If you’ve opened a newspaper, a magazine, your favorite blog, or turned on your favorite morning news program any time over the last couple months, you’ll have seen the coverage of what so many have found startling: that women like to read about sex. The sensation over Twilight fanfiction turned bestseller with a six figure movie deal 50 Shades of Grey has penetrated every aspect of my life. It’s the book with the highest number of holds at the library where I work. My mom, who never reads, asked me if I’d heard of it. My best friend bought a Kindle so she could read it before it came out in paperback. I’ve learned more than I had wanted to know about the bedroom proclivities of my aunt and cousins through their Goodreads status updates. And, though I’ve not read or been a part of the Twilight fanfiction community, I have historically been involved with a much smaller and tighter-knit fandom, so I have some understanding of the context in which 50 Shades of Grey was born and it has been much discussed among my fanfic friends.
I’ve deliberately held off from posting about it, in part because my feelings on it are multi-faceted and contradictory, and partly because I thought it an unnecessary distraction. But I’m going to try and sort through them, which will hopefully make it easier to ignore the seemingly unending commentary. I haven’t read the book, but I have seen enough quotes and commentary to get a pretty good idea.
Fanfiction is a divisive issue. It’s often met with ridicule by literary-types, and understandably so. Much of it is terrible, and it does have a reputation for being … off color (believe it or not, there’s extremely violent My Little Pony fics out there). So, Twilight BDSM is rather tame, relatively speaking. And while something like Cupcakes probably should be left in the deep, darkest corners of the Internet, I don’t think that 50 Shades of Grey is anything that risque.
I do feel that the majority of articles that reference 50 Shades’ fanfic origins don’t really understand the depth and breadth of fanfiction. The Altantic explains it as “an online ritual in which avid readers rewrite their favorite novels with slight variations” which is true, but only part of the truth. Some fanfic shares little more than the character names with the original work; some pushes canon into a “what if this happened next” story. Some is parody; some is self-referential to the fandom itself. Some picks up minor characters and gives them their own stories; some transports favorite characters to entirely new worlds or time periods. And while a lot of it is really terrible writing, some of it is well-crafted and beautifully rendered. Of course, I can only speak for my fandom, which is tiny compared to Twilight or Harry Potter. There’s a stigma associated with writing fanfiction, which saddens me, because I think it’s a great way to practice writing and I have made several writing friends through the fandom, real-life editors and journalists and authors who form the core of my critique circle.
Another point most media commentary is failing to realize is that this is nothing new. Yes, we all know that Wide Sargasso Sea is essentially Jane Eyre fanfic and Pride and Prejudice with Zombies started a new fanfiction trend. But Cassandra Clare, mega-popular YA author of the Mortal Instruments series, got her start in fanfic and there are numerous other examples. So, if this has happened before, why is it getting so much press coverage now? What made 50 Shades such a phenomenon?
Some people, especially those throwing around the term “mommy porn”, which grosses me out completely, would have you believe that it’s the sex. That in a (not the) post-feminist (another gross term) world, women want to fantasize about being tied up and spanked in a red room of pain. Newsweek did a cover story arguing that feminist gains have made women crave dominance in the bedroom, but luckily lots and lots of people called them on that. Some chalk it up to the mob mentality. But in my opinion, it’s really more about the Cinderella story than the sex. In fact, I think it probably perpetuates some dangerous stereotypes about BDSM: that men who have dominant tendencies are broken; that women should embrace sexual practice they might not otherwise be interested in out of “love”. Like I said, I have only read quotes and commentary, not the actual books, but this is my understanding of the way the BDSM relationship is presented.
I am quite vanilla (my favorite ice cream flavor is actually vanilla) but have an understanding of the community, from my graduate coursework in gender studies and because I follow feminist pro-sex blogger Clarisse Thorn (who has discussed the complications of male dominance in the context of 50 Shades). I think it’s great that this book has allowed people to talk about sex, has gotten people who don’t typically read to crack open a book, but the discourse surrounding the phenomenon and the quality of the literature give me pause.
EL James seems comfortable with the fact that the writing is terrible. Maybe she’s even laughing at 50 Shades of Suck herself while she plans exotic beachside vacations or other fun ways to spend the millions of dollars that her midlife crisis earned her. I’m put off by the prospect of reading a novel in which the narrator also slips in constant references to her “inner goddess” and that we get to read a lot of email exchanges, which to me, is lazy storytelling. I don’t have a problem with reading as entertainment. There’s nothing wrong if you don’t care to read classic literature. But in an age where there is so much choice of material, when it’s so rare that people are reading the same thing that the Pulitzer board can’t even decide on a work of fiction to honor, I’m disappointed that this is the book that everyone is talking about, that this is the one that is sparking a national conversation. Though I recognize that writing is a business, that if people are to make a living at it there is some necessary commercialization, I still think of literature as art. And to not be proud of your finished product, to not have editors who want to polish and perfect before they cash in, is disappointing to me.
50 Shades of Grey does seem an apt title even without considering the content. It’s a flash point for conversations about the future of publishing, feminism and sex, and the public’s perception and acceptance of fanfiction, and the intersection of these questions is something I continue to think about, even though I doubt I’ll ever read the book itself. But I think more than the PR campaign, the word of mouth, or the smuttiness of the book, its the confluence of these topics that has made it so widely discussed, more than any individual angle an article may take on it.