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Fifty Shades, similarly racy series, find wide readership in City of Churches

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 Scott’s, Kroger and Target stores, where shoppers can pick up a gallon of milk and a smutty tome.

This summer’s 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-seller’s 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 hasn’t 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.

“It’s not like there wasn’t any erotic fiction out there. It’s 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 don’t 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 Day’s experience supports Jump’s analysis.

Day’s 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.

It’s 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 it’s marketed as general fiction and it looks like general fiction so that it appeals to the mainstream public.”

Day’s book, which is decidedly better written than the Fifty Shades books, now features cufflinks on the cover. The second book in Day’s 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?

Day’s 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 don’t 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) doesn’t 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 don’t have lives that represent the submissive,” said Janet Badia, associate professor and director of women’s 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.

“There’s a long history of belittling women’s 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 don’t want to criticize these books that so many women want to read.”

Badia’s 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 Plath’s female fans liked her writing for the wrong reasons.

“I’m not sure it’s entirely about the sex. It’s about a happy ending,” Day said. “Readers pick them up because they are emotionally intense. The sex, it’s there in the book, but I don’t think that’s the main attraction.”

But Day does think erotic romances are good for building relationships.

“That’s a typical email that I get from readers, that it’s 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 someone’s afternoon and that spills over to make their partner’s afternoon, that’s 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 it’s 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, “There’s so much media attention. There’s so much press on it it’s impossible to get away from it. You’re 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.”

“It’s gotten so much buzz people just want to pick up the books to see what it’s all about,” Jump said. “It’s not always the type of books those people are interested in, but sometimes it is. I’m just glad people are reading, period.”

Ferverda read all three of the Fifty Shades books. “I couldn’t resist. I wanted to see what all the hoopla was about. ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ it’s 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 don’t.” Ferverda said. “It’s 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 Day’s 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 Jump’s work. The first book in Jump’s Sweetheart Club series, “The Sweetheart Bargain,” comes out in August 2013.

“They won’t be ‘Fifty Shades of Grey,’ but they’ll be sexy. I don’t write too hardcore. I write heartwarming.”

Stacey Stumpf is an editorial writer for The Journal Gazette.