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Notes on a scandal

From the controversy surrounding J.K. Rowling's outing as leading a double authorial life to claims that the Fifty Shades trilogy romanticised violence toward women, books still have the power to create debate. Matthew Humpage, from our Inverness bookshop asks is there such a thing as bad publicity in publishing?

Posted on 20th August 2013 by Waterstones
Robert Galbraith's true identity is revealed - as seen in our weekly comic strip Sprout's BookClub.

Robert Galbraith's true identity is revealed - as seen in our weekly comic strip Sprout's BookClub.

It seems that the publishing industry has fallen in love with the scandalous. Lets be honest it’s not a big surprise. We all love the shocking, the unexpected, the tragically doomed and the saucy or salacious - you only have to look at how many tabloids and glossy magazines we consume on a daily basis.
So what does controversy look like in the literary world?You don’t have to look far to find examples.

This year’s summer blockbuster, bursting from obscurity at a time when the trade desperately needed a boost, is the perfect example. The Cuckoo's Calling by Robert Galbraith, the now well known nom-de-plume of J.K. Rowling, has rocketed to the top of the charts thanks to the revelation of its authorship - and the scandal of how it came to be revealed. Sales jumped 41,000% the week following Rowling’s outing, and total copies, according to Nielsen Book Data, are currently at a respectable 58k books, more than Linwood Barclay’s Trust your Eyes, or Jo Nesbo’s The Bat.

With a number of Hollywood studios bidding for the rights to The Cuckoo’s Calling, it’s hard to believe that the controversy surrounding Galbraith’s identity played no part in this sudden interest.

Last year’s standout success was the Fifty Shades trilogy by E.L. James, a fan fiction e-format sensation that broke into print with the force - and subtlety - of a forest fire. Fifty Shades of Grey, and its two sequels Darker and Freed, sold over 70 million copies between March and December of 2012. It’s rare that a single title can be credited with shifting the publishing and cultural zeitgeist, but E.L. James seems to have done just that. Indeed in November of last year the erotic fiction category received 4,000 percent more searches than the Man Booker Prize shortlist. James’ books have normalised an area of fiction that had previously been somewhat niché or marginalised. It’s no longer strange to spot commuters devouring a Sylvia Day or Maria Anderson without hiding the cover for fear of embarrassment - quite the feat of social progress for a little hanky-panky. Could this have happened without the scandal?

It’s not a new phenomenon. Looking back at the industry it’s not hard to spot titles that received a boost from controversy: The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie, Anthony Burgess' A Clockwork Orange, then there's Brave New World, Catcher in the Rye, Of Mice and Men, Lady Chatterley's Lover... the list could go on. It could seem hard to spot the downside to a little bookish scandal.
But what happens when the controversy is a little too personal?

A study published in the Journal of Women’s Health claims that Fifty Shades of Grey romanticises sexual violence and emotional abuse of women.

“This book is perpetuating dangerous abuse standards and yet it's being cast as this romantic, erotic book for women,” said Dr Amy Bonomi, lead author of the study.

In her analysis, the main character Anastasia experiences a large range of reactions described by abused women, including: perceived threat, stressful managing, yearning, altered identity, disempowerment, and entrapment. Is this something we should all be reading with such enthusiasm?

Then there’s religion. Rushdie and Philip Pullman found themselves mired in death threats and scandal over books touching on religious matters. Both received huge lifts in national and international media coverage as a result. It’s also impossible to forget the resounding successes of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, both surrounded by a fug of religious rancour - and indeed accusations of courting it by being deliberately provocative.

So, is there such a thing as bad publicity? The publishers of Robert Galbraith or E.L. James’ books might not think so. For my part I would have to say maybe. Reading can never be a bad thing, but as responsible readers and adults we need to be vigilant over the effect the written word can have.

In a world increasingly shrinking with the advent of digital media, and a publishing industry facing an explosion in the number of ways to publish - both mainstream and independent - surely anything that marks you out from the myriad other voices is beneficial.

But be careful what you wish for. Public opinion can be fickle and fads pass quickly.

Saying that, I’m off to submit a manuscript under the name E.L. Galbraith just to see what happens. Wish me luck.

Matthew Humpage, for Waterstones.com/blog