Arifa Akbar: 50 Shades of literary opprobrium at the Edinburgh Book Festival

The Week In Books

Fifty writers met at Edinbugh a few days ago to re-visit debates that first took place at the seminal writers' conference of 1962. Then, there were protests and provocations (some declared their homosexuality at a time when it was illegal). I turned up to the reconvened 'world writer's conference' at the Edinburgh International Book Festival braced for action. Surely someone would smash a bottle of wine over someone else's head in intellectual fury, as they'd done in '62? No. There was no misbehaviour from the phlanx of authors debating the state of literature. The most (wryly) "provocative" pronouncement came from Jackie Kay: "I'm from Scotland and I'm a lesbian".

What we got instead of '60s radicalism was 50 shades of opprobrium in a debate on 'style versus content' (led by Ali Smith) that was hijacked by a certain bestselling erotic novel. Authors at a previous debate got through two hours without mentioning it by name. In what became a 'don't mention the war' scenario, writers kept referring to the unmentionable 'it' with the same contempt. Someone finally broke ranks at the 'style versus content' talk and said it out aloud: Fifty Shades of Grey. Suddenly, a surprising debate began to take shape that tied together style, content, sales and possibly, literary elitism.

Nick Laird got a round of applause when he called the book "dangerous" because its style revolved around consumerism and branding. It's a compelling argument that makes sense of why so many are buying it –because it's the thing to buy, like the latest pair of Nike trainers.

But a couple of booksellers threw a curveball at him. Fifty Shades has rejuvenated marriages, they reminded us, and added spice to readers' lives. How many novels can boast of bringing about such transformation in the real world? At James' first public Q&A in Britain some weeks ago, I found myself surrounded by (mainly) women who couldn't stop thanking her for changing their lives. It made me uneasy to think that by looking down my nose at Fifty Shades, I was looking down at these women, and what they were saying.

I'm hardly an advocate of the book. I did try but it lost me 40 pages in. Yet the debate flaring up in the conference room made me wonder 'what exactly are we saying when we call Fifty Shades a terrible book?' Terrible on what level?

Both its style and content have worked wonders as its readership shows, just as Dan Brown's "terrible" book did before it. Does such popularity trigger intellectual snobbery? And resentful envy of sales? Neither bestseller has pretended to be high literature so who is the real complaint against? Readers?

Another bookseller claimed that readers had come back after reading Fifty Shades and asked 'what else have you got?' The hope was that from this beginning, they might start to mine the wonderous store of literature that awaits them. Not all roads from Fifty Shades will lead to say, James Joyce, but they might lead to more books being read. At times, the content-versus-style debate began to sound more like a sales-versus-style debate. Joyce's Ulysses was repeatedly name-checked for its ambitious, groundbreaking style, and while few would dare to disagree, stylistically difficult doesn't always equal good. It can leave the reader behind. Or it can, at times, have a false dazzle, with very little of substance beneath it.

The tide turned for Fifty Shades. Patrick Ness spoke up for readability. Someone else asked: "would you write a novel that we all agree is superior in style that has three readers or one that is accessible and is read by millions?" It doesn't have to be such a stark either/or, but the latter is no less worthy than the former.

Sleepless nights and stage fright at the book fair

Never have I seen authors so nervous at chairing events as I did at the 'writers' conferences' at Edinburgh. Elif Shafak (right) was the first to admit to a pre-conference panic attack, speaking of broken sleep and an anxious 5am chat with her young daughter, before chairing her discussion with Ahdaf Soueif in front of her peers. Nathan Englander seemingly even more traumatised. Staring out at the writers filling the front rows he said " This is almost like an anxiety dream, seeing all these authors here."

Would you sign my e-reader?

Roy Cross, former director of British Council Scotland, noticed a new trend emerging at the books signings in the Edinburgh Book Festival. Some readers queued up not to get their books but their scrap books signed by authors at the events he chaired. "They'd read the book on their e-readers so didn't have a copy," he said. "I've seen quite lots of them this year." He seemed to approve, saying his house was groaning with too many books. Not everyone was so good natured. Nathan Englander made a barbed e-reading joke at the start of the debate he was chairing. Holding up a paperback he pointed out: "This is a book, for the younger people in the audience". It's some way off before we forget the book, but it got a laugh. Then there were the bookless fans who brought along their vinyl for über music producer, Nile Rodgers, to sign on Sunday night.

Credit: Travel was provided courtesy of Virgin Trains - www.virgintrains.com

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Muscling in: Noah Stewart and Julia Bullock in 'The Indian Queen'

opera
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TVViewers predict what will happen to Miller and Hardy
Arts and Entertainment
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in season two of the series

Watch the new House of Cards series three trailer

TV
Arts and Entertainment
An extract from the sequel to Fight Club

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant, Eve Myles and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch series two

TV Review
Arts and Entertainment
Old dogs are still learning in 'New Tricks'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Tonight we honour Hollywood’s best and whitest – sorry, brightest' - and other Neil Patrick Harris Oscars jokes

Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Patricia Arquette making her acceptance speech for winning Best Actress Award

Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears

Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

    Climate change key in Syrian conflict

    And it will trigger more war in future
    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
    Is this the way to get young people to vote?

    Getting young people to vote

    From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
    Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

    Poldark star Heida Reed

    'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
    Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

    Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

    Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
    Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
    With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

    Money, corruption and drugs

    The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
    America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

    150 years after it was outlawed...

    ... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
    Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

    You won't believe your eyes

    Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
    Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn