Fifty shades of blockbuster success

By EL James (Arrow)

An urgent message reached me last week as I was heading to the airport for a Jubilee weekend trip to Israel: “Bring four copies of Fifty Shades of Grey pretty please.” It came from a 34 year old friend in Tel Aviv who, along with three other thirty-somethings, were dying to get their hands on the book that in just six weeks sold 10m copies, instantly reached number one in the UK and has, with its unprecedented success through viral marketing, heralded a new publishing age.

Fifty Shades of Grey – if you have managed to miss the fuss (or are a man) – is the first in a trilogy, and began life as a piece of self-published Twilight fan fiction, starring vampires. First published on a fan site, then on author E.L. James’s own Fifty Shades website, the story was bought and released by an Australian digital publisher in May 2011. Word of mouth and book blogs boosted its sales and eventually it caught the eye of Random House, who re-published the book in March this year. In its current version, it tells the story of the hopelessly innocent undergraduate Anastasia Steele and the unlikely burgeoning of her relationship with Christian Grey, a multi-millionaire entrepreneur. It’s not a regular relationship, mind you: it’s dominant-submissive, the only sort Grey, who is damaged goods, can stomach.

Fifty Shades is both vanilla and racy. There is some extreme action contained wherein, but the language remains steadfastly PG13. Which must be why the “mommies” of America (the book became instantly dubbed Mommy Porn) found it so palatable – they could have the titillation and escapism without the seediness.

Palatable for mommies, maybe – for feminists, a disgrace on many counts, from the evasive language for female body parts, to the unfeasible innocence of the heroine and, of course, the whole submissive-to-rich-powerful-possibly-dangerous-dominant-man thing. American journalist Katie Roiphe invited a hate storm by writing in Newsweek that the submissive role, as depicted in Fifty Shades, was something women secretly wanted because power “and all of its imperatives can be boring”.

Lots of intra-media panting, then – hardly surprising for a book that touches on two such hotly debated topics: sex and how to turn books into money. But what about the book itself? Blockbuster erotic/romance fiction is hardly new; think of Mills & Boone and Danielle Steele. So what is it about Fifty Shades, exactly, that has led millions of women, from Oklahoma to London to Tel Aviv, to break out in sweats?

It’s simple: the appeal of a kinky Prince Charming and the fantasy of being utterly taken in hand (some could rephrase this as being completely controlled). It’s not quite being “saved”, as Anastasia does have a life plan and her own resources. But once Grey decides she’s the woman for him, he buys her cars, first edition books worth thousands and ferries her to his dream penthouse in the helicopter that he himself commands.

The book is long and dull, the characters irritating and unbelievable in the extreme. However, there are one or two interesting themes that contribute to the story’s appeal. The main one is the strength of Anastasia’s resistance to Christian’s love contract (he wants her to sign one, saying she’ll do whatever he pleases, including eat from a particular list of foods, see a personal trainer four times a week on so that she’s limber for his whips-and-cuff-filled Room of Pleasure, and take whatever sexual advance he cares to throw at her). She is so beside herself, so overcome with Christian’s staggering potency, forceful nature, intelligence and the looks frequently described as “so freaking hot”, that her ability to resist the letter of his law is quite amazing. But resist it she does, and this resistance forms the backbone of the story. In fact, Fifty Shades is more a tussle of will than a tussle of bodies (though there is plenty of the latter), with neither party able to walk away but neither able to make the ultimate compromise.

If the book was better written, it would be a love story. As it stands, even the erotic element escaped me – the asinine language renders it almost cold. (How many times can a leading man “mutter” and a heroine “blush”, “flush”, and “quake”? This heroine also has both a sarky “subconscious” and an “inner goddess” who dances when Christian proposes something inappropriate.) You can add all the tools, tricks and kinks you want, but on the nineteenth retelling of a mindblowing encounter in a boathouse, or a bathtub, even the most heated and original of tussles gets boring to read about if the characters themselves leave you bored.

What’s more pernicious even than the prose is that by the end, you’ve developed a crush on Christian Grey, whose perfect body, tousled copper hair and searing grey eyes have been emphasised for 500 pages. Then you realise that any yearning for a Christian Grey of your own is both impossible and disturbing. Because there are very few multi-millionaire men out there who can pull off sado-masochism with just the right amount of horse-tail whip and maroon leather handcuff and (good) pain. And very few who will also fall in love with you and fly you home in their very own helicopter, where a bottle of Pouille Fume awaits your delectation. And anyway, you ask yourself, is that what you really want? Judging by the sales, and the speed with which you yourself read the book: the answer is yes. It looks like it is. Which is the most disturbing thing of all.