Does anyone else find it intriguing that several of the most popular books flying off shelves at local bookstores and the public library in Fort Wayne – the City of Churches and bastion of conservative family values – are sexually explicit novels that teeter on the edge of pornography?
Titillating books targeted at women readers that feature bondage, domination and rough sex are massively popular – and mainstream – in America.
And Fort Wayne readers are not only a part of this trend, they are unabashedly pushing the curve.
The books are on prominent display at local Scotts, Kroger and Target stores, where shoppers can pick up a gallon of milk and a smutty tome.
This summers explicit romances, such as E. L. James Fifty Shades trilogy from Vintage Books, dominated all the national best-sellers lists.
The books, Fifty Shades of Grey, Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed, have sold more than 30 million copies and ranked among the top five best-selling books and ebooks of 2012 (so far) by Publishers Weekly.
In August, Barnes & Noble CEO William Lynch credited the books with helping bump up the book-sellers bottom line. Not only are the ebook versions of the erotic romances doing brisk business, Lynch said, the paperbacks were increasing foot traffic in bookstores.
The story is the same at Fort Wayne stores. The books have been on the local best-sellers list The Journal Gazette publishes on the Wednesday Books page for more than 20 weeks. That list is provided by the Jefferson Pointe Barnes & Noble.
Fifty Shades of Grey is also at the top of the list provided by the Allen County Public Library of its most popular books. The library, which bases its purchasing decisions partly on the popularity of books, bought 215 copies of Fifty Shades of Grey, including paperback, large print, Spanish language and electronic versions. The library is still struggling to keep up with demand. As of Wednesday, there were more than 650 holds on the book in one form or another.
Cheryl Ferverda, communications and development manager at the library, said she hasnt heard of any complaints from patrons about the books content.
Judging books by covers
Romance in general has become a much more respected and accepted genre, said Shirley Jump, a best-selling romance author and Fort Wayne resident. There is a big difference from when they were touted as bodice rippers – a term which we authors found offensive.
She said part of the reason the books are now popular even in conservative Fort Wayne is that the book covers are more acceptable.
Its not like there wasnt any erotic fiction out there. Its always been out there, Jump said. The cover art has just become more tasteful. The covers on a lot of erotica books were changed. That makes it a lot easier to read it on the train to work or in the park. It looks like any other book. Women dont like racy cover art. They want to stick it in their purses and not be embarrassed about it.
Jump said publishers work directly with retailers about how cover art will play in the marketplace.
Sylvia Days experience supports Jumps analysis.
Days erotic novel, Bared to You, was released in 2011 as a self-published ebook. But after Fifty Shades of Grey blew up, Berkley Books bought Bared to You. The paperback was released June 12 and promptly earned a spot on national best-seller lists.
Its sold 1.4 million copies in the United States and is in the top five best-sellers in five countries.
Bared to You began appearing on the local Barnes & Noble best-sellers list on June 27.
The cover I originally had on it was very suggestive. The female was nude. It was appealing to my existing readership, said Day, a best-selling author of romance, science fiction and erotic romance books, including novels she writes under pseudonyms. When Berkley came to me to buy it, they wanted a different cover. They need to have it so that its marketed as general fiction and it looks like general fiction so that it appeals to the mainstream public.
Days book, which is decidedly better written than the Fifty Shades books, now features cufflinks on the cover. The second book in Days Crossfire series, Reflected in You, comes out on Oct. 2. Day is writing the third book in the series, Entwined with You, scheduled for release in December to tap into holiday sales, she said.
Bad for women?
Days Crossfire series is frequently compared with the Fifty Shades books. Both feature a wealthy man with a dark past.
Day said the popularity is drawing a much larger audience than was previously available to her books. The majority of readers dont self-identify as readers of erotic fiction. The whole thing is new to them. The whole erotic romance genre is new to them. The whole romance genre is new to them. They are not as familiar with the traditional tropes. The tortured millionaire is an old trope. The comparison (to Fifty Shades) doesnt bother me. The comparison is used as a point of reference to help sales.
There is an important difference between the Crossfire books and the Fifty Shades books. Day does not include BDSM (bondage, domination and sadomasochism) in her books. The Crossfire books depict a relationship between equals; Fifty Shades books do not.
That difference raises the important question of why so many women, including thousands in Fort Wayne, are devouring books about a man who controls, and sometimes hurts, a woman.
A lot of the women reading these books dont have lives that represent the submissive, said Janet Badia, associate professor and director of womens studies at IPFW. Some ethnographic study of the people who read these books would be interesting.
Badia said she is reading Fifty Shades of Grey in an attempt to understand the appeal but is struggling because the writing leaves a bit to be desired.
She thinks too much hand-wringing about the portrayal of women as submissive in the books is paternalistic. Declaring the books as bad for women is too simplistic.
Theres a long history of belittling womens reading interests and to go beyond that and control what women are reading, she said. The challenge I have as a feminist is that I do think they are very bad books, but I dont want to criticize these books that so many women want to read.
Badias own book, Sylvia Plath and the Mythology of Women Readers, released in August 2011, delves into that territory. It discusses the misogyny of some who suggested Plaths female fans liked her writing for the wrong reasons.
Im not sure its entirely about the sex. Its about a happy ending, Day said. Readers pick them up because they are emotionally intense. The sex, its there in the book, but I dont think thats the main attraction.
But Day does think erotic romances are good for building relationships.
Thats a typical email that I get from readers, that its improving their sex life, she said. I hear from women whose book-buying budget gets bumped up because their husband liked the results. I love hearing that. If you make someones afternoon and that spills over to make their partners afternoon, thats flattering to hear!
Donít believe the hype
Ferverda thinks part of the reason the sexually graphic books have become so acceptable – even in Fort Wayne – is because those details of sexuality that used to be forbidden are now common in movies and TV. I think we are desensitized to some of the vulgarity of it because its so common, she said.
But the primary reason explicit novels have become so popular in such a conservative city comes down to marketing.
Day said, Theres so much media attention. Theres so much press on it its impossible to get away from it. Youre constantly bombarded by this. If there was a brand of toothpaste that got this kind of press, people would be going out in droves to get it.
Its gotten so much buzz people just want to pick up the books to see what its all about, Jump said. Its not always the type of books those people are interested in, but sometimes it is. Im just glad people are reading, period.
Ferverda read all three of the Fifty Shades books. I couldnt resist. I wanted to see what all the hoopla was about. Lady Chatterleys Lover its not. She said the most remarkable thing about James books is the really poor writing.
We have far better written novels that should fly off the shelf, but they dont. Ferverda said. Its the marketing.
James writing is astonishingly bad and painfully repetitive. She is an author in desperate need of a thesaurus, especially to find alternative terms for female body parts.
Day diplomatically explains that Fifty Shades of Grey was James first book and that she is not a professional writer.
Local readers who are interested in the Fifty Shades series because of the hype should instead check out Sylvia Days work.
Jump suggests interested readers consider the work of Lacey Alexander, Shayla Black or Maya Banks.
They all write similar books but offer better storylines and better writing, Jump said.
Or better yet, support a local author and consider Jumps work. The first book in Jumps Sweetheart Club series, The Sweetheart Bargain, comes out in August 2013.
They wont be Fifty Shades of Grey, but theyll be sexy. I dont write too hardcore. I write heartwarming.