I sort of find it heart warming. Bored mother of two teenage boys has midlife crisis and instead of buying a car, moving to Oaxaca or having an affair, she writes raunchy Twilight fan fiction for two years. When she’s finished she changes the names from Bella and Edward to Anastasia and Christian and a small Australian e-book publisher puts it out: success enough for anyone with a midlife crisis novel, especially someone who wrote under the unlikely handle ‘Snowqueens Icedragon’. But that’s not all.
At the school gate, mothers waiting for children to appear would recommend ‘something a bit different’ to each other, and by January, E.L. James’s Fifty Shades of Grey was at the top of the Amazon bestseller list. At the end of March the three books of the inevitable trilogy occupied the first three places on the New York Times bestseller list. Three weeks ago it emerged that Universal and Focus Features had paid something like $5 million for the movie rights. Last week Arrow brought out the trilogy in real paper. At the weekend I walked past a poster for the ‘book everyone’s talking about’ in a Tube tunnel. Yesterday I downloaded it.
The first thing to say is that it’s insanely badly written. Anastasia Steele is an English major at Washington State, about to sit her finals, who has agreed to stand in for her sick roommate and interview Christian Grey, ‘the enigmatic CEO of Grey Enterprises Holdings Inc’ for the student newspaper. Ana drives to Grey House, which is ‘all curved glass and steel’ with a ‘glass, steel and white sandstone lobby’ to a ‘glass-walled meeting room with an equally spacious dark wood table’ in this ‘colossal glass and stone edifice’.
But it’s soon clear that we are not reading for the sentences. Christian Grey isn’t the rotund, avaricious and middle-aged CEO you might expect. He’s 27, and ‘attractive, very attractive… tall, dressed in a fine grey suit… As our fingers touch, I feel an odd exhilarating shiver run through me.’ Back home, she can’t stop thinking about him; he turns up at the DIY store she works in at the weekends to buy cable ties, masking tape and rope. ‘Are you redecorating?’ Anastasia asks the billionaire who lives in steel, sandstone and glass, and suggests he buy some overalls. He sends her a first edition of Tess of the D’Urbervilles, and rescues her when she gets drunk for the first time after her last exam. Soon she is being helicoptered to his Seattle penthouse, shown his womb-coloured BDSM playroom and presented with a contract: will she agree to be a submissive to his dominant?
The media are calling it ‘mommy porn’. ‘Mommy’ not because of who’s in it, but because of who reads it. James has her 22-year-old heroine say things like ‘crap’ and ‘double crap’, listen to ‘thumping indie rock music’ and say of Tess: ‘Damn, but that woman was in the wrong place at the wrong time in the wrong century.’ And ‘porn’ because where the Twilight series was about not having sex, the Fifty Shades books are about having lots of it. When Bella loses her virginity, she becomes pregnant with a human-vampire hybrid baby who starts eating her from the inside and can only be assuaged by drinking blood milkshakes. When Ana loses her virginity, she has two orgasms, the first just from her nipples:
My nipples bear the delicious brunt of his deft fingers and lips, setting alight every single nerve ending so that my whole body sings with the sweet agony. He just doesn’t stop. ‘Oh… please,’ I beg, and I pull my head back, my mouth open as I groan, my legs stiffening. Holy hell, what’s happening to me?
It gets kinkier as it goes on but the writing is as bad as it ever was.
And it’s also been called ‘mommy porn’ because for women who run the house, their children’s lives, the office sweepstake and their partner’s social life, the fantasy, apparently, is about relinquishing control (a word that rather handily elides the difference between power and responsibility). Ana has to agree to wear only the clothes Christian wants her to wear, to work out for an hour four times a week (she negotiates him down to three and a half), to sleep in her room in his apartment at weekends, to avoid drink, drugs and cigarettes, to go to the beauty salon when he sees fit and to sleep for seven hours a night when she’s not with him – and that’s before they’ve got anywhere near the flogger.
James has talked of her book as something that ‘takes you away from doing the dishes and the laundry’ (and says Christian Grey would be no good as a husband, because ‘you want someone who does the dishes’, but if someone else did the dishes you wouldn’t – oh never mind) and of being ‘stunned’ at its success: ‘I’m not a great writer.’ But maybe escapism isn’t quite the word for a story that encourages housewives to imagine themselves submitting to a series of demands so strangely similar to the lifestyle imperatives they’d also find in the Daily Mail.