I have just finished reading the novel Fifty Shades of Grey, by E. L. James. Everyone is talking about this book. You can’t open a newspaper or magazine, or turn on the TV, without a discussion about Grey and its two sequels. And it’s being discussed at the Library, as you can imagine. Is it erotica? Mommy porn? Fantasy? Or is it just a hot, sexy romance? Meanwhile, Library customers have placed hundreds upon hundreds of holds on the books, from throughout the County in our shared online catalog.
When I told them at my hairdresser’s, “I am reading Fifty Shades of Grey as a self-imposed work assignment,” they laughed. But really, that’s why I did it. I ultimately feel responsible for all the books we buy at Main, so I thought I should know first-hand what all the talk is about.
Choosing books to include in the library’s collection is a serious responsibility. Books are selected by librarians, and they must meet certain criteria. Check out, for example, the fiction criteria from the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh Collection Development Policy. Because of the unprecedented high demand, and because this book is seen as a touchstone of the culture of our times, we did decide to purchase James’s books to fill our customers’ requests.
I read a lot of fiction and about 50% of what I read is some form of romance–contemporary, regency, historical, chick lit, women’s fiction, romantic suspense, etc. I have gotten to an age where life is serious enough, and romance literature has an almost guaranteed happy ending. Clever, thoughtful authors always have something new to say about the condition of love and relationships. To be honest, with James, I was curious as to just how the sex descriptions compared with today’s typical romance novel. Romance novels have gotten increasingly “spicier” over the past ten years. Could Grey be that much different?
Generally we do not purchase erotica for the CLP collection. Certainly, lots of mainstream fiction includes graphic sex scenes and we do have some of the classic erotica like The Delta of Venus by Anais Nin* as well as her Diaries. I remember back in the late 70s when one of our more sophisticated librarians talked her boss into letting her have an Anais Nin / Henry Miller book discussion group. Gosh, that was a long time ago! As I recall, much of the talk was about the “literary” merits of the erotica and florid prose of that writing style.
So, I have read Fifty Shades of Grey, and here is my opinion: Grey’s prose is not florid. It is repetitive, pedestrian, titillating, often vulgar, and clichéd. It’s not fifty shades of grey, it’s fifty shades of black and blue and rosy pink. Here is a short, sanitized synopsis of the plot: virginal college graduate Anastasia meets and falls into immediate mutual attraction with a rich and powerful entrepreneur, Christian, who is not much older than herself. He sweeps her off her feet, literally, and quickly offers her a contract to be his submissive sexual companion. The rest of the story–at over 500 endless pages–is Ana’s conflict of conscience between her “subconscious” (I am not even sure that James is using this word correctly) and her “inner goddess,” for good and ill.
Can Ana negotiate her way to a somewhat normal relationship by redefining Christian’s rules and setting strict time limits on his potential actions while still indulging him in his craven need for dominance in all things? Throughout the whole story Ana is required to call him “Sir,” not out of respect, but instead recognizing his physical and emotional dominance in all aspects of their relationship. Their most honest communications occur in terse e-mail messages. Egad! What has love got to do with this?
For my part, I can’t explain the demand to read these books. The storylines are anti-feminist–though Ana sees herself as an independent woman. And it’s misogynistic. I think you would really have to hate women to treat them in such a demeaning manner. What really makes me feel bad is that a woman is the author of these stories.
So why the popularity? And why now at this time? Is it curiosity about kinky sex? Or maybe it’s a distraction from the bad economy or the difficulties of normal, everyday life? Maybe it’s just the fantasy of relinquishing control to a handsome, rich, devil of a guy? At the end of book one, Ana takes a stand. How will this play out over the rest of the series? Someone who slogs through these books is going to have to tell me, as I just can’t invest any more of my time with E. L. James.
My hope is that these books, much like the Harry Potter series did, will have folks reading again. I hope that they will discover authors who write about love and relationships that are based on mutual attraction, love and respect, and are well-written! Get lost in the stories of Susan Wiggs, Robyn Carr, Susan Mallery, Victoria Dahl, Nora Roberts, Emily Giffin, Lauren Weisberger, Jennifer Weiner, Mary Balogh, Julia Quinn, Eloisa James, and many, many more. Just ask a librarian and we can recommend books for all tastes.
For my part, I’ll take romance. Fifty Shades of Grey was just too much.