Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Is 'Fifty Shades of Grey' a good thing?

Fifty Shades of Grey.

I'm pretty sure it conjures up a mixture of opinions for people, myself included. I'm also sure it conjures up some amazement for numerous reasons, mostly to the fact it has sold a million copies for the Amazon Kindle alone and that it sold faster than any of the modern greats such as Lord of the Rings, Twilight or Harry Potter. I hear some of you cry, Harry Potter!? Totally true.
My question is: why is this book dubbed 'mummy porn' one of the fastest selling books of the 21st Century so far? And is this a good or bad thing?

I work in a bookshop, as I have said before. I remember a couple of months ago when the book was first released in the UK after the successful run in the US, so around March 2012. I was standing at the counter with my American colleague, Alice*. This middle aged woman with spectacles perched on her nose came to the tills, obviously about to launch into a series of questions for a book she wanted. Her question was: 'I'm looking for that book that's big in the US. 'Fifty' something? Do you know it?'

Funnily enough, I did. I pointed to the counter where a few copies had been placed as, well, we didn't know where else to put them. Picking it up, the lady looked at the blurb before asking us did we know why it was popular, what it was about and so forth. After a small conversation, she bought the book and then continued on her way saying she's heard it was 'life changing' from a friend therefore 'it had to be good'.
Ah, the innocent public then. Intrigued to what it was about, Alice and myself were talking about what we'd heard about it which was, well, not much at this point. After a small bit of Googling, we found it was a 'romance bordering erotica' novel. We were pretty intrigued.
It was this moment we picked up the book on the counter and flicked through it. Alice looked at it first and from the horror on her face, it just said it all. So, that was how I found out about the series named 'Fifty Shades of Grey'. We flicked through for another few minutes before replacing it on the shelf and looking at each other in disgust. When I say, EVERY PAGE, I mean EVERY PAGE has some kind of sexual reference. 

For the record, I'm okay with sex in books. I'm 17, for Christ's sake, and sat through many awkward sex education classes with boys looking at the girls in fear with the knowledge they'll have to touch THAT and worse, girls can bear children? Shock! Horror!
However, there are extremes in books where the sex is just, too much. I want some real issues, not just an indepth analysis of the event. I can imagine this is what this book is like. For me, erotica fiction recalls the past memories of finding a massive box of Miles and Boon novels in the Oxfam I used to work in and the small half of a shelf at the end of Fiction in the bookshop I work in which is the 'Erotica' shelf. Needless to say, it's a genre that doesn't do too well.

So why the sudden phenomenon of Fifty Shades of Grey? I think we need to realise what this series started out as. Which is fan-fiction of TWILIGHT of all books. Remember that big thing in 2008 when the first movie came out (I was NOT part of it)? This book started out on a fan-fiction website of Twilight. She was forced to leave for the, ahem, racy nature of her books and started her own website An Australian publisher caught on to the series and made it into an e-book and then when the popularity increased, Random House bought the rights to publish it as a paperback. And the rest is history. Well, it is after a film company then bought the film rights. So, Fifty Shades, THE MOVIE, anyone?
I have a bias view as I find the book unappealing and slightly disturbing that this is the book that grips the world to buy more than Harry Potter or even the Hunger Games. I can certainly think of better literature to have sold a million copies on Amazon Kindle. I have always thought that, since that day in March when I discovered this series. Even when the first flocks of people came in to buy it, it never clicked this was the next 'big thing'. And even if it was, I was still never going to read it.

It was only until last weekend when I was working that I realised the extend of the popularity for the series. We opened at 11:30 with three shelves full right by the front door to the shop with the three books. At around 12:30 and after a huge rush of customers, my collegue at the time came up to the counter with an face of confusion holding a single copy of Fifty Shades of Grey proclaiming 'We only have one copy left'.
That's right, my bookshop sold out of Fifty Shades of Grey and Fifty Shades Darker, the second book in the series. Which left us with 50-odd copies of the third book, Fifty Shades Freed. After looking on the system, there were 200 copies on order. 200! It was this moment when I was bewilderment at why this book was chosen by the English population to be one of the most fastest-selling books of this side of 2010 that I realised that perhaps my disgust is a bad thing.

No, I have not had a change of heart and want to read this series because, as many customers have told me, it is 'life-changing' (this is normally answered with a smile and nod thinking 'seriously?'). Despite the numerous times I am asked have I read it, would I recommend it, even by my friends, my answer will always be 'Well a lot of people have been buying it...'
However, in some ways I can't hate this phenomenon too much really. A bookshop is starting to fade from existence with the use of Amazon. Borders have disappeared in America. Waterstones have resorted to an alliance with Amazon to sell their Kindles (my thoughts on that are a totally different blog post). The bookshop, believe it or not, is dying sadly with a cheaper alternative of Amazon taking its place. People are tight with their cash these days so no wonder Amazon is always the first look place when looking for 'that book you want to read but don't want to spend too much'. I admit, I use Amazon but if I can, I try not to.
Anyway, this book has mostly done well online; unsurprisingly with the subject matter, I don't think I'd want people to know I was reading it. But as demonstrated at my work, it also has done well in bookshops with the physical form. So perhaps E.L.James is all we needed to keep the bookshop alive right? This is encouraging more and more people to go outside and buy the book in their local bookshop. I understand the opposite argument would be 'But a million hits online?'. True, but the way I see it, people jump on bandwagons. All the time. People want a book that other people have recommended it, more than just one person.
Could it be said that Fifty Shades of Grey is really what was needed to get people back into reading? From this, they discover new books, perhaps related, go to bookshops, buy from publishers and overall, keep the physical book alive instead of the increase the e-book. I know some people read e-books religiously but in reality, it is keeping them reading and, the way I view this, if that means they keep reading, they encourage others to keep reading which helps the publishers, which helps the bookshops - either commercial or independent. I want to work in the publishing industry, a career I am always told will never last by the time I get around to getting a full-time job. So something like this has to be a good thing to keep a centuries old profession alive in times like now, right?

So what am I saying? I'm saying that despite the fact that most of us turn our noses with disgust thinking the most used book of the London commuters is this erotica fiction rather than some light-hearted romance or dense historical novel, despite all that - this book is keeping the idea of a good old book alive. It is keeping it going for the foreseeable future in my opinion. Because although the whole Fifty Shades of Grey thing will end by the time 2013 rolls around, people still have this book on their shelves or their computer reminding them 'Hey, what about some other books, some company on this shelf?'
I will never read this series. But I have lift my hat up to E.L.James for getting the nation, and the world, reading again. Thanks for securing my future.

Write what you think about Fifty Shades of Grey below or tweet me at @rebeccabooks - I really want to know what you guys think. 

*this isn't her real name but you know, it's not fair to proclaim her name on the internet - she's so nice. 


  1. I feel I ought to read this book, because I've read enough about it and looked at it enough to have strong opinions about the writing and the characters - the explicit content isn't what bothers me so much, though I'm quite uneasy about how mainstream it's become. I'm dreading everyone else jumping on the bandwagon to flood the markets with similar books. I'm glad it's got people reading and buying and talking about books, but why this one? (It ain't for its literary value. ;) I too work in a bookshop, and this afternoon, when we'd sold out of the first book, about two in every three customers I spoke to asked for it. I've never known anything like it.

  2. I really don't get the appeal in reading such a, erm, sexual book. It's just a bit odd, but I suppose everyone has their own opinion. Also, check it my new blog if you get a chance :)


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