By Julie Hutchinson
In eleven weeks it sold over one million copies. It sold more copies in a week than any other book ever printed in the United States or the United Kingdom. Probably about twenty-five percent of its readers would admit to having read it.
When did Fifty Shades of Gray stop being that “great beach book that everyone’s reading,” and start being that novel people can only enjoy in the privacy of their own homes? Why is it that when women are caught reading author E.L. James’s erotic romance, they feel the imperative need to denounce the book as graphic trash? Often women will make comments along the lines of, “Oh that book? I read it because my friend told me to. It was awful! The second and third were even worse!” It would be silly of course to point out that if the books were quite so terrible, their tortured bookworm could have simply stopped reading the series. It seems more fruitful to wonder as to why in the world the poor girl could not just admit to actually finding pleasure in a book that obviously over thirty million other people found equally as appealing?
According to Barnes and Noble sales reports of 2012, the revenue from the Nook, the company’s e-book reader has risen substantially since the publishing of Fifty Shades of Gray. Amazon U.K has similarly stated that the book the British has cleverly dubbed “mummy porn,” is now the company’s number one best-selling Kindle book ever. What accounts for this dramatic rise in digital purchases? Could it be that perhaps, without the universally recognizable cover, Fifty Shades of Gray is a bit more socially acceptable? Does a Kindle or a Nook provide women with their much-desired “plausible deniability?” Everything once again boils down to shame.
So what is it? Fifty Shades of Gray is an erotic novel, but so what? Sure, people are embarrassed about their sexuality, but even porn seems to be more commendable than a sexually provocative novel, and Fifty Shades of Gray is not the first book that has caused people to feign distaste. Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight Series evoked a similar response from its covert readership. As the vampire craze flourished, more and more high school students who had gobbled up Meyer’s pages only months earlier suddenly felt the need to denounce the book and stereotype its readership.
The most plausible explanation for this behavior seems to stem from the cultural prejudice that reading a book should somehow be a symbol of academic achievement and betterment. Unlike watching a dirty movie, or reading a trashy magazine, reading an erotic novel seems to be viewed as an even bigger affront to culture, and a more prominent symbol of ignorance. Reading, especially on smart, intellectual campuses like ours, invokes images of a Dickens cover or the iambic pentameter of Shakespeare. Vampire teeth and graphic sex scenes should be saved for cheap horror films or Saturday nights.
Modern experts ask why it is that children do not seem to read any more. Well, maybe we have our answer. We have created a culture that believes real reading can only come from the desire for intellectual betterment. Our everyday vernacular does not place book and fun in the same context. How can we blame kids for not wanting to do something we have trained them to think is laborious? Children are supposed to want to have fun, and go to school only because their parents make them. Reading invariably falls in the school category. Only adults should like to read. They are older and smarter. Maybe, however, if little Jenny could see what mommy is really reading under her covers, she might widen her expectations as to what the wonderful world of books can offer.