21st century writing | 21st century approaches

Fifty Shades of the Future

Katy Shaw

 

In departure lounges, train stations and motorway services across the UK, one novel – or rather one trilogy – has graced the laps of engrossed readers for the past twelve months. E. L. James’ Fifty Shades Of Grey is a very twenty-first century phenomenon, one that casts new light on publishing and reading trends of the new millennium. Igniting debates about gender, sexuality, genre, form and authorship, the series, seen by many as little more than a bonk-fest or ‘Mummy Porn’, reveals significant developments in literary consumption and circulation.

 

A 21st-century phenomenon: E. L. James' Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy [Images used under fair dealings provisions]

 

Fifty Shades exploded in the UK at the same time as the News of the World phone hacking scandal and subsequent Leveson Inquiry. This public enquiry into the culture, ethics and practices of the British press was accompanied by a call from both the British government and public for higher ethical standards in reportage. Print media reacted by markedly cooling its content. As Leveson witness Prof Roy Greenslade told the inquiry, ‘it is impossible not to notice that kiss and tell stories have disappeared from tabloid newspapers’. For a society eager to know what was going on behind closed doors, Fifty Shades transported the tattle of the tabloid to the authority of the fictional page, offering twenty-first century readers an alternative diet of scandal and gossip, while the series itself became the subject of acres of tabloid newsprint.

On its release in 2011, the Fifty Shades trilogy sold four million copies in just four months, becoming Amazon’s biggest selling book of all time. As the fastest paperback to hit one million sales in the UK (in just eleven weeks), the novels went on to outsell J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter series and was held responsible by market analysts for the continued survival of British bookshops (most notably WH Smith) during a year of otherwise poor book sales. Having begun life as a blog – perhaps the ultimate form of self publishing – James’ part slash fiction, part fanfiction romance between two characters from the Twilight series reanimated in an AU (Alternative Universe) originally contributed to a growing field of ‘TwiFic’ online. Although based on Twilight’s characters, James’ novels move on significantly from this source text. As Princeton professor April Alliston argues: ‘Fifty Shades is more than parasitic fan fiction based on the recent Twilight vampire series’. Twilight author Stephanie Meyer also gave her blessing to the project, but nevertheless deemed Fifty Shades ‘not my genre, not my thing’ (Alliston n. pag.).

While ethically problematic for some, for others fan fiction is the product of adoration, collaboration and dialogue. Self-publishing is well suited to fan fictio – and indeed to genre fiction  where there is a steady demand, a high turnover of titles and a developed sense of what is expected. Spread by word of mouth and online reviews, initial versions of the texts came to the attention of major publishing houses through an online viral campaign grown from an established collective of avid readers of the original fanfic blog. Vintage UK re-published the trilogy in 2012, featuring its now infamous slick jacket designs. 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.

 

Forks, Washington: the mecca for Twilight fans, whose genre of "TwiFic" inspired E. L. James [Image by Dee Ann under a CC-BY-NC license]

 

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. For readers in transit, the social stigma of carrying Fifty Shades on buses, tubes and planes, made many turn to the anonymity of the e-reader to consume this much- talked about text. In the space of eighteen months, Fifty Shades had morphed from blog, to fanfiction, to limited print, to commercial novel and then to e-book to become a water-cooler hot topic. As Kindle EU Director Gordon Willoughby argues, the series quickly made E. L. James the ‘literary phenomenon of the decade’ (Press Association, n. pag.).

Genre fiction has always been adept at using water-cooler style ‘word of mouth’ as a business model in the absence of a sizeable marketing budget, but it also occupies a grey area of literary acceptability. Like the supposedly sizzling sex scenes of Fifty Shades, the enjoyment of genre fiction is all too often presented as a form of guilty pleasure. Writing in The New Yorker, Arthur Krystal claims that ‘commercial and genre writers aim at delivering less rarefied pleasures and part of the pleasure we derive from them is the knowledge that we could be reading something better’ (Krystal n. pag.). But genre is above all else commercial, something India Knight references in her analysis of the trilogy as ‘the porn version of cupcakes and Cath Kidston’ (Knight qtd Thorpe n. pag.).

 

The transgressive act of consuming erotica: e-books helped readers avoid the social stigma of reading E. L. James [Image by Aurimas under a CC-BY-ND license]

 

The romance genre in particular is, was and always will be a big business. With roots in Erotica and Chick lit – Fifty Shades arguably owes as much to Bridget Jones as Twilight – it follows a long tradition of novels like Catherine Millett's The Sexual Life of Catherine M (2001) that have played with the idea of what the contemporary romance novel can be. Previously associated with Mills and Boon and ‘Yummy Mummy’ fiction, in Fifty Shades, James tapped into a long established base of genre fans eager for a text that spoke to and of their own generation, making erotica and romance socially acceptable as well as appealing to first-time genre readers. As Paul Boggards, executive vice president of Knopf whose imprint, Vintage, publishes Fifty Shades, argues: ‘E. L. James has opened up these genres to a whole new subset of readers who might not have previously been familiar with them’ (Boggards qtd Crocker n. pag.).

The series has unsurprisingly been the target of much criticism from commentators who variously accuse the novels of being demeaning to women, restrictive, conservative or simply bad PR for those who enjoy BDSM. But most concerning in these critical responses was a widespread condescension towards the texts as fanfic, as genre, as ‘popular’ fiction. In a cover story for Newsweek, Katie Roiphe concluded that what’s ‘most alarming about the Fifty Shades Of Grey phenomena, what gives it its true edge of desperation, and end-of-the-world ambiance, is that millions of otherwise intelligent women are willing to tolerate prose on this level' (Roiphe n. pag.).

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? Like the bondage sessions regularly enacted across the trilogy, Fifty Shades reminds us that power can often shift, with sometimes uncomfortable consequences, in this case away from the authority of the review pages and onto discussion forums, readers groups and commuters.

 

Fifty Shades offers a fascinating case study for the growth and development of genre fiction and its fandoms in the 21st century [Image by Terry McCombs under a CC-BY-NC license]

 

Although the series was never destined for the Man Booker list and while it is unlikely that we will ever see a (genuine) Penguin Classics version it has been an undeniable commercial and popular success. In a provocative clashing of high and low culture, Fifty Shades offers a fascinating case study for the growth and development of genre fiction, the circulation of literary texts and the reading habits of the twenty-first century. Promoting pleasure without guilt, the trilogy speaks not only to a generation raised on red top scandal, but for genre fiction as a legitimate form of reading pleasure in the new millennium and one well suited to new reading technologies. Fifty Shades also delivers a resounding message about the continued significance of the novel as the most popular form in which to tell stories about the twenty-first century world but, in doing so, highlights that the success of the novel can also contribute to the dominance of the publishing industry by a smaller elite number of best-selling authors at the expense of newer, less established names as well as the comparative freedom of authors to self-publish online.

Whether a one-click wonder or a landmark intervention in the fields of genre and publishing, a trilogy that has sold more copies than the UK Highway Code is mocked, disregarded or dismissed at our peril. Fifty Shades indicates not only how we will read in the future but, moreover, what a significant and hitherto largely unidentified and untapped market of readers want to consume today. Everything about the text and its context – from its established fan fiction base, to its genre-friendly pigeonhole, techno-ease of consumption and hungry generation of readers denied their normal daily scandal fix by a government enquiry – offers a social, political and economic dipstick into our twenty-first century world. Through its heady combination of genre-morphing, platform-shifting zeitgeist, Fifty Shades has brought debates about gender, sexuality, power, authorship, publishing, form and genre back to the forefront of critical debates of the new millennium. Not bad for a bonk-fest.

 

CITATION: Katy Shaw, "Fifty Shades of the Future," Alluvium, Vol. 1, No. 6 (2012): n. pag. Web. 1 November 2012, http://dx.doi.org/10.7766/alluvium.v1.6.03.

 

Katy Shaw is is Senior Lecturer and Subject Leader for English Literature at the University of Brighton. She is Director of C21: Centre for 21st-Century Writings and editor of C21 Literature: Journal of 21st-century Writings.

 

Works Cited:

Alliston, April. "'Mummy Porn' Novel Has Retro Message." CNN, 29 March 2012 [accessed 5 October 2012]: http://www.cnn.com/2012/03/29/opinion/alliston-greenfield-50-shades/index.html?iref=obnetwork.

Crocker, Lizzie. "E. L. James On Her Next Book." The Daily Beast, 18 September 2012 [accessed 5 October 2012]: http://www.thedailybeast.com/features/2012/07/50-shades-of-grey-mania.html.

Eakin, Emily. "Grey Area: How 'Fifty Shades' Dominated the Market." The New York Review of Books, 27 July 2012 [accessed 5 October 2012]: http://www.nybooks.com/blogs/nyrblog/2012/jul/27/seduction-and-betrayal-twilight-fifty-shades/.

Krystal, Arthur. "Easy Writers." The New Yorker, 28 May 2012 [accessed 5 October 2012]: http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/atlarge/2012/05/28/120528crat_atlarge_krystal.

O’Carrol, Lisa. "Leveson enquiry has put paid to 'kiss and tell' says Greenslade." The Guardian, 12 July 2012 [accessed 5 ctober 2012]: http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2012/jul/12/leveson-inquiry-kiss-and-tells.

Press Association, "Fifty Shades of Grey Outsells Harry Potter." The Guardian, 1 August 2012 [accessed 5 October 2012]: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2012/aug/01/fifty-shades-outsells-harry-potter-amazon.

Prinzivalli, Fallon. "'Fifty Shades of Grey': Stephanie Meyer Speaks Out." MTV News, 29 May 2012 [accessed 5 October 2012]: http://www.mtv.com/news/articles/1685954/fifty-shades-of-grey-stephenie-meyer.jhtml.

Roiphe, Katie. "Spanking Goes Mainstream." The Daily Beast, 16 April 2012 [accessed 5 October 2012]: http://www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/2012/04/15/working-women-s-fantasies.html.

This Is Money Reporter,. "Fifty Shades of Grey Livens Up WH Smith Sales Despite Tough Times on the High Street." Daily Mail, 23 August 2012 [accessed 5 October 2012]: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/money/markets/article-2192447/Fifty-Shades-Grey-livens-WH-Smith-book-sales.html.

Thorpe, Vanessa. "Why does Fifty Shades of Grey turn British women on?" Observer, 30 June 2012 [accessed 5 October 2012]: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2012/jun/30/fifty-shades-grey-women-sadomasochism.

 

 

Please feel free to comment.

3 comments

  1. Nick Harrison /

    Excellent piece! Pity E. L. James can't write like that.

  2. Rachel Revell /

    'The porn version of cupcakes' easily the greatest comment I've read all year!
    You're right about the impact, look at the book charts, they're totally dominated by 'Fifty Shades' fiction. I'm all for giving the people what they want but I agree it's blocking other authors/novels.

  3. Harriet Earle /

    As one who shuns e-readers in favour of the soft touch of paper, I am distressed to think that the British bookseller is doomed. Am I more distressed to think it is granted temporary reprieve by a bonk-fest? This I cannot answer. 

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