The following samples represent some of the cultural commentary surrounding the Fifty Shades publication phenomenon. They are reproduced for illustrative and critical purposes, copyright remains with the author, and they represent the opinions of their creators and not the University of Brighton.
When it comes to erotic writing, the more explicit it gets – the more heaving, the more panting – the more I want to laugh. Erotic writing is said to have a noble pedigree: the goings-on in Ovid, the whipping in Sade, the bare-arsed wrestling in Lawrence, the garter-snapping in Anaïs Nin, the wife-swapping in Updike, the arcs of semen hither and yon. But it’s so much sexier when people don’t have sex on the page.
Yet if you were a working-class boy in the 1970s, badly written books about fucking – quickly followed in the 1980s by badly written books about shopping-and-fucking – were the kinds of book your mother read, and so, to be fair, did your father, and to be even fairer, 400 million other people. When I was about ten I went to a jumble sale to buy books only to discover that everything that wasn’t a copy of Jaws was by Jackie Collins, Harold Robbins, Sidney Sheldon, or Danielle Steel.
Robbins and Collins liked a plush car with a smooth chassis. They liked champagne and caviar and jets you could shag in. They liked big desks. They liked jacuzzis. But what these gazillion-selling authors liked most was a human being perpetually on the brink of a soaring orgasm. Women just had to be approached, sometimes just looked at, and a ‘shuddering’ event would occur in their ‘sex’.
Ana [protagonist of Fifty Shades triology] likes to offer hostages to fortune. ‘Sometimes I wonder if there’s something wrong with me,’ she says. ‘Perhaps I’ve spent too long in the company of my literary romantic heroes.’ She follows Emma Bovary in nothing very much, except in her habit of blaming her crazy love life on her reading matter.
Andrew O'Hagan http://www.lrb.co.uk/v34/n14/andrew-ohagan/travelling-southwards accessed 6/11/12
A sort of Mills & Boon with bondage, EL James’s novel — which this week became the fastest-selling book of the year — is very much aimed at women. It tells the story of virginal college graduate Anastasia (“Ana”) Steele, who falls in love with businessman Christian Grey — a disciplinarian who oozes money from every pore and wants Ana to “surrender yourself to me willingly, in all things... to please me”.
Under a picture of a topless, blindfolded woman, Newsweek’s cover last week claimed submission was “The Fantasy Life of Working Women”. Inside, journalist Katie Roiphe used Fifty Shades, as well as new TV series Girls and spanking flick A Dangerous Method, to argue that not only is there a trend for surrender but that it is a feminist dream: “It is intriguing that huge numbers of women are eagerly consuming myriad... fantasies of submission at a moment when women are ascendant in the workplace.” Roiphe claimed that this may be caused by a need to escape the “pressure of economic participation” and the “hard work” of striving for equality.
Unsurprisingly, the backlash was swift. On her blog, Meat Market author and columnist Laurie Penny [see below] dubbed Roiphe’s work “a woeful piece of drivel” that was intended to provoke. Penny argued that sexual submission is the “acceptable face of female perversion: pliant, obedient and all about pleasing your man”. The media fixate on this trend at the expense of all others, she thinks, so Roiphe’s piece actually says “a lot more about the sadomasochistic relationship between female freelancers and [certain American] editors than it does about any other so-called trend”.
http://www.standard.co.uk/lifestyle/london-life/sfem-erotic-novel-fifty-shades-of-grey-ignites-feminist-debate-7684042.html accessed 6/11/12
A women's refuge has slammed the bestselling Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy as "an instruction manual for an abusive individual to sexually torture a vulnerable young woman".
Clare Phillipson, director of Wearside Women in Need, a charity for victims of domestic violence, said she had been waiting for "a feminist icon to savage this misogynistic crap, but nobody did", so she decided she needed to speak out herself.
The story's "subliminal message", said Phillipson, is the classic narrative of domestic violence – "that you can heal this broken man, that if you just love him enough and take his shit enough, he will get better".
"That message is so dangerous," she added. "I've done this job for 30 years and the chances of making a Christian Grey better by enduring the abuse he heaps on you – well, you would be physically traumatised and potentially dead. It is not going to happen. You have to walk away from the Christian Greys of this world."
Alison Flood http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2012/aug/24/fifty-shades-grey-domestic-violence-campaigners accessed 6/11/12
Since the first in the erotic trilogy was published a year ago, 50 Shades of Grey has sold over 10 million copies. Coined as “mummy porn”, the novel and its sequels have made it to the top three spots in the bestseller charts in the UK and the US.
Not only is the racy novel the best selling e-book of all time, it is also responsible for boosting erotic purchases. Sales of erotic literature and porn magazines have risen by 130 per cent in the last month, while the number of women buying sex toys has more than doubled.
Both its success and appeal are apparent, but discussions over what the subtext of the book has to say about modern feminism has come to fruition. It’s been argued that the submissive relationship seen in the book could undermine female equality and sets a negative example to readers.
But is the sadomasochism seen in 50 Shades of Grey degrading to women? Or is purely fantasy, with whichever form of sexual exploration a personal choice to pursue in the bedroom?
Dr Gina Barreca: "50 Shades perpetuates absurd, outdated, and impossible psychosexual rituals making an already culturally mangled set of hideously distorted sexual power plays even more difficult."
Meg Barker: "The popularity of the 50 Shades trilogy demonstrates how common enjoyment of sadomasochistic (SM) fantasies is. This is helpful because people often have narrow ideas about ‘normal’ sex, and anxiety if their desires stray outside of this. Sexual problems are linked to an inability to tune into, and communicate about, what we want sexually, so it is certainly useful to open up a diversity of erotic possibilities."
Of course, that might just be my girlish way of looking at things.
Laura Davis http://blogs.independent.co.uk/2012/07/04/the-debate-does-the-sadomasochism-seen-in-50-shades-of-grey-degrading-to-women/ accessed 6/11/12
Fifty Shades of Grey is easy to mock. The reason it's easy to mock is that it's porn. I picked up the book, with its dark-and-mysterious cover that looks, through half-closed eyes, a bit like one of the Twilight novels, in an airport. I read it on the plane, and I enjoyed it. There, I said it. I enjoyed it because there were, amongst some terrifically trashy bits of girly romance and some eye-watering blow-job scenarios, a few quite good, quite detailed descriptions of fucking written from the point of view of a woman who seemed to be really enjoying herself.
That's it. That's all. 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.
Laurie Penny http://www.newstatesman.com/blogs/culture/2012/07/stop-being-mean-fifty-shades-grey accessed 6/11/12
Commercialised and repackaged, the trilogy was precision marketed in an exhaustive effort to define Fifty Shades as the must-read of the moment. For a time, it became impossible to avoid the marketing message that these books were successful, available and trending. An advertising campaign across a variety of media communicated one clear message – this bonk-fest bandwagon was one readers should jump on to, and fast...The publication of Fifty Shades 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.
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?
Katy Shaw http://www.alluvium-journal.org/2012/11/01/fifty-shades-of-the-future/ accessed 6/11/12