Since its publication in 2011, one novel – or rather one trilogy – has graced the laps of engrossed readers the world over. E. L. James’s Fifty Shades Of Grey is a very twenty-first century phenomenon, one that casts new light on publishing and reading trends of the new millennium. Igniting debates about gender, sexuality, genre, form and authorship, the series, seen by many as little more than a bonk-fest or ‘Mummy Porn’, actually reveals significant developments in contemporary literary consumption and circulation.
On its release , the Fifty Shades trilogy sold four million copies in just four months, becoming Amazon’s biggest selling book of all time. As the fastest paperback to hit one million sales in the UK (in just eleven weeks), the novels went on to outsell J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series and was held responsible by market analysts for the continued survival of British bookshops (most notably WH Smith) during a year of otherwise poor book sales. Having begun life as a blog – perhaps the ultimate form of self publishing – James’s part slash fiction, part fan fiction romance between two characters from the Twilight series reanimated in an AU (Alternative Universe) originally contributed to a growing field of ‘TwiFic’ online. Although based on Twilight’s characters, James’s novels move on significantly from this source text. As Princeton professor April Alliston argues: ‘Fifty Shades is more than parasitic fan fiction based on the recent Twilight vampire series’. Twilight author Stephanie Meyer also gave her blessing to the project, but nevertheless deemed Fifty Shades ‘not my genre, not my thing’.
While ethically problematic for some, for others fan fiction is the product of adoration, collaboration and dialogue. Self-publishing is well suited to fan fiction – and indeed to genre fiction – where there is a steady demand, a high turnover of titles and a developed sense of what is expected. Spread by word of mouth and online reviews, initial versions of the texts came to the attention of major publishing houses through an online viral campaign grown from an established collective of avid readers of the original fanfic blog. Re-published in 2015 to coincide with the release of a much-anticipated cinematic adaptation, the trilogy has once again been precision marketed in an exhaustive effort to define Fifty Shades as the must-read of the moment. A developed advertising campaign across a variety of media for the past month has communicated one clear message – this bonk-fest bandwagon is one readers and cinema-goers should jump on to, and fast.
The publication of Fifty Shades has also intersected with a wider peak in the growth of e-books as a popular way of consuming new fiction. In August 2012, Amazon announced that sales of virtual books on the site had overtaken print sales for the first time with 114 e-books for every 100 print copies sold. The so-called erotic nature of Fifty Shades ultimately made the act of reading the trilogy a far more transgressive adventure than any of the (actually quite boring) sexual activates featured in the books. For readers in transit, the social stigma of carrying Fifty Shades on buses, tubes and planes, made many turn to the anonymity of the e-reader to consume this much- talked about text. In the space of eighteen months, Fifty Shades had morphed from blog, to fanfiction, to limited print, to commercial novel and then to e-book to become a water-cooler hot topic. As Kindle EU Director Gordon Willoughby argues, the series quickly made E. L. James the ‘literary phenomenon of the decade’.
Genre fiction has always been adept at using water-cooler style ‘word of mouth’ as a business model in the absence of a sizeable marketing budget, but it also occupies a grey area of literary acceptability. Like the supposedly sizzling sex scenes of Fifty Shades, the enjoyment of genre fiction is all too often presented as a form of guilty pleasure. Writing in The New Yorker, Arthur Krystal claims that ‘commercial and genre writers aim at delivering less rarefied pleasures and part of the pleasure we derive from them is the knowledge that we could be reading something better’ (Krystal n. pag.). But genre is above all else commercial, something India Knight references in her analysis of the trilogy as ‘the porn version of cupcakes and Cath Kidston’.
The romance genre in particular is, was and always will be a big business. With roots in Erotica and Chick lit – Fifty Shades arguably owes as much to Bridget Jones as Twilight – it follows a long tradition of novels like Catherine Millett‘s The Sexual Life of Catherine M (2001) that have played with the idea of what the contemporary romance novel can be. Previously associated with Mills and Boon and ‘Yummy Mummy’ fiction, in Fifty Shades, James tapped into a long established base of genre fans eager for a text that spoke to and of their own generation, making erotica and romance socially acceptable as well as appealing to first-time genre readers.
Significantly, Fifty Shades also exploded in the UK at the same time as the News of the World phone hacking scandal and subsequent Leveson Inquiry. This public enquiry into the culture, ethics and practices of the British press was accompanied by a call from both the British government and public for higher ethical standards in reportage. Print media reacted by markedly cooling its content. As Leveson witness Prof Roy Greenslade told the inquiry, ‘it is impossible not to notice that kiss and tell stories have disappeared from tabloid newspapers’. For a society eager to know what was going on behind closed doors, Fifty Shades transported the tattle of the tabloid to the authority of the fictional page, offering twenty-first century readers an alternative diet of scandal and gossip, while the series itself became the subject of acres of tabloid newsprint.
Unsurprisingly, the series continues to attract extensive criticism from commentators who variously accuse the novels of being demeaning to women, restrictive, conservative or simply bad PR for those who enjoy BDSM. A recent Twitter campaign has seen users hacking adverts for the forthcoming film to highlight the blurred lines between sexual abuse and pleasure in the novels.
These are all things you consistently hear rapists/abusers say. Not sexy. @50shadesabuse pic.twitter.com/yxAYD9Xmi8
— Hannah Rudman (@HannahDRudman) February 10, 2015
Elsewhere, UK DIY chain B&Q issued staff with a concerning directive this week to expect a sudden rise in the sale of 'ropes and tape' as a result of the bondage scenes featured in the cinema adaptation. Yet, what unites many critical responses to Fifty Shades is a widespread condescension towards the texts as fanfic, as genre, as ‘popular’ fiction. In a cover story for Newsweek, Katie Roiphe concluded that what’s ‘most alarming about the Fifty Shades Of Grey phenomena, what gives it its true edge of desperation, and end-of-the-world ambiance, is that millions of otherwise intelligent women are willing to tolerate prose on this level’.
Can millions of readers – customers of the contemporary publishing world – really be wrong? Or does the Fifty Shades phenomenon actually shoot an uncomfortable warning shot across the bow of the publishing industry, one that suggests the future of producing and consuming texts will be engineered and governed not by publishing houses and literary elite but by the interests and habits of readers, many of whom simply happen to like genre writing? Like the bondage sessions regularly enacted across the trilogy, Fifty Shades reminds us that power can often shift, with sometimes uncomfortable consequences, in this case away from the authority of the review pages and onto discussion forums, readers groups and commuters.
Although the series was never destined for the Man Booker list and while it is unlikely that we will ever see a (genuine) Penguin Classics version it has been an undeniable commercial and popular success. In a provocative clashing of high and low culture, Fifty Shades offers a fascinating case study for the growth and development of genre fiction, the circulation of literary texts and the reading habits of the twenty-first century. Promoting pleasure without guilt, the trilogy speaks not only to a generation raised on red top scandal, but for genre fiction as a legitimate form of reading pleasure in the new millennium and one well suited to new reading technologies. Fifty Shades also delivers a resounding message about the continued significance of the novel as the most popular form in which to tell stories about the twenty-first century world but, in doing so, highlights that the success of the novel can also contribute to the dominance of the publishing industry by a smaller elite number of best-selling authors at the expense of newer, less established names as well as the comparative freedom of authors to self-publish online.
Whether a one-click wonder or a landmark intervention in the fields of genre and publishing, a trilogy that has sold more copies than the UK Highway Code is mocked, disregarded or dismissed at our peril. Fifty Shades indicates not only how we will read in the future but, moreover, what a significant and hitherto largely unidentified and untapped market of readers want to consume today. Everything about the text and its context – from its established fan fiction base, to its genre-friendly pigeonhole, techno-ease of consumption and hungry generation of readers denied their normal daily scandal fix by a government enquiry – offers a social, political and economic dipstick into our twenty-first century world. Through its heady combination of genre-morphing, platform-shifting zeitgeist, Fifty Shades has brought debates about gender, sexuality, power, authorship, publishing, form and genre back to the forefront of critical debates of the new millennium. Not bad for a bonk-fest.
This blog post originally appeared in Alluvium Magazine