Loose Leaves


Can you illuminate a grey area?

On the Tube in London last weekend I was impressed by the number of women absorbed in their ereaders, and once again I made a mental note to give greater respect in these pages to the digital tablets that the conventional literary world is being made to swallow.

Perhaps, though, I should have been a little more curious about what the women were reading. For this was a week when one title not only swept to the top of the bestseller charts and filled bookshops across several continents but was also seen as important – or threatening – enough to have its popularity dissected in the London Review of Books and the broadsheet press and also, with some asperity, on the BBC’s Newsnight. And the book’s genre? They call it mommy porn.

The electronic gestation of Fifty Shades of Grey – now, inevitably, part of a trilogy, along with Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed – culminating in this week’s birth as a paper book (with a movie to follow), is a journey that many aspiring writers will surely seek to emulate.

The book’s author, the Londoner EL James, started by writing raunchy “fan fiction” about the hugely popular Twilight series before adapting her characters and reworking their story into an ebook that was distributed by a virtual publisher based in Australia. Word of mouth between mothers at American school gates, so it is said, then ensured the ascent of the book to the top of the Amazon bestseller charts, earlier this year, and subsequent world domination.

And, yes, domination’s the word, because the central relationship in Fifty Shades of Grey is a sadomasochistic affair between a rich, experienced businessman and a virginal young woman. Riding crops, ropes, locks and keys are involved, apparently, as our heroine, Anastasia, signs a contract allowing the worldly Christian Grey complete control over her life.

Somewhat sternly questioned on Newsnight about what general conclusions about female sexuality could be drawn from her book’s success, James – aka Erika Leonard, a former producer of the BBC’s Have I Got News for You and Room 101 – said she had no idea why it was so popular but emphasised that it was intended, essentially, to be a love story. She didn’t express a view on whether the privacy offered by (coverless) ebooks meant women could now read what they wanted without feeling judged.

Journalists have shown more certainty but little unanimity about the book. “The first thing to say is that it’s insanely badly written,” writes Joanna Biggs in the London Review of Books. “It’s readable, and often funny . . . If this is the future of publishing, things could be a lot worse,” concludes Jenny Colgan in the Guardian. Laura Barnett of the Daily Telegraph says that it is “troubling and intriguing and women will undoubtedly be discussing it for years to come”.

But that’s enough journalists. Irish Times reviewers are going to take a rest on this one and ask you to work the grey matter instead. If you have any views or comments on Fifty Shades of Grey, email them to books@irishtimes.com, and we’ll print the best of them.

Over at the Pulitzer board, the winner isn’t . . .

In the world of US literary fiction, the sad news is that, for the first time since 1977, no book was deemed strong enough to win the Pulitzer Prize. The jury had submitted the name of a fiction winner to the Pulitzer board, but the latter failed to come to a majority decision, so an award was not made. Susan Larson, the chairwoman of the jury, told the Huffington Post that “jury members were all shocked and disappointed and angry at the news”.

In the history category, the only Pulitzer open to foreign authors, there was, however, something to celebrate, in the shortlisting of The Eleventh Day: The Full Story of 9/11 and Osama Bin Laden, by the Irish author Anthony Summers and his wife, Robbyn Swan, who live and work in Co Waterford. The winner of the category was Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention, by the late Manning Marable.