Fiona Graham writes from Cambridge: A woman walked into a bookshop here a couple of days back and stood for moment, as if she’d walked into a cathedral and didn’t quite know where to kneel. An assistant approached her and before the woman could open her mouth said: ‘Fifty Shades? I’m sorry, we’re waiting for a new order.’ Flustered the lady muttered something about gardening and bought a coffee table book she probably didn’t want.
But the assistant was right. She’d sussed the customer. The woman didn’t look like a regular book buyer. Fifty Shades of Grey is not a regular book. It is phenomenal trash that is selling millions, doing better than Harry Potter.
How could this be?
Fifty Shades is about sexual fantasies. It’s about an imaginative but sexually innocent college graduate, Ana Steele, being screwed (she wouldn’t make do with dull euphemisms) by a well-hung guy, Christian Grey, who is into everything that the most imaginative medieval script writer could put together and is galactically rich and wants non-disclosure agreements before dominance and submission romps.
Enough? Well, it gets better.
The girl must not touch him or look him in the eye and because she’s a virgin, he agrees to let her off the deflowering non-disclosure thing. This is clearly a guy who is understanding and comes from a generous background. Incidentally, his mother thought he was gay and doesn’t know he lost his virginity to one of her randy friends when he was a teenager.
Still interested? Maybe I’m making this book – a trilogy – more interesting than it is. The writing is insultingly bad. The sex scenes are not even mom’s porn, as some of the self-publicity suggests. They’re unbelievably bad Grade Eight. But that’s me. Happy and not frustrated.
So that should dismiss Fifty Shades as a badly written attempt to create a steaming version of Mills & Boon meets American Twilight romance fiction. That would be OK if Fifty Shades wasn’t such a world-wide $zillion seller to moms, teenage kids (mainly girls), the late teens and early twenty somethings – a group that has probably never even heard of Barnes & Noble.
These are youngsters who want something on their Kindles and iPads that explores fantasies they don’t know how to reach.
Okay, maybe coffee morning moms with dull bedroom-mannered husbands really are gagging for fun that they can only get on line or in shaky printed paperbacks. People say that’s sad and that these books are written for sad people. Rubbish.
These books are soft-porn excitement and you can buy the kit and in some places, the partners to go with it, in most American towns other than Lake Wobegon where anyway, all the women are strong and even the teenagers are above average.
The psychobabblists in this ancient university tell me that there is something here about women wanting to chase down their own sexual fantasies. It has also something to do with the way men and women pursue off duty fantasies.
For example, women go in groups to male strip shows. They howl together, shriek together, hug and laugh together and throw knickers. They then go home and remember to put the washing machine on overnight on the cheaper tariff.
Men? They mostly go to strip clubs by themselves (ask any bouncer – he rarely has to deal with more than one punter). When the lone male leaves the strip joint, he takes the fantasy with him. He’s the sad sap. Fifty Shades is not for the lone male because this is, intended or not, also about power. In spite of what they think, men are not powerful -particularly when the gut hangs over the too- young chinos and gums need mouthwashing five times a day.
Maybe none of this rings bells in Seattle. But then ten years ago, Fifty Shades would not have had the www.com to launch itself on millions of fantasy & fun consciences.
Of course, we can yell that it’s crap and everyone is being fooled. But that’s missing an important point: most people – including the people buying it – know that it’s crap and that everyone is being fooled. That makes it legitimate. If it were deadly serious and literary fiction then the reader would be in danger of perversion. Show me an old paperback of Lady Chatterley and I’ll prove that by showing you the thumb marks on the screw pages.
And to cap it all, the frumpy reviewers, columnists and critics thrashing about looking at literary ways to condemn Fifty Shades are simply part of the trilogy’s success. Yes, it’s everything they say it is and it’s so terrible that the word is that a revered English publisher has put out feelers to buy the eBooks company that launched it.
As for the author E.L. James, she made Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in the World. I’m not certain how many Nobel Literature Laureates got on that list.