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Tuesday, 4 September 2012

The murky debate around Shades of Grey - should we buy?

Margaret Bass

For many years, because I am the Literature Librarian and because I have a strong interest, it has been my task to buy fiction firstly for the Pietermaritzburg main library and now, more recently, for the E.G.M. Library at Howard College. You would be right in thinking that this is a simple task as it is guided by clearish library guidelines - but it remains controversial and I often find myself questioning the role of the library in providing leisure reading to its users and more often than not, defending my choices.

According to our guidelines, fiction of 'literary merit' should be bought. This is in itself is fraught and while this is spelt out in some detail - I often find myself defining and defending (to myself and others) what in fact this entails. In addition, we are supposed to be guided by the following:

  • winners of prestigious literary prizes (and those on the short lists)
  • writers attracting positive attention in quality review journals
  • established writers with strong literary reputations
  • most South African fiction
  • no genre or pulp fiction

Then the whole debate arises as to why we keep fiction at all. We are a university library and shouldn't we be offering leisure reading to extend and educate? Or,  knowing the parlous state of reading levels in our country shouldn't we be luring them in by all the means at our disposal? I no longer have the answers....
Light or popular fiction can and should be borrowed from the public library and the drastic cuts in our budgets makes me look carefully at every title I buy. I have to strongly motivate for monies to be put aside for fiction every year - this year Howard College got none, but I managed to make some money from moonlighting activities (before I am fired, these were library-related!) and I used this.

This whole argument once again raised its head when I was asked by a bunch of students how they can get their hands on 'Fifty Shades Darker' the second title in the 'Fifty Shades of Grey' trilogy. This title, ordered by another campus library, has not even arrived in the library but users had already heard about it. By the way, this book has already proved its worth - the students had to be given a tutorial on how to use our online catalogue (OPAC) in order to find the book.

For anyone who doesn't yet know - the trilogy, described by the New York Times as 'mommy porn' has broken all publishing records both electronically and in its print format, flies out of bookshops (in South Africa it keeps getting sold out), and is being read by anybody and everybody. Public libraries are limiting borrowing times on the books and are having to order extra copies, yet even so, there are long waiting lists.

Of course it flouts every single one of our guidelines; it has absolutely zero literary merit, its plot is formulaic, it has certainly won no literary prizes (does the fastest selling published item of 2012 count?) and it fits right smack into its specific genre. If you dont believe the literary merit part, examples of the standard of writing abound on the internet - see

I am so tempted to spend my hard won fiction allocation on a couple of sets of the trilogy for the Howard College library. The thought of a constant stream of users coming into the library to borrow, reserve or read the books is too attractive to dismiss (the turnover will be quick - they are fast reads - apparently you can't put them down). On the way to to the issue desk they might notice that the library is quite congenial, has other great books in it, and has librarians who also like to have fun.

Once begun on this path who knows where it will end? Readers may move on to Mills and Boon, and then on to the Twilight Saga and then? - instead of  E.L. James, Henry James?