Fifty Shades of Breath-Hitching Hilarity

Fifty Shades of GreyIt’s hard (no pun intended—and none intended for the ones that also appear later in this blog because the more you try to avoid euphemisms and innuendo, the more doggedly they appear) to know what to write about a book that everyone’s surreptitiously reading and talking and writing about. What more can I possibly add to the furtive-meets-open-mocking discussion?

I suppose I can add that while the writing’s at times either/or inadvertently hilarious and annoying, there’s a reason why EL JamesFifty Shades of Grey is a runaway success. Scoff how you will, just like the vampire–human love story that inspired its penning, Fifty Shades is, essentially, a rip-roaringly addictive, right-spot-hitting story.

To recap (in case you’ve been doing something enviably exotic and removed from the interwebs and popular culture such as setting world records scaling snow-capped mountains with a pet goat perched upon your shoulders), the book embarks on an epic love story between a nerdy, literature-studying girl and an all-knowing, all-controlling, self-made billionaire broken and made mysterious by his damaged past.

It began as self-published Twilight fan fiction and spread, courtesy of interwebs-based word of mouth, like publishing wildfire. The rest is history that publishers are now, by commissioning and rushing through anything remotely similar in style, desperately trying to repeat. That includes the distinctive (dare I say iconic?) covers that, as with the Twilight series before them, will spawn many, many recreation attempts.

Fifty Shades DarkerNot being a big erotica reader—one might say I was put off some years ago as a bookseller by a certain dodgy customer who regularly returned erotic fiction, and who once did so with a bookmark that infamously turned out to be a long, curly, grey pube—I was surprised that Fifty Shades took a long time to get to the sexy bits. Seriously, there are many, many, many chaste chapters of suspense before Christian and Ana get it on, which may disappoint those who expect bodice-ripping from the outset.

That’s not to say there’s not a lot to follow, and I’ll not deny that there came a point in the third book (page 117, to be precise) where I thought: I’m not sure I can read any more sex scenes. Please, give me some more plot. But as S&M goes (or so I’m told), despite its promises the book’s sex is relatively middle-class vanilla.

But there’s also plenty personality-wise to interest, not least the plot-driving email exchanges between Ana and Christian, which were at times so witty I was I’d-never-think-to-write-that envious. They’re an interesting couple and the narrative gripping enough to make you want to know where it goes.

I’ll not deny, though, that wanting to see the story unfold precludes one from poking fun at it and highlighting its Swiss-cheese-like plot holes relentlessly. Were I a drinker (which I’m in this case sadly not), I’d invent a drinking game for every time someone’s breath ‘hitched’ or Ana bit her lip.

Yes indeedy, the repetition of certain terms and phrases reinforced to me the need for editors (James was clearly given one by the time the second and third books, published with publishing house money, were released). Meanwhile the stalker-like behaviour and too-talented-by-halves nature of the Christian character leant itself to hours of teeheeing about how a real-life version would have you taking out an AVO faster than you could dial triple-o that masked slight I-wish-I-could-find-such-a-man wistfulness.

Fifty Shades FreedA small side note is that I got a little confused by the mix of ‘Grey’, ‘Steele’, and ‘gray’ throughout the book and couldn’t help but wonder if there was a reference in there James hadn’t been able to make explicit. I’ll also admit the third book made me angry.

While the first two had been two-dimensional and guffaw-worthy, the third was one-dimensional, too quickly turned to guff, and was an absolute cop out. I don’t want to give the plot away, but I couldn’t help thinking it was as lame and as inexplicably over-the-top as Bella and Edward’s relationship with the naming of Renesme.

No matter. I had committed to seeing the trilogy through by then and wasn’t entirely unsatisfied overall. And while I’ll happily poke fun at the books, I’ll also happily admit I’ve read them and that even if they’re not capital-l literature, if they’re getting people to read books and talk about books and reading, then they’re not so bad at all.

Publisher pounces on mummy porn

HarperCollins has moved swiftly to sign up a new erotic fiction author, Indigo Bloome, in a bid to cash in on the Fifty Shades phenomenon.

HarperCollins paid the author a six figure sum in a three-book deal, brokered by literary agent Selwa Anthony with Harper’s publishing director Shona Martyn. The first title, due out July 1, is entitled Destined to Play.

If you’re a straight woman over 30, there’s a good chance you’ve already succumbed to peer pressure – or been driven by curiosity – and bought a copy of the internationally bestselling “mummy porn” novel Fifty Shades of Grey (you can buy it and the second and third novels in the Fifty Shades trilogy for $10.82 each here).

EL James has become a publishing sensation over the past year, not because her books are brilliantly written or encompass generation-defining themes, but because as works of erotic fiction, they contain dozens of detailed sex scenes, many featuring bondage and discipline and sadism and masochism.

For those who are squeamish about the riding crops and floggers, the ordinary, bookish heroine (Anastasia) and incredibly sexy, powerful, wealthy yet troubled hero (Christian) help on the aspirational side.

Which girl hasn’t at some point dreamt that a hot billionaire might sweep them off their feet? Especially if said mogul has a good heart and the potential to be saved from decades of internal turmoil by her love and support.

The New York Times reports more than 10 million copies of Fifty Shades of Grey have been sold. Universal Pictures and Focus Features won a bidding warn for the film rights. Publishing houses are desperately seeking erotic fiction authors in the hope of cashing in on its popularity, which is partially attributed to the fact that ereading devices make it easy to read such titles on the sly, even if you are travelling on a bus or train, for example.

HarperCollins’ Martyn told a Sydney Writers Festival event audience last week that her publishing house’s regular meeting to discuss digital projects had been plotting an erotic fiction strategy the very week Anthony approached her with Bloome’s book.

Bloome is a thirtysomething mum with kids in primary school, and therefore publishing under a pen name. HarperCollins is rushing her first book into ebookstores by July 1, with a print edition to follow September 1. This is remarkably fast for a legacy book publisher.

Incidentally, Martyn said the biggest seller of her ebook titles to date had been John Howard’s Lazarus Rising, at 9000 copies, which is about the same number that Fifty Shades of Grey sold in Australia within its first week of reissue through Random House last month.

Fifty Shades was initially published as an ebook and print-on-demand paperback in May last year by The Writers’ Coffee Shop, a indie publisher and book community based in NSW. According to Wikipedia, it was originally developed as a Twilight tribute and published episodically on fan fiction websites, then on James’s own website, The author is a London television executive, wife and mother of two.

I’ve just finished reading the book on the Kobo platform as an exercise in research into social reading and was intrigued to note that the Kobo Pulse “pulse”, which tells you how many others are reading at the same time as you, was at full strength most of the way through. There were only a handful of comments, including one deleted by the author – perhaps she was embarrassed by her initial thoughts on the book – and one comparing it to Twilight.

Even as I write on a Sunday morning, some 16 people are reading the Australian edition of Fifty Shades on Kobo. 1600 have read it on the platform so far. Of those, 41 have clicked “like” and 3 “dislike”. Readers have selected parts of the text and clicked highlight 250 times. You can bet many of those are sex scenes, though I also highlighted a couple of opera titles – Christian is a classical music buff. I liked this line too, “One minute he rebuffs me, the next he sends me fourteen-thousand-dollar books”.

So, is it any good?

Honestly, not really. I have friends who gave up because they read the first few chapters and wondered what the fuss was about (the first sex scene is in Chapter Eight of 26).

It does remind me of the Twilight books, but also of a Sweet Valley High spin-off series I read as a teenager, Caitlin (the Love and Promise trilogies), in which the heroine is an incredibly wealthy and beautiful individual with issues, just like James’s Christian. From memory she has a boyfriend with steel grey eyes just like Christian’s too.

The characters are card-board cutouts, their dialogue wooden and repetitive. I cared so little about them that I would prefer to read a dot point summary of the second and third books than actually read them. Anyone want to send me one?

The only interesting things about the central couple – their careers – are touched on but never examined in depth. Christian’s business sounds intriguing, but we never learn more about it than that it is staffed by good looking blondes, includes research into sustainable farming and is facing a major challenge. Anastasia is a literature graduate who wants to work in publishing, but we’re oblivious to what sorts of books she wants to publish, or why.

The plot revolves around their relationship and sex life, which frankly, is boring. Sure, he’s a little kinky, but most of these are standard sex scenes. I’m wondering why any woman who was feeling frisky would bother reading a book like this rather than taking their husband or boyfriend away for a dirty weekend or, dare I say it, hunting down some free iPad video porn.

There is that old issue that perhaps with the exception of James Deen the men who star in porn vids are usually the opposite to a woman’s fantasy, and the women hardly aspirational … but that’s another story (and business opportunity if the sales of Fifty Shades are any indication!).

One Kobo reader, Linda Thornton, summed it up quite nicely, I thought, with this comment on the final page:

“What can one say, “holy crap” would probably cover such a senseless stream of clichéd drivel. The author’s relentless pursuit to see how many times she can cram yet another sexual exploit into a page in order to exploit the reader into buying two more volumes can only be marveled at. Triple crap.”

But hey, it’s a publishing phenomenon, and these are always intriguing to read to gain insights into what does turn readers on.