For the last few months everyone has been talking about Fifty Shades of Grey. Opinions on it have varied widely; from those who love it, hate it, think that it’s derivative, and even applying the derisive term of “mommy porn.” But perhaps its most spirited defense comes from Laurie Penny at the New Statesman.
Fifty Shades of Grey is porn, and porn can be quite fun. With the publishing industry in such choppy waters, I fail to understand why this record-pounding paperback has come in for extra-special derision all over the world, other than the fact that some people are appalled at the idea that somewhere out there, well over ten million women might be – whisper it – masturbating.
Women reading erotic novels is nothing new. My mother and her circle of friends would read those traditional “bodice-ripper” romance novels by the grocery bag. The local library in my hometown didn’t even bother to have them check out those books. It was always on an honor system in a giant bin. Bring in a bag, take a bag. Perhaps the only salient difference between Fifty Shades and its predecessors is the percentage of sex scenes to plot advancement.
And Penny is right. There is nothing wrong with women reading porn, it is everyone’s God given right. On the other hand this argument overlooks a very huge fact; the breathtaking rate at which this particular pornographic novel has taken over the cultural conversation. Not in my memory has there been a work of erotic fiction so prevalent in public discourse, especially not a book. Perhaps the only thing anyone could compare it to in recent memory was the ubiquity of the film Deep Throat.
So, for me, the question is not whether Fifty Shades of Grey is good or not, but why has it taken such root in mainstream readership? How did an erotic novel go from obscure adult literature to a New York Times bestseller?
The answer as far as anyone can tell is fan fiction and word of mouth, which is still quite astonishing.
E.L. James, the author of Fifty Shades, began sharing this trilogy as a series of Twilight fan fiction. Anyone who reads the opening chapters of Twilight and the first hundred pages of Fifty Shades will undoubtedly see the similarities leaping right out at you. Fan fiction is a prolific genre, and a good bit of it explores much of the erotic scenery that general popular fiction shies away from. The millions and millions of Twi-Hard fans don’t want to let their beloved characters end. And so they write more and more fantasies between Edward and Bella, or for Trekkers Kirk and Spock, or for Potterheads Harry and Snape… Fan fiction communities are a continually growing underground, and the success of an E.L. James signals a shift in the literary landscape.
Fan Fiction is coming out of the closet. While James couldn’t use the trademarked characters from Stephanie Meyers’ series, she could change the names and details and bring along a devoted following from the fan fiction community. Having built a rep, she capitalized on it. And from there, the word of mouth engine spread the tale of Christian Grey. Because readers of trashy novels love nothing more than telling their friends about their latest find, especially the racier ones. And from the backlash against this book, the attempts to ban it, to deride it, to stamp it out like a plague, comes more fervent interest in touching the taboo. Headlines lead to more sales, curiosity fueling new readers to know what the big deal is.
Fifty Shades of Grey has become a meme, a sexually transmitted one, and my guess is that it will recur and flare up occasionally like Lady Chatterly’s Lover, The Story of O, or Delta of Venus. Though to place this work in the company of such esteemed erotica seems so utterly wrong.
And like all memes, it has to take its turn on the merry go round of mockery. This one is still my favorite.