I’d written a few months ago about my Newtown High School reading lists. We were asked to read a number of books over the summer and throughout the year on our own. At the beginning of the school year, as well as two days each month, class periods were set aside to answer an essay question on each of the books we had read outside of class. One class period was allocated per essay. Most of the titles were traditional literature, but a few contemporary authors also made the list. While I read many of the literary greats, I also happened to choose to read Flowers in the Attic by V.C. Andrews one month. The book had been published in 1979 and was widely popular by the time of my freshman year in 1981-82. I don’t recall that anyone I knew had read the book, but remember that it seemed to be everywhere, including the checkout stands at some of the local stores. The distinctive cover implied intrigue, and the pages inside did not disappoint.
I remember the story as if I had read it yesterday. The characters, plot, and surprises that unfolded amidst a sinister backdrop made for quick reading, but even at the time I knew I was reading “pop fiction.” It never occurred to me what type of essay I might have to write, so when I read the question that was plopped on my desk in English class I drew a breath in surprise. In one simple line, the teacher had asked, “Will Flowers in the Attic become a classic?” With no right or wrong answer, I simply had to defend my position by a topic sentence, three supporting paragraphs, and a conclusion that tied my thoughts together. If only I could remember how I angled my response…
Last week it was reported that Fifty Shades of Grey had sold 100M copies. Whoa–the book was only released in March 2012! That’s incredible commercial success by any standard, and surpasses the 40M lifetime copies of “Flowers in the Attic” as reported by Wikipedia. At one point, the E.L. James trilogy of erotic novels had swept the top three spots on prestigious bestseller lists. How is that possible for a book proclaimed as having “no literary value” by just about anyone who visited a library on a regular basis?
I’ll admit it–I read “Fifty Shades of Grey.” I rarely read fiction, but wanted to study the formula for commercial success. The MBA in me simply could not pass up a first-hand look at a book that generated many billions of dollars in gross revenue. Not surprisingly, E.L. James, like V.C. Andrews, delivers fast-paced, straight-forward writing. Both books have a beginning, middle, and end, with the opportunity to continue the lives of the character in subsequent books. Both books have a plot and character development. Both books contain an element that is unusual. In the Grey series, it’s the weird erotica. in Flowers, it’s the weird situation. If a readers objected to the explicit descriptions in “Grey,” then there were probably an equal number of objections to the incest or child abuse in “Flowers.” Yet, both books are/were bestsellers.
Still, as I sort used-book donations at the local library several times a week, I can’t happen to ponder the prevalence of Fifty Shades of Grey titles and the absence of Flowers in the Attic titles that flow through our library’s large sorting room. Some of my co-volunteers do not even wish to handle the “Grey” erotica novel, choosing to ignore it until someone else picks it up and puts it in the fiction section under “J.” I think it’s safe to say that Fifty Shades of Grey will go the way of Flowers in the Attic. In a few years, it will fade from the vernacular, remembered as a book that was once very popular and made a lot of money, but did not become a classic. I hope that I made the right prediction about “Flowers in the Attic” all those years ago.