Fifty Shades of Grey is the kind of book the word “phenomenon” was invented for. It’s impossible to get away from – that dark cover with its enigmatic silver tie is stocked on the shelves of every bookstore in the land, and now it’s the highest selling book in the history of Amazon.co.uk – more successful even than the Harry Potter series.
The impact that this book has had is, quite simply, staggering. Ann Summers is reporting a huge increase in sales of the kind of risqué tools used by Christian Grey in his exploits, and some sociologists are even suggesting that nine months from now, E.L. James will be responsible for a baby boom.
It’s particularly staggering when you consider just how appallingly written this book is; I suspect a thousand monkeys with a thousand typewriters could produce something better any day of the week. When you take something like Twilight as your inspiration you won’t exactly end up with a literary tour de force , but the number of references to the protagonist’s “inner goddess” was enough to make me nauseous and if she bites her bottom lip any more I suspect it’ll fall off. Even the sex scenes become bland and boring incredibly rapidly, which poses the question why the book’s content has become so controversial in the first place.
Of course, all arguments about whether this novel is daring feminist propaganda or smutty misogynist drivel aside, many will argue that it’s not a bad thing that it’s selling so rapidly because “at least it’s getting people to read”. And, admittedly, it’s good that we’re not marginalising sexual content the way we did with Lady Chatterley’s Lover.
The problem with this argument, however, is that Fifty Shades of Grey is the literary equivalent of Geordie Shore or TOWIE – it’s lowbrow trash, propelled to the height of fame by word of mouth and some incredibly shrewd advertisers, and it takes people’s attentions (and hard-earned money) away from works of actual merit.
It spreads like wildfire because consumers, motivated as they often are by peer pressure, don’t want to miss out on the next best thing, so sales and downloads go through the roof, and retailers respond by giving the book more publicity because you will never go wrong appealing to the lowest common denominator. Then, thanks to the ease of self-publishing and the desire to make money, the book spawns a thousand knock-offs and the cycle starts all over again.
If the old maxim that “you are what you eat” is true, then you’re definitely what you read, and the sooner we turn away from tasty junk and get back to the books that really nourish our intellects, the better.