A few weeks ago, I downloaded Fifty Shades of Grey to see what all the fuss was about. Part of my job, I rationalized, is to keep in touch with cultural trends. And this one is a monster.
The Fifty Shades trilogy has occupied the top three spots on The New York Times bestseller list for months. This week, U.S. sales hit the the 20 million mark, and total sales in English-language markets have topped 31 million. The saga of the kinky romance between a handsome billionaire and a sweet young English major is probably the fastest-selling book series of all time – bigger than J.K. Rowling, bigger than Stieg Larsson, bigger even than The Da Vinci Code.
At last, we know what women want. They want to be tied up.
The market for Fifty Shades is (I'm guessing) 99.9 per cent female. The books are widely derided as mommy porn for horny housewives, but twentysomethings and teenagers are devouring them, too. They are not hard reads. They are narrated in the first person by Ana, the bond-ee, who, when something surprising happens, has an irritating habit of exclaiming, "Holy cow!"
The astonishing success of Fifty Shades, which began as a self-published online novel by British author E.L. James, has been the subject of extensive cultural debate. Is it, as some feminists have argued, a giant step backward for womankind? Or perhaps it's no accident that women's current cultural interest in sexual domination comes at the very time when they have never been more ascendant in the workplace. As Katie Roiphe wrote in Newsweek, "It may be that power is not always that comfortable."
I hate to burst this speculative bubble, but I don't think the reasons for the popularity of Fifty Shades are terribly profound. Its basic dramatic themes can be found in bodice-rippers through the ages. Many (dare I say most) women have harboured fantasies of being ravished by powerful, dangerous, sexy men who then fall in love with them. In years gone by, captive narratives (in which civilized European women were kidnapped by primitive savages/pirates/desert sheiks and debauched in various delightful ways) were a sturdy genre of popular entertainment. Another literary staple is the emotional rescue drama, in which an intelligent but poor girl wins the heart of a brooding, rich man who has a tortured and mysterious past (Jane Eyre, Rebecca, numerous Harlequin romances). Add some whips and chains, and you've got Fifty Shades of Grey.
The other reason Fifty Shades took off is e-publishing. Half its sales have been online. E-books are great impulse buys because they give you instant gratification. Also, you don't have to go to the bookstore and feel embarrassed when you buy them or read them on the bus. As Brenda Knight, a publisher of racy books for women, told The Telegraph, "You could be a mom, like, sitting in the park on a play date with the moms down the block and you could be reading, like, a real kinky novel and nobody knows."
Personally, I agree that e-readers are a big advantage for books you don't want to be caught reading. I'm not all that embarrassed by dirty books. I am embarrassed by lowbrow books. Stephen King is on my iPad too. But I would never, never, never have him on my bookshelf.
The Fifty Shades author, E.L. James, seems nearly as surprised by the books' success as everybody else. A former television producer, she is a rather frumpy-looking 49-year-old with two teenaged sons. She says they're "mortified" she wrote the books. Inevitably, a movie is in the works, along with a slew of other soft-core books of fiction aimed at women. "Women have just as much right to pornography as men do," declared Anne Rice, whose steamy 1980s Sleeping Beauty trilogy is being rereleased.
Porn for women is much different from porn for men, of course. Women like their erotica dressed up with narrative, plot and romance. They want stories. Men just want action. The print market for porn aimed at men has collapsed in the face of new media, and now the online pornography industry itself is collapsing as amateurs take over from professionals. But the market for racy stories will never be obsolete. And writers who figure out how to tickle modern women's fancies are going to get filthy rich.
As Ana would say, holy cow.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly spelled the name of Swedish author Stieg Larsson. This online version has been corrected.