Saturday, 23 June 2012

On Fifty Shades of Grey

I wasn't going to write anything about the erotic trilogy by E.L. James, mostly because I felt that it was outside the parameters of this blog, in which I prefer to focus on the fabulous world of YA. However, since making that decision, the first book in the trilogy, Fifty Shades of Grey, has become one of the (if not THE) bestselling book of all time. But instead of offering a critique of the books, the likes of which you can find in multitudes across the world wide web, I thought I would offer a defence.

Working in a (huge) bookshop gives me a unique perspective, for as much as I could criticise and berate the appalling writing style, the repetitive (and frankly boring) use of phrases such as 'Oh My' and 'Holy Cow' and the ludricous plot, I get to meet the people who are buying them. The vast majority are giggling office girls, anxious to get hold of the books that EVERYBODY is talking about. They want to be part of the club, to join in with debates on who should play Christian Grey in the inevitable film and to be 'in' on the little jokes that pass like silly titters between colleagues at the water cooler. They are happy customers. They are excited customers, and it is a pleasure to sell the books to them. Mostly because I can guarantee that every single one of these readers will have a thoroughly great time. 

Hence my first defence: 

1. The books are undeniable fun.

If you have read the books with your glasses primed at the end of your nose, tutting away at each unnecessary adverb, you have missed the point. James did not write them to be a serious and realistic exploration into the devious mind of a sadist billionaire, she wrote them for fun. She wrote them with a giggle on her lips, and posted them on a website for other people to giggle at. They were never meant to be taken seriously, and it's not the author's fault that they have been. In fact, it's hardly the author's fault that they've been properly published. I highly doubt that was her original intention at all. She had an idea, she had a great time writing it up, and now millions of readers can have a great time reading them too. 

2. As a parody of the Twilight saga, they're actually quite funny.

I wrote an essay for my Masters degree on the influence of Twilight on the literary establishment, from the impact of their covers to the fact that the floodgates were opened to a multitude of YA writing. In the course of this essay I picked the books apart, and found them to be absolutely dreadful. The shallow submissiveness of Bella, the frankly creepy smothering nature of Edward, plus the weird development of their juvenile relationship to marriage and children across four novels. What E.L. James has done with the Fifty Shades trilogy, is pick apart the bare bones of the plot and the latent themes, and parody them. For Bella we have the virginal and oblivious Ana, and instead of a domineering boyfriend with a dark vampiric secret, we have the domineering Christian with a secret playroom. Entire scenes from the Twilight Saga have been lifted and transplanted to Fifty-land, and this is funny. Really funny. I don't care if you don't get it. I laughed. I really laughed, and I betcha E.L. James laughed too as she was writing it. Good for her!

3. People are reading books!

This view comes from my experience of being a children's bookseller, where I was constantly telling parents that it didn't matter what their children were reading, just the fact that they were reading anything at all is a brilliant thing. Parents would moan about their child only ever reading the Wimpy Kid books or Tintin, "how do I get them reading Dickens?" they would ask. In reply I would try and find a way of telling nervous parents that it didn't matter what their kids were reading. The point is to enjoy books. Everyday women (and awkwardly, some men) are coming into my book shop and buying the Fifty Shades trilogy, and I am willing to bet that for the vast majority of these customers, these are the first and only books they will be buying this year. Who honestly cares what they are reading? Isn't it just a great thing that they are in bookshops at all? Spending their dwindling after-tax salaries on paperback novels? And for every one of these customers that lazes on the beach with their once-a-year read, there will be another who will come back, and instead of picking up a Mills and Boon, may instead pick up the latest Booker prize winner, or the Costa winner at the very least. Guys! People who haven't set foot in a bookshop in years are reading! Let's embrace them no matter what they buy! 

4. Fantasy is Fantasy

One of the most annoying criticisms I've read of these books is that they defy feminism and set modern womankind back fifty years. Ana is a submissive little girl who is on a quest to 'fix' her kinky man, and consents to marriage as well as being manacled to a four poster and flogged. Have we learnt nothing by burning our bras sisters? As well as being trussed up my our underwired lingerie do we really desire to be trussed up in cable ties and handcuffs too? My response? They are fantasy! E.L. James knew she was writing fantasy (heck, Twilight was her starting point!), and the vast majority of her female readers recognise that they engaging in fantasy too. In exactly the same way that we all know that hobbits and vampires aren't real, we know that Christian Grey isn't real. I would argue that we all engage in fantasy precisely because we know that it isn't real. Fantasy allows us all to explore our secret desires without the ramifications of reality. Do I really want to be handcuffed to a bed and beaten with a riding crop? No. Do I want to imagine what it might be like? Yes. I am an ardent and proud feminist, and this means that in my liberation, I am allowed to do what the hell I like with my imagination. 

5. What does Bestseller really mean?

In the short run, it actually means that the publisher gets more money and freedom to publish other stuff. Which is a really, really good thing. It means that the next literary 'big-thing' may get an advance big enough to pursue his dreams. It means that the doors open slightly wider for other writers and novels. In the long run, the vast landscape of history, it doesn't really mean much. I haven't run a copy of the Da Vinci Code through my tills in months and months. I bet you've probably never even heard of the bestselling books of the Victorian age. Trilby anyone? The Sorrows of Satan by Marie Corelli? Basically, the success of a low-grade erotic novel isn't going to actually impact our lives in any meaningful way. It doesn't signify the decline of morals or the coming of the apocalypse. Trashy bestsellers have existed for centuries now, and we're all ok. Give it a few years and we'll have the next big thing, and nay-sayers will once again be predicting the end of the world and the decline of moral values. Give it a decade or two and you may have even forgotten that Fifty Shades of Grey existed. And everything will be fine. 

Comments welcomed and appreciated people!

Hugs and high fives (from a relatively twitchy palm),



  1. I hate these books and all they stand for but your defence is brilliant!! Never mind book-selling, you should be a lawyer. Still not buying them though.

  2. This is a really interesting post, and some really good points actually! As long as people are reading and enjoying themselves, it shouldn't really matter that much. Whether people are reading them because they genuinely love them, or just to laugh at the bad writing, it's still fieling the publihsing industry and people are still having fun reading them, I guess.

  3. Great stuff. My issue with the books is that you don't try to make money off fanfic (whether that fanfic is amazing and clever - as lots of it is - or a big load of cobblers). It's fandom rule #1. But it's fascinating to watch the way this has unfolded into such a huge phenomenon.

    One question: why is it 'awkward' to sell it to men? It's only a book!

  4. Nicole you are a genius and I agree with a lot of your points. I personally don't want to the read the books, I do find them worrying even though they are fantasy, they are not my kind of fantasy. You make a very eloquent arguement and as a fellow bookseller I too am delighted to have the tills ringing and to see smiling faces as they walk away with their books. Also as a feminist I am delighted to see women of all ages proudly purchasing, reading and enjoying erotic fiction.

  5. Great post- you make some excellent points, especially about getting people to read whatever they want. As a children's librarian I am also constantly saying to parents that the children should be able to choose and read what they like- so many parents herd them to books, or tell them their book choice is too silly. It's heartbreaking.

    And do you notice- most of the criticism about these books is from people who haven't actually read them?! ;)

  6. Ha ha! I wasn't going to read it and I might just have to now.

  7. Okay, first I'd like to say how nice it is to read a defence that isn't entirely based on “like, how TOTES a fittie” Christian Grey is ;) It's also great to get the perspective of someone who actually works in a bookshop and actually sells the book, I think that makes you a lot more qualified than most to talking about it. I'll address your points in turn.

    1. The books are undeniable fun.

    This is spot on. Since this whole thing blew up I've been thinking a lot about how extreme popularity gives rise to irrational loathing. I first experienced this, personally, when Harry Potter first got huge, probably after the release of Azkaban. Suddenly, books were everywhere, and I remember feeling very miffed and point blank refusing to read any of the series. I think my attitude was along the lines of, “Wait, I've been reading for years now, and in all that time books have got zero love, now suddenly reading is everyone's new favourite hobby? Get out.” Eventually, though, I came round, but the that urge towards elitism in the face of popularity is very strong, almost instinctive, and takes a lot of rational thought to work around. You see it in all walks of life. We all know indie kids who completely disown their favourite band as soon as their record breaks the top ten.

    I suppose, as well, that some of it is jealousy – people read the unquestionably awful writing, follow the terrible plot, and think, this is unfair... how can trash like this be selling well when thousands of more talented, creative, hardworking writers languish in obscurity. Which is a fair point, but as you said, it's hardly the author's fault. It's not like (as some people seem to assume) she cynically fused Twilight + kinky sex and sat back waiting for the dollar to roll in. Personally, I see nothing wrong with fanfiction. I wouldn't read it or write it, but it's just a hobby, like anything else, and creative hobbies especially are always to be encouraged. If her hobby was, say, knitting jumpers, would we care if they aren't as perfectly knitted or exquisitely designed as those you can buy on Oxford Street? And if, after she'd knitted three jumpers, a salesman came along as said, people seem to really like your jumpers, let me sell them for you, would we really expect her to say no?

    The problem comes, I think, when women start trying to make it into something more than just entertainment. The number of comments I've seen along the lines of “Fifty Shades is the best trilogy ever!”/”E.L. James is such an amazing writer!” is ridiculous. Sure, enjoy it, we all take pleasure in all types of culture, from high to low and back again, but understand that it is basically just cheap, trashy, pornographic entertainment, and just because it's a book doesn't make it any more respectable (a common fallacy, I think, amongst those who don't usually read). If a guy goes around saying “Debbie Does Dallas” is his favourite movie, then he would (rightly) get judged, and harshly. Debbie might provide wish-fulfillment for him in the same way that Christian Grey does for women, but if he went around not only saying that it was his favourite movie, but also that it was a objectively “good” film, one of the best he's ever seen, in fact, then he would be laughed off the streets.

    [cont. below]

  8. 2. As a parody of the Twilight saga, they're actually quite funny.

    This is where I disagree. Sure, they could be read as a Twilight parody (although not, in that case, a particularly hilarious one) but I think parody was pretty much the last thing on E.L. James's mind. For a start, I don't think there's any evidence of enough wit or intelligence in the text to point in that direction. And, as you can see from the various originals knocking around the web (there's a good PDF with the original “Master of the Universe” side by side with the eventually published “Fifty Shades of Grey”) Ana and Grey aren't parodies of Bella and Edward, they are Bella and Edward. All she's done is remove Edward's supernatural element, and compensate by giving him the superpower of being Impossibly Wealthy. As I've said before in my blog, the funniest part of these books was that E.L. James seemingly read Twilight and thought, "Well, Edward's okay and all... but he's just not bloody rich enough. Sure, superstrength and perfect abs and everlasting devotion are just fine, I suppose, but to be perfectly honest if a man's not gonna buy me a MacBook Pro and an Audi then I'm just not that into him. And all this celibacy? I don't know about you, but I'm a real modern woman, and as a real modern woman I demand my right to be lashed to a four-poster with DIY accessories and thrashed into next week with a riding crop."

    PS. while we're on the subject of Grey, as I was thinking about his age this occurred to me:

    What E.L. James thinks a 27 year old billionaire is like: "Tall, dressed in a fine gray suit, white shirt, and black tie with unruly dark-copper-colored hair and intense, bright gray eyes. He smiles, revealing perfect white teeth. He really is beautiful. No one should be this good-looking."

    What a 27 year old billionaire is actually like:

    3. People are reading books!

    Again, spot on. The whole Harry Potter > Twilight > Hunger Games thing has actually caused a revolution in reading, along with the rise of the eBook, and in an age of complete entertainment saturation, we should be very grateful!

    4. Fantasy is Fantasy

    “As well as being trussed up my our underwired lingerie do we really desire to be trussed up in cable ties and handcuffs too?”

    Haha, I laughed at that. Going to leave this one alone, though. Not because I think as a man I'm unable to comment, but just because I can see both sides.

    5. What does Bestseller really mean?

    To be fair, I'm not sure the success of Fifty Shades is going to help out the next literary big thing, haha. What it will do is briefly flood bookstores with erotica as publishing houses try to jump on the bandwagon before the hype fades away (just like after Twilight blew up there were shelves and shelves of “vampire-in-high-school” books) but in a year or two everything will settle down.

    Till then, all we can do is sit back, relax, and play Fifty Shades of Sloshed, the Fifty Shades drinking game ;)