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

Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey

film Sex scene trailer sees a shirtless Jamie Dornan turn up the heat

Arts and Entertainment
A sketch of Van Gogh has been discovered in the archives of Kunsthalle Bremen in Germany
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Eleanor Catton has hit back after being accused of 'treachery' for criticising the government.
books
Arts and Entertainment
Fake Banksy stencil given to artist Alex Jakob-Whitworth

art

Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is heading to Norwich for Radio 1's Big Weekend

music
Arts and Entertainment
Beer as folk: Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri (centre) in ‘Cucumber’
tvReview: This slice of gay life in Manchester has universal appeal
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
‘A Day at the Races’ still stands up well today
film
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tvAnd its producers have already announced a second season...
Arts and Entertainment
Kraftwerk performing at the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) museum in Berlin earlier this month
musicWhy a bunch of academics consider German electropoppers Kraftwerk worthy of their own symposium
Arts and Entertainment
Icelandic singer Bjork has been forced to release her album early after an online leak

music
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

film
Arts and Entertainment
Brian Blessed as King Lear in the Guildford Shakespeare Company's performance of the play

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
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.

    As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

    As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

    Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
    Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

    The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

    Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
    Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
    Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

    Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

    A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
    How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

    How books can defeat Isis

    Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
    Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

    Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

    She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
    The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

    The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

    The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
    French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

    French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

    Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
    Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

    Young carers to make dance debut

    What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
    Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

    Design Council's 70th anniversary

    Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch
    Dame Harriet Walter: The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment

    Dame Harriet Walter interview

    The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment
    Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

    Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

    Critics of Tom Stoppard's new play seem to agree that cerebral can never trump character, says DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's winter salads will make you feel energised through February

    Bill Granger's winter salads

    Salads aren't just a bit on the side, says our chef - their crunch, colour and natural goodness are perfect for a midwinter pick-me-up
    England vs Wales: Cool head George Ford ready to put out dragon fire

    George Ford: Cool head ready to put out dragon fire

    No 10’s calmness under pressure will be key for England in Cardiff
    Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links