There’s been a lot of buzz about Fifty Shades of Grey, and the 2 following books in the series, by E.L. James recently. These books have been numbers in the top 3 spots on the NYT Bestseller e-book list, and in the top 4 spots for overall fiction for the last few weeks. Many dismissed them as “mommy porn.” But let’s face it, there is a reason people, even mommies, like porn. And it is one of the reasons, even non-mommies, are buying this book in record numbers.
The media’s latched on the success of this series, and I can see why. The books are selling at approximately one book a second. What I don’t understand is why the focus has been on women asserting themselves as an economic force and women exploring “darker” forms of overt sexuality. Neither of these things seem particularly newsworthy to me.
Women have long dominated the publishing market as consumers. From its invention as a genre, the novel was considered primarily for women. The latest figures show women buying 64% of books in the USA, out buying men in almost every category including suspense and thrillers. BSDM and erotic/romantic books aren’t anything new either. Romance novels comprised 55% of all paperbacks sold in 2004 and BDSM dates back to 9th century B.C. Sparta. Thank you wikipedia.
What I think is more worthy of note, is that these hugely successful books were self-published. E. L. James, a working mother of teenagers with a self proclaimed “vanilla” sex life, through ebooks and a print-on-demand press. The publicity of the books relied on word of mouth and blogs. This, along with the hype, was the reason I picked up the first book. They were not, however, the only reasons I couldn’t put them down.
While the steamy sex scenes certainly didn’t hurt, my reading experience or the books popularity, I think there are other aspects that contribute to its success. There were fantasies that went beyond the bedroom … or the red room of pleasure/pain. When incredibly wealthy, indescribably handsome Christian Grey pursues recent college graduate, he doesn’t just offer an alternative sex life. He wants to provide for/control her in every way: buy her the safest car, buy her publishing house so she can be a book editor, buy her car, makes sure she doesn’t drink to much, holds her hair when she doesn’t listen. Although this is kind of scary, for working mothers trying to “do it all” (and recent college graduates who haven’t figured their lives out yet) this functions as an even more powerful fantasy then being tied up and … ect.
Then there’s the Twilight factor. While I was reading, I kept thinking this is just like Twilight. It turns out the book was originally written as Twilight fan fiction, and then rewritten with original characters. While some Stephanie Meyers fan think this is not fair, I found it delightful. Who wouldn’t want to trade vampires for kinky sex? The similarities range from the superficial (Oregon setting, clumsy heroine, lip biting) to the deeper. I think the idea of overpowering love is hard not to root for. I thought this series handled character development and complexity better, if not plot. I’m pretty sure all the Twilight moms out there agree with me. And if some of them want to go on 20/20 and talk about how their sex life is spicier, complete with photos of themselves in costumes made from synthetic fabrics Christian would never let Ana wear, then I guess more power to them.