There are many paths that lead to the kind of success enjoyed by E.L. James (Erika Mitchell), whose erotic fiction books (the Fifty Shades trilogy) currently top The New York Times best-seller list. One is to win the lottery. Another is to do like John D. Rockefeller: "Get up early, work late, and strike oil," which is pretty much another way of saying play the lottery.
Or you can try your hand at what was once politely called "smut," sticking it on the Internet, getting an e-book publishing concern across the globe to pick it up for wider distribution, and drawing the attention of a major publishing house, which turns it into a print book that sells 2 million copies a month. Then, of course, comes the movie production deal worth a reported $5 million and giggling your way through interviews with the morning TV shows.
"Fifty Shades of Grey" -- the first book in the trilogy -- is an improbable hit, all things considered. For one thing, it doesn't pretend to be anything other than what it is: erotica. It doesn't shy away from its humble beginnings either -- Ms. Mitchell says she wrote it as a "midlife crisis," after having spent many hours commuting on London's subway, surreptitiously reading naughty books and thinking she'd like to try her hand at it.
And it doesn't fool anyone into thinking it's a work of literature; Ms. Mitchell herself happily claims not to be a very gifted writer. When asked why she thinks it has taken off, striking a chord with women, she sums it up handily: it's all about fantasy. "It's really attractive on paper," she offers refreshingly -- an offhand summation which actually sheds more light on the "Mommy Porn" phenomenon, as it's come to be known, than she realizes.
When a book catches fire like this one has, people talk. The chatter generated by "Fifty Shades of Grey" generally concerns the salacious nature of the plot and asks why it is that women find it so appealing. This is because the book's particular erotic niche is BSDM (Bondage, Submission, Domination, Masochism), a topic one does not normally associate with romances. It is assumed that women's tastes run more to flowers and Champagne, with a lusty but caring hero thrown in to spice things up -- the kind of books with Fabio on the cover sans shirt.
What "Fifty Shades of Grey" is fast proving, however, is that ladies enjoy a little (OK, a lot) more flavor in their leisure reading material -- and aren't afraid to buy it.
(They aren't afraid to request it at the library either: the Carnegie system currently has 700 holds for 50 copies. They've ordered 21 copies more.)
Interviews with satisfied readers suggest that the book has boosted their marriages by giving them ideas to share in their bedrooms; others claim it has made their husbands seem boring by comparison. Once you consider the book's basic premise, however, any relationship would look dull -- which is the point of fantasy; it is not real life and therefore requires the suspension of disbelief.
This is where things get interesting. One of the stereotypes concerning pornography aimed at men is that the exaggerated sexuality presents women as objects, rather than people.
Here, the roles are reversed. The lust object (Christian Grey of the title) is a man who consists of nothing more than cliches so extreme you have to laugh. He is more mannequin than man, his attributes hanging on him like cut-out clothes on a paper doll.
He is the self-made billionaire CEO of his own multinational corporation employing 40,000 people whose world headquarters -- an entire office block in Seattle -- is populated by blonde models and classy modern furniture. He flies his own helicopter, has a private jet and enjoys gliding as a pastime. He plays classical piano, speaks fluent French, is handsome as all-get-out and dresses impeccably. He has a manservant/chauffeur sidekick named Taylor. His charitable concerns include endowing regional campuses of Washington State University and running humanitarian aid missions in Darfur. All this and he's only 27! (Oh, and the family that adopted him -- he started life as the orphan of a drug-addicted prostitute -- is down to earth.)
On the other hand, the protagonist, Anastasia Steele, is equally one-dimensional in her naive ordinariness. She is the shy literature major who has lived such a sheltered life she has little experience of the Internet (she has to ask what "vanilla sex" means), and who owns nothing but an old Beetle -- her apartment, clothes and computer all belong to her rich roommate Kate, who also happens to be the only person she has ever known. Steele represents everywoman -- wanting to be loved for who she is without having to change.
The "contract" Grey wants her to sign regarding the limits of their relationship include not just sex acts but security, ensuring she eats regularly and gets lots of sleep. Most of the time she wears jeans, T-shirts, sneakers and hair scrunchies. So enamored of her, he decided that she can forgo the requirement to wax.
The title refers not just to Grey, the man, but to the many ways he is flawed. The story, however, is simply black and white -- he likes kinky sex and she doesn't -- the grey representing compromise.
The porn here isn't so much the sex (of which there is relatively little, and nothing near as kinky as that suggested in the contract they negotiate). It's the idea that love for a woman can make a man forsake his wanton desires to accommodate her tamer side (the lover who comes bearing flowers and chocolates, not whips and restraints). Obsessed with Thomas Hardy's Tess, Steele shows us (though not perhaps herself) that women want both Angel Clare and Alec d'Urberville -- the careful, secure, sensitive man who offers marriage, plus the bad boy who likes it rough.
Of course the characters follow an old archetype -- but it's the book itself who is the real Cinderella here. That an e-book could gain so much buzz and break into print in an era marked by dwindling hard-copy sales shows that, at least in some genres, people like the physical page.
Plus, it's so much easier to dog-ear the good bits.