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 …

We Can Eat Too Much Sugar

The Girl With The Dragon TattooCall it airport fiction, call it mass market fiction, or call it trash, the reading equivalent of quick-fix, craving-inducing simple carbohydrates are something we all secretly or not-so-secretly love. You know the ones. The Dan Brown bestsellers and the books that need not be named by the Mormon mom turned author that have tweens and adults alike aflutter.

But before you pooh pooh such ‘lowbrow’ reading matter that’s the literary likeness of riding the sugar high, please consider that, as with simple carbohydrates, which have been blamed for all manner of societal and waist-measurement evils, such reading matter not only has its place in our reading diet, it can do us some good.

We can eat too much sugar, but we can never consume too many books. Any reading is good reading, be it reading the sides of cereal boxes, determining epic fails on signs (those are a whole other blog in themselves), conquering such tomes as Ulysses, or devouring page-turners such as Twilight and The Da Vinci Code.

Because we all know what happens with simple carbohydrates. We eat them. We eat them fast. They make us high and happy. Then they’re burnt up by our bodies (ok, or stored, but let’s not go there) and leave us hungering for more.

It’s the hungering for more is where the door opens for us to consume some more substantial books and to continue to expand our reading tastes. Seriously. Why do we always make each other feel as though our reading habits must be something like a cross between eating only wholemeal and raw health foods (which are fine, but never as tasty) and taking medicine?

Hands up who did further research into the Illuminati and Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper off the back of Dan Brown’s breakout bestseller? Hands up who ventured into unfamiliar reading territory to explore vampires and werewolves courtesy of Twilight? And hands up who is, like me, now firmly entrenched in Team Edward, although almost willing to have a foot in both camps based purely on the extraordinariness of Taylor Lautner’s abdominal muscles that were flexed at every available opportunity in the film adaptation of New Moon?

We’ve all been on crazy, carbohydrate-free diets and we know that they make us unhappy. We also know they end in a massive carbohydrate binge. The question is why we can’t use carbohydrates as part of—or a door to opening ourselves up to—a balanced literary diet? Because here’s the thing. I finally read the first book in the mass market series that has arguably stepped up to fill the post-Brown, post-Meyer void: Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.

I found it less than ordinary. And that’s actually a good thing.

The book (and indeed the Millennium trilogy) has been a runaway bestseller, with relative non-readers around the world picking it up, enjoying it, and recommending it to others. The funny thing is, the book is slow. Interminably slow. I’m a voracious reader and I struggled with the first 300-odd pages of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. I mean, sheesh, for a journalist who would have spent his life abiding by the inverted pyramid—or the rule that all the important information must be up front to draw readers in—Larsson completely inverted the inverted pyramid.

I think I could have skipped the first half of the book and been no worse off for it. I skimmed half the details about the Vanger family, which Larsson made far too large, with the various members blurring into similarity meh-ness. And the Lisbeth Salander character, the girl who sports the title’s tattoo, was unnecessarily (and boringly) difficult (I actually groaned when she stormed off for being complimented on having a photographic memory, then returned to the house when she was invited back in a pointless, irrelevant scene designed to demonstrate her different-ness). She’s a pale, caricatured character when you compare her with a strong, troubled, but interesting female such as Lucy Farinelli from Patricia Cornwell’s Kay Scarpetta series.

Yet in spite of these flaws, people—and, in my experience, most surprisingly non-readers—are enjoying The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and recommending it to others. Which is an excellent. If they are prepared to read through the 300-odd pages that should have been cut and put up with characters that either don’t enhance the narrative or that simply don’t quite work, they’re prepared to take a step up from simple carbohydrates to some more complex ones.

Indeed, rather than pooh poohing people’s enjoyment of white bread-like reads, we should be celebrating and encouraging their starting-somewhere simple carbohydrate-book diet.

Interview with WENDY HARMER

My earliest memories of Wendy Harmer are of her 2DayFM breakfast radio programme The Morning Crew – crammed in the back of the car with my two brothers, I’d listen to Wendy and her co-hosts. My brothers and I would laugh until our sides split, and I dreamt of making an audience laugh like that. I dreamt of being a comedian.

Then I got older, I grew self-conscious of everything from the way I looked to the sound of my voice and, for a few years, became deathly afraid of speaking in front of large groups – so, there went that career path out the window. But I stuck to writing, and I owe my decision to write comedies primarily to comedians like Wendy that I admired growing up. While everyone else was writing “deep” psychological pieces in school, broody, angsty works, I worked hard to make people laugh with my writing – I wanted to recapture the experience I had growing up, listening to Wendy and the Crew on the way to school.

Almost half a lifetime later, I sat in the audience at an event in Paddington Town Hall, partly as an on-the-scene reporter for Boomerang Books (for the event review, click here), and partly as a long-time fan of Wendy’s. Listening to her speak took me back to those good ol’ days when I didn’t have to guilt Mum into driving me places, and I wondered why I hadn’t read any of Wendy’s books. Granted, I’m not exactly the target audience, being a nineteen-year-old male, but still…

So, I bought two books for Mum. I figured, gauging Mum’s reactions to them was a good way to review the books without damaging my masculinity. Judging by the laughter coming down the hallway, Mum was a fan of both. Interest officially piqued, I pinched Nagging For Beginners from Mum’s nightstand after she left for work – I’d seen Wendy perform a few of the nags in person – and I loved it, cover to cover. I’m sure she’ll probably kill me for saying this, but I saw so much of Mum in that book. It wasn’t a book that only women could find relatable, it was a book about women, for everyone, and an insanely funny book at that. I figured I’d best give the other book I bought for Mum, Roadside Sisters a spin. I have to confess, I haven’t read much of it, but what I have read, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed, and I am now severely regretting not picking up more books on Friday night (when I could’ve gotten Wendy to sign them…).

Well… that was a significantly longer introduction than I’d intended to have, so, less of me, and more Wendy…

You’re one of Australia’s best-loved comediennes. You’ve had a ludicrously successful career on TV and radio – what was it that attracted you to writing books? Was it something simply to pass the time, or something you’d always wanted to do?

I’ve wanted to write books all my life. I can remember writing my first short story at age eight. I invented a neighbourhood newspaper at ten (all hand-written). I edited the school magazine then became a cadet journalist at 18. Just in love with words and language. In fact I’ve been far more interested in writing than performing. So when I wrote my first book at age 48 (waited 40 years) it was a thrill.
 
Do you think that, as a “funny person”, you’re restricted to only writing funny, light books? Does Wendy Harmer have a deep, brooding literary work inside of her?

Well you know there are so many truly wonderful writers of deep and brooding works that I might leave it to them. I’m good at jokes and not everyone is! I think light and funny works for me. I probably have a searing satire inside me though which might see me go close for defamation – working up to that.
 
Do the jokes come first, and do you then find a story to fit them into, or is it the other way around?

I think of the issue first – be it the female negotiation of the ‘change of life’/revenge/the nature of friendship – and then structure the book around that. I don’t try to force gags. If you do that you lose the empathy for a character. I like it when readers have a laugh and then, hopefully a tear or two.
 
Your newest release, Roadside Sisters, follows Nina, Meredith and Annie as they travel from Melbourne to Byron Bay in a misguided search for an ‘Oprah moment’. What does one of these moments entail, and, more importantly, have you ever experienced one?

What Oprah is talking about, I think, is that moment when you suddenly “get it”. I tend to believe that the more you understand that you are not smart enough to understand anything – the smarter you get. If you know what I mean. Confused? Me too. Good isn’t it?

Out of Nina, Meredith and Annie – which one is Wendy Harmer? Is there anything autobiographical about any of them, or any of your other characters for that matter?

All my characters contain some aspect of me I suppose – and that’s the joy of writing. One has the chance to experience life through another character’s eyes. I’m endlessly disappointed that I only have one go at being alive and so writing goes some way to easing that.
 
There are heaps of “getting lost to find yourself” road-trip movies/books out there… what do you think sets Roadside Sisters apart from other similar texts?

It’s three women in the Australian landscape – I’ve never read one of those before. So many books are about journeys of course – either a literal or an allegorical one. Mine is lively and fun and feels to me to be real. I really loved taking the trip myself and I hope I convey my love of traveling in it.
 
What inspired you to write the Pearlie series? Was it purely for commercial reasons, or did you have a genuine interest in writing for kids?

I was sick of reading my daughter fairy stories about characters that were no more than Paris Hilton with wings – all frocking up to go to parties. Yawn! Pearlie is feisty – a bit of a detective, an overachiever, bossy. She has been successful because she has a bit of ‘get up and go’ about her. She’s not a soppy character. And each book has a real story – suspense and humour.
 
Are you planning any additions to the series?

The next one is Pearlie in Central Park. The first in a series where Pearlie leaves Jubilee Park and goes off to see the world. She encounters snow for the first time… and squirrels!
 
Who do you prefer to write for, adults or children? How do you feel about restricting your content for the Pearlie series, more so than you would for say, a book like Farewell My Ovaries?

The trick with the Pearlie books is to get character and story in 1600 words. They can be time consuming – like doing a giant crossword. Of course they are a vastly different exercise to adult books. I’ve just written my first young adult book : I Lost My Mobile at the Mall – Teenager on the Edge of a Technological Breakdown. It’s proved to me than I’ll happily write for any age group if the tale’s good enough.
 
Early after Farewell My Ovaries was released, a lot of it was made of its… content. What drove you to write a book like it?

I read a lot of chick/hen-lit and was always disappointed that there was no decent sex in there. I mean – you read for 300 pages about love and all that and there’s no sex? Surely we’ve moved on since Jane Austen.

What was the funniest complaint you received about it?

A woman wrote to complain the lead character smoked. No matter that she had some fairly wild sexual escapades. I thought, given her sex life, my heroine should have been on a pack a day of Camel unfiltered!
 
Nagging For Beginners… it’s all shades of brilliant. How many of the nags featured in that book would you admit to ever having used?

All of them, repeatedly. BTW. Why are you sitting around reading this when your room looks like a pigsty?
 
I’ll have you know, my room looks like… [William looks away from the computer to see a stack of clothes on his unmade bed. To be fair, he’s packing for a trip to Queensland, but still, point taken] …Of your books, which one has the best opening line?

‘Now, Francie, I want you to look into this mirror and tell me what you love about yourself.’ Love and Punishment.

If you could claim any other writer’s work as your own, whose would it be?

J. K. Rowling, please.
 
If you could rid the world of ONE book, which would it be?

The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown. Aaargh!
 
The last Australian book you read?

Cooee by Vivienne Kelly and I loved it! She’s such an acute observer of character.
 
I asked my friend for a random filler question, and she came up with this, so, fill away: What is the most valuable piece of advice you were never told?

Never cross the Portuguese border at 3a.m. in a car full of piano players with Ignatius Jones in the boot – it will only end in tears!