Fifty Shades of Grey is now the fastest selling paperback in history. Its success has generated a debate about sex, fantasy and the nature of desire
When a book sells in the huge numbers that EL James’s Fifty Shades of Grey is maintaining this summer, the world must surely be full of people who have enjoyed it and then told their friends.
Fans were certainly quick to defend Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code as it broke publishing records back in 2003, and Harry Potter addicts, both young and old, have been proud to wave a wand on behalf of JK Rowling’s bestsellers since 1997. But what makes the triumph of James’s book surprising is that a story involving such a succession of overtly kinky sex scenes can conquer the mainstream publishing market. After all, the plot is so singlemindedly titillating that it makes the unconventional “modern” relationships that leaven Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy read like Charlotte Brontë in comparison.
Last month the first novel in this series telling the story of Anastasia Steele and her obsessive love for a man with a predilection for bondage and domination became the fastest-selling paperback since records began and last week it also became the first ebook to sell more than one million copies. Yet its story pivots on the young heroine’s sexual submission to Christian Grey, a millionaire she scarcely knows, who promptly introduces her to his favourite fetishes, as well as to the contents of his “Red Room of Pain”.
Sadomasochism has always had its articulate evangelists, from the Marquis de Sade, the 18th-century French libertine and erotic novelist, to Kenneth Tynan, the Observer‘s illustrious theatre critic, who once argued that spanking was the path to emotional and intellectual freedom. Yet James has managed to get millions of average readers to consider the place of erotic pain in a relationship without even advancing an argument or pretending to any literary merit. The book is “my midlife crisis writ large”, Erika Leonard, the middle-aged British woman behind the pseudonym EL James, has recently admitted, adding that she put “all my fantasies in there”.
So has James created the latest commercial genre for our age – what the commentator India Knight has called “the porn version of cupcakes and Cath Kidston”? Or does her racy trilogy answer a deeper, unmet need among women readers?
The feminist writer and academic Marina Warner believes the unexpectedly wide appeal of this explicit fiction could be a sign of how difficult people now find it to feel aroused in an era when sex and nudity have become so commonplace. “There has been a general unveiling of the body in our culture and there is a connection between prohibition and arousal,” she said. “It is in some way linked to our feelings about the sacred and the profane. I definitely don’t want to go back to censorship, but I don’t think the answer is to reach for extremes either.”
Warner, like the late writer Angela Carter, has a strong interest in the power of myth and folklore. “Women should be allowed to read what they want, and to write what they want, but maybe they should not be so confident that they are not just playing a part in some larger commercial nexus.”
The nature of a myth or a fantasy always has something to say about society, she argues. “It is an effect of sexual politics and I don’t think it is neutral. In fact, I rather believe in the power of fantasy. We are driven by what we dream and by what we desire and hope for. I don’t think fantasy is hermetically sealed from the rest of our lives.”
Warner cites Carter’s provocative 1979 essay, The Sadeian Woman, as a smart approach to the politics of abusive fantasy. In it the writer suggested provocatively that de Sade merely mirrored honestly the male-dominated hierarchy of his times.
“A book like Fifty Shades of Grey can collude with the status quo, where men are still largely in charge, even though it appears to be playful,” says Warner. …