I'll have what she's reading
11th June 2012 - Adam Howard
The success of E L James's Fifty Shades trilogy is sparking a new enthusiasm for erotic fiction, but it's not the first time that readers have been seduced, recalls Adam Howard from our Westfield White City branch.
If you've been on the tube lately, you may have sensed a peculiar tension not normally associated with rush hour. People are holding their books a little closer to their chest. Listen closely and you might hear a subtle clearing of the throat, a rustle of paperback leaves being turned, catch a shifty glance at the person sitting adjacent. That's because the latest smash-hit novel is something far more adult than The Hunger Games or One Day. Fifty Shades of Grey by EL James has taken the country by storm, and it's downright sexy.
I exaggerate. An awful lot of people are reading Fifty Shades of Grey on the tube, but no one seems too embarrassed about it. After all, it's 2012, and we're all grown-ups, and there's no reason why people shouldn't embrace a novel with more salacious content. It may be considerably more graphic than the average paperback, but that doesn't stop it from being pure, easy escapism in the same way Twilight was, and it's somewhat refreshing to see a book with such racy content to be so widely and thoroughly devoured.
Of course, Fifty Shades of Grey isn't the first blockbuster to titillate. When the ban on Lady Chatterley's Lover was finally lifted in 1960, bookshops couldn't cope with the demand. Pick up a complimentary bookmark in one of our stores and you'll see that even Foyles struggled - a photo of a sign saying 'Lady C' sold out - in stock again tomorrow has become one of our more iconic images.
Back then, such content was considerably more taboo - it was banned under the Obscenity Act until Penguin could convince a jury that the work was of significant literary merit, and at the trial the prosecutor Mervyn Griffin-Jones famously asked them is it was the kind of book "you would wish your wife or servants to read". But, the times were a-changing, and Griffin-Jones' views were dismissed as outdated - there are now few limits on how sexually explicit a book can be, and we're none the worse for it.
Nowadays, all self-respecting bookshelf should have a thin streak of erotica running through it. Sex is just as much a part of life as love and death, and there are plenty of writers who have deftly, and beautifully, explored it. Delve into the mountain of pulp that has saturated the genre and you'll discover writers like Anaïs Nin, whose Delta of Venus was initially intended for private collector but was eventually recognised as something with poetic flourish and a uniquely feminine perspective.
There's also her companion Henry Miller, who, in Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn, uses sex as a synecdoche for all of human experience and was admired by Orwell and Beckett. When Vladimir Nabokov turned his attentions to the erotic, as in Ada or Ardor and Mary, he wrote with unrivalled elegance and beauty, and both Pauline Réage's The Story of O and Georges Bataille's The Story of the Eye deal with their more extreme content with in far more complex and thought-provoking ways than the average Mills and Boon.
The most interesting part of this sudden boom in erotic fiction is who's reading it. Whereas visual media are saturated with increasingly graphic images aimed squarely at men, publishers are marketing Fifty Shades of Grey to women, and have been extremely successful in doing so. Perhaps it's because women supposedly have better imaginations and are less visual, but I think it's great that the bookselling industry is the only one acknowledging and celebrating the notion that women are just as much sexual beings as men. Fifty Shades of Grey may not be a masterpiece, but it's succeeded in getting erotica out of the bedside drawer and onto the tube. Maybe we Brits aren't so prudish after all.
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