A chaste book with the naughty bits avoided or omitted …

Fifty Shades of GreyI’m pretty much standing alone among writers in saying that the Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon is a good thing. The general stance is that it’s poorly written commercial drivel leading the reading (and non-reading) masses astray. Me? I think the issues and opportunities are—please excuse the pun—a little more grey.

First and foremost, there’s an element of ‘why her and not me?’ in some writers’ chagrin. Nobody likes a whinger. It’s admittedly got to bite a bit when E.L. James’ writing’s so guffaw-inducing bad (my friend and fellow editor Judi makes me giggle regularly by quoting the bit about Ana’s very own ‘Christian-flavoured popsicle’). It’s got to bite a bit more when you’ve been slaving away for years at your own writing with limited success.

But it ignores the fact that there’s a lot going for Fifty Shades, not least that its success has opened others’ doors. I’ve personally been offered a number of chances to review ‘the next’ Fifty Shades book and to interview its author. Ergo, opportunities for me and opportunities for erotic fiction authors who, it should be noted, were until recently low on the (little-discussed) writing hierarchy—they’re like romance writers but considered more snicker-worthy.

Surely those writers should be grateful that James’ trilogy has ratcheted up the chance of erotic fiction writers for obtaining publishing contracts and has driven eyes and sales to the genre? And beyond the genre, for that matter—James’ own husband has scored a book deal for his crime thriller (I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t considered trying to find and marry an up-and-coming writer who might be able to piggyback me across the bestselling line).

Mr James’ book is apparently in no way connected to Fifty Shades, but who are we kidding? Everyone’s going to be scouring the pages for hints of his and Mrs James’ sex life (and if I were him I wouldn’t care—a book sale’s a book sale and he might even gain some readers who otherwise didn’t know they enjoyed thrillers).

The Da Vinci CodeBecause for all the ‘it’s so badly written’ grumbling, Fifty Shades has done for erotica what Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code and Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight and JK Rowling’s Harry Potter have done for their respective genres before—they’ve got people reading and they’ve got people talking about reading.

Whether readers and critics realise it or not (and it’s the ‘or not’ that’s arguably key in the same way that parents try to ensure that kids don’t realise they’re eating green vegies), Fifty Shades has got everyone analysing the work. And then it’s set them off in search of more (hopefully better) reading material to fill the obsessive, book-devouring void.

It’s also provided a much-needed cash injection into a flailing publishing industry, inspired people to buy ebooks so as not to give their dirty reading secret away courtesy of a visible physical book cover, and lobbed previously published and soon-to-be published erotica to the fore. As far as I’m concerned, it’s win–win.

The ‘what about me?’ criticisms also dismiss the fact that Fifty Shades taps into an epic love story. Badly written as it is (as was Twilight before it), there’s something utterly irresistible about it. Self-respecting feminist I may be, even I got caught up in the fairytale-like element of a wealthy, gorgeous, troubled-but-not-without-redemption knight in shining armour sweeping her off her feet (please spare me the hate mail about how the book sets us back centuries—I know it’s imperfect).

Something else has intrigued more than all the ‘it’s rubbish’ furore, both because it’s something I was vaguely thinking about and because it was articulated much better by an author I’m not sure I am a fan of. Jodi Picoult (AKA a reasonably divisive and commercially driven, commercially successful author herself) said that James is unfairly profiting from another author’s tale and characters.

TwilightPicoult kind of has a point, although truthfully, I’m not sure where I stand on the issue. Fifty Shades was explicitly created as Twilight fan fiction, ergo it seems to be fine to use the characters. But fan fiction as a whole is collaborative and something from which people don’t often profit—James’ breakout success is blurring and redefining this, potentially towards a less-open, more-greedy dynamic.

It’s tricky to know where Meyer stands on this issue too. Yes, they’re her characters, but one could convincingly argue that they’re not uniquely hers at all—they’re poorly wrought versions derived from archetypes. What is known is that she’s stayed fairly quiet on the whole issue.

On a pragmatic level, given her devout Mormon faith it’s unlikely (read: about as likely as you or me finding a real-life Christian Grey to call our own) that she’d have written a Fifty Shades or equivalent herself. In fact, you could say Fifty Shades emerged precisely because Meyer didn’t and wouldn’t give us the highly anticipated sex.

What I want to know is whether Meyer has read Fifty Shades. Because that’s the amusing part, isn’t it? A chaste book with the naughty bits avoided, omitted, or only committed in line with strict religious beliefs (AKA sex only after marriage) inspires a best-selling book that’s decidedly unchaste and that breaks all the religious rules …

The Book of Last Resort

Speaking to a particularly ebook-wary friend the other day, I was told the only reason an ebook might be useful is when travelling. Years ago, he said, he travelled with half his pack full of cassette tapes and half with books, then stuffed a few pairs of underpants around them. After he started using an MP3 player he discovered he had a lot more room. Ebooks, he said, might reclaim the other half of his luggage. Presumably with the magic of electronic reading, he can now pack more than just underpants when he goes on holidays. The world sighs in relief.

This conversation got me thinking about book scarcity. When you’re relying on finite paper resources (or finite luggage resources) there are only so many books you can carry. There isn’t much space for the book that you don’t think you’ll read (but you might). Ebook buying, on the other hand, lends itself to this kind of purchase – the book that you really think you might never get around to, but at least you have it just in case. I’ve got many friends that treat their bookshelves like I treat my ebook reader. They’re full of books they’ll probably never get around to reading, but you never know – there may come a time when you really decide to commit to A Brief History of Time, Ulysses or Infinite Jest.

This all leads in to the title of this post. The Book of Last Resort. I think you all know the one. It’s the book that has crossed over from the ‘might never read’ category into a habit you can’t kick. The book that follows you around like a bad smell. You read a chapter in 2008, two chapters in 2009 and a few pages in 2010. It’s long, it’s difficult, it’s not particularly pleasant, but it’s there – mocking you. It’s the book you do take on holidays, but it remains unread while you plough through the Stephen King or Jodi Picoult on the rented house’s bookshelf. But it will always be there, at the bottom of your bag, or somewhere in the alphabetic calamity of your ereader.

My question for this post is to own up to your Book of Last Resort, whether it be electronic or not. What book can’t you quit, and why?

The Book Burglar’s Time Machine

White TeethFittingly given my earlier blog post about prioritising reading over such important things as, oh, study and deadlines, I found myself quite seriously discussing the merits of time machines today.

Specifically, how I’d make use of one.

Admittedly, time machines don’t yet exist outside of science fiction, but one can never be too prepared for how one would use them if and when they do eventuate. Me? I’d obviously use a time machine to fit in more reading time. Hours and hours and hours of luxurious reading time.

My time machine would need both a comfy chair I could curl up in as well as a bed I could lie down in to read. The bed would double as, well, a bed, to enable me to indulge in my other favourite pastime—sleeping—between reading stretches, as I’m thinking that a nap taken in a time machine would mean no loss of actual, long-term reading time.

One friend suggested that a time machine could be used for literary tourism, enabling one to travel back to literally peer over a writer’s shoulder as they’re penning their great work. Of course, this led to the idea of suggesting improvements to texts or even, much to my amusement, the idea of preventing certain books from seeing the light of publishing day altogether.

They suggested this of Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight quadrilogy, which they hate but I love. But I can see their point—I’d simply apply it to the likes of anything by the precocious Zadie Smith or Jodi Picoult, whose books blur into mediocre repetition.

There’s also the fast-forward function of time machines, which would allow us to find out what’s big ahead of time and then return to the present to get the snobbish jump and read said book ‘before it was cool’. Such fast forwarding would also allow us to forego the current agonising over the future of book formats, know that the world isn’t going to end and that books will continue in some handy format, and let us just get on with the pleasure of reading.

Sadly, though, until time machines make it of the book page and into the real world, I’m going to have to prioritise which books I read as well as master the fine art of speed reading.