Some years ago, my neighbour asked me what I thought of The Da Vinci Code, by Dan Brown. Her book club had chosen it as their monthly selection and she found it to be one of the best novels she had ever read. She assumed that, since I was a bibliophile, I must have read it.
I tried not to sound snooty or snide as I told her I had not read it. I fought the urge to wave my hand dismissively, to say I would never read it. She sensed this and she asked me why.
"Too big a mega-bestseller," I said. "I prefer to spend my reading time on books that pass under the radar and are usually far better-written."
There are so many books that go virtually unnoticed and a substantial number of them are good. I like to discover good ones I've never heard of. One of the reasons I review books for Prairie Fire is I get to choose from a long list of little-publicized fiction, most of it from small publishers. I wish Winnipeg book clubs would do more experimenting rather than go for bestsellers.
For this reason, I don't like the Canada Reads concept -- or Manitoba Reads, or On the Same Page -- holding a competition to determine one book all of us should read. It's a contest based more on popularity than merit. There is a wonderful variety out there; we should promote the variety, not some lucky single choice.
Of course, when I speak like this, some people smell a rat. They know I am not only a reader, I'm also a writer. They think my argument smacks of sour grapes; they figure if one of my novels was chosen for -- maybe, say, St. Vital Reads, I would applaud the idea.
I point to what Margaret Atwood is quoted as saying: "Literature should not be a competition." But then I'm reminded it's easy for her to say such a thing, since she's probably the most successful literary novelist in Canada.
OK, so, full disclosure: I published a new novel in April. It's called Dating, and yes, that's what it's about -- dating, in the old days and now; when you're young and when you're "in late middle age."
When I was writing it, I wondered how much sex should be in it, how explicit I should be. It seemed to me that many recent novels I'd read simply hinted at sex. I decided that any novel about dating had to include details of the awkwardness of the old days and... whatever goes on now.
The novel, complete with what we used to call "the good parts," appeared. And -- wouldn't you know it? -- at just about the same time, the literary world was rocked by a novel that apparently was full of good parts. Not just one novel, a trilogy. The Fifty Shades Trilogy.
At first, I thought I would ignore it. I'd regard it with the same disdain I'd given that book by a guy named Brown.
But there, in every bookstore, were the three books, prominently displayed in great quantity. I saw articles on the author, a former television executive living in west London, England. Her married name is Erika Leonard and she calls herself E.L. James. She is a wife and mother, born in 1963, and she said she had decided to write a novel that contained all of her fantasies.
The trilogy topped everybody's bestseller list -- Amazon, the New York Times, the Globe and Mail, McNally-Robinson. It found its way into ordinary people's conversations. Jay Leno referred to it in a remark about the effects of spanking on children. A Global News national story said newly pregnant women all over were attributing their condition to a new interest in sex caused by Fifty Shades.
And there were copycats. A veteran American romance writer named Sylvia Day quickly turned out a Fifty Shades-inspired novel called Bared to You. She started by publishing it herself online, but a New York publisher jumped all over it, putting out a print run of 500,000. They've talked her into a trilogy, and the second volume, due later this year, is called Deeper in You.
Enough. No sense ignoring this any longer, I told myself. I can't beat them, I'm going to join them.
After all, these books are invading my territory. I write about relationships, damn it!
It occurred to me that the secret of success lately is the trilogy. What, after all, is the big success over in young adult novels these days? The Hunger Games Trilogy!
I'd write The Dating Trilogy. And I was already a third of the way there!
In case you haven't read the first volume, Dating, you need to know that the protagonist, Jenkins, is a widower finding his way back into the dating scene. His only role model is his young self, and the novel flashes back to those fumbling times back in the '50s.
Volume 2 will be called Fifty Shades of Dating. In it, a wide range of women will reflect on what Jenkins was like as a date. Since the number of girls he dates falls short of 50, we will also hear from mothers of girls he dated and waitresses who served him on dates and girls he sat across from on buses.
Volume 3 will be called Dating Grey. This one takes place in the present. Jenkins, having had enough anxious times with younger women, moves into an assisted-living facility armed with Cialis (shunning the better-known Viagra because of always wanting to support the underdog).
I am working on these at a hectic pace. If I don't hurry, the Fifty Shades phenomenon will have passed, and people will be rushing to bookstores for something like the Texting While Driving Trilogy.
David Williamson is a Winnipeg author.