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During a weekend visit last May, my houseguest, a respectable Englishwoman of an age much closer to 70 than 60, was busy perusing a paperback book. Unable to see the name of the book because of the brown-paper wrapper that was covering it, I started to ask her and stopped in mid-sentence because I already knew what she was reading. What book would a grown-up woman feel a need to disguise? That was the weekend I suggested that she might want to give an e-reader a spin. Today she owns a Kindle Fire.

eBooks and eReaders have freed millions of women to privately read books that they would once have been embarrassed to even possess, much less read. Books like that of my houseguest, Fifty Shades of Grey.

Originally titled Master of the Universe and written as fanficiton of the Twilight series, the author moved the content to her own website when it became more graphic than the fanfic site allowed. From there she began publishing the series in installments through The Writer's Coffee Shop Publishing House. The publisher offers ebooks as well as print on demand paper copies of books. More information on the history of Fifty Shades of Grey can be found at Galleycat. The Fifty Shades series has changed the way books are published as well as the types of books that are published. It is hard to understate what this trilogy has achieved.

Recognizing the enormous impact of Fifty Shades on the book industry alone, Publishers Weekly magazine named James its “publishing person of the year” – the first author ever so honoured. Fifty Shades became the top-selling book in British history and was named popular-fiction book of the year at the U.K. National Book Awards.

Although it began life as a self-published e-book of the sort once expected to doom the publishing industry, Fifty Shades is being credited with saving bookstores as well as countless lacklustre marriages. Publishing giant Random House, buoyed by more than $200-million in revenue from a franchise it first acquired last April, rewarded every one of its more than 5,000 employees with a $5,000 bonus this month.

The Globe and Mail, 12/20/12

The Christian Science Monitor reported that Random House sold 70 million copies (includes print, audio and e-books in English, Spanish and German) of the trilogy last year. Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn, another best seller, only sold 2 million copies in the US and Canada.

But a blockbuster success, such as the Fifty Shades of Grey, is a mixed blessing, according to Sarah Fay of the Atlantic, who wrote last year,

As the e-publishing revolution continues, expect more books like Fifty Shades of Grey and don't be surprised if no new Whitmans appear anytime soon. Traditional publishing has its limitations, but good literature still needs editors, agents, proofreaders, designers, and publicists to make a book as flawless as it can be. Perhaps the digital age will produce e-editors, e-agents, and e-publicists that specialize in bringing e-literature, rather than just e-books, to a reading public ready for more.
The book opens with college student Anastasia Steele subbing for her best friend who, as a journalist and editor of the campus newspaper, finally arranged a very important interview that she is too sick to attend herself. And rather than asking any other journalist on the student paper to substitute for her, she sends Steele, who has no experience at all, armed only with a list of questions to ask this high profile industrialist.

Within five minutes of meeting the man, these are her unfiltered thoughts about Christian Grey:

Why does he have such an unnerving effect on me? His overwhelming good looks maybe? The way his eyes blaze at me? The way he strokes his index finger against his lower lip? I wish he’d stop doing that.
Really?

That was how far into the book I got the first time I tried to read it. Feeling that ten pages was not enough to fairly judge a book, I tried again to read it, and on the third attempt managed to make it to the end (with a judicious amount of skimming). Having forced my way through the first book of the trilogy, I found the plot itself somewhat silly and the prose pedestrian. I have not read the other two books in the series.

Official Fifty Shades of Grey lingerie
However, I do recognize that James has tapped into a previously unknown and clearly under served market for romance novels with some graphic heat. There are authors and publishers today quickly filling that market demand. Some of them may be producing works of higher literary quality (low bar, indeed), but it is unlikely that they too, will be able to launch their own line of lingerie based on their work.

Yes, the Daily Mail reports that EL James has her very own line of lingerie that includes this special number with detachable satin ties. Have bondage, will travel.

Catalogues are now openly offering vibrators designed purely for feminine pleasure. Women are beginning to explore soft and hard pornography. (And while I am not sure this is necessarily a bad thing, I do hope we demand higher quality than that which men have, for years, accepted.) But this next step in women's sexual revolution has to be credited to the Fifty Shades Trilogy. EL James' novels allowed women license to openly discuss their sexual desires.

The fact that it completely misrepresents a dominant/submissive relationship does not appear to have disturbed its readers who probably don't even realize that in a BDSM relationship, the submissive holds the balance of power. The use of a safe word allows the sub to stop the action at any point, in effect, putting the sub in control of all sexual activity which is based on mutual respect and trust. But this is only one problem with the relationship of Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele.

A new study in the Journal of Women's Health goes further and finds that Fifty Shades of Grey actually glamorizes violence against women. Written by Amy Bonomi, professor and Chair of the Department of Human Development and Family Studies at Michigan State University and Lauren E. Altenburger, and Nicole L. Walton, both of the Department of Human Sciences, Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio, it was published online on August 10, 2013 in advance of the print edition.

In the United States, intimate partner violence (IVP) affects 25% of women, worldwide, that total goes up to 71% according to the Detroit Free Press. The study, “Double Crap!” Abuse and Harmed Identity in Fifty Shades of Grey, uses the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention definitions of emotional abuse and sexual violence in their analysis of the Fifty Shades of Grey.

Their full report is available online at the link above (and is far more readable than the novel itself). They painstakingly analyzed each of the first eight chapters for evidence of intimate partner violence and reactions known to be typical of abused women. They found:

Consistent with the Centers for Disease Control's definitions of intimate partner violence, emotional abuse was present in nearly every interaction, including stalking, intimidation, isolation, and humiliation; these strategies collectively served to control Anastasia. Sexual violence was also pervasive, including using alcohol and intimidation/pressure. Anastasia experienced the range of reactions described by abused women in Smith's in-depth study, including perceived threat, stressful managing, yearning, altered identity, disempowerment, and entrapment.
They carefully differentiate between abuse and consensual sexual relationships:
Bonomi said also that it’s wrong to consider the book a depiction of a healthy BDSM relationship. In consensual BDSM relationships, partners take negotiations seriously and respect each others’ boundaries, she said. In “Fifty Shades,” she noted, Christian bullies Anastasia and plies her with alcohol to coerce her into sexual acts that she finds uncomfortable.

“Consenting BDSM relationships are fine,” Bonomi said. “But the relationship we see between Christian and Anastasia is different. What we see in them is a clear pattern of abuse.”

Palm Beach Post, 8/19/13

The authors also discuss the attempted and actual banning of the book at various libraries around the country, not because of the violence against women that the novel portrays, but rather for the sexually explicit scenes in the book. In other words, and once again, sex is bad but violence is just fine. They do not however, suggest that the book be banned for any reason. And I agree with them completely. On the other hand, due to the results of this study, I have decided to not include a sales link for this book. It is easy enough to find for anyone who wants to purchase it.

Now it is unlikely that consideration of the violence would have been taken into account by a major publisher deciding the fate of this trilogy, since there were many other areas of concern, such as literacy, but the fact that it was self-published as an eBook, took the matter out of the hands of the publishing industry.

The world of eBooks currently has a wild west, buyer beware quality to it. Breakthrough books like the Fifty Shades trilogy are very rare although they do happen. Today it is the reader who pushes a book up the bestseller lists through word of mouth instead of a publisher's publicity campaign or author book tours. And for every EL James who is boosted up by readers, there is a Dan Brown who is pushed by publishers.

Sometimes though, readers get it right. Or at least exercise better judgement in the self-published books they buy and praise. An example of that is the Silo Trilogy by Hugh Howey which is the topic of Part II of A Tale of Two eBooks. See you next week.

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Sat 9:00 PM Books So Bad They're Good Ellid

Originally posted to Readers and Book Lovers on Wed Aug 28, 2013 at 11:00 AM PDT.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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