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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?


  1. When we teach library computer skills to 1st years, we ask them to look up an author of their choice so that they can find out if the library keeps the books they like to read. You will not be surprised that we find that the most frequently searched for authors are Danielle Steele and Francine Rivers ...

  2. standards have to be maintained .
    Do not buy this trash.
    Once our students have found jobs or become housewives they can put money in this authors pocket.

  3. I have to agree with you on the premise that it is encouraging more readers, and more feet into the library. In today's social network and Internet dominated culture, people are reading less and less literature.
    I am an honours student in Psychology, and am doing my research project on pornography, and have actually picked up a copy of the much contested book myself - the popularisation and normalisation of erotica and pornographic material is shocking, but the allure of a book that has sold 20 million copies in 4 months begs to be read by the bookworm in me.

  4. I know several people who have bought Fifty Shades of Grey and have not been able to finish it because it is so poorly written. That being said, isn't there some duty to buy it in order to study popular fiction, which then of course translates to buying Tolkien, Ngaio Marsh and Louis L'Amour.

  5. Sibongile Thuthukile Gwala6 September 2012 at 12:48

    There are two sides to every story...
    One: Yes, books in a university that have no 'nutritional value'for the brain are kind of out of place.

    Two: the fact is... you cannot force students to unlike senseless fiction. Some people like to refresh thier brains, after being academically 'fried', with non-academic stuff. At least they are not watching TV (reading stimulates brain cells - keeping them healthy, while TV waves can alter brain waves - ask an epileptic who gets fits after watching TV.
    I wouldn't consider renovating the leisure shelf yet... aterall, it is for leisure and is not academic.

  6. Let the municipal libraries buy this. As an academic library, books with more literary merit should be purchased. There are many that would be considered 'easy' to read, or have romantic subplots. Perhaps, books should have a key somewhere indicating that a particular book has a romantic element to attract these same readers.

  7. Please do not purchase this type of books. It is not sending a good moral message to our society.

  8. Why would a library buy the second in the series? Either because someone was ignorant of the fact that this is a trilogy or that they had already read the first one?