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Friday 1 December 2023 Dublin: 2°C
(Andrew Matthews/PA Images)

Column Fifty Shades has changed lives – but not like the best chick lit

Fifty Shades of Grey has allowed women to admit sexual fantasies openly, writes publisher Paula Campbell, but the book’s shock factor may also be its demise.

Paula Campbell, Publisher at Poolbeg discusses the phenomenon that is ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ and whether this genre is here to stay.

EVERY NOW AND then without any warning a publishing phenomenon takes place – out of the blue, a book suddenly takes off and becomes a mega seller and the author is soon a household name.

If publishers could only predict precisely the reasons why this happens their jobs would be a lot easier. I am thinking of books such as The Bridges of Madison County, The Da Vinci Code, The Help, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Watermelon to name but a very few.

In many cases the impact of these books is so huge that they lead to the creation of a whole new genre in fiction and publishers quickly try to capitalise on the success by producing copycat books. In some cases they work – look at the door that was opened for Irish women’s fiction with the arrival of Marian Keyes and her unique writing style.

Now unless you’ve been living on Mars, you’ll know that this summer has seen the latest publishing phenomenon: the sizzling Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy.

These books have been the talking point of the summer, their impact discussed in pubs, at weddings, family gatherings . . . in fact, in some cases families are slowly being extended because of them!

Fifty Shades of Grey has romped its way up the charts, smashing records with its massive weekly sales and dominating the bestseller lists since publication.

Publishers are now trying to decide where these books fit in. Are we seeing a new genre in the making? They certainly tick a lot of boxes across the different genres that make up current popular fiction for women.

Chick Lit

Is it all too easy to just group Fifty Shades under the term ‘chick lit’? This is a convenient and quite dismissive label which is applied to any novel written by a woman, for a woman and about a woman!

In fact, chick lit is just one strand of the genre popular women’s fiction.

Chick lit exploded onto the market in the 1990s. Bridget Jones’s Diary is a perfect example of the definitive chick lit novel – a heroine swinging highlighted blonde bob, kicking off her Jimmy Choos and padding over to the fridge for an ice-cold bottle of Chardonnay or, depending on the state of her love life, going for a family-size bucket of Ben and Jerry’s. Hugely popular but actually a genre short-lived in the end.

Will Fifty Shades of Grey live on as a classic chick lit book? I think not. What has had huge staying power are those novels about women that delve deeper than it does. Writers such as the aforementioned Marian Keyes are not afraid to tackle head-on serious, often taboo subjects, but with their trademark wit, warmth and accessibility women can really relate to them and they are the topic of discussion in book clubs all over the country.

Tickled our fancy

Fifty Shades has certainly tickled our fancy (amongst other things) and has grasped with one hand what has been in the past a taboo subject: female sexual fantasy.

Women’s (and men’s) lives are changing because of them and they have the potential to transform book clubs forever but I am not convinced that this trilogy is laying the foundation for a new genre in women’s fiction.

From a publishing point of view, why were they so successful? What was the reason for their meteoric rise up the charts?

In my opinion a summer publication was perfect publishing – they were the ideal holiday read. As temperatures rose, women stepped out of the routine of their daily lives and the school run into something a bit more comfortable as they sat back and surrendered to the power of Christian Grey.

Then the availability of three books simultaneously (not the norm in publishing) really kept the momentum going and just enough to keep the reader satisfied (but screaming for more?).

Huge word of mouth gave them a big boost – they became the books that everyone was talking about, one of the most important factors in a book’s success. Also, the books were available and hugely popular as e-books first, so they provided the publisher with an invaluable track record.

Shock Value

However, whilst we cannot underestimate the shock value of the subject matter, I wonder if this is the very thing that will cause the demise of Fifty Shades – eroticism it seems works best in small doses so after three books does the reader become immune to the goings-on, the very thing that hooked them in the first place?

Like them or lust them, these books will undoubtedly leave a legacy.

They have allowed women to admit openly that they have sexual fantasies and desires – they have put the sizzle back into the bedroom and not just the kitchen.

But as the nights grow colder and the temperatures drop, readers will start to look for something new . . . Hopefully they will look to Poolbeg Press which is quietly publishing its very own version of Fifty Shades of Grey (Hair) – our two biggest sellers this year were from writers in their 70s!

50 Shades of Grey has sold 60,000 copies in Ireland in just two months>

11 bizarre items of Fifty Shades of Grey merchandise>

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