Fifty Shades of Grey- What’s all the fuss about?
E.L. James, named last month as one of Time Magazines ‘100 Most Influential People in the World’, readily admits she is ‘not a great writer’. Fifty Shades of Grey combines painful prose with cringing cliché, and when it is not tedious and repetitive, is completely laughable. It has already been labelled as ‘Mommy Porn’, due to its frenzied, middle-aged female readers, but in reality can only be an erotic escape for those housewives whose husbands are screwing someone else. It is not ‘romantic, liberating and addictive’ as the back-cover suggests. Nor will it ‘obsess’ and ‘possess’ you. When Ana describes Christian’s voice as ‘warm and husky like dark chocolate fudge ice-cream’ I was ready to hurl it across the room.
Why then has the Fifty Shades trilogy been at the top of the New York Times Bestseller List for the past eight weeks? The first instalment is a victim of typicality and rides the waves made by Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight Saga, being first published as fan-fiction but taken offline when readers complained of its raunchy nature. Bella Swan and Edward Cullen have become Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey: innocent, girl-next-door graduate and sexy, young billionaire, and they are now into BDSM. That’s right; bondage, dominance, sadism and masochism.
Ana is flown to Seattle and presented with a contract that signs herself as submissive ‘property’ to Christian, and then shown a ‘playroom’ sporting an array of mahogany restraining equipment, riding crops and canes. Think Pretty Woman being flown to a very alternative opera- but at least Pretty Woman would get paid. James imposes these filthy sex scenes amongst contemptibly clichéd comparisons to Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Michelangelo’s David, and Icarus flying too close to the sun, and interjects nauseating italic asides such as‘holy cow’ and ‘he’s so freaking hot’ in an appalling attempt at style. It is difficult to know whether it is Ana or James trying to force us to believe they are sophisticated, but worryingly it seems more like the latter.
Part of its success undoubtedly is down to confident decisions in publishing, but Fifty Shades immediately snowballed and less than a year later Vintage Books paid James a seven-figure sum for the licensing rights to the trilogy and the novel sold 100,000 copies in the first week of its re-release, becoming the fastest selling book this year. Universal Pictures and Focus Features have already purchased the rights to make all three films (I anticipate this arrival with utter dread). The Kindle and the popularity of E-books have been credited for part of its success, allowing readers complete discretion, and the erotic novel genre is flourishing as a result. But does this explain the pace that modern novels are being turned into literary phenomenon? Is it as simple as sex sells?
The Twilight Saga and Fifty Shades obviously indulge some sort of voyeuristic fascination, but it is more than curiosity. Modern cult-classics such as One Day, The Time Travellers Wife, Lolita and The Great Gatsby all harbour the frustrated longing and consuming desire, the desperate attraction and fatal infatuation that we have all felt at some point in our lives. Even J.K Rowling writes romance into Hogwarts and brings marital happiness to the Harry Potter characters at the end of the novels. The fantasy genre has reinvented itself and is now real enough to relate to. Even vampires and wizards are shown to have human weaknesses and desires which threaten their very existence. With a nod towards the classics, they invoke Dickens, Austen, Bronte and Shakespeare, and simply exercise modernity into themes of unrequited love, the awakenings of sexual desire and the danger of misplaced affection.
As modern readers we are self-involved enough to believe we find truth about ourselves in everything we read, and the fantasy elements of literature resound as much with the reader, as with the protagonist, and the author themself. It is not coincidental that E.L James, Stephanie Myer and J.K Rowling were all women who had put their own lives on hold to cater for the needs of their families when their creative imaginations were inspired enough to write ‘the next big thing’. Fantastical literature is a comfortable way for an escapist to experience a lifestyle they may only be able to dream about, yet as readers we must be careful not to propel to fame unworthy literature which shouldn’t make the cut.
Why is Fifty Shades selling millions of copies each week? Because we are incredibly nosy and cannot bear to be left out of the conversation everyone is having. But be careful what you wish for- this fad is definitely not worth the time of day. I for one will only be Fifty Shades Freed by refusing to read the next installments of this dull trilogy.
For Fifty Shades: one star for sex education but minus four for preposterous prose and vulgar cliché.
Words: Lucy Holden