You can see why the numbers had Hollywood panting hot and heavy for the movie adaptation of EL James' “spankbuster.” The fastest-selling paperback ever. More than 40 million copies snapped up worldwide. The first book to sell one million e-copies for Kindles. The author's net worth already at $15-million. Universal getting the movie rights for $5-million. More than 60 printings rolling off the presses.
“I have women in their 80s and 90s asking for it, men who come in and say, 'My wife told me I had to read this,'” a Florida bookstore manager said, “The demand is out of control.” The Edmonton Public Library, as of late August, had 1023 holds on its copies of the first book, while the Toronto system showed 2568 holds. An English academic's even predicted a baby boom because of the series' popularity: “It's not a difficult equation. More sex equals more pregnancies, which equals more babies.”
But Fifty Shades of Grey reminds us of the greying power of earlier baby booms. Shoving the Harry Potter and Twilight generations aside, the over-40 crowd has turned the aggressive, cold sexuality of a 20-something Stockholm computer hacker and a 27-year-old Seattle business magnate into worldwide best-sellers.
In the '00s, JK Rowling's series allowed tweens and teens to imagine themselves growing up with a boy-wizard, while Stephenie Meyer's vampire series upped the lust ante, letting girls swoon over Edward Cullen (and actor Robert Pattinson) as Bella did. But parents were reading those books, too, and escorting their kids to the movies. Then, in 2009, they made a more adult series of their own hugely popular.
Stieg Larsson's Millennium trilogy brought the mystery into the 21st-century, with its cyberhacking and investigative journalism, but it also involved a disturbing level of sexual violence. I never imagined my mom would read a novel where a tattooed, pierced hacker (Elsbeth Salander), gets revenge on her rapist by tasering him, strapping him to a bed, and sodomizing him with a dildo, but it wasn't just her—lots of over-50s in my small, aging town were reading the book, watching the Swedish movies, and still going to see David Fincher's take on the first book a year later. This was a more adult kind of wish-fulfilment: the violence and abuse were horribly real, but avenged by someone a lot younger and different than most of the series' readers.
Fifty Shades of Grey—which spurted out of Twilight fan-fiction written by James—is a different kind of wish-fulfilment. College senior Anastasia Steele meets mega-rich entrepreneur Christian Grey and they start up a BDSM relationship. Through reading about young characters doing kinky stuff (the series' success seems based on online previews and the privacy afforded by e-readers), older readers can re-Kindle their sex lives. So the good-for-you feel that floated over the Potter series (it gets kids reading!) becomes a good-for-your-relationship halo. Recently, when James was at a Miami reading, women told her the book had resparked their relationships. According to the Miami Herald, one man there said, “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”
This sex-reeducation talk makes the book critic-proof. Is the book well-written? (No. Take the tedious inner monologue, neon-light-flashing BDSM keywords—SUBJECTING, SUBMISSION, CONTROL—from the start: “I scowl with frustration at myself in the mirror. Damn my hair—it just won't behave, and damn Katherine Kavanagh for being ill and subjecting me to this ordeal. I should be studying for my final exams, which are next week, yet here I am trying to brush my hair into submission. I must not sleep with it wet. I must not sleep with it wet. Reciting this mantra several times, I attempt, once more, to bring it under control with the brush.”) Is the book, like the Mormon Meyer's series, anti-feminist? No one much cares.
Once a book's peeling so much skin it gets stuck with that most escapist of labels—erotica—it slips out of being taken seriously, even as a cultural phenomenon. Its obviousness and formulaic-ness—”sex” is mentioned 275 times, Ana rolls her eyes 73 times, bites her lips 30 times, and describes herself “exploding” around Christian 25 times—only seems to make it less worth getting our panties in a twist about.
Except James' trilogy bleeds actual eroticism of its deeper power. And the spin-off news that a publisher's releasing Clandestine Classics, where old stand-bys are newly spiced up—Catherine Earnshaw literally tied up with Heathcliff; Holmes and Watson solving the mysteries of each others' bodies—is the next low bar in the publishing industry's limbo-to-the-bottom merger of mash-up and fan-fiction.
Truly erotic writing's allusive and can deal with throbbing political issues under its covers. Lust ignites class tensions and vice-versa in Lady Chatterley's Lover. Wuthering Heights is all the more erotic and perverse because of the horrible mystery at its heart—how and why do we, the readers, keep being drawn back to Heathcliff, a child-victim-of-racism turned sadist, dog-killer, wife-abuser and self-tormenter?
Art and sex and politics have long made a powerful love triangle. BDSM unzipped itself in literature (The Story of O) and film (Belle de Jour, In The Realm of the Senses) some years after the Second World War—all-too-horrible domination and power were, slowly, being transformed into fantasy and roleplay, working out feelings of subordination and victimization. There's even some sardonic, pseudo-sexual sadomasochism in Sylvia Plath's famous poem “Daddy” (1962), where the speaker compares her German-born father to Hitler.
But on top of it all, James has reduced BDSM (which actually appears little in the first book) to a kind of kinky, conservative, how-to-respark-your-relationship-manual meets fetish-fan-fiction—the series hetero-idolizes Christian as the one for Ana, who, before him, had never touched herself “down there.” The other fantasy? That you, too, can go from writing online to making millions. And a lot of this is thanks to grey power—to the over-40s buying up this “mummy porn.” As Jessica Weisberg's noted, “though her characters are college-aged, the books have resonated most strongly with James's contemporaries—mothers, wives, The View enthusiasts—women who, if they owned riding crops, would store them in the garage between the skis and mountain bikes. The promise of erotic reading may be the initial draw, but, for many readers, there's the added fantasy of EL James herself—the working mother and fan-fiction writer turned overnight success.”
From Harry Potter's non-sexual magic wand and Bella's virginal lust to Lisbeth Salander's rape-revenge and Christian Grey's whip, the inner magic of wish-fulfilment characters has become more explicit and less allusive, more sexual and less literary, and now with more literal restraints (for neck, wrist, etc) and less seething subtext. And the publishing industry, in its domination by bottom-up bestsellers, is becoming as unsubtle and market-driven as bad porn.