Over the last few weeks whispers of a new, dark and exciting force on the literary scene were to be heard in just about every nook and cranny. It started ever so quietly, an ashamed secret murmured to a friend that ever so quickly turned into the accepting roar of the masses and the result…the fictional phenomenon, Fifty Shades of Grey. Like everyone else I listened to the hype surrounding the trilogy and heard the key words such as S&M, pain, passion, love, whipped, submissive and numerous other lexemes that made me shudder. I read various newspaper articles obliterating the book to eternal damnation for its sexist, chauvinistic attitude towards women and was of course, sufficiently appalled. As a self-acclaimed literary snob, I did what every other self-respecting elitist reader would do and shunned the novel; refusing to be associated with such drivel, scoffing outrageously when anyone asked me if I had happened to read it. I sat very happily upon my soap box, pitying the poor masses that happened to gush at the literary merit of E. L. James. It was then, as I sat reading my Sunday newspaper that I came across an article that was once again, complaining that James was single handily destroying feminism. This seemed to be the last straw for me and I marched down to Tesco in a furry of righteous indignation to buy a copy of the book, read through the pages and write a scathing exposé that would forever relegate E. L. James to the dusty corners of the second hand bookshop forever more.
Yet just like all great plans, mine did not pan out exactly the way I expected. By no means am I about to add the trilogy to ‘my favourite books list’, nor am I about to write five hundred words admiring the literary devices James employs; however, I was certainly not as appalled by the novels as I had initially hoped to be, and instead of a burning hatred for the woman, I now feel a modicum of respect for her achievements. Yes the novel does contain a large amount of graphic sex scenes, yet realistically we all need to stop preaching about the inappropriate content it provides. E. L. James was not the first to write salacious novels as the stage for literary pornography was set many years ago. Writing in the eighteenth and nineteenth century the Marquis de Sade regularly published erotic novels that depicted his own sexual fantasies, with an emphasis on violence, sodomy and blasphemy towards the Catholic Church. Sade was infamous for his libertine sexual lifestyle and his novels were crammed full of his erotic personal philosophy towards the darker side of mankind. He wanted to challenge the preconceived social perceptions and write “the most impure tale that has ever been written since the world exists”. He certainly succeeded and as a result he spent most of his life in prison and a mental asylum. Despite shocking his contemporaries and incurring the wrath of religious and political organisations, Sade’s novels sold like hot cakes. The public devoured his writing and eagerly anticipated his next release. They adored him, and to this day he remains a very popular writer within the gothic genre.
It can be argued that James is merely following in Sade’s footsteps and providing her audience with what they crave. The only difference is, James is not about to be locked up in the Bastille for the rest of her days. It can also be argued that James’s novels are really not as bad as everyone thinks. Considering all the whispered conversations I had overheard over the last few weeks, I half expected the novel to be filled with graphic scenes of Anastasia Steele dangling from the ceiling as Christian carved out bits of her flesh while making love to her. Yet in reality the S&M aspect of the novel plays a relatively small role. The worst that Miss Steele ever has to endure is some light spanking which, she admittedly looks forward to. Instead the plot tends to focus more on Christian’s own troubled, dark childhood and why he has an obsessive need to control his lady love. He is by his own admission, ‘fifty shades of fucked up’ and realises that his own sexual preferences deviate drastically from the social norm. The plot then revolves around Anastasia attempting to bring some light and normality into Christian’s dark and disturbing life.
All the critics that are so horrified by the novel are perhaps more shocked by the realisation that people actually love to read such dark and dirty tales. It’s a trait that has been going on for centuries. A lascivious novel is published; it is dammed and banned by critics, yet secretly loved and adored by everyone else. D. H. Lawrence went through exactly the same thing with his classic novel, Lady Chatterley’s Lover. First published in 1928 in Italy it was not allowed publication in the United Kingdom until the 1960s. There seems to be a pattern emerging; from Sade to Lawrence to James, there is a very clear demand for novels that dwell on the darker, sexier side of life.
One of my own initial naïve qualms with E. L. James was that she was not a ‘proper’ writer, so I refused to read her works. As you can imagine my book shelves are lined with Austen, various Bronte’s, Shakespeare, Wilde, Dickinson and the list goes on. However, what makes James less of a ‘proper’ writer than any of those literary heroes. Surely the aim of fictional writing is to entertain, and if you happen to be able to influence people along the way, merely with the power of your words, then that is the cherry on the top of the cake and a pat on the back for you. Reading through James’s trilogy I was certainly entertained, and taking her book sales into account, so were numerous others. According to various newspaper articles Anne Summers is experiencing a record high in sales of whips, particularly brown leather whips, and we are to be expecting a baby boom next year, due to the increase in sexual activity between partners. Apparently James has managed to hoist complacent couples off the sofa and into the bedroom, a definite influence I would say. I’m sure after reading Austen’s Pride and Prejudice John Lewis did not experience a boom in petticoat and bonnet sales.
By all accounts then, E. L. James is successful in her mission to be a writer. She has done what many other aspiring writers aim to do and turned her five hundred pages into a phenomenon. There are many who will discredit fictional phenomenons such as Harry Potter, Twilight and The Da Vinci Code as not real works of literature, as they emphatically try to shove Tolstoy’s, War and Peace down our throats. As much as I love Tolstoy, he does not make for easy reading. Perhaps Rowling, Meyer, Brown and James have achieved such unprecedented success with their novels as they make them so easily accessible to everyone. You do not need to have a degree in literature to truly appreciate the merits of their novels, nor a degree in language to even understand what is going on. They are easy page turners that amuse us and provide us with a fantasy that we can indulge in whilst on the way to our very realistic jobs. As an aspiring writer and someone who would love to earn their living by the words I write, I stand corrected on my initial outrage for E. L. James. Yes I would love to win a Pulitzer Prize and have students write essays about my novels for their upcoming A-level exams, but in all honesty, I would much rather have a fictional phenomenon, unparalleled sales, movie contracts and the huge pay packet that comes with it all. I am most certain that all my literary heroes that live on my bookshelves died penniless, and I would jump into Rowling’s shoes far quicker than I would jump into any of the Bronte’s. I am pretty sure James has managed to influence more people with her novels than Dickinson ever managed to do. I will of course never stop loving the classics, but perhaps it is time to stop denouncing the moderns.
So, despite all the negative criticism the Fifty Shades trilogy has attracted, and yes I used to contribute to that, I have climbed down off my soap box to the realisation that actually, E. L. James did do a good job as a writer and perhaps we all need to stop crying out in outrage and indignation. At the end of the day, she is most probably now driving around in her Ferrari as we sit on the tube condemning the novels.