Alice Lavelle asks what we’ve learned from the publishing sensation, as it is ‘now a major motion picture’It was the book that took literature by storm. For a few heady weeks in 2012 it seemed half the population was reading Fifty Shades of Grey by EL James, which shifted more than 100 million copies to become the fastest selling paperback in history.
As BBC Radio York prepares to debate the book as part of York Literature Festival, I took it upon myself to question friends and family about the series and find out what the people think.
Is it a load of tosh? Or does it illuminate what men and women really want?
Boys v girls
“Fifty Shades of Grey is a complicated beast,” says Simon, 24, from York.
He describes the relationship at the heart of the book, between rich and troubled entrepreneur Christian Grey and naive student Anastasia Steele, as scary.
“EL James has tried to create a character who is aloof, dangerous and more importantly, likeable,” says Simon. But in fact he seems more like “good-looking nuisance who doesn’t understand the word no”.
Ana Steele, meanwhile, is “hard to understand, with all the ‘Inner Goddess, Lions Tigers and Bears’ (oh my!), and drooling over Mr Grey”.
He also suggests that the character isn’t realistic, having “a slight problem believing she had never had any sexual experiences at all because she had not found anyone attractive yet”.
His conclusion? “This was really the first erotica novel I had read, and needless to say it left a very bad taste – no pun intended.”
Grace, 20, from York, is unsettled by the representation of the S&M community.
“I don’t like that Christian Grey decides he doesn’t like sadomasochism after he falls in love with Ana because he can’t bear to hurt her any more,” she says.
“It implies that a practitioner couldn’t possibly care about their partner – which is a really bad representation of that community, because anything within the context of legal mutual consent is A-OK.”
On the plus side she thinks “people are exploring their sexualities… accepting new practises and being accepting of other people’s sexual practises” because of the themes tackled in Fifty Shades.
Interestingly, Grace agrees with Simon in that “as far as erotic fiction is concerned the writing is poor” but she “likes its place in popular culture because it’s a reflection of what society accepts – and sexuality in women should be celebrated rather than oppressed”.
As for the specifics, she agrees with Simon that the relationship is creepy, as Grey “doesn’t take no for an answer, just assuming that she means yes – even if sometimes she does”.
“It’s not realistic in any respect – although I don’t think anyone is pretending that it is,” Grace said.
Running Fifty Shades by my friends and family, the consensus is that it’s badly written escapism. My mum characterises it as “up-market Mills and Boon”, while a colleague said she read the series for “the love story not the sex.”
All in all people seem to have enjoyed reading the series, even if they agree that it isn’t the best or brightest example of literature.
Tying up loose ends
Fifty Shades follows the run of a warped relationship between two beautiful people, and brings up a side of sexuality that isn’t very prominent in mainstream literature while struggling with the concept of “yes or no”.
Simon sees the character of Ana Steele as ridiculous. But this isn’t an issue for Grace – she focusses more on Ana’s sexual freedom, and the implications of bringing varied sexual practices of women into the light.
Where they agree is that Fifty Shades doesn’t represent a normal relationship – but it’s not the sex that is the problem, it’s the treatment of Ana by Christian.
The codependency displayed in the series is not romantic, it’s terrifying. Although EL James is not insinuating that it should be viewed as normal, the fact that Christian Grey is a “romantic” symbol is disturbing.
Simon found Ana difficult to relate to – which is interesting because as a woman I found Ana a fairly accurate representation of how women think (although perhaps not the “inner goddess” part): how they obsess over small details, or doubt themselves constantly and – most importantly – how difficult it is to say “no” to somebody that you love.
Whatever your view, you can’t ignore the popularity of Fifty Shades of Grey.
Christian Grey has made his mark in the world of literature. Try as we might, it cannot be erased. So perhaps it’s time to man up and commit yourself to a relationship with the books.
In this universe you can beat ’em and join ’em.