Thursday May 24, 2012

Some call it compelling romantic-erotica. Others label it "mommy porn."

But the paperback romance trilogy "Fifty Shades of Grey" by previously obscure British author E.L. James is the hottest book in the country and in the region right now, according to Berkshire librarians and booksellers.

"It's selling like hotcakes, flying off the shelves," said Chris Hays, merchandise manager of Barnes & Noble Booksellers in Pittsfield, which has sold more than 1,000 copies.

The trilogy details a dominant-submissive relationship between a manipulative millionaire tycoon and a naive college student.

"I have read the first two and am almost finished with the third," said Pittsfield resident Jodi Steele, adding "I love, love, love it!" But she challenged the "mommy porn" description "because men should read it."

"I think this is a real phenomenon," said Berkshire Athenaeum Director Ronald Latham. "Very rarely does something like this capture the public's imagination and interest."

He compared the excitement to the release of J.K. Rowling's "Harry Potter" series -- a very different genre.

The number of borrowers waiting to obtain a copy at regional libraries stood at 728 on Wednesday, with 63 books in circulation, according to the C/W Mars online, the interlibrary network for Western and Central Massachusetts.

At the Pittsfield library, 28 patrons are awaiting their turn, said Circulation Manager Catherine Congelosi, a 25-year veteran.

"It's up there with John Grisham and Danielle Steel when they were at the top of their game," she said.

"Even though people are making a lot of noise about the erotic part, the author wrote it as a romance with a lot of erotic elements," said Congelosi. "It's a romance for this day and age."

The trilogy and the buzz surrounding it has made the cover of Entertainment Weekly and has been prominently featured in other mass-circulation magazines and major newspapers.

"These have been out there for many, many years," Congelosi said. "I laugh when the big news media pick up on this.

Barnes & Noble has sold more than 1,000 copies of the novel, described by some as ‘mommy porn.’
Barnes & Noble has sold more than 1,000 copies of the novel, described by some as ‘mommy porn.’ (Ben Garver / Berkshire Eagle Staff)
Where have those people been? People have been reading this stuff for years."

She said the demand at the Pittsfield library is overwhelmingly from women.

"I always get a chuckle when these things happen," she added, acknowledging that "when the demand dies down, I'll probably take a look at it. My time will come."

"Fifty Shades" has been compared in impact to D.H. Lawrence's 1928 novel, "Lady Chatterley's Lover," Henry Miller's "Tropic of Cancer" from 1934, and even the steamy-in-its-day "Peyton Place," by Grace Metalious, the 1956 novel set in a fictional New England town.

Unlike some Bible Belt libraries that have banned "Fifty Shades," Berkshire libraries base their book-buying decisions on popular demand.

"It's popular, we have it, we circulate it," said Latham. "We do respond in large part to demand, and this is the title people are talking about."

Conceding that the book is "an exception to the norm," Latham explained that "a lot of mass-market paperbacks can be kind of racy. We've had those for years and years, and very rarely have there been complaints."

However, he added, since libraries do not discriminate against borrowers by age, "There needs to be an understanding between a parent and a child of what's acceptable or unacceptable reading."

In his 21 years as library director in Pittsfield, Latham said "complaints about material like this have been few and far between."

But he acknowledged that there can be "a certain amount of backlash from folks that it was not the kind of thing that kids should read. There are always people who say you shouldn't be reading something like this, and hopefully I won't encounter them."

At the North Adams Public Library, "Extreme interest describes it, for all ages, equally divided between men and women," said Circulation Manager Joan Owczarski.

"We've had a lot of people calling, requesting it," she added. "But when they hear how many ‘holds' there are, they get discouraged."

Besides the "Harry Potter" series, only "The Hunger Games" and the "Twilight" trilogy have attracted comparable interest, she said.

At the Lenox Library, Executive Director Sharon Hawkes said a set of the "Fifty Shades" has been purchased.

"It's a romance and a best-seller, and we carry both categories in our collection," she said. Hawkes cited "curiosity about the controversy" as fuel for some of the interest.

"Libraries have always been supportive of letting people make up their own minds," she said. "Whether it's a flash in the pan or has enduring value remains to be seen."

"This is about freedom to read," said Hawkes. "It's only fair to give people the opportunity to read it if they want to. It's a very sophisticated readership in this area. We've never shied away from controversy."

"We don't have an explicit policy for any genre," said Katherine "Katie" O'Neil, director of the Stockbridge Library. "We obtain books that are popular and fulfill the educational and entertainment needs of our community."

"A title like this, in such demand, is a no-brainer," she added.

To reach Clarence Fanto:
cfanto@berkshireeagle.com,
or (413) 496-6247
On Twitter: @BE_cfanto