'Fifty Shades' of embarrassed readers

Word of mouth has made E.L. James’ sexually explicit romance “Fifty Shades of Grey,” an e-book and paperback best-seller, a phenomenon among female readers.

So why won’t the majority of its fans, 30-something moms, according to the publisher, admit to devouring this guilty pleasure?

“Because it’s porn,” says one local reader, who, being a Girl Scout leader, declined to give her name. “It’s that simple, really. I first heard about it on the ‘Today’ show and was intrigued. I knew it had a lot to do with sex, but I didn’t know it would be to this extreme or go into so much detail. Some of these pages have made me blush. Had I been reading it in a doctor’s office, I’d have been embarrassed for people to see my face. ”

Having just finished the third book of the trilogy, she says “Fifty Shades” and its siblings fail, for her, to live up to expectations.

“I had to see what the hype is all about and now I don’t think it deserves it. I was annoyed by it in the end. There’s not much of a storyline, just sex. But I do find some unintentional humor in it. In some ways, I think that it is hysterical.”

Inspired, more or less, by the “Twilight” books by Stephenie Meyer, “Fifty Shades of Grey” was released simultaneously as an e-book and a print-on-demand paperback in June 2011 by the Writers’ Coffee Shop, an Australian independent publisher.

The second volume, “Fifty Shades Darker,” was released by the same firm last September. By late fall, they had morphed into a ground-level sensation in the U.S.

The third installment, “Fifty Shades Freed,” debuted in January. That same month, “Fifty Shades of Grey” became an Amazon.com best-seller despite the fact it had enjoyed no conventional marketing or publicity campaign.

In March, Vintage Books, which usually specializes in reprints of venerated novels and nonfiction, signed a seven-figure deal with the Australian publisher for rights to the book and the next two in the series.

James, a little-known former British TV exec, has won international fame, or infamy, depending on one’s perspective.

Set largely in Seattle, the story follows the relationship between college graduate Ana Steele and a wealthy young business magnate, Christian Grey, a man with a taste for darker delights.

One wonders, in an age of equality and female empowerment, what is the appeal of a tale in which the heroine is subjugated? No one seems inclined toward psychoanalysis.

“Women of all ages, from their 20s to their 70s, have been clamoring for it ever since the author appeared on the ‘Today’ show a few weeks ago,” says Patti Morrison, manager of the Mount Pleasant Barnes & Noble. “There’s lots of people coming in asking for it. It’s being driven by word of mouth. Women say ‘My girlfriend said I just have to read it.’

“Women seem to love to read this because no one can see them doing it. To me, that’s more the story than the book itself.”

Maybe. But women seem to want to keep it to themselves, and those with whom they share it.

“Don’t use my name,” says another Charlestonian, who prefers to remain as anonymous as the other readers of “Fifty Shades.”

“I work in a bookstore, and I try to read some of what people are curious about. Women want romance, but I just can’t say why this particular book has taken off. I read the first one, and it reminds me somewhat of the ‘Twilight’ series — light and silly — but with explicit sex. I am halfway through the sequel, but have grown tired of it.

“I promise you I’d never have taken the (paper) book home. If it were not available as an e-book, I would not have read it.”

Vicki Wilkerson of Summerville, a voracious reader and member of the Lowcountry chapter of the Romance Writers of America, generally gravitates to a loftier style of romantic fiction, but agrees that the new electronic readers are revolutionizing consumer habits.

“Kindles and Nooks open up an entirely different experience for readers,” she says. “The stigma of titles is gone. And, though I am a bibliophile and love everything about the feel of paper and the turning of pages in a real book, I would be more apt to read racier and unfamiliar genres on my Kindle Fire than I would be to read the physical versions.”

Perhaps part of the fun for readers of “Fifty Shades” is the very act of keeping it a secret. Forbidden fruit is often the tastiest.

Reach Bill Thompson at 937-5707.