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.