Fifty Shades of Blue

Librarian Dewey Decimal on our erstwhile reading habits and the potential for 'a new climax in erotic literature'

One thing you learn quickly when you work in a library is that erotic literature, in all its forms, is now and always has been very popular. Everyone, it seems, is doing it.

I am no stranger to erotica. I was initially exposed to Mills & Boon during one of my first tasks in a library: unpacking the numerous boxes of donated titles that were to be circulated among local branches.

My fellow worker and I would flick through to find the sex scenes and then read them aloud before falling about giggling like teenagers. These books were silly and exciting – full of quivering members and nipples like ‘firm beads’ – but there were a little tame for my tastes.

Don’t get me wrong, books such as A Whisper of Wanting are good for an awakening of the imagination, but they don’t quite delve into the recesses of sexual fantasy. 

It was when I came across a copy of Anaiis Nin's short story collection Little Birds that I learned that there was much more to erotic literature. Minus the cheesy plot lines and two-dimensional characters, here was a form of erotica that was incredibly readable and arousing.

For me, anyhow. Erotica is perhaps the most subjective of all the literary genres, and we all have our preferences. And having worked in the Northern Irish library system for six years now, I have discovered a thing or two about the private reading preferences of the Northern Irish general public.

Members of the Blue Rinse Brigade – those little old ladies that we all know and love – really enjoy a good shirt ripper, a formulaic, saucy story that makes for entertaining bedtime reading.

Many of our vivacious older patrons would borrow eight Mills & Boon on a Monday morning and return and re-stock the following week. That's why the British publisher, which has been in business since 1908, still churns out 50 new titles a month.

There was no shame in borrowing them either, which I found delightfully refreshing. It was encouraging to see such women enjoying a little harmless fantasy in their twilight years.

In an academic library that does not offer the tantalising delights of a Mills & Boon section, however, one soon discovers that men have their own tastes in erotic fiction, namely ‘high brow’ authors such as Henry Miller or Pauline Reage.

Titles like Tropic of Cancer were usually requested by men in suits, men with briefcases, men who could relate better to the slightly more polished narratives and complex characters. They check out such books without the hint of a blush. After all, for them it’s all about the 'artistic' merits of a particular book, not what goes on between the sheets…

I have seen all types of men and women borrow erotic books over the past few years. Yet no Mills & Boon, no Anaiis Nin, no Henry Miller or Pauline Reage has ever caught on like Fifty Shades of Grey.

While EL James’ Fifty Shades trilogy has been derided by some as being poorly written, no one can doubt its success. The fastest selling paperback in history has put erotic fantasy firmly back in the literary spotlight.

Even though the series is structured around controversially explicit scenes of BDSM, with Fifty Shades women of all ages seem to have found a series that they feel confident enough to drop in their shopping trolleys, not just request in the relative privacy of the library or order online.

Is it perhaps the theme of the dominated woman that makes the series accessible to housewives, mothers and career women alike? Or is it the fact that it is just another very well publicised piece of fluff? 

Either way, EL James has enabled women to debate the book, and therefore their sexual tastes, in public where once they did so in hushed corners or anonymously online.

Women are now admitting to enjoying a little escapist sexual fantasy. They are admitting that S&M can be arousing without the need to experience it in person. And that is surely a good thing.

We could be on the cusp of a new climax in erotic literature, and as a bibliophile and lover of erotica, that is an exciting prospect. I only hope that we don’t settle for James’ sex-by-numbers style and instead are introduced by publishers to a whole new breed of great erotic writers such as Anaiis Nin.

Now that we need no longer fear our darkest sexual fantasies, we should not settle for mediocrity.