A chaste book with the naughty bits avoided or omitted …

Fifty Shades of GreyI’m pretty much standing alone among writers in saying that the Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon is a good thing. The general stance is that it’s poorly written commercial drivel leading the reading (and non-reading) masses astray. Me? I think the issues and opportunities are—please excuse the pun—a little more grey.

First and foremost, there’s an element of ‘why her and not me?’ in some writers’ chagrin. Nobody likes a whinger. It’s admittedly got to bite a bit when E.L. James’ writing’s so guffaw-inducing bad (my friend and fellow editor Judi makes me giggle regularly by quoting the bit about Ana’s very own ‘Christian-flavoured popsicle’). It’s got to bite a bit more when you’ve been slaving away for years at your own writing with limited success.

But it ignores the fact that there’s a lot going for Fifty Shades, not least that its success has opened others’ doors. I’ve personally been offered a number of chances to review ‘the next’ Fifty Shades book and to interview its author. Ergo, opportunities for me and opportunities for erotic fiction authors who, it should be noted, were until recently low on the (little-discussed) writing hierarchy—they’re like romance writers but considered more snicker-worthy.

Surely those writers should be grateful that James’ trilogy has ratcheted up the chance of erotic fiction writers for obtaining publishing contracts and has driven eyes and sales to the genre? And beyond the genre, for that matter—James’ own husband has scored a book deal for his crime thriller (I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t considered trying to find and marry an up-and-coming writer who might be able to piggyback me across the bestselling line).

Mr James’ book is apparently in no way connected to Fifty Shades, but who are we kidding? Everyone’s going to be scouring the pages for hints of his and Mrs James’ sex life (and if I were him I wouldn’t care—a book sale’s a book sale and he might even gain some readers who otherwise didn’t know they enjoyed thrillers).

The Da Vinci CodeBecause for all the ‘it’s so badly written’ grumbling, Fifty Shades has done for erotica what Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code and Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight and JK Rowling’s Harry Potter have done for their respective genres before—they’ve got people reading and they’ve got people talking about reading.

Whether readers and critics realise it or not (and it’s the ‘or not’ that’s arguably key in the same way that parents try to ensure that kids don’t realise they’re eating green vegies), Fifty Shades has got everyone analysing the work. And then it’s set them off in search of more (hopefully better) reading material to fill the obsessive, book-devouring void.

It’s also provided a much-needed cash injection into a flailing publishing industry, inspired people to buy ebooks so as not to give their dirty reading secret away courtesy of a visible physical book cover, and lobbed previously published and soon-to-be published erotica to the fore. As far as I’m concerned, it’s win–win.

The ‘what about me?’ criticisms also dismiss the fact that Fifty Shades taps into an epic love story. Badly written as it is (as was Twilight before it), there’s something utterly irresistible about it. Self-respecting feminist I may be, even I got caught up in the fairytale-like element of a wealthy, gorgeous, troubled-but-not-without-redemption knight in shining armour sweeping her off her feet (please spare me the hate mail about how the book sets us back centuries—I know it’s imperfect).

Something else has intrigued more than all the ‘it’s rubbish’ furore, both because it’s something I was vaguely thinking about and because it was articulated much better by an author I’m not sure I am a fan of. Jodi Picoult (AKA a reasonably divisive and commercially driven, commercially successful author herself) said that James is unfairly profiting from another author’s tale and characters.

TwilightPicoult kind of has a point, although truthfully, I’m not sure where I stand on the issue. Fifty Shades was explicitly created as Twilight fan fiction, ergo it seems to be fine to use the characters. But fan fiction as a whole is collaborative and something from which people don’t often profit—James’ breakout success is blurring and redefining this, potentially towards a less-open, more-greedy dynamic.

It’s tricky to know where Meyer stands on this issue too. Yes, they’re her characters, but one could convincingly argue that they’re not uniquely hers at all—they’re poorly wrought versions derived from archetypes. What is known is that she’s stayed fairly quiet on the whole issue.

On a pragmatic level, given her devout Mormon faith it’s unlikely (read: about as likely as you or me finding a real-life Christian Grey to call our own) that she’d have written a Fifty Shades or equivalent herself. In fact, you could say Fifty Shades emerged precisely because Meyer didn’t and wouldn’t give us the highly anticipated sex.

What I want to know is whether Meyer has read Fifty Shades. Because that’s the amusing part, isn’t it? A chaste book with the naughty bits avoided, omitted, or only committed in line with strict religious beliefs (AKA sex only after marriage) inspires a best-selling book that’s decidedly unchaste and that breaks all the religious rules …

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Fiona Crawford

Fiona Crawford is a freelance writer, editor, blogger, proofreader, and voracious reader. She regularly appears as a book reviewer in Australian BOOKSELLER+PUBLISHER magazine. Fiona is also (unfairly) known as the Book Burglar due to her penchant for buying family members—then permanently borrowing—books she wants to read herself.