Fifty Shades of Grey: The Great Hissy Fit of 2012




FiftyshadesofgreyIf you  haven't been paying attention to this controversy, let me get you up to speed as quickly as I can, before the smut of writing about it makes me feel like a filthy street urchin in need of a serious scrubbing with lye soap:

Unknown, first time author E.L. James published a work of erotic fiction that shot up the bestseller list faster than you can say "crap writing," stunning the publishing world. She didn't just write this one title, she also wrote and published two others, completing a trilogy of naughtiness that – as I understand it – could make even Paris Hilton blush. Maybe.

The books are graphic, employing what was a totally new term for me: BDSM. Woe that I was forced to learn of this depravity at all – for the sake of keeping up with publishing news – but that's the way the whip cracks.

James's series takes place in Seattle, following the relationship between young, nubile college student Anastasia Steele and corporate magnate Christian Grey. That's all I know of the plot and frankly that's fine by me.

The backstory is, what began as a work of fanfiction celebrating readers' love of the Twilight novels turned into this erotic trilogy that's taking the nation by storm. Though the first two volumes were actually published in 2011, it wasn't until volume three came out – in January 2012 – that the whole thing really took off. Vintage Books picked up the series in April of 2012 and the rest is the history of embarrassingly bad taste and a taint on the entire profession of writing.

So begins the series of debates: how and why did this happen, should those of us who like to stay informed hold our noses and actually read this steaming pile of excrement (trust me; I've read extracts) and what does this mean for the contemporary state of reading taste in America? That last bit being the most scary topic of all.

Libraries country-wide have been assailed on all sides by those scratching and clawing to lay hands on copies of these books, which have waiting lists ten miles long. Protesters are clamoring to "ban" the books from libraries, and free speech advocates are right in their faces, fighting back. Not surprising, considering the humungous popularity of these books, as well as the no-holds barred violent and graphic sexuality. If these clashes didn't happen I'd be worried, if there were less coverage of the whole affair (haha!) in the media I would feel dismayed.

Controversy about books is a good thing. Whatever, and however, brings the subject of reading to the forefront of conversation – the more passionately argued the better – is good publicity for the continued importance of reading. Does it lead to the bulk of the population becoming more literate? Debatable.

Then you have the subject matter, the  cringe-worthy writing and the stunning number of readers climbing over each other to lay hands on these books. Harry Potter was a huge deal, followed up by the Twilight series and the Hunger Games franchise. But those books were different: not, perhaps, literary masterpieces but not sexually depraved and written at an eighth grade level, either.

When a decade or two pass, and literary historians look back on all this, it's still going to be a very big deal, as far as mass market/popular reading. There are the books themselves, the film adaptations, the merchandising and the debate whether reading in general was actually boosted via the vehicle of this sort of writing. Did reading these books lead readers to higher works, did they lead to reading works of similar quality or were they a one-off people read then lost all interest in books in general?

I smell a great research paper or nonfiction book opportunity in all this. At least I hope that's what I'm smelling.

I am on the fence, myself. On the one hand, finding what the fuss is all about is tempting. But reading erotica? Ugh, that's a high price to pay. I can always skip the worst bits, fast-forwarding to whatever passes for plot, if it gets too upsetting. Employing that strategy, it may take only five minutes to finish the entire trilogy.

But then I will have paid Vintage money for publishing such trash. That makes my skin crawl. I know publishing's a business and of course one I want to succeed but I'll never look at that publishing group the same way again. Big money wins out, which is good business practice. But at what price to the soul?


Here are a few links, if you'd like to know more:

Interview with E.L. James:



Los Angeles Times article

BBC Podcast/Video


The Telegraph review

"So is it worth picking up a copy? Yes, if you come prepared to wade through pages of treacly cliché. James’s subject matter may be hard-hitting, but her writing is as hackneyed as the hoariest Mills & Boon. Words like “Adonis” circle round almost every mention of Gray, who can’t stop “flashing his grey eyes” at the smitten Steele; and she, for her part, talks repeatedly and irritatingly of her “inner goddess”, who is usually doing backflips, sitting in the Lotus position, or performing other psychologically implausible contortions."

–Laura Barnett


Chicago Tribune


Will you read the books? Have you read them? Are you too embarrassed to admit to knowing about them, which leads me to believe you have actually read them? I'd love to hear what you think, which side of the argument you're on, etc.





5 thoughts on “Fifty Shades of Grey: The Great Hissy Fit of 2012

  1. Wow–where have I been? I had no idea that is what the books were about though I see them all over the place–online anyway they are on the main page of Amazon and B&N. I even spotted this one at the supermarket yesterday! Somehow the cover never appealed to me, so I never picked it up to read the back. Diane Vargas in the video called it fast fun reading, but I think maybe I’ll pass (not to be a prude, but it doesn’t sound like there is much of a story to it…). My TBR piles are already too tall anyway. I guess I don’t really care if that is what is selling, though it’s a little sad that a book like that makes the bestseller lists and is all over the place when there are other really quality books out there that you have to dig around to find and get no press or visibility in stores.


  2. Danielle – It’s hard for me to justify taking up my reading time with these, too. I’m somewhat curious but Amazon has the first chapter of the first book you can read for free. Certainly nothing to make me want to rush and hit the Buy It Now, that’s for sure! But the list at the library for people waiting for a copy of this book… It’s just incredible. I’m not a prude, either, but can’t stand erotica as it hardly ever features anything but sensationalism. And this woman’s becoming a millionaire…! Ugh.


  3. Andi – I’m sure there’s some erotica that’s better than others but overall I find it upsetting. Just me, though, I know it’s a genre with a load of fans.
    I’m finding it fascinating looking on while Shades of Grey dominates the bestseller lists. It’s kind of wacky and I love reading articles about it, pro and con.
    What a weird publishing world we live in.


  4. I blame the e-reader for stopping people being ashamed of reading these sorts of things in public! I don’t want to ban it or anything, but I do wish people would find better things to read. Well, at least they’re reading!


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