Monday, April 16, 2012

The Story of E?

For many years my father, who was the managing partner of a small accounting firm, had an impressive executive secretary. She was a refined old New York type who spoke in a cultured voice that came across with great assurance, especially over the telephone. She was also a large woman, built like an opera singer and with the refinements of one, a person whose physical qualities and classy manners led you to assume, without knowing for sure, that she was a serious consumer of art and literature. In support of that assumption, she was a voracious reader and spent her entire lunch hour immersed in mass market paperback books.
What was she reading? I couldn’t know, not exactly, because the covers remained hidden beneath a fabric sleeve with a fringe bookmark that she transferred from volume to volume like a talisman. When I inquired after what she was reading she invariably blushed and refused to tell me. They turned out — yes, I peeked — to be conventional romances.

When I learned this I didn’t think any less of her, and I found it curious that she should be embarrassed about it. But I was a teenager at the time. Some years later, I was a little wiser to both publishing and human nature. I learned, for example, that among the cardinal rules of popular romance was a very specific coyness about actual physical sex (in some series, heroines weren’t even allowed to fall down and bleed, let alone to be sexually active) and I learned that a middle-aged woman might feel embarrassed about losing herself in fantasies of romantic love.
Yet in some respects wrapping one’s book in an anonymous cover (like the proverbial plain brown wrapper) was an invitation to even greater suspicion (remember: I peeked), which perhaps is one reason few people employed said covers. So unless you kept the suspect book permanently inside your purse (hard to read it in there), good luck keeping your secret from prying eyes.
In any case, I think of this woman when I hear about the phenomenal success of the soft-porn S&M bestseller Fifty Shades of Grey, because I wonder how much of its success may be attributed to the easy and novel privacy that ebooks provide. Maybe, with your personal information flying all over the internetherworld, Google knows all of your darkest secrets, but the good news is that the guy across the aisle on the train no longer gets his casual glimpse of them.
Some have written about the sad fact that, when it comes to ebooks, one can no longer see what other people are reading. This has cultural implications because to some extent seeing what people were reading (or what they had read, lined up on their bookshelves) might take one’s own tastes in another direction. And for similar reasons this has implications for authors, whose work now misses the free advertising of a book cover being displayed in public by the simple act of a reader carrying it about.
But maybe there’s another implication to this kind of privacy.
While there has always been a category designated Erotica and this category is sometimes considered a subset of Romance, it has rarely if ever produced mega-bestsellers. Yet here is Grey, a book featuring lots of bondage, I’m told, sitting at No. 1 on the New York Times list. Neither The Story of O nor Emmanuelle nor Delta of Venus — while all were commercial successes — achieved the status of Grey, so far as I know.
Early anecdotal reports attributed the new book's success to middle-aged women in the heartland, but it turns out, according to other reports, that sales are being driven by women in their twenties and thirties. Either way, I wonder whether a book on this subject would be doing so well if not for the ebook version.
I also wonder whether this will change the “rules” of the romance category. In future, maybe more than the bodices will be getting ripped. Maybe the way ebooks change storytelling isn’t so much with the bells and whistles of moving images, hyperlinks and interactivity, but by giving previously embarrassed people the freedom to read whatever they please, without having to wonder what that person across the train aisle thinks of them.