Look, I'm not afraid to say it: 50 Shades of Grey is a terrible book. I know this because I have started reading it. It didn't take long to figure out. The writing is stilted and relies on tropes that anyone who's ever sat through 15 minutes of a high school writing workshop would know to avoid. The characters are two-dimensional and stereotypical. The book's romantic twosome, Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey, are reminiscent of Bella and Edward in Twilight (the series started as Twilight fan fiction, after all) but there's no vampire stuff to take the edge off. Where the book really fails, however, is in its promise, a promise heard 'round the Internet and even in real life, of sexiness.
The novel begins as Anastasia Steele, yet another Bella-esque character who has "no idea how attractive she is," accidentally stumbles into the weirdly long fingers (and preferred BDSM scenarios) of a generous, hugely attractive, wealthy, all-powerful older (but not too old) man who adores her completely, blah blah blah. Yet despite the monumental hype, this storyline failed to enthrall. So I skipped ahead, a skill honed while growing up on such novels as Clan of the Cave Bear and Flowers in the Attic, to look for the sex scenes. I did not have to skip ahead too far because, as promised, there are so many sex scenes. Scenes, yes, in so much as they've been written. But sexy? A girl being spanked until it really, really hurts and she can barely handle the pain, but then, amazingly, she can? The description of bizarre, spontaneous orgasms that occur after said pain is inflicted? Sexy is a matter of opinion; my opinion of this "sexiness" was no.
Yet, all over America, as the New York Times tells us, people are asking for this book, so much that libraries and their librarians are in a kerfuffle over whether or not to stock the hyper-popular tome. Working women, if you believe Newsweek and Katie Roiphe, are not only clamoring for the book, they want the BDSM described within it, too. The New Yorker found them lining up outside a SoHo sex shop waiting for instruction. Some say this book is good for women because it gets people talking about sexual desires. Talk all we want, yes, but do we have to do it in such a trite and obvious and stereotypical way? Can't America ever like something quality? Are we just heading toward the dumbing down of everything? As for fetishes: If they're mainstream, are they fetishes anymore at all? And are they still sexy?
Despite the widespread acknowledgement that the book's not even good—pretty much no one seems to be standing up to defend its literary merit—the series has sold more than 10 million copies, per a release on Tuesday from Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group President Anthony Chirico. “We have had to reprint the books on a weekly basis since publication,” said Mr. Chirico, “with some daily reprints topping nine hundred thousand copies.”
Customers have spoken, readers want to read this, this, and this (following Grey there's Darker and Freed). The first, Shades of Grey, has, writes Julie Bosman in the Times library crisis piece, "more holds than anyone can remember on a single title (2,121 and counting last Friday at the Hennepin County Public Library, which includes Minneapolis, up from 942 on April 9)."
Consequences of all that mass-market yearning have been unexpected, including, in some cases, sales and recognition for the "other" Grey books when readers get confused. And library officials are having to deal with this "erotica" situation: If they do stock it, how to do so properly, with the decorum one should have over such things, particularly considering what one collections manager described as the book's "mixed literary merit." Librarians generally don't like banning books, but in some cases, for instance, in east central Florida, the Shades books have been pulled after being deemed pornographic. (If history is any indicator, this will likely only increase their popularity.)
And history is always an indicator. Books have been being banned since the beginning of book-time for being too sexy, or for showing sex in a way not acceptable for some reason or another. Not all of them fall into the category of erotic fiction: Some are very real, too realistic, perhaps, to contend with; some deal with controversial subjects, like, in the case of Nabokov's Lolita, an older man's desire for a very young girl. In Brett Easton Ellis's American Psycho, there are sex scenes, pretty graphic ones, more challenging than E.L. James' to be sure. But, then, there's also murder (aka, the "Psycho" part). So, that's a lot to take.
50 Shades, on the other hand, doesn't challenge readers much, if at all—not in terms of reading level, not in terms of the ideas put forth within (see excerpt at left). Are we all really this agog over nipple clamps and spankings? The book is more challenging in terms of how we deal with such a hype-monster as related to the overall publishing industry, what people want to read, and what writers should give them. Surely there will be copycats hoping to achieve similar success; the hope is that 50 Shades' version of erotica can open the market for better books, not simply flood the market with subpar soft porn of the same kind.
More abstractly, there are questions of what it means that such a book is doing so very well. (While one librarian told Bosman "This is the Lady Chatterley’s Lover of 2012,” it seems a far cry from that, at least, in terms of the words on the pages). Similarly, it's a long way off from Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer, for instance, Anais Nin's books, Diane Di Prima's Memoirs of a Beatnik, Erica Jong's Fear of Flying, or even the two book series I mentioned earlier, Clan of the Cave Bear and Flowers in the Attic. Or compare it to other books banned for sex or "sexuality" in years past: Kate Chopin's The Awakening, Flaubert's Madame Bovary, John Cleland's Fanny Hill (also known as "Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure"). Even The Canterbury Tales was once banned for its "lewd, indecent, filthy, or obscene" material. Shades of Grey is no Canterbury Tales. Is this just what we want to read now?
Rachel Kramer Bussel, erotica author and editor of more than 40 anthologies (including Best Bondage Erotica series), told The Atlantic Wire that there's plenty beyond 50 Shades. "One of my favorite sex scenes is in A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers by Xiaolu Guo, about a Chinese woman who moves to London and learns English," she says. "Her wordplay is full of discovery and beauty and she can use words like 'flower' and sound hot, not silly. It's a beautiful novel and the few sex scenes work perfectly, and are very hot." She continues, "For protagonists with infinitely more moxie than Anastasia Steele, try Gael Greene's 1970's classic erotic novels Blue Skies, No Candy and Doctor Love. Also good to look for: out-of-print but powerful anthologies Virgin Territory 1 and 2 edited by Shar Rednour: real-life lesbian first-time stories."
Consider those, as well as Jessica Grose's guide to other erotic fiction in New York magazine, when you're glumly closing the pages of the book that you've heard so much about, wondering what all the fervor was about. Or read them when you're done with 50 Shades, even if you loved it. We won't judge.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.