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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