The Great Debate

Fifty shades of pop porn

Passing through the maze of lounge chairs at the beach or pool this summer, one best seller and its sequels appear like spots under beach umbrellas; black-sheened paperbacks in the hands of plenty of reclining, rapt women.

Anything that resembles narrative or character in the Fifty Shades series, which starts with the title novel Fifty Shades of Grey, is forgone to get to the meaty stuff; that is, the sex. Our heroine, who is at times compared to the naïve beauty from Tess of the D’Urbervilles (a solitary well-employed allusion in the series), chooses the chiseled, sexy, young Christian Grey for her first, but definitely not her last, sexual experience. Skip to the revelation about Grey’s preferences in the bedroom, and within a hundred pages she is tied up, roped down, spanked, lashed and beaten in the pursuit of Grey’s satisfaction.


It is little surprise, then, that in the craze to read Fifty Shades, women have opted for the e-book version almost as often as they have for the paperback. In the U.S., the book has sold about 10 million copies in each category, passing the 20 million sales mark in July. But are people – women, especially – actually enjoying the book, or is the title simply enjoying a short-lived period of wild popularity? Within these questions another, older, question is buried: What makes a woman want to read a novel?

It is difficult to gauge who among the readers of the Fifty Shades novels are actually fans. The bad writing, the transgressive sex, and even the length of the books are points of many casual reviews on the Internet. Others see qualities to like in the novels. Roxane Gay, who wrote about them for The Rumpus, calls the series “a modern fairy tale with a dark, erotic twist.” So much has been said (a cursory search of the Huffington Post for “Fifty Shades of Gray” turns up thousands of pages of content) that it is difficult for anyone not to have a vague notion of the book’s content by now.

This may be part of the anomaly of the book’s success. Sales of the series accounted for 20 percent of adult fiction sold in the spring, according to Nielsen BookScan. One woman I talked to had put the first book down for good after reading a particular line that cannot be reproduced here about what Grey wanted to do to the protagonist’s mouth. For others, the bad writing was a turnoff. “I don’t believe anyone ever said ‘holy cow’ at the moment of her first orgasm,” said author Erica Jong in a recent panel in New York about the book’s effects on sexual culture.

The novel goes global

By John Lloyd
The opinions expressed are his own.

Nothing can be more nationally rooted than the novel. Recall your mental images of the squalid alleys of Dickensian London and the stormy moors of the Brontes (both Emily’s and Charlotte’s, the latter beautifully photographed in the latest film reworking of “Jane Eyre”); the narrow streets and minds of the Norman towns in which Gustave Flaubert’s Emma Bovary’s yearning for romance is broken and the gilded salons of Paris where Eugenie de Balzac’s heroes claw, or fail to claw, their way up the social scale; the field of Borodino where Tolstoy had Pierre Bezhukov put face to face with carnage of war, and the crumbling slums of Petersburg where Dostoyevsky’s Raskolnikov commits his crime and suffers his punishment. These are part of the reader’s mental furniture, imagined and re-imagined millions of times down the decades, but always seen as inextricably of their place; places which take on characters of their own, malign or comforting.

Now, a series of intertwined trends threaten this assumption of rootedness, and have the capacity to shift us from the tidy allocation of fictions to nations which the study of literature has furthered, and which it now struggles to contain. The British-Italian writer and translator Tim Parks believes that this shift is as large as that from the use of Latin to the “vulgar” or local languages as the medium for literature in the medieval period. It is, though, a kind of reverse process: where, almost a millennium ago, pioneers like Dante and Chaucer, writing in what became Italian and what was already English, led the writing world into multiplicity, the pressures of globalization hammer away at Babel’s Tower, seeking to replace it with a single column of glob-ish.

One trend is the continued spread of English as a global lingua franca, giving birth to a variety of English-es with a French, Italian, Russian, Chinese coloring – as well as the longer established African and Indian versions, ingrained in imperial times. Closely tied to that is the dwindling weight of the smaller national languages, as a growing group master English and freely choose Anglophone rather than native sources for their reading of all kinds, as well as, of necessity, their business.