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),