I’m watching Twitter just now going a little mad at the latest sales figures for EL James’s?Fifty Shades of Grey.?It sold 400,000 copies in paperback last week. In fact, all three editions of the trilogy outsold the previous paperback sales record in the UK.
The word phenomenon gets batted around a lot, but this is now beyond a phenomenon. It’s a sensation, a wonder, a nonpareil. And it raises the interesting question: who on earth is?reading these books?
I haven’t read them myself. The only person I know, anywhere, who’s read them is the book blogger and writer Isabel Costello, who had this to say about the experience:
By the time I finished the first chapter of E L James?s Fifty Shades of Grey, two things were clear: everything I?d heard about the writing was true, and it wasn?t going to be a long read. One of these was regrettable, the other a blessed relief. I?m not writing this piece as a Book Review because I?m not recommending this title as a good read. I wouldn?t be able to review it properly anyway because I have no context for it, as I don?t read romance, erotica or pornography.
Isabel is careful not to be sneery or rude or abusive in her analysis, but it’s pretty clear: she hated it. She thought it was terribly badly written, and a fair few of her commenters agreed with her. I thought it was particularly interesting that she said “I have no context for it.” Because that seems to be the problem?everyone is having with it.
But there, you see. I said?everyone. When what I meant was?everyone who reads a lot and writes about what they read.?This is presumably a rather small proportion of the population. We’re all trying desperately hard to be polite about Fifty Shades, but the two questions we should perhaps be asking ourselves are:
- what has this woman written which seems to be so massively popular among so many people.?
- who is reading these books?
Because if I don’t know anyone who’s read it apart from Isabel (who read it with her finger holding her nose), then presumably other people don’t know anyone who’s read it either. So who’s reading it? And why?
I don’t know the answer. I’m just struck by the fact that people aren’t asking the question. If EL James has found a way of putting words down on paper which a vast constituency of readers are determined to read, I think finding an answer to those two questions might be worth the candle. It might just be that publishing’s salvation might not lie in technology or new retail models or new forms of storytelling. It might just be about publishing stuff that a very large number of people are desperate to read.
Or, alternatively, we could just take the piss and hope the whole thing blows over.