Story of Oy
Fifty Shades of Grey
By E L James
Vintage, 528 pages
Fifty Shades Darker
By E L James
Vintage, 544 pages
Fifty Shades Freed
By E L James
Vintage, 592 pages
Every so often, the New York Times Book Review takes a look back at the books that ascended the bestseller lists 10, 15, 20 years earlier. As a recent sampling of such books revealed, some things never change—such as the enduring popularity of self-help tomes and mystery novels, and Danielle Steel’s stranglehold on romantic fiction—but in each retrospective there are surprises, books that inexplicably rose to the top of the list and astonished everyone with their staying power.
Fifty Shades of Grey will hold that place for 2012. It is the first in a trilogy whose second and third volumes were published almost simultaneously. As of this writing, it has spent seven weeks on the bestseller list; the three Fifty Shades novels are currently numbers one, two, and three on the e-book fiction list. They have already been optioned for film following a fierce Hollywood bidding war. The work of an unknown British writer named E L James, the trilogy has received considerable media attention for two reasons: first, the number of readers who have downloaded the e-book versions to read on their Kindles, Nooks, and iPads; and second, their purported kinkiness. The two are not unrelated.
Fifty Shades of Grey began its life as a self-published novel distributed for free on a website called FanFiction.net. James, a devotee of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight vampire series, modeled her narrative on Meyer’s story and her male lead, Christian Grey, on Twilight’s hunky vampire Edward Cullen. Like Cullen, Christian Grey is a sensitive yet powerful man-child who believes himself damaged beyond redemption. The heroine, Anastasia Steele (“Ana”), is a comely virginal naïf (like Twilight’s Bella Swan) who finds herself inexplicably drawn to our tortured hero. The twist in Fifty Shades of Grey is that the romantic lead, Mr. Grey, is not a bloodsucking vampire but a bondage enthusiast. Following his introduction to sadomasochism by a dominating older female friend of the family during his teens, Grey has only had relationships with women who agreed to become his “submissive” and partake of the pleasures of his “playroom.”
Twenty-seven-years old and insanely wealthy through his own online endeavors, Grey is a gorgeous Gentile reimagining of Mark Zuckerberg. He is also a control freak suffering from low self-esteem who sees a therapist weekly. Altogether, Christian Grey is a romantic fantasy perfectly pitched to our anxious times. On his first date with Ana, he presents her with a contract and a nondisclosure agreement to sign that would make her his weekend submissive. Ana demurs, but not for long, and she is soon ensconced in Christian’s sumptuous apartment endlessly pondering that bedeviling question: Why isn’t my boyfriend more sensitive? Only, in this case, said boyfriend’s insensitivity is revealed in his penchant for trussing and soundly spanking his girlfriend when she “disobeys” him.
To suggest that the novel’s plot is undeveloped would be unfair; indeed, plot is beside the point. Any dramatic episode that arises in these books is for the sole purpose of creating sexual tension between the protagonists that must then immediately be resolved. Evidently Christian’s spankings awaken Ana’s “inner goddess,” a combination alter ego and libidinous inner voice who, I regret to report, makes many appearances throughout the three volumes of the series. She is always “shimmying” or “celebrating” when Christian shows sexual interest and “pouting” when he seems moody; her range of emotional expression rarely goes beyond exclamations of That’s hot!
Nearly every page brings an orgiastic encounter between the once virginal Ana and her complicated whip-wielding Christian. They fight? They have sex. They are getting along? They have sex. They have dinner? They ride in an elevator? They have sex! One intrepid Amazon.com reviewer, a self-described “male senior citizen and semi-retired gynecologist,” confessed, “My arthritis flared up just reading about Ana’s sexual gymnastics.” After reading hundreds of pages of such scenes, I felt like I had stumbled upon an overlong and dirty Wikipedia entry; masses of information devoid of meaning or style can render even the intentionally titillating surprisingly tedious. The overall effect is more antic than erotic—more Benny Hill than Fanny Hill. Despite Ms. James’s enthusiastically purple prose, after the umpteenth description of postcoital nuzzling, the reader finds herself bored into submission. (Sorry.)
As for the S&M themes that have spawned so much hand-wringing in the press (“How can self-confident, educated women find sexual submission so appealing?”), they are neither as racy nor as shocking as the book’s fans or critics suggest. More than 20 years after Madonna donned a Jean Paul Gaultier–designed conical bra and made bondage chic mainstream on her Blond Ambition tour, how can we be surprised by Christian Grey’s yuppie S&M man-cave? At a recent party in Paris covered by the tabloids, Pippa Middleton, sister-in-law to England’s Prince William, posed next to a male friend who was decked out in a studded bondage collar and cuffs and surrounded by grinning girls holding his leash. Criticism of the event wasn’t aimed at the S&M take on Fancy Dress but the insensitivity of party organizers who had also hired “novelty dwarves” as entertainment.
It would be equally misguided to try to understand Fifty Shades as the latest offering in a long line of erotic literature—as, say, a contemporary version of the French novel, Story of O, published in 1954, about one woman’s induction into the world of bondage and sadomasochism. It is not erotic, and it sure isn’t literary. James admits she wrote parts of the books on her smartphone and told The Today Show that they represent “my midlife crisis writ large.” Writ large and writ badly. Whether one is an agnostic or a critic of consensual bondage play, the crime in these books isn’t against female dignity or women’s sexual power, as some feminists have charged. It is against the written word. Even James cringed when portions of her prose were read aloud to her during a television interview.
What Fifty Shades is, in fact, is a new kind of pornography. Meant to be downloaded and enjoyed on a screen like visual pornography, and just as quickly forgotten, it uses the written word in a way that reverses media theorist Marshall McLuhan’s famous dictum; in this case, the message is the medium. The slow burn of print erotica has been supplanted by the instant gratification available from one’s e-reader; the Kindle has gone kinky.
Or has it? Although the books have been marketed as a sophisticated take on sexual masochism to women of a certain age—with James as the new Betty Friedan, diagnosing “the problem that has no S&M playroom”—in the end the narrative is one of adolescence, not adulthood. This is most evident in the dozens of pages that reprint the emails exchanged by Ana and Christian, in which they follow the conventions of traditional romantic fiction. Her emails adopt the pert, knowing tone of the heroine who is being pursued by the somewhat inappropriate male. His emails are peppered with saccharine lines such as “You were adorable this morning” and clever endearments readers are supposed to find enchanting, for they suggest a hero who is more like an overeager texting tween than a dangerous and damaged animal in need of taming. In the end, the real fantasy promulgated by Fifty Shades of Grey isn’t wrapped in the rough and naughty trappings of whips and leather bondage gear, but in the banal and cozy terrain of emoticons.
Perhaps the future of blockbuster e-fiction is just this—mommy porn that can be read on Kindles and iPhones by affluent women waiting in the school pickup line, women whose most transgressive public act heretofore had been feeding their children nonorganic snacks. E-readers do offer the benefit of privacy, as many enthusiastic downloaders of Fifty Shades have noted (not so the print version, which features a gleaming pair of handcuffs as the cover art for volume three and which, for my sins, I had to read).
And yet, while one can admire the stamina of readers willing to slog through 1,625 pages of badly written narrative to get their naughty fix, we should also pity people who settle for a book whose idea of passion is a mash-up of callow romantic clichés and tedious sex scenes. Contra Ana, that’s not hot. It’s boring.