From NYTimes.com/Richard Perry
I was up all night reading about 50 Shades of Grey. I admit it. What kept me up wasn’t the book itself, but the idea of the book, the phenomenon of its success, its contentious appeal, and its unlikely origins. Whatever you think or have heard about its quality or content, it is undeniable. 50 Shades of Grey has happened.
If circulation librarians were surfers, 50 Shades of Grey is like our wave of a lifetime. I can't help but be in awe of the worldwide demand for this book. By the time you read this, the numbers will be higher, but currently there are 635 patron requests/holds on the book at the San Francisco Public Library. At the Hennepin County Public Library in the Minneapolis area, there are 2,155 holds. At your local library, there are 202 MCFL users waiting to get their hands on the book. By comparison only 42 are waiting for this week’s #1 New York Times bestseller, James Patterson’s 11th Hour.
The creator of the Fifty Shades trilogy, E.L. James, signed a seven-figure contract. And the deal has paid off for Knopf. More than 10 million copies of the books have been sold in the United States in its first six weeks. If books are dying and the publishing market is contracting, what are the implications of such a multi-million dollar outlier? And what does it mean when the outlier is erotica?
Is 50 Shades even a book?
I’ve heard journalists, protestors, coworkers, and readers themselves identify Fifty Shades of Grey as anything but a ‘book.’ It’s smut. It’s blockbuster smut. “It’s a silly/stupid/horrible thing that my neighbor/sister/mother/book group said I HAD to read. I really don’t want to, but.” Talking with readers, I witness an electric array of emotions: shame, guilt, fear, disgust, curiosity, anger, desire and dismissal. I can tell by their responses. My coworker may dismiss the book flatly with "sex sells," but I think there’s still more to unpack.
For some reason--because of its success, or its subject matter, or style, or even its origins--Fifty Shades of Grey is denied the title of "book" along with the rights and the responsibilities that define the sacred object. Instead, Fifty Shades is treated as a commodity, a reprieve, or a measure of one’s propriety or aesthetic values. As a non-book, it is subject to fascinating scrutiny.
Maybe you’ve heard, libraries across the country are refusing to stock the book. In this trying time for libraries, when acquaintances react like I’m some sad grave digger of knowledge when I tell them where I work, how could we turn away hundreds, if not thousands, of eager readers? Do we really want “ban,” “remove,” and “refuse” to be the verbs most closely associated with libraries in the headlines? To what extent should we be assessing and censoring the materials we provide and what factor does popularity play in our decision?
A FanFiction of FanFiction
E.L. James started writing Shades of Grey because she really really loved Twilight. This is my favorite part of the meta-50 Shades saga. The story started in the depths of the internet, where fangirls and fanboys meet in a virtual, collaborative storyboard. Readers express their devotion to their favorite fictional characters by creating original stories using Harry or Frodo or Uhura. I like Lev Grossman's, author of The Magicians, description of the fan fiction genre:
Fan fiction is what literature might look like if it were reinvented from scratch after a nuclear apocalypse by a band of brilliant pop-culture junkies trapped in a sealed bunker. They don’t do it for money. That’s not what it’s about. The writers write it and put it up online just for the satisfaction. They’re fans, but they’re not silent, couchbound consumers of media. The culture talks to them, and they talk back to the culture in its own language.
I don’t read fan fiction, despite some intense peer pressure in high school. But I do sympathize. It’s subversive, meta, marginal, a DIY process that draws me in as an observer. And that’s how 50 Shades of Grey started. It went viral on a fan fiction site and grew into a deal with Australia's Writer's Coffee Shop Publishing--selling 250,000 eBooks and paperbacks. James then cashed in on that small success for a glamorous contract with Vintage. Fifty Shades of Grey is strangely complex, in that it occupies both a marginal and a mainstream place in American culture and in the library. If E.J. James can be credited with anything, it is introducing a book that causes all of us--readers, non-readers, and reading enthusiasts--to reevaluate our boundaries and our purpose.
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