Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Fifty Shades of E.L. James

Read Charlotte Canelli's column in the July 27, 2012 edition of the Norwood Transcript and Bulletin or listen to the podcast on SoundCloud. Podcasts are archived on the Voices from the Library page of the library website.

It’s a tough job but somebody has to do it. That’s what I told myself when I began to read the first book in the ever-so-popular, ever-so-controversial Fifty Shades trilogy written by E.L. James.

Well, I’ve just finished the third book in the trilogy and I’ve lived to tell about it. Like I said, it’s a tough job but somebody has to do it.

When I decided to read the book in April all the existing library copies of the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy were out and so I purchased the book on my Kindle. I rarely buy a print book these days, preferring the green choice of borrowed library books or the digital versions. Realistically, I would have had to wait months for a library copy of the book. (Happily, we have purchased many more copies and our library readers in Norwood should have a much shorter wait.)

There are currently over a thousand requests in the Minuteman Library Network for the first in the trilogy, Fifty Shades of Grey. There are hundreds of more requests for the second and third books, Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed.

In March of this year it was estimated that 250,000 copies of the original paperback book had sold. It was published by the Coffee Shop Press, a print on demand publishing house in Australia.

Two months later, in May, over 3 million copies of the Vintage paperback trilogy had sold. In July that number (of copies in all formats - print, audio, large print) top 31 million copies sold worldwide.

Let’s back up a bit. There is a history here that’s interesting.

British writer Erika Leonard James first published Fifty Shades of Grey as Twilight fan fiction. Fan fiction, or fanfic, is literature posted on the web in which the writer creates a new story involving popular fictional characters. In fact, E.L. James’ original characters were named Edward Cullen and Bella Swan after Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight characters. The story was published as one in somewhat serial format by James who used the pen name, Snowqueens Icedragon. She called the “book” Master of the Universe. Fans flocked to James’ work online and within months she decided to contract with an Australian “vanity” or print-on-demand (POD) press called the Coffee Shop Press and published the book as three separate volumes. (For this reason, many versions of the book are listed in our library catalog. Our library does not have the Coffee Shop Press version but other Minuteman libraries do. There are limited copies of this first print version of the book.)

Once in print, interest in the book increased exponentially. Jumping on the bandwagon, Vintage Books (an imprint of Alfred K. Knopf publishing house) bought the rights to the story and Fifty Shades of Grey was released in paperback in early April. (There are now over 30 translations of the book worldwide.)

With the popularity of this rather exotic, definitely notorious, trilogy came debate which erupted across the library world. Librarians in Brevard County, Florida banned the book. Other librarians sniffed that the books were not good enough for their readers. Outrage ensued as booklovers clamored for the trilogy and the decision to ban the book in Brevard County was reversed.

Some librarians smiled. Readers were reading and unfiltered access had once again triumphed. That’s about when I decided to find out what the phenomenon in the book world was all about.

Let’s be frank here. E.L. James is nothing special as a writer. The book has moments of total cliché and predictability. One maddening peculiarity is that James is English and her expressions often are British, as well. The scenes are set in the American Northwest (Seattle and Portland.) ‘Shouty capitals’ (capital letters) and ‘nightdresses’ (nightgowns) really make no sense to us in the U.S. The problem was that James, along with many self-published authors, lacked an editor who would have caught this literary annoyance for the American reader.

The Fifty Shades of Grey story is not for the faint-hearted. Most librarians would be reluctant to highly recommend the book. Full disclosure must include warnings that there are elements that are shocking and many scenes might be considered distasteful and vulgar. Some reviewers have called the book pathological and poorly written. “Clunky prose” and “tortuous” are two uncomplimentary phrases. However, “guilty fun” and “eminently readable” are others.

I found that the books can’t really be simply categorized as romance or erotica. There are elements of mystery, suspense and chick lit. While one reader might chafe at the too-graphic descriptions, another might find Christian Grey a bit too handsome and Katherine Steel a bit too naïve. Certainly Christian’s past is extremely dark and Katherine’s need for hearts and flowers syrupy and formulaic. However, truth-be-told, beneath all the controversy is a story with conflict, emotional depth and resolution.

There also is no doubt that E.L. James, mother of two children, has written a series that has changed her life. In May of 2012, Time Magazine named her one of the 100 most influential people of the year. The books continue to sell and be borrowed in record numbers. Book groups across the country are reading and discussing at least one of the books. On the E.L. James’ website, a suggested soundtrack to each book is listed and readers are clamoring for the classical works of Bach, Chopin and Thomas Tallis. The recently-purchased film rights have made E.L. James very rich.

The good news for readers is that libraries across the country are purchasing multiple copies for a willing and eager reading audience. E.L. James might be a short-lived phenomenon or she may endure as J.K. Rowling, Stephenie Meyers, Stephen King and other similar authors whose works have been criticized for their content (magic, horror, vampirism) and the questionable quality of their writing. In the end, many of us will be entertained in this escape from reality – something that all literature is, after all, meant to do.

We have many copies of the E.L. James books in several formats, including speed reads, downloadable e-books and audio discs. If you would like to reserve any of these titles, please call the Reference or Information desks of the library, 781-769-0200, or reserve them in the Minuteman Library catalog.