What are we to make of the phenomenal success of Fifty Shades of Grey? The answer is, in a word, nothing.
Well, nothing beyond the obvious explanation of a casual
and widespread prurience of the kind that has always been manifest in polite,
literate society. No doubt there are
profound underlying sociological or psychological explanations for such a
primal urge, but I can only imagine what they are, and I feel no compulsion to explore
them. I am not curious yellow, you might say.
As of this moment, the book has broken all publishing
records, outselling the Harry Potter
titles by several million in a matter of weeks.
Fifty Shades of Grey, along with two ‘companion’ books, Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty
Shades Freed, forming what is being promoted – le mot juste, I think – as a trilogy, have recorded worldwide sales
of 12 million.
The superficial answer to the initial question is that
the book is about sex, with graphic scenes of bondage, submission and
sadomasochism proving – or at any rate promising – to be a turn-on. If
that’s the case, the response is hardly shocking. Such saucy stuff is old hat in literature,
whatever the level, from high-blown classics to the trash sold in back-street bookshops
with ‘ADULTS ONLY’ sections.
D.H. Lawrence, 150 years ago, couldn’t have been less ardent
in his depiction of lust in Lady
Chatterley’s Lover. And didn’t we
all, in 1960, rush out in our thousands to purchase the previously banned Chatterley after Penguin Books won the
right to publish. (We were encouraged to
do so by an hilarious court case, in which Penguin’s landmark victory on behalf
of free speech may have been secured by the immortal question posed to the jury
by the esteemed counsel for the prosecution: “is it a book that you would even
wish your wife and servants to read?”
there was Chaucer. After Lawrence there was Anais
Nin and William Burroughs…I needn’t go on.
Why Fifty Shades
of Grey is being snapped up by millions
of readers in dozens of countries, women representing the overwhelming majority
of the purchasers, bears little public examination in polite circles. You can read the books but not talk about
them – as I was reminded at a recent dinner party.
When two middle-aged, suburban housewives blushingly ‘confessed’
that they had read all three books, my wife and I wondered whether we were
about to learn something interesting. But it soon became clear that the discussion
stimulated by this revelation would exclude the only topic that really mattered:
the nature, and the effect, of the explicit subject matter. Our fellow guests merely claimed to have
found the books deficient as eroticism as well as literature – which left mercifully
unexplained why they had felt impelled to wade through the entire trilogy.
I was tempted to suggest that a vibrator might have offered
more erotic stimulation, and at half the price, but a glance from my wife, shrewdly
anticipating alcohol-fuelled mischief, stopped me in my tracks.
Anyway, nothing I’ve heard about the Grey books persuades me that I ought to take
the trouble to read them. Ignorance can
be bliss. Indeed, there is a steadily
expanding corpus of ‘artistic’ experiences that I’m perfectly happy to
relinquish to others, even if I’m offered free tickets. I’d include in that category Madonna’s final
concert; a week in a box at Goodwood; the opening of a Tracey Emin exhibition;
a Chelsea-Arsenal cup final; dinner a
deux with Keira Knightley. I could list many more, but I’m sure you get the
At least this year’s Literary Review’s annual ‘Bad
Sex in Fiction Award’ ought to be a shoo-in.
Grey surely can’t lose with
lines (culled from a review) like this: “His hands glide across to my breasts,
and I inhale sharply as his fingers encircle them, kneading gently, taking no
Actually, last year’s winner, Rachel Johnson (sister
of London mayor
Boris) takes some beating: “Like a lepidopterist mounting a tough-skinned
insect with a too blunt pin he screwed himself into her.”
Author John Banville, a supreme stylist, has said that
writing good prose about sex is impossible and shouldn’t be attempted. He may be right.
But then, who needs good prose? Twelve million readers evidently don’t, and
we all know why. Let’s leave it at that.