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

Great British Bake Off
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

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

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    The long walk west: they fled war in Syria, only to get held up in Hungary – now hundreds of refugees have set off on foot for Austria

    They fled war in Syria...

    ...only to get stuck and sidetracked in Hungary
    From The Prisoner to Mad Men, elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series

    Title sequences: From The Prisoner to Mad Men

    Elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series. But why does the art form have such a chequered history?
    Giorgio Armani Beauty's fabric-inspired foundations: Get back to basics this autumn

    Giorgio Armani Beauty's foundations

    Sumptuous fabrics meet luscious cosmetics for this elegant look
    From stowaways to Operation Stack: Life in a transcontinental lorry cab

    Life from the inside of a trucker's cab

    From stowaways to Operation Stack, it's a challenging time to be a trucker heading to and from the Continent
    Kelis interview: The songwriter and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell and crying over potatoes

    Kelis interview

    The singer and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell
    Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

    Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

    But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
    Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

    Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

    Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
    Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

    Britain's 24-hour culture

    With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
    Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

    The addictive nature of Diplomacy

    Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
    Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

    Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

    Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
    8 best children's clocks

    Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

    Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
    Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea