Fruitful work of fan fiction or dumbed-down BDSM?
E.L. James’ erotic novel Fifty Shades of Grey will be one of six contenders for this year’s Popular Fiction Book of the Year award, to be named by the National Book Award Academy next month.
The award will honor “an adult book of commercial fiction from a UK author, which has made a massive impact, a success in all bookselling outlets, a book that may have exceeded expectations, a best-seller.”
Previous winners have included Caitlin Moran’s How to be a Woman, David Nicholls’ One Day, Kate Summerscale’s The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, and Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. Is Fifty Shades worthy of being in the company of such award-winning books?
As the first installment of an erotic trilogy, Fifty Shades of Grey has sold over 60 million copies worldwide, topped best seller lists globally, and set the record as the fastest-selling paperback of all time, surpassing the Harry Potter series. Plans for a film adaptation of Fifty Shades are also now in the works, with Universal Pictures securing full production rights.
The book’s popularity, therefore, cannot be denied. The integrity of the novel, however, has been a huge topic of debate.
In case you aren’t in on the gossip, James’ trilogy is a work of fan fiction based on Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight saga. Like Meyer’s books, Fifty Shades is set in Seattle.
It’s a love story about a young girl, Anastasia Steele, who gets swept off of her feet by a handsome billionaire, Christian Grey. Yet unlike the Twilight series, Fifty Shades employs loads of graphic sex.
‘Well, it’s a love story. People who fall in love like to have a lot of sex, don’t they?’ said James.
Maybe so. But I think it’s safe to assume that not a lot of people are sadomasochists who enter into written agreements with their partners, intending to control almost every aspect of their lives. Well, Christian Grey does.
James claims that this novel, with its explicit sex, passion and wealth, ‘combined all of her fantasies in one.’ But how can it be a woman’s fantasy to have someone control them?
This question of control, of dominance and sadomasochism has caused American psychologist and TV personality Dr. Drew to label Fifty Shades as nothing more than a ‘rape fantasy,’ written by a modern-day Charlotte Bronte, ‘devoid of any talent.’ Dr. Drew’s argument is in no way hindered by Grey’s contract with Steele, of which a small portion reads:
“The Submissive will obey any instructions given by the Dominant immediately without hesitation or reservation and in an expeditious manner. The Submissive will agree to any sexual activity deemed fit and pleasurable by the Dominant accepting eagerly and without hesitation”.
No, nothing here antagonizes the ‘rape fantasy’ argument, other than the fact that this is a contract. It is agreed upon by both Steele and Grey, as is everything between the two. In this way, the entirety of their dark and twisted relationship is completely consensual.
In the end, Anastasia is a strong protagonist, well aware of the power and control that Grey has over her heart and mind alike. Nonetheless, she, like so many women, is torn between rationality and passion.
Given the ‘pornographic’ reviews and the BDSM nature of this novel, I must admit that I was embarrassed about buying it. But in my opinion, the truth is in no way is James’s writing ‘pornographic’ nor ‘devoid of any talent.’
A book of this magnitude will always see success in the face of harsh, and often unwarranted, criticism. But being nominated for the Popular Fiction Book of the year is not about literary merit. It’s about popularity, and for better or for worse, James has definitely garnered the attention of the masses.