On Monday, BBC arts editor Will Gompertz wrote an article which briefly became the most popular on the corporation’s website. The 'mummy porn’ author and the suburban bookshop’ examined the effect that sales of Fifty Shades of Grey was having on the nation’s booksellers and if it would be their saviour.
The piece included a funny—in both senses of the word—exchange between Gompertz and a “bohemian Granny” bookseller who has only sold two copies of Fifty Shades and dismissed it as a book for “silly mothers, not the type who would normally read a book”. Their conversation was interrupted by a “feisty” customer who proclaimed the book’s readers were “school teachers. . . people who already read . . . not just people who don’t normally read books" though she hadn’t read it as “it's not my sort of thing”. Finally, Gompertz puzzled: “I thought suburban Britain was supposed to be a hotbed of key-swapping swingers who would glory in E L James' erotica” before concluding that they are, they just must be buying it online—in private.
Thus every clichéd prejudice about the couple of million people who’ve bought Fifty Shades was neatly played out and Gompertz was able to suggest that, since so many copies have been sold online and digitally, it may portend a “catastrophic crash” in bookselling and indeed publishing because we are “intellectual snobs”.
Putting aside the fact that judging the future of all high-street booksellers on the example of one particularly eccentric specimen would be like damning all our football teams because England played a bad match, these are indeed very real dangers. This article is just one in a series over the last few months that references 50 Shades and wonders who the people buying and reading it are.
Surely they can’t be ‘real’ readers whose papery passions have traditionally been our bread and butter and who shop in ‘real’ bookshops? No, these must be a different sort of reader, new and not as good, ‘silly’ and to be only temporarily humoured and nervously served before we gladly see them off as they return to whatever form of entertainment they normally enjoy. Far from intellectual snobbery about readers being the preserve of the book trade, it runs rife through everyday media and culture, constantly perpetuating the view that books are for the few.
Except that books and reading are not the preserve of bookseller grannies, feisty readers, silly mothers, teachers or even arts editors: they’re for everyone. It’s a point made powerfully by Jeanette Winterson in her memoir Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?: “The more I read the more I fought against the presumption that literature is for the minority—of a particular class or education—books were my birthright too.”
And the more that we try to label, ghettoise or put on pedestals ‘readers’, the more damage we do, perpetuating the view of books and reading as an elite, niche hobby rather than a thriving, vital and mainstream part of our culture. Nevermind the “threat of e-books”—this is the real danger.