A few weeks ago, at a book club gathering in New York City, seven friends sat together talking about marriage. Some were married, some were engaged, and some were single. Although they all read fervently on their own, few had read the book for that month The Marriage Plot, or the book selected from the month before A Visit from the Goon Squad. The gatherings had become more dinner club than book club, which suited the busy women just fine.
After dinner and more than a few drinks, the group concluded dispensing marriage advice to a soon to be married attendee, and conversation turned to jobs, travels, and family. The women had met monthly for over four years and sex had rarely if ever been discussed. These were well mannered ladies, brought up in good homes (some might say puritanical, yes), who were taught that one should refrain from talking about sex, let alone talk about liking sex.
And then the tables turned. One member, intelligent, successful, and exceedingly proper, said, “Have any of you read 50 SHADES OF GREY?” The other women shook their heads; no they hadn’t heard of it, what was it about? And with that, the dinner club discussion was turned on its head.
The dam of pent up thoughts, emotions, questions, and ideas bust forth with a vengeance. It was the best book club yet, and 50 Shades of Grey was agreed upon as the official book for the month of May.
So, to be candid, what is the deal with 50 Shades of Grey? Why is it sweeping the nation selling literally millions of copies? Why are women, smart, educated, well read women, so obsessed? Why are women talking about it in boot camp and spin classes, at work, and at dinner with their husbands?
We all know the success is most certainly is not on its literary merit, and yet the story is compelling. Women are reading it in a day, and then lining right back up again to buy books 2 and 3, 50 Shades Darker and 50 Shades Freed. Yes, the sexual scenes are explicit and at times, quite disturbing, but it’s not just about the sex. It’s about an emotionally wounded man who also happens to be incredibly attractive, ridiculously wealthy, and an expert at pleasing his lady in the sack. A woman’s love is able to turn him around, bring him out of his miserable, damaged, and empty life and into a fulfilling life of love, marriage, and children. This is fantasy, and women can’t get enough.
Initially published online as Twilight fanfiction, E.L. James reworked the story and posted it on her website, 50shades.com. James made final revisions and published it as an e-book and print-on-demand through the Australian publisher The Writer’s Coffee Shop. After selling more than 250,000 copies, heavy hitting American publishing houses became interested and a bidding war ensued. Vintage Books, part of Knopf Doubleday Publishing group, won the rights, paying seven figures. A movie deal is in the works. In 2012 she was named one of Time Magazine’s Most Influential People.
But the question still remains: why this book? There are loads of erotic novels out there already. What about this one is so captivating? Is it the explicit sex? Is it that somehow, somewhere, it became trendy to read it, and has snowballed into an enormous movement? We’re not sure, but it’s enough to have landed erotic parody author Andrew Shaffer a lucrative deal of his own with his comedic take, 50 Shames of Earl Grey. It’s enough to have inspired Goodreads to create an infographic detailing the readership of 50 Shades of Grey and overall ratings by state and region. It’s enough to have women discussing sex freely, not just whispers at a bar or a bachelorette party. It’s enough to have libraries discussing whether or not to carry erotica. Libraries that have chosen to stock it have wait lists of over 1,000 anxious readers. The National Coalition Against Censorship has circulated a letter condemning libraries that have chosen not to stock it saying :
The idea that “erotica” should be categorically excluded from public libraries has no merit. Sexuality, an integral part of the human experience, has always been part of creative expression. As the late Justice Brennan observed, “Sex, a great and mysterious motive force in human life, has indisputably been a subject of absorbing interest to mankind through the ages.” Indeed, a library’s collection would be incomplete without the, by now classic Memoirs of A Woman of Pleasure (“Fanny Hill”), Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Tropic of Cancer or even Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying. There is no rational basis to provide access to erotic novels like these, and at the same time exclude contemporary fiction with similar content.
This movement is out of control, and we can’t help but be captivated by it all.
The Literary Man, of course, officially refuses to read such poorly written nonsense. However, we sheepishly have to admit that some of us on the literary team have crossed over to the dark side and bought the books. We had to see what all the fuss was about. Surprisingly, we read them with alarming speed. We were shocked by the lack of editing and poorly constructed sentences, and yet we couldn’t stop reading. In fact, we’re glad we read them.
So the question is, what say you, dear readers? Have you ventured into the fantastically unrealistic world of Christian Grey, and if you have, are you glad you did?