Fifty Shades of Grey – the first in the trilogy of EL James’s erotic novels – was a phenomenon which took the publishing industry by surprise when Vintage bought it in 2012. It’s the fastest selling adult novel of all time, selling 15 million copies in the US and Canada in just three months. The trilogy has sold more than 150 million copies internationally and been translated into more than 50 languages. That such overtly sexual content would be so freely and broadly consumed by (mainly) women led to many failed attempts to replicate its particular combination of romance, BDSM and graphic sex. It was turned into a film franchise – the most successful 18-rated film ever – and made EL James a billionaire. What was it about this work of erotic fiction that captured the imagination of so many across the world? How does it represent female desire?
It’s an impossible book to review on literary merit and much has already been said criticising the characterisation, stilted dialogue and irritating internal conversations between the heroine’s “inner goddess” – clapping, pouting and sighing – and her subconscious – Holy Hell. He’s so freaking hot. Salmon Rushdie said he’d never read anything so bad that still got published. “It made Twilight look like War and Peace“. The story starts with Anastasia Steele, a beautiful, naive student, finishing her degree, being roped into interviewing, for the student paper, the handsome, troubled billionaire, Christian Grey. She stumbles into his office, hasn’t prepared her questions on Grey Enterprises and yet captures his interest with her occasional searing questions. He turns up in Portland at the DIY shop where she works part-time and begins to pursue her in earnest, with the caveat of: “Anastasia, you should steer clear of me.” He flies her in his helicopter, Charlie Tango, to his luxurious penthouse flat in Seattle, where he introduces her to fine wine and his playroom. A tasteful, windowless space in red decor where the accoutrements of bondage hang around the walls. She gives him her virginity – Oh, I want this – and they spend the rest of the book having sex, occasional experiments with his predilection – pain – and negotiating her role as a submissive in his life. She realises in the end that she loves him and wants a more classic relationship than he is able to give her, so she leaves. Devastated. Until… Fifty Shades Darker.
Much of the story is spent with Ana and Christian negotiating the three month contract he requests that she sign. “The dominant shall take responsibility for the well-being and proper training, guidance and discipline of the submissive.” He wants her to be his property. She is not allowed to touch him. She is not allowed to fall asleep with him – although she sometimes does. She must be with him from Friday to Sunday every week and follow his dietary and exercise plan. There are three and half pages of Appendices that outline the hard limits – no acts involving gynaecological implements, for example – and soft limits – to be discussed. Yet, she avoids much of it, admitting that she’s not made for submission; she agrees as a form of emotional bargaining – much to the criticism of the BDSM community. EL James’s later books – told from the perspective of Christian Grey – had far fewer sales. A story about a powerful, psychologically manipulative man seducing a young student is harder to stomach post MeToo.
It’s interesting to compare the book with The Story of O – reviewed last time on this blog. Both are written by women and both are about a submissive/dominant relationship, yet they couldn’t be more different. Written nearly 60 years later, EL James’s heroine is far more traditional than O – she’s unworldly and pure. The Story of O is of the annihilation of the self, whereas Anastasia eventually refuses to bend to Christian Grey’s will. I would argue that in The Story of O sex is merely part of submission, where as Fifty Shades of Grey is dripping with it.
EL James makes sex the core of the book, she savours it. As Zoe Williams wrote in a Guardian review in July 2012. The sex scenes “are the meat of the plot, the crux of the conflict, the key to one of and possibly both the central characters. It is a sex book.” Christian Grey is not only exceptionally attractive but also extremely – almost inhumanly – talented at giving pleasure and guiding Anastasia as she grasps the possibilities laid open to her in return. He states early on that he will never be her boyfriend and yet he opens himself to her as he opens up a whole world for her. She was a virgin before they met who’d never even touched herself…! She responds to him emotionally as well as physically. He barely needs to go near her before “I fall apart in his hands, my body convulsing and shattering into a thousand pieces.” (p116) There are pages and pages of female orgasms that are so meteoric that they leave the reader quite breathless, even if the prose is lacking. Christian Grey knows exactly what would arouse Anastasia most at any given time.
The sheer popularity of Fifty Shades of Grey makes it a fascinating study of erotic literature and one that the literary establishment are still trying to puzzle out. Some critics have dismissed it as being simply a romance of the kind women buy in droves. It’s true that the book is, at its core, a classic romance of a variety that’s been around for hundreds of years. Rich, complex man falls for innocent, poor beauty and after some tussling with her intelligence, surprises himself and sweeps her off her feet. It’s a well-trodden path that the reader can dissolve into. Yet, there are plenty of books for sale that that are unashamedly romantic and they don’t come close to the sales of Fifty Shades of Grey. Eight years ago, it tapped into something that women desire and they felt unashamed to read and discuss it publicly across the world. I suspect that it is more the heady combination of romantic narrative and a brazen underpinning of endless sex than the control and pain that pushed the book into another league. I’ve got no wish to read the sequels to it, but it had moments of guilty pleasure. I may have found it impossible not to pick apart the prose and skip some of the story, flinch at his psychological manipulation, but I did read the sex scenes.
Who wouldn’t want to be regularly transported into another stratosphere by an incredibly sexy man?
Fifty Shades of Grey, EL James (Arrow Books) £7.99