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year in review

E L James, author of Fifty Shades of GreyNeil Hall/Reuters

More than a century after Sigmund Freud asked his famous question – "What does a woman want?" – womankind has responded.

What a woman wants, as expressed by the extraordinary success of Fifty Shades of Grey, the fastest-selling book of the 21st century – with almost 100 per cent of those sales made to post-feminist women in developed countries – is "whippings, floggings, spankings, canings, paddlings" and every imaginable form of sexual humiliation and pain inflicted by icily sadistic, ultra-domineering men.

Not since Grace Metalious's Peyton Place has a bad book so clearly illuminated the unruly ids surging beneath the pieties of middle-class life. The new dirty word is submission, and its arrival on every tongue is revolutionizing sexual politics even as it enriches Fifty Shades author E.L. James, her publishers and the legions of copycats whose own pornography is now clogging mainstream bestseller lists.

Recognizing the enormous impact of Fifty Shades on the book industry alone, Publishers Weekly magazine named James its "publishing person of the year" – the first author ever so honoured. Fifty Shades became the top-selling book in British history and was named popular-fiction book of the year at the U.K. National Book Awards.

Although it began life as a self-published e-book of the sort once expected to doom the publishing industry, Fifty Shades is being credited with saving bookstores as well as countless lacklustre marriages. Publishing giant Random House, buoyed by more than $200-million in revenue from a franchise it first acquired last April, rewarded every one of its more than 5,000 employees with a $5,000 bonus this month.

Not to be outdone, rival Penguin is celebrating as its own originally self-published women's porn title, Sylvia Day's Reflected in You, climbs past Fifty Shades on the charts to become the top-selling paperback in the company's history. The irony is that both manuscripts would have almost certainly died in the corporate slush pile had they followed the traditional path to publication.

But publishers learn fast, and the avalanche is under way: Agents say they are flooded with manuscripts that promise to be "just like Fifty Shades, but better." Pseudonymous Canadian writer L. Marie Adeline led all pretenders at the porn-mad Frankfurt Book Fair this year by winning a six-figure advance for North American rights to her upcoming S.E.C.R.E.T., a two-book series in which merry widows live out their sex fantasies "under the careful guidance of the clandestine matriarchy."

As of now, however, the revealed matriarchy is very publicly divided by the wild popularity of a book that celebrates a young virgin's willing submission to a "super-hot" sadist in his "red room of pain."

The denunciations came as expected, led early by the director of a British shelter for abused women who called for copies of the book to be burned in a ceremonial pyre (since modified to a symbolic recycling). Clare Phillipson denounced the book as "an instruction manual for an abusive individual to sexually torture a vulnerable young woman."

Less expected have been all the tortured Internet analyses, encouraged by the author herself, that characterize Fifty Shades as a pioneering handbook for a new type of sexually liberated feminism – one in which barely disguised rape fantasies play a prominent role. No author came in for greater criticism from fans and feminists alike than Katie Roiphe, who wrote a Newsweek cover story, "The Fantasy Life of Working Women," that argued women have embraced the fantasy of total submission as an antidote to the increasingly exhausting equality they have gained in public life.

Sex is man's work in this world, and few are more dedicated labourers than Christian Grey, a most solicitous sadist who tenderly daubs the welts he has raised on his lover's backside with luxurious ointments. His victim/partner, Anastasia Steele, just goes along for the ride, confident in the knowledge that his mad desire for her is unquenchable.

Being desired is the ultimate aphrodisiac for women, influential sex researcher Marta Meana once told Oprah Winfrey. The urge to be dominated is the ultimate expression of the desire to be desired.

And there's nothing wrong with that, indignant fetishists have pointed out in the wake of the Fifty Shades phenomenon. Far from being thrilled at the sudden mass popularity of their once-underground pleasure, the Bondage, Discipline, Sadism and Masochism (BDSM) "community" complains that Christian Grey is portrayed as a tortured character, his sexual tastes shaped by his own childhood experience of abuse, whereas truly modern sadists are totally wholesome, normal people.

The book's astonishing sales would seem to agree with them, as would the recent worldwide upswing in sales of BDSM paraphernalia. As for its premises, some things never change: According to the ineluctable rules of the most resilient literary genre of all time, every super-hot billionaire is by definition emotionally crippled and can only be made truly human by the ministrations of the trembling virgin he cruelly ravishes.

It is not masochism that went mainstream in 2012. It's romance. Women of the world united to demonstrate their absolute command of the heart and soul of popular fiction. And while tastemakers and traditionalists of all kinds cringed, publishers rejoiced.

10 top picks

In no particular order, following no comprehensive review, here are 10 things I enjoyed reading this year:

Joseph Anton, by Salman Rushdie. A "life and times" that will define its age as few have before, the personal and political equally extraordinary in their own ways, combining to form a masterpiece of modern paranoia.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers, by Katherine Boo. This coolly eviscerating, horrifying portrait of life in a Mumbai slum sets new standards in the art of reporting, recording truths too difficult for fiction through the unblinking eyes of a master storyteller.

The Purchase, by Linda Spalding. Historical fiction, family saga, star-crossed love: What was good enough for George Eliot likewise serves Spalding, whose Governor-General's Award-winning novel wraps a meaty moral core in the dress of classic melodrama.

Lionel Asbo, by Martin Amis. The linguistic gymnasium of an Amis novel becomes purposeful in this streamlined, punchy story of social depravity in contemporary London.

419, by Will Ferguson. Some snobs complain that this year's Giller Prize winner is insufficiently literary, which they naively consider to be a criticism. If only more "literary" fiction were as well crafted as this!

The Headmaster's Wager, by Vincent Lam. There are reasons why Canadian literature today is dominated by stories of people who came from away, and Lam's first novel is one of the best on offer: foreign-set yet identifiably Canadian in its between-the-cracks, from-the-margins view of imperial rivalries.

The Civil War of 1812, by Alan Taylor. Thank you, America, for producing a scholar who has finally make sense of this war in a way our own historiography – including the embarrassing propaganda currently emanating from Ottawa – has never managed to do.

Dear Life, by Alice Munro. There's nothing more to be said about Alice Munro, and nothing new in her latest collection – nothing but the usual perfection.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, by Nathan Englander. The coming of the end of the novel is nigh, we are told, but nobody said anything about the short story. This slim collection will survive.

Treasure Island!!! by Sara Levine. If everybody wants to be Joyce these days, somebody has to be Nabokov. Levine modestly but convincingly nominates herself with this hilarious satire of social retardation in middle America.