Librarians decry 'Shades of Grey' but don't stand in its way

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As a group, librarians generally agree that if popular titles entice people to read, perhaps they'll move on to even better books.

If that book happens to be "Fifty Shades of Grey," well, there's nowhere to go, but up, is there?

"I don't think reading rubbish is, in and of itself, bad," said Cynthia Richey, director of the Mt. Lebanon Public Library. "There can be a defense of rubbish -- it's escapism, fluffy. But there is well-written escapism and there is awful escapism."

Fifty Shades of laughter

You don't have to know much about "Fifty Shades of Grey" to appreciate the viral videos making the rounds and making fun of the books. Best among them is the Funny or Die parody starring Selena Gomez (search "Fifty Shades of Blue" on funnyordie.com), but it's also worth watching the "audiobook" reading by Ellen DeGeneres (on YouTube.com, "Ellen Reads '50 Shades of Grey' ").

Then there are "readings" from "Snow White and the Huntsman" stars Charlize Theron, Kristen Stewart, Chris Hemsworth and Sam Claflin: On vh1.com/celebrity, search "Kristen Stewart Reads 'Fifty Shades of Grey' Out Loud for You Pervs." It's part of MTV's "After Dark" series.

In the case of British author E.L. James' "Fifty Shades of Grey," a steamy trilogy, the demand for what one local librarian called the literary equivalent of Cheetos is unprecedented.

As of last Thursday, the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh's systemwide catalog showed there were 181 copies (print, audio and download) circulating, with more than 1,400 requests for holds.

"Fifty Shades" knocked the former champion -- "The Hunger Games" trilogy -- off the top spot despite the latter's recent surge in popularity after the movie came out in March.

Due to great young adult demand, the 328 copies of "Hunger Games" books, e-books and audio recently garnered 460 holds. There are also 30 large-print copies in circulation, with 105 holds.

There currently are 36.5 million copies of the "Hunger Games" books in various formats. It was first published in 2008.

Since its paperback release six weeks ago, the first book, "Fifty Shades of Grey," has had 60 printings. What began as fan fiction on a "Twilight" website evolved into an e-book phenomenon, and combined electronic, paperback and audiobook sales recently top 10 million copies.

That is a lot of Cheetos.

The books chronicle the erotic liaisons of a young, innocent woman, Anastasia Steele, and her older, sexually inventive billionaire lover, Christian Grey. Themes of bondage, submission and explicit descriptions of their S&M escapades have raised eyebrows, as well of the ire, of some public libraries.

Reports from Wisconsin, Georgia, Florida and Ohio argue the libraries deem the "Fifty Shades of Grey" series not up to their literary criteria. Most argue that the books -- Ms. James self-deprecatingly admitted in an NBC "Today" interview, "I am not a great writer" -- are poorly written. The lovers are always "murmuring" and "muttering," to the point where one blog critic wondered if these people ever actually "SPEAK."

Anastasia tends to use phrases such as "Holy cow," prompting another poster on Jezebel.com to note, "To me, that doesn't indicate sexual arousal. It indicates that a 12-year-old is talking in front of their mommy."

Lowbrow literature, including the mainstream works of some best-selling authors, has long been found on library shelves. So has erotica, including 1944's "Forever Amber" and 1928's "Lady Chatterley's Lover."

This time around, it's the sex causing the stir. Also, some have speculated that the uptick in library holds might mean readers are merely curious to sample, not buy, the books.

Locally, library directors are saying the adult books, which are being borrowed by men and women alike despite their "mommy porn" label, are in no danger of being removed from shelves.

"It is censorship, and that's not what we're here to do," said Cindy Dagostino, director of the Dormont Public Library.

Like most of the community libraries in the Carnegie Public Library system, Dormont has one copy of the popular books. It also purchased single copies of each in the "Harry Potter" and "Twilight" series as they were released.

A sampling of half a dozen local libraries failed to turn up any patrons' complaints. Not so with the "Harry Potter" books, however; there have always been parents who complain about books involving sorcerers and magic.

Lisa Dennis coordinates the children's collections and selects children and teen titles for the CLP city branches. She said that e-books in general have been a "game-changer" for all libraries, which can be surprised by the popularity of titles that aren't reviewed by traditional authoritative resources.

"It's sort of a sleeper thing," she said. The twist here, Ms. Dennis said, is "the fact that this [latest wave of a title's popularity] is based on a not terribly well-written novel."

But libraries will just have to adapt, she added: "For the longest time, libraries only have offered the broccoli and steamed rice of literature. Over the last 30 years, they have broadened their scope, and that sometimes makes people uncomfortable ... people want a mix."

Hence, the occasional bag of Cheetos.

Sandra Collins, the executive director of Northland Public Library in McCandless, said for as long as she's been a librarian, she can remember some measure of controversy.

When she was working years ago in Utah, Madonna's "Sex" was in demand, but the unusual nature of the book -- it was spiral-bound -- made it difficult to circulate.

Copies mysteriously vanished after a few months; "I have a feeling a staff member didn't approve of it," she said, laughing.

As a high school student in 1947, Ms. Collins' mother was stopped from borrowing "Forever Amber," Kathleen Winsor's historic novel of a woman who sleeps her way to the top.

The book was banned in 14 states as being "pornographic," but like "Fifty Shades" it became a cultural reference on popular radio shows.

The movie rights to "Fifty Shades" were recently purchased by Universal Pictures, with Focus Features as the distributor. Online parodies abound (see box below), helping to fuel the series' popularity.

"There is all the buzz, all the high, high level of publicity," Mt. Lebanon's Mrs. Richey said. "I think there is an obligation to the public when something is this popular and it only marginally meets the [literary] criteria."

"We have no thematic objections. It's just so badly written."

books

Maria Sciullo: msciullo@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1478 or @MariaSciulloPG. First Published May 27, 2012 12:00 AM


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