Suntosh Pillay
Suntosh Pillay

Why is 50 Shades selling?

Like Prof Ron Nicolson, writing last week in ‘Maritzburg’s daily The Witness, I’m hesitant to criticise a book I’ve never (and have no urge to) read. But why has EL James’s 50 Shades of Grey caused pandemonium? Why is it selling so much, asks Nicolson and many others? Forty million copies later, the book’s stirred intense analysis.

The simple answer would be that sex sells. Kinky sex sells more. And bondage and sado-masochism seems to hit the spot in a financially orgasmic way like Mills & Boon could only dream of.

The less simple answer is that women secretly want to be dominated by men and old, burnt bras are being traded in for lacy lingerie and handcuffs in a strange reversal of feminist gains made in the last 50 years.

An even less simple answer is that we (a largely patriarchal society) still struggle to see women as imbued with desire and personal fantasies, and not only as objects of desire. As sexually liberal beings who can now exert conscious choice over the what/who/when/where/why/how of their bedroom frolics, are we surprised at the rise of a confident cohort of females who are actually more in control of their own bodies than the plot of an erotic novella might make it seem? The mere act of walking into a shop, buying the book and then going home and reading it allows a freedom unimaginable not so long ago.

A more complex answer I could come up with, in my mind, requires an analysis of sales within the global context of an increasingly (an unhealthily) inquisitive world, where social media has climaxed into an orgy of voyeurism. Facebook, Twitter, BBM have given us unbridled access into the deeply personal lives of relative strangers, albeit superficially. This access has created a bizarre sense of entitlement that we ought to, or must, know what is happening in other people’s lives. Like drug addicts, the fixes need to get stronger, and more frequent, and the highs need to become more psychedelic, more intoxicating, more outside of ourselves. Is this book just one example of a strangely intoxicating experience desperately needed by an ever more sensation-seeking public? Its pages allow us to become the ultimate peeping toms.

Lines like: “Anticipation hangs heavy over my head like a dark tropical storm cloud. Butterflies flood my belly – as well as a dark, carnal, captivating ache as I try to image what he will do to me.” Of course, there is no room for imagination. The scene’s vividly described, translating quickly and conveniently into a big-screen production. I’ll probably watch the movie. I prefer my cheap thrills with popcorn.

Countless reviews are out there but a downright funny, no-holds barred shredding apart of the book came from an online reviewer, one Katrina Lumsden, who profanely ranted: “How many misguided women are going to waste their lives on some emotionally retarded prick because they’ve read this and think this kind of f**ked-up fairytale will come true for them? I’ve known women with this mentality. ‘Oh, he’s so dark and dangerous and threatening, but he’s got a sad, lonely side, and if I could just figure out what’s wrong, I could change him!’ ”

She goes on: “It’s about two attention-starved individuals with the emotional maturity of toilet paper convincing themselves that their relationship is ‘like, the best thing ever, OMG’. It’s trite, insulting, and dangerous. I fear for any impressionable young women who read this and think that this is how an ideal relationship should operate. If nothing else, it should be issued as a guidebook to mothers around the world to show their daughters the kind of man to avoid at all costs.”

In her defence, Erika James never intended her trilogy selling millions. She wrote it as “fan fiction”, posted on Twilight fan websites, using the pen name “Snowqueen’s Icedragon”. The literary (de)merits seem obvious in retrospect. However, someone, somewhere, managed to penetrate the market, hit the tipping point and, suddenly, catapult it into the fastest selling paperback of all time.

Given James’s selection for Time magazine’s “top 100 most influential people in the world list”, the publishing criteria for what counts as worthy writing and/or marketable writing, appears irreparably battered and bruised.

Whatever is selling this book, it is working, though quantity and quality rarely are good bedfellows.

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    • Mahendran Govender

      Like you, I have no inclination to read the book. This is probably because I am slightly averse to popular culture, and because I prefer my cheap thrills in person.

      That being said, your post did get me thinking about the dangers of a media-imposed reality on society. We believe that relationships are meant to be a certain way, surely books and magazines don’t lie. We even believe their advice (“S/He’s been working late…s/he must be having an affair”).

      It is unhealthy, it is unnatural, and it is, in the long run, highly destructive to our ability to achieve happiness in the real world.

      *disclaimer: my opinion*

    • Vijay

      Now.. if only there was a way to get guys to read as well.. most guys would probably buy the book and give it to their wives or girlfriends, but read it theselves, I doubt it. But, if its turning women on, then its probably a win-win situation.. but again I ask, what is the equivalent book that would get guys to read?

    • beachcomber

      Nice review! And yep, sex still sells…

    • blogroid

      @ Vijay

      Guys have generally reported that they loved “The Buffalo Hunters”, which was the name given to my class of ’94 to the “people who capture the buffalo ie BMW… ”

      It is of course out of print. It sold better than Nietzsche’s Zarathustra… All the publishing people who saw it denounced it as too full of sex and violence [“54 murders was a bit much” one said]. The M&G’s Shaun de Waal described it as “Tarantinoesque”. A lady farmer from Ventersdorp wrote and told me that she “didn’t think it was possible for such violence to be so poetic” Cool… I did see a “used, coverless but readable” copy on an i’net website for sale at $US240 so those who bought it made money on their investment. It sold originally for $10.00.

      So i think i covered both bases in that badly edited edition

      Amazing how the death of an industry will spur innovation to stuff people have always been banned from reading, so why bother to read…

      Thus, following the success of this ’50 shades’ book i have decided to re-publish my 1996 cult novel “The Buffalo Hunters” … Part 1 of my ‘Azanian Trilogy’, in digital form, in 2013, on my website, where i am reading Part 3… the Jonker Memorandum, currently, and which is up to episode 61 of an estimated 96.

      Soon, therefore, i shall be able to deliver a more appropriate comment on your critique, which i enjoyed btw, based on empirical evidence, to establish how much of this was sheer luck…

    • Rory Short

      I’ve not read the book and have desire to do so but clearly millions of others have at least bought it and perhaps have also read it. I guess this shows that a real hunger exists out there amongst people for honest and fulfilling sexual relationships. However despite not having read the book but based on what I have heard about its contents and my own life experience I do not think that what this book proposes is actually the way to achieve this. A fulfilling sexual relationship requires willing investment over time by both parties, in one and other and in the relationship itself,and that is a fact, there is no other way, there is no instant fulfillment, no quick fix.

    • GrahamJ

      My wife bought it. I read it (and am still reading it). I like it – very different style of mommy-porn. Try it…

    • HelenL-O

      It is alarming that so many millions consider this rubbish literature. It is appallingly badly written, zero plot, flat characters and very very very repetitive, and frankly rather boring. How this excrutiating nonsense was published as a trilogy is beyond comprehension – it could have fitted into one book mercifully easily. A friend sent me the books, I read the first one, but can’t bring myself to face the rest – I tried to start the second book and gave up after 10 pages – the repetition is beyond painful. But I guess if that’s what the masses want then sobeit.

    • Lisa

      If this book is about dangerous or exciting sex, I must be one of the lucky ones who really has good sex.

      It is boring beyond belief.

      The pull of the book is more the romance – handsome rich price kinda thing.

      That has always grabbed an audience because it is a fairytale like all fairytales.