dislodged "Cosby" from its perennial position among the top five programs.(Also not surprising: the ubiquitous Bart Simpson T-shirts became even more popular when a California principal tried to ban them from his school.) Rakolta, as well as a host of other would-be censors—religious, moral, and political—could have learned a valuable lesson, saved herself untold embarrassment, and better accomplished her ends by paying closer attention to the American Liberty Impulse instead of thumbing her nose at it.
Sympathy for the Censured?
A number of factors account for the American attraction to the forbidden or controversial. According to recent public opinion polls, Americans place a higher value on individual choice than do people in many other nations. One poll shows that fewer than half of Americans believe that wearing seat belts should be required by law, compared to over 80 percent who do in Great Britain, Austria, Italy, Germany, and Australia. In addition, Americans like to flaunt authority. Jaywalking is a national pastime here, but it is frowned on in Europe. Fewer than 50 percent of the citizenry here vote (only 33 percent in the 1990midterm election), partly because of apathy or general satisfaction, but also because Americans don't like to be told what to do.
Although forbidden fruits are attractive to all men, Americans seem to find them especially captivating. The rap group 2 Live Crew profited for a short time from the efforts of Bob Martinez, then governor of Florida, to ban its sexually explicit "As Nasty AsThey Wanna Be" album. At a time when rap had just barely broken into mainstream culture via sellout rappers like M.C. Hammer and Vanilla Ice, wholly obnoxious lyrics from a hard-core rap group like Crew would not have been expected to go platinum. But that's exactly what they did. According to the New York Times just before the October1990 obscenity trial, "police harassment transformed 2 Live Crew into multimillion-selling stars." The embarrassing imbroglio may have helped Lawton Chiles defeat Governor Martinez, but it certainly made Crew lead rapper Luther Campbell a pop icon and hero. Furthermore, respectable academics like Henry Louis Gates, Jr., recently moved from Duke University to Harvard, gave Crew's crass rubbish intellectual validity by comparing the Crew's lyric-writers to Shakespeare and lauding them as "literary geniuses." Now that the trial is over and Crew exonerated, interest in the group has dwindled. A recent pay-tv Crew special was cancelled due to apathy, and the band has been playing to empty theaters, demonstrating that American sympathy for censured artists, although powerful, is often ephemeral.
Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ represents another of this idiosyncratic American Liberty Impulse. It received many terrible reviews and might have gotten more had it not been so politically correct—to use the current vernacular—to approve of the film in the face of the fundamentalist furor. A three-hour bore, The Last Temptation would not have tempted many filmgoers without the publicity generated by the mass protests the film engendered. Instead, spurred on by fundamentalist objections to the film's allegedly heretical depiction of Jesus, The Last Temptation attracted both the curious and those wanting to spite televangelist Pat Robertson. The film drew around-the-block lines in major metropolitan areas, eventually earning $8.2 million for what, by all rights, should have been a monumental flop.
Solidarity with the Censored
Salman Rushdie also achieved fame as a result of religious protests. Phantasmagorical books like The Satanic Verses do not usually sell many copies, but Rushdie scored the ultimate negative review from the Western world's bête noire, the late Ayatollah Khomeini. When the Ayatollah issued his death threat against Rushdie in early 1989, Americans responded by rushing to the bookstores. Rushdie's over-long volume seemed to be the book that nobody read but everyone bought, just to make a statement.
Peter Wright's Spycatcher became the most sought-after book in England after Margaret Thatcher temporarily prevented its publication in 1987. Spy-catcher was eventually published in England the following year, although anyone who really wanted a copy while the ban was in effect was able to find one. It also did well on the American best-seller lists despite its diminished relevance and uncensored status; just the thought of a book banned in another liberal democracy sufficiently whetted American appetites. Spycatcher, a tiresome tome whose theme is, "I told you so," resembles the popular, ghostwritten, self-serving I 980s autobiographies like Mayor. Trump, and Jacocca. All of these books hit the best-seller lists because they were written about media icons; Spycatcher's success stemmed instead from Mrs. Thatcher's misjudgment.
The extent to which protesters' miscalculations can cause a censorship backlash is perhaps best illustrated by the furor surrounding Victor Ostrovsky's "By Way of Deception". This book was not just an embarrassment to the Israeli government as Spycatcher was to Mrs. Thatcher's, it was a threat to Israel's relationship with the United States. In the post-Cold War, post-Intifada political environment, many felt that the book's revelations of Israeli callousness toward the American government could result in severe cutbacks in American aid. So Israel foolishly attempted to halt its distribution in the United States and Canada and, in the process, catapulted Ostrovsky's book, which had been widely discredited by reviewers and experts, to the top of the best-seller lists. If the Nixon administration could not prevent the publication of the Pentagon Papers, which dealt with similar material 20 years ago, the Israelis should have known that they, as a foreign government, could not succeed. In addition, the furor created by the Pentagon Papers' not-so-revealing revelations should have warned the Israelis that they were pouring water on a grease fire. Despite its appearance at a time when the appetite for Mossad exposés should have been satiated by Dan Raviv and Yossi Melman's superior book Every Spy a Prince, the initial print run for "By Way of Deception" was increased from 10,000 to over 100,000, and word of the Mossad's dealings circulated in most periodicals—exactly the opposite effect the Israeli government had desired.
Protest is, and should be, an integral part of the American way of life. Interest groups, however, should be circumspect in their protestations in order to avoid encouraging the expansion of what they consider objectionable. If the protester is disliked or—like Rakolta—rankles people, the backlash is exacerbated, encouraging spite purchases made to anger the protesting group and drive home the point that their criticisms have encouraged such behavior. It has been rumored that ABC removed the controversial show "Soap" from its lineup because the Moral Majority threatened that its one million angry members would not watch the network's shows or buy its sponsors' products unless that "filth" was removed from the air. (Actually, "Soap" was mild compared to some other shows.) But the fact that the story cannot be confirmed may reinforce the point. The Moral Majority administered quiet pressure to get what it wanted. Without a fuss, "Soap" disappeared.
Although many people in positions of power could profit from this lesson, recent events demonstrate that it will not be learned soon. Bret Easton Ellis's "American Psycho" was pulled from production at the last moment when the publishers belatedly realized that it had no socially redeeming qualities whatsoever. Picked up immediately by a profit hungry publishing house, it is now-because of the rapidly brewing controversy-an incipient best-seller.