Virtual Roundtable on “Fifty Shades of Grey”

With over 29 million copies sold in trade paperback alone and translations afoot in languages from Arabic to Tagalog, the Fifty Shades trilogy ...

With over 29 million copies sold in trade paperback alone and translations afoot in languages from Arabic to Tagalog, the Fifty Shades trilogy has been the bookselling phenomenon of the decade. It has also been a cultural irritant, prompting complaints about bad writing, sexual politics, and mommy porn.

You may not want to read the books themselves, but admit it … you’re curious to see what our contributors—Minou Arjomand, Noah Berlatsky, Jane Gallop, Hilary A. Hallett, Claire Jarvis, Bethany Schneider, and Marianna Torgovnick—have to say about them.

Their responses run the gamut from hatred to zest, with ambivalence, indifference, and resistance in between. Some see the books as a commentary on the romance genre, others as anti-novels. For some, they are political and economic allegory; for others, the most recent episode in a long history of critics charging women writers with overstepping the boundaries of good taste and sexual propriety.


— Minou Arjomand: Capitalism’s Erogenous Zones

— Noah Berlatsky: Inner Goddess Puking: Dreadful Writing as Striptease

— Jane Gallop: Seducing the English Major

— Hilary A. Hallett: What Do Women Want? In Bed

— Claire Jarvis: Product Displacement

— Bethany Schneider: Genre Panic

— Marianna Torgovnick: Horses and Carriages: Fifty Shades Clichéd


Minou Arjomand


From the first time we meet him, the hero of Fifty Shades of Grey is both Christian Grey and Christian Grey, Enterprises. The first book of the series lays out a strange relationship between Christian the man and Christian the company. Christian the man “likes to hurt women,” a notion that “depresses” our protagonist Ana. Christian the company, in contrast, is a moral enterprise that ships food to Darfur, invests in ecologically sustainable farming technologies for poor countries, and develops cheap solar-powered and windup cell phones.

Ana does not fall in love with Christian for his money, but for the moral qualities that his money reveals. She is certainly not the first novelistic heroine to do so. Elizabeth Bennett in Pride and Prejudice falls in love with Darcy after seeing his beautiful estate. Her love, Jane Austen’s narrator reassures us, is not spurred by Darcy’s obvious wealth; rather, she is inspired by his generosity toward his servants and the elegance with which he manages his estate. We know that Darcy is a good man because he uses his money in good ways. Christian exceeds Darcy: he not only uses, but also makes his money in good ways.

Christian might initially seem to be a throwback to older times when a man would be unabashed about insisting that he has the right to control every aspect of his girlfriend’s or wife’s life. But what is striking about Christian is how contemporary he is. A comparison to the film Pretty Woman can help us understand Christian’s newness. In both Pretty Woman and Fifty Shades, a wealthy, emotionally unavailable entrepreneur contracts for sex with a woman, whose love finally touches his cold, calculating heart. Both of the men earn their money primarily through buying failing companies and selling off their assets, both build ships, both take their lady friends on private jets and fund their shopping trips. But for all their similarities, Pretty Woman and Fifty Shades posit a radically different relationship between the demands of the pocketbook and the demands of the heart.

In Pretty Woman, Richard Gere’s entrepreneur shows he is good enough for Julia Roberts when he decides to rescue a small business and keep manufacturing on American soil. Pretty Woman suggests that falling in love—and being worthy of love—means sacrificing a bit of profit. It also means leaving the office every once in a while. One of the final montages in Pretty Woman shows Gere taking off his shoes and trudging around a patch of grass surrounded by gray office buildings. He feels the earth between his toes; he realizes that there is more to the world than money.

Christian Grey is not a twentieth-century tycoon but a twenty-first-century social entrepreneur, who, through innovation and ingenuity, can make enormous profits by doing good. Projects like creating solar-powered cell phones are lucrative: according to Bill Gates, cell phones are a particularly booming commodity with respect to the $5 trillion of purchasing power possessed by the poorest two-thirds of the world’s population.1 During Ana’s first meeting with Christian, she asks about his investments in farming technologies: “That sounds very philanthropic. Is it something you feel passionately about?” Christian mutters, “It’s shrewd business.” But we can tell that he really does care. Christian does not need to take his shoes off and walk in the grass to feel in touch with the world; his company itself is green.

The mercurial Christian Grey is no anomaly. His character fits the bill of an ideal social entrepreneur. He is one of the “unreasonable people” that John Elkington and Pamela Hartigan praise in The Power of Unreasonable People: How Social Entrepreneurs Create Markets that Change the World. All social entrepreneurs, according to Elkington and Hartigan, are fifty shades darker: they push us further than we think we can go, they are insanely ambitious, their prime emotions are anger and impatience, they are hard to work with, and they can “break a lot of eggs while making their omelets.” But at the same time, these entrepreneurs can save the world. They know that, “tackled in the right way, today’s crises will lead to tomorrow’s solutions, and the size of the potential market opportunities is staggering.” In a world where crises like terrorism, poverty, disease, and climate change carry both moral demands for action and high profit margins, these unreasonable people are just what we need, even if they tend to be jerks.2

Ana initially bristles at Christian’s ambition, anger, aggression, and impatience. Most of all, she is dismayed by the financial exchange that underlies Christian’s relationships with his subordinates. Confronted with his lavish gifts—many of which still have price tags attached—she feels used, exploited. This all changes when Christian tells her that he loves her. She dons white lace underwear that he has given her—“a designer brand with a price tag to match”—and stands before him “in the lingerie that he’s paid for, but I no longer feel cheap. I feel his.”

All of Christian’s personal staff, security detail, and assistants endure Christian’s demands for absolute obedience and his penchant for public humiliation. Christian does a lot of snapping: when his employees call, he doesn’t speak into his phone, he snaps into it. Often, he also snaps the phone closed afterwards. As she listens to Christian yell profanity at one of his security guards, Ana thinks to herself, “at least I get to shout back.” Despite this bad behavior, Christian cares about his employees: he invites them to family gatherings, lives under the same roof as some of them, inquires about the health of their children. Fifty Shades suggests that Christian’s philanthropic love makes all his subordinates feel like Ana: not cheap, not exploited, but his. His brand of social entrepreneurship is something like E. L. James’s brand of S/M: love and paternalism make all the difference. Sure, the fundamental structure of capitalism remains the same, but with caring and consent, domination and submission are a far cry from exploitation.

Andrew O’Hagan, in his lambasting review of Fifty Shades of Grey for the London Review of Books, writes that the trilogy reads not “as if feminism never happened: they read as if women never even got the vote.” This, I think, slightly misses the point. The book is not pre-feminist, it is post-political.

In Fifty Shades of Grey, not being political is a choice, not an omission. Ana knows that feminism happened, she just chooses to ignore it. In the middle of the trilogy’s second book, Christian brings Ana to a lavish fundraising event for a charity dedicated to helping children of drug-addicted mothers. During the event, Ana has a chance to hear about Christian’s ideas for a windup cell phone, “inspired by E. F. Schumacher,” the father of social entrepreneurship (James did her research). After auctioning off donated gifts, the MC begins to auction off the young women at the party. Ana is less than thrilled: “I feel like I’m in a meat market. I watch, horrified, as at least twenty men make their way to the stage area … This is a great show, but it’s at my expense.” Ana knows very well how retrograde auctioning off women is; she realizes that the sort of humiliation Christian inflicts on her in private is now being performed publically. But she also is aware that any indignation she might feel gets in the way of helping. The auction raises almost two million dollars; refusing to participate would come at the expense of those innocent children.

Ana’s choice to swallow her objections to the auction in order to save the children is closely connected to the new ways that social entrepreneurs like Christian claim to do good. Alix Rule, in a 2009 article in Dissent, reveals the tenets of a new “philosophy of progress” based on the assumption that there are non-ideological ways to change the world. The creed of social entrepreneurship insists that what we need is innovation, efficiency, solutions, practicality. The solution to poverty in African countries is developing new technologies for cell phones and agriculture, not dwelling on the past or addressing potentially intractable political conflicts. In this brave new world, politics is not only unnecessary, but also self-indulgent. Of all of the traits that Elkington and Hartigan use to characterize successful social entrepreneurs, the primary one is their readiness to “shrug off the constraints of ideology.” The claim that applying market solutions to social ills is non-ideological is, as Rule rightly observes, ridiculous. Social entrepreneurs and their supporters are only able to gloss over their political and ideological assumptions through continual reference to crisis and the pressing need to skip discussions about what to do, how to do it, and who should do it. Just do it, the crisis demands.

Fifty Shades of Grey is all about urgency; both Christian the man and Christian the company demand immediate solutions. After Christian tells Ana that he enjoys hurting women, she becomes concerned about marrying him and goes to speak to his therapist. The therapist tells her not to dwell in the past, but to think about solutions for the future: “We can all beat our breasts about it, and analyze the who, the how, and the why to death—or Christian can move on and decide how he wants to live. He’d found something that worked for him for a few years … but since he met you, it no longer works. And as a consequence, he’s changing his modus operandi.” There is no time to wring our hands, to think about why Christian so urgently wants what he wants, and how his desires are driven by the violence that he witnessed against his mother as a child. For her part, Ana is admonished not to question why she so desires to be subjugated by Christian, even as she idly wonders whether it is a good thing that they resolve all of their arguments by tying her up. What is important is that they want it, and they want it right now.

All this urgency is pretty sexy. Before attending the charity event, Ana inserts a couple of metal balls into her vagina. Throughout the event she aches and yearns. She caresses Christian’s erection under the table while the other guests pledge money to save children. Ana’s growing sexual desire and frustration, combined with all of the philanthropic urgency, build to a sudden outburst in which Ana pledges $24,000 (that Christian had given her) to the charity. The gratification to be had in immediate solutions to urgent problems is intense. It’s not just Ana who feels this way. In a TED talk given in February 2013 about alleviating extreme poverty, Bono was not shy about telling the audience how it made him feel to look at projections showing that extreme poverty would be eliminated by 2030: as poverty approaches zero, it approaches “the erogenous zone … it is fair to say that I am, by now, sexually aroused by the collating of data.”

The real fantasy at the heart of Fifty Shades of Grey is not that we return to a misogynist past, but that we are on the brink of a future where capitalism is like love, and alleviating poverty is like sex—if we really want to get down to that erogenous zone, all we have to do is close our eyes and let go of politics and ideology. It sounds like a tempting prospect, one that might even distract us from the fundamentally undemocratic (and again, ideological) way that free-market activism seeks to change the world. Social entrepreneurship is like the sex of Fifty Shades of Grey: it offers intense gratification, and maybe even love. But not democracy. If we really want to change the world, it can only be done with our eyes open.


Jump to remarks:

Minou Arjomand, Noah Berlatsky, Jane Gallop, Hilary A. Hallett, Claire Jarvis, Bethany Schneider, Marianna Torgovnick


Noah Berlatsky


Fifty Shades of Grey may not be the worst thing I’ve ever read, but I’m pretty sure it’s the worst thing I’ve ever read that was over 1,600 pages long. E. L. James makes Stephenie Meyer look like Virginia Woolf. She may even be as bad a writer as John Grisham, whom I had always formerly considered the absolute zero of crappy best-seller prose, the standard below which there is no molecular movement—only the forlorn screams of outraged English and the agonized rending of plot holes. Halfway through the first volume of the Fifty Shades trilogy, I wrote Sharon, our kind editor here at Public Books, and I begged her. Please, please, please, for the love of all that’s holy, don’t make me read them all. But she was, as it turns out, not so kind as all that, and she did. And I did. And now I am bitter.

But it is over, and looking back, I am forced to ask, with something like awe—how did James manage it? Most writers can produce mediocre prose when called upon to do so. Some are more gifted, and can plumb stygian depths without even trying. But to make one’s writing so repulsive that readers are literally moved to hurl the book across the room, and to keep up that same level of awfulness for three full honking tomes—that is a virtuosic level of drivel that seems to require not just carelessness, but actual malice.

Indeed, the awfulness of James’s writing appears, if not exactly intentional, at least central to what I suppose I must call her themes. Fifty Shades of Grey is thought of as a BDSM novel, romanticizing submission. But what it really fetishizes, I’d argue, is incapacity—not control, but its opposite. Ana Steele is, inevitably, a virgin when the novels open, and she, of course, has no sense of her own attractiveness—but these romance-novel clichés only hint at how thoroughly she performs incompetence. We first meet her when she’s interviewing super-billionaire Christian Grey on behalf of a sick friend. As she enters Christian’s office, she trips and falls on her face (since these novels started as Twilight fan fiction, this is presumably an echo of Bella’s clumsiness). Later, when a guy comes on to her, Ana, who has been drinking and can’t hold her liquor, vomits on him. She talks in her sleep, she bites her lip unconsciously (which Christian loves), and she blushes at the drop of a hint, or anything resembling one. And, of course, through sex scene after sex scene after sex scene, Christian teaches her and leads her and elicits from her orgasm after orgasm after orgasm—along with an accidental baby when she (of course) fails to keep up with her birth control.

Ana, then, as a character and a consciousness, effectively dissolves into a puddle of verbal tics and cliché.

Ana is less someone who acts than someone from whom actions (or fluids, or babies) come helplessly tumbling. This, again, is mirrored, and emphasized, in the worst aspects of the prose—prose that is supposed to be spoken, or thought, or emitted by the narrator, Ana, herself. As Katrina Lumsden notes in a satisfyingly mean-spirited takedown, one of the worst aspects of the book is the unflagging, apparently shameless way in which James relies on repetitive (verbal) ejaculations to define Ana. Her narrative is constantly erupting in exclamations like “Holy fuck!” “Holy shit!” “Holy crap!” or, less profanely, “Oh my!” When Ana’s not surprised into profanity she is, as mentioned above, blushing, gasping, or biting that lip. And when she’s not doing that, she’s talking with inner avatars: her subconscious (which scolds her and advises caution) and her “inner goddess,” which tells her to have sex. (“If I ever, ever have to hear/read the words “inner goddess” again, I’m going to construct a pyre out of tampons and maxi pads, light it, and toss unsuspecting women into it.” So says Katrina Lumsden, speaking, if not for us all, then at least for me.)

Ana, then, as a character and a consciousness, effectively dissolves into a puddle of verbal tics and cliché. Her self is not merely bifurcated, but trifurcated. She’s not a person so much as a spontaneous, ritualized emotional effusion. In Hard Core, Linda Williams argued that porn’s central fascination is with the emotional “truth” of women, which is verified/ritualized in the truth/performance of orgasm. Fifty Shades of Grey certainly has lots of orgasms, but they seem almost secondary to the truth/performance of the prose, which mirrors them and almost parodies them in its enthusiastic embrace of the real as painfully stupid repetition.

The sense that the book is interested less in sex than in the safe staging of natural, uncontrollable emotional catharsis becomes more and more apparent as the series goes on, eventually climaxing (if that’s the right word) in the last couple hundred pages, which devolve into one satisfying crisis after another. Ana’s dad is in a car crash and goes into a coma; Christian’s sister is kidnapped and Ana has to save her; finally, Ana gets pregnant. This all happens in the space of a few weeks, but obviously verisimilitude is not the point. Rather, the point is the emoting—the satisfying staging of a melodrama in order to elicit familiar spontaneous outbursts.

Charmagne Coe, <i>Effusion</i>, a miniature painting (5 3/16 x 5 1/2), watercolor, ink, and pastel (2013) Courtesy of the artists.

Charmagne Coe, Effusion, a miniature painting (5 3/16 x 5 1/2), watercolor, ink, and pastel (2013) Courtesy of the artists.

It’s worth pointing out that, by this point in the narrative, Ana is not the only one having outbursts; Christian is as well. Indeed, it would be a mistake to see Ana’s incompetence as contrasting, or complementing, Christian’s competence. On the contrary, Christian too is in many ways a collection of verbal tics—urging Ana to eat, telling her not to bite her lip, groaning in passion or frustration, swept off his feet by Ana’s sexy, beguilingly incompetent inner goddess. It’s true that Christian is supposed to be a super-high-powered, smart CEO … but that’s not really any more convincing than James’s ridiculous efforts to make us believe that Ana is an expert shot or, for that matter, that Ana has a brain. Christian’s wealth isn’t a sign of his power; it serves only to highlight his powerlessness, the elaborate helplessness with which his passion for Ana causes him to spurt out great, ropy gouts of cash.

In this sense, the stylized incompetence of the writing is not a bug, but a feature. For writer and reader, the haplessness of the prose is part of the excitement; the guarantor of truth through lack of artifice, and of emotional payoff through rhythmic deployment of familiar cliché. Fifty Shades of Grey doesn’t get off on strong men controlling weak women. Rather, it gets off on the image of men and women, together and equally, spread open so all can view their naive, overdetermined innards, caught in the act of emitting.


Jump to remarks:

Minou Arjomand, Noah Berlatsky, Jane Gallop, Hilary A. Hallett, Claire Jarvis, Bethany Schneider, Marianna Torgovnick


Jane Gallop


When I agreed to contribute to this roundtable, I had not yet read the Fifty Shades trilogy. I had of course heard of it, knew it was a runaway bestseller, had been told that women were gobbling it up, loving it, and that it portrayed kinky sex. It was because of this reputation (best-seller; kinky, sexy book for women) that I agreed to write, wanted to write, about the trilogy; but because of this same reputation, after agreeing, I discovered that I dreaded reading the books.

I kept putting off beginning the first volume: for days, there were always other professional chores to do first. And when finally I could put it off no longer, I got myself to begin only by promising to stop and take a long break after one chapter. I used that same start/stop, one-chapter pact with myself for the first half dozen chapters: I could only bear dipping in if I knew I could get out before too long. Wondering about this behavior, I recognized I was afraid of something. As I thought a bit more about it, I realized I was afraid of being overwhelmed by the book—afraid it would move me, against my will. This book had a reputation for turning millions and millions of women on; I was afraid that—regardless of my sexual opinions, regardless of my literary preferences—I could not help but succumb to its charms.

My plight was not unlike that of the book’s heroine. Anastasia Steele is a typical plucky, independent young woman, but she is no match for the seductive power of Christian Grey. Pretty much every woman in the book swoons for Grey, like the millions of women in our world who love Fifty Shades. The richest and handsomest man in the books’ universe functions very much like this best-seller in our world. Grey amassed his vast fortune with impossible speed and little explanation; the books named after him have found the same sort of jaw-dropping, over-the-top success. Unlike the other women in the book, Ana is not attracted to his wealth; unlike his previous lovers, she does not have sexual proclivities that fit his; yet, despite his not corresponding to her preferences, she cannot resist falling for Grey. And that was pretty much the effect I was afraid Fifty Shades would have on me.

Ana does not seem to have any autonomous sexual predispositions: not only does she begin the book with no sexual experience, autoerotic included, she does not even show predilections for particular acts or scenarios, except in response to what Grey does to her. Feminist commentators like Lisa Downing have pointed out that we find here the classic dichotomy between the man as knowing sexual subject and the woman as virginal blank slate.3 While this dichotomy certainly holds true when it comes to sexual practice, Anastasia Steele is not without orientation and preferences. What Ana likes is good books, classic English literature: Thomas Hardy, Charlotte Brontë, that sort of thing. As the story begins, Ana is not just a virgin; she is an English major.

First edition of Thomas Hardys <i>Tess of the DUrbervilles</i> (London: James R. Osgood, McIlvaine and Co., 1891)

First edition of Thomas Hardys Tess of the DUrbervilles (London: James R. Osgood, McIlvaine and Co., 1891)

Since I am an English professor this speaks to me. I know it is conventional for the modern heroine to have some sort of profession, which provides local color and renders the romantic plot more realistic. But I think Ana Steele’s English-major identity is more than that. Christian, so knowing in all things sexual, does not understand Ana’s relation to books. Early in his courtship, he buys her a ridiculously expensive first edition of Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles. Not only is she put off by the extravagant price, but her love for literature is not something that Christian, even with his vast fortune, can buy.4 The classic realist novels that Ana treasures are, I would say, sites of Ana’s subjectivity.

Although Ana is already the books’ first-person narrator, the trilogy amplifies her subjectivity by means of clunky allegory. The narration frequently refers to a figure called “my inner goddess,” which represents her sexuality. For example (one chosen at random from the middle of the second volume), while they are playing pool, Christian says, “I just wanted to see you like this—partially dressed, stretched out on my billiard table. Do you have any idea how hot you look at this moment?” After this line from Christian, the narrator tells us: “I flush, and my inner goddess grabs a rose between her teeth and starts to tango.” Her goddess may be “inner,” not visible to other characters, but she consistently supports our sense of Ana’s sexuality as having no initiating desires of her own, as being responsive only to Christian’s moves.

In addition to the “goddess,” the narration regularly uses another allegorical figure, likewise invisible to others, to let the reader glimpse the narrator/heroine’s interiority. This second figure, called “my subconscious,” is more often a site of resistance to Christian. This second figure is a serious reader. For example, when talking with one of Christian’s exes, Ana tells the reader: “Yes, Christian Grey makes us giggly. My subconscious rolls her eyes at me in despair and goes back to reading her dog-eared copy of Jane Eyre.” While Ana bonds with another young woman over their girlish weakness for Christian, her subconscious is superior and distant, preferring to bond with Brontë’s book.5 Upon learning that a female architect who flirts shamelessly with Christian is coming over to help them plan their future home, the narrator tells us: “That woman is coming back again. My subconscious gazes up from volume three of The Complete Works of Charles Dickens and glowers. I’m with my subconscious.”

I’m with her subconscious too. Her subconscious resists falling head-over-heels in love with the handsome, sexually knowledgeable billionaire, resists falling in line with all the other women in the book. Once Ana meets Christian, she seems to stop reading the classic English novels she loves, but her subconscious is still reading them all the time, voraciously.

Despite her well-read subconscious’s resistance to falling for Christian, Ana does succumb, completely. This reader, however, remains with the resistant voice of the English major. Schooled in novels by Hardy, Dickens, and Brontë, I find myself unmoved and even turned off by the trilogy; the writing is repetitive and formulaic; the sex scenes don’t work for me.

I am, however, interested in the insistent background presence of classic English novels, and what they might say about the trilogy’s desire. I suspect that the Fifty Shades books, adept at seducing masses of women and making piles of money, would really like to seduce the reader of Tess and Jane Eyre. Within the world of the novels, the impossibly alluring hero pulls that off; in my world, however, the Fifty Shades trilogy fails to seduce the English major.


Jump to remarks:

Minou Arjomand, Noah Berlatsky, Jane Gallop, Hilary A. Hallett, Claire Jarvis, Bethany Schneider, Marianna Torgovnick


Hilary A. Hallett


I first heard about Fifty Shades of Grey at a party in Brooklyn, when an attractive, 40ish friend of a friend confided she had been reading a book that really got her hot. Since I knew the woman was excitedly planning her second marriage, I assumed her confession simply conveyed a state of mind extra-eager for excuses to dwell on pleasures of the flesh.

The party was in March of 2012 and I soon realized that my friend was not alone. Once again, I was a very late arrival at a party already well underway in popular culture. As a cultural historian who spends her time trying to plumb the significance of trends long past this is a familiar sensation. Still, on this occasion my lack of awareness of the latest bookselling trends seemed more myopic than usual, since I was beginning a new project about a best-selling early twentieth-century English author of “sex novels” named Elinor Glyn. A century ago the popularity of erotic books that spun fantasies out of women’s sexual frustrations and desires was blamed for the degeneration of English fiction and morals. Critics blamed “readers—chiefly women—who make the fortune of English fiction” for supporting a “scarlet-crested Elinor Glyn wave” of writers accused of “naturalizing” the sexual mores of “the erotic, absinthe-drenched, nerve-racked decadents” of Paris. Or, as one eminent American critic wondered of the trend: “Why is it that when women writers of the modern school deal with passion, they succeed only in ‘nastifying it?’”6

In the spring of 2012, E. L. James became, in a sense, Glyn’s heir; and a century after her great succès de scandale, women’s purchase of books explicitly designed to get their motors purring still counted as international news. Now, suddenly, evidence of the prominent part that such authors and their readers play in the expansion of the modern publishing industry was everywhere on display. Fifty Shades of Grey sat next to the cash register at my local bookstore in Morningside Heights. Placing a novel of explicit erotica front and center was an unusual choice for a bookstore that gives scooters and salad bowls pride of place and caters to academics and their families. In the weeks that followed, even a limited perusal of the New York Times sufficed to reveal the book’s status as a full-fledged publishing phenomenon, said to signal the new influence of self-published authors and the online fan clubs of women readers who supported their rise. According to the Times, harried middle-aged women armed with Kindles and Nooks, which permitted greater discretion than the florid covers of Harlequin romances, had created the literary sensation of the new century: “mommy porn.” Such a characterization struck me as limited, given the book’s sales relative to the declining number of children produced in the postindustrial world. But this was April. The spring semester was crashing to an end. So I went back to thinking about my students and the past.

Elinor Glyn (1903)

Elinor Glyn (1903)

By the time I arrived in Oxford to spend the summer researching Glyn, the hoopla over James’s trilogy proved impossible to ignore. It was a cold, rainy summer even by English standards. The heat generated by the rhetorical theatrics surrounding the topic now appeared to be part of the point. Faces flushed a deeper pink on BBC television, voices rose and fell in heated forums about the book’s significance on the radio, and profanity laced the pages of literary periodicals as the books continued to break previously established sales benchmarks.

The criticisms were repetitious enough to be easily summarized. The book was poorly written. The hero Christian was too gorgeous, too domineering, too rich (as if heroes who were ugly, feckless failures were typical of any literary genre or form). The heroine, Ana, was too young and sexually inexperienced to know what was good for her and yet also—and this was crucial—too willing to submit to a sexual education in BDSM that said bad things about her politics and morals and, by extension, the politics and morals of all her women readers and society’s as well. Given the burden such sociological analysis placed on women’s sexual fantasies, it’s a wonder that any woman besides Ana was getting hot at all.

The latest in a long line of “badly written books about fucking,” Andrew O’Hagan declared in the London Review of Books by July.7 O’Hagan was a strange choice to review erotica aimed at women, since this “working-class boy” admitted that such books recalled the reading habits of his mother circa 1970 and that “sex on the page” only made him laugh. James’s “tie-me-up-tie-me-down spankbusters” did not read “as if feminism never happened,” O’Hagan wrote, “they read as if women never even got the vote.” But O’Hagan saved his most searing indictment for Ana’s role as an omnivorous consumer who “wants everything she wants. And everything she wants has to be ‘hot.’” According to O’Hagan, Ana’s behavior invited readers to “be submissive too, not to punishment, but to a 1980s-style dominance of money and power and products.”

Having procured the first volume from the venerable and bustling Blackwell’s bookstore across from the Bodleian Library, I knew, like any other reader, that Ana does not give a damn about the hero’s wealth except, at times, for the adventures it makes possible (like getting to fly a glider plane). Ana wants to have sex, not go shopping with Christian. And this is because Christian is very, very good in bed, acting mostly as if his primary purpose in life is to figure out ways to create and satisfy Ana’s sexual desires. This obvious, but often unremarked, point bears emphasizing: these novels and their hero are preoccupied with a woman who is immensely enjoying herself in the sack. Christian’s use of bondage in the book largely serves to “force” Ana into submitting to several lengthy scenes of well-considered foreplay by an imaginative lover with an extensive bag of tricks. “Trust me?” Christian asks before the first of these. “I nod, wide-eyed with the realization that I do trust him. What’s he going to do to me now? An electric thrill hums through me.” This wholehearted focus on what it takes to make a woman hot lies in stark contrast to the vast majority of erotic images produced by the media whose depiction of gorgeous women’s sexual ecstasy—as a kiss, penetration, then climax—should strike us all as much more fantastical than that of James’s.

The subject of women’s sexual satisfaction has long occasioned much shame, fear, and confusion. Little wonder, then, that so many critics fixate on the book’s inclusion of elements of BDSM sexual play as evidence of the essential perversion of its sexual point-of-view. This fixation on the “not normal” bit—which makes a woman aroused by the book either a dangerous or endangered freak—was on particular display in one interview with James on the BBC. After gesturing at the problem of violence against women in the real world, the interviewer attempted several times to force James into conceding that her book participated in a similar problem. “You’re not worried that we are all being dragged towards a position where this kind of stuff is normal?” the interviewer asked James. James demurred that she was not, that the book is a fantasy about two consenting adults, that it is a love story. “It’s a love story,” the interviewer interrupted, “but there is fisting,” revealing he had failed to read the book.8

Fifty Shades of Grey has no fisting. Its story alternates Christian’s education in the pleasures of vanilla sex and true love with a comically protracted sexual negotiation (in which fisting is never in contention) that acts as a master class in heterosexual erotic techniques for the heroine. A man schooled in the art of sex by an older woman dominant, BDSM signals Christian’s sexual expertise. This dude has given serious time and thought to the subject of what it takes to get a woman off. Women like a man who knows what to do in bed, was how James explained her hero’s appeal to the BBC interviewer. And given all the fuss he’s provoked on both sides of the Atlantic, it’s ultimately hard not to wonder why someone so skilled in the subject of women’s sexual pleasure has prompted so much alarm.


Jump to remarks:

Minou Arjomand, Noah Berlatsky, Jane Gallop, Hilary A. Hallett, Claire Jarvis, Bethany Schneider, Marianna Torgovnick


Claire Jarvis


A third of the way through Fifty Shades Darker, the second book in E. L. James’s Fifty Shades trilogy, the protagonists, Christian Grey, sexy philanthropic capitalist, and Ana Steele, sexy editorial assistant, go to a charity auction held at Grey’s parents’ Seattle mansion. James provides a detailed list of the items donated, which are surprisingly generic: a baseball bat, a J. Trouton oil painting, a gliding lesson, a first edition of Pride and Prejudice.

On second thought, though, the blandness of the items donated isn’t that surprising. The world of James’s book is one of generic consumption: the details of Grey’s things don’t matter, not even their brands. What counts is that they are very, very expensive. This is a theoretical form of capitalist display. Christian Grey wears “white linen” shirts, he smells of “body wash and Christian” his apartment features appliances and fixtures that look “very designer.” The body wash’s particular scent is unimportant, as is the brand, though Ana later observes that a Chanel shampoo smells like Christian. In fact, the only thing we know about Christian’s personal hygiene products are that they’re “expensive.” But that’s as it should be. The defining trait of Christian’s taste is that everything he buys is of the first quality. The few times we see Christian experiencing joy—when he’s helicoptering with Ana, for example—involve a massive outlay of funds.

A strange feature of this Jamesian world is that affiliation with a perception of quality (“expensive” body wash, “classic” literature) gives its inhabitants cultural authority as a matter of course. Grey isn’t the only inhabitant of this gleaming domain. Ana only reads “classic” literature. And while she identifies only a few authors as belonging to this category, they run the gamut from Thomas Hardy to F. Scott Fitzgerald. It’s not entirely clear what she means by “classic.” We never actually see her reading, and she doesn’t seem to care much for poetry. She has no need for analysis or criticism: having the right taste is enough.

All of this is to say that the world of James’s novels appears to invert the one Pierre Bourdieu examined in his 1979 book Distinction, a foundational sociological text on taste and class perception. Bourdieu’s text interweaves theory and case studies drawn from ethnographic interviews and adopts “an order of presentation as close as possible to the actual process of research.” We get not only the structure of taste, but also its content—the petit bourgeois’ disinterest in home improvement, the grand bourgeois’ love of cooking “Sturgeon’s eggs,” the architect’s grudging interest in Roche Bobois furniture, the mid-seventies vogue for mustard yellow across class and sex.

Audi R8 Spyder

Audi R8 Spyder

A foundation of examples builds Bourdieu’s theory on the stories we tell ourselves about our likes and dislikes, culled from hundreds of interviews, organized into graphs and charts, and processed into types and systems. What happens in E. L. James’s world is just the opposite. As James rolls out Christian Grey’s aesthetic over the course of the three novels, we find it to be strangely featureless. Even in moments when James describes objects or experiences—for instance, Grey’s garage houses a fleet of perfect, shining Audis—the object’s specific features are less significant than its capacity to flag wealth and status. But why, one must ask, would a billionaire only keep Audis? The argument, one imagines, must be something like this: Audis signal quality; Grey feels that Audis signal the best kind of quality; therefore, Grey buys Audis. The one time he doesn’t buy an Audi, he buys a Saab. This looks like a moment of choice, and it’s one of the few aesthetic choices in the novel that feature explicit branding. Furthermore, the choice is significant because it appears to be a response to Ana’s stalwart resistance to being like his other submissives. When Christian’s ex-sub destroys Ana’s car, he reveals that the A3 is his usual choice for his submissives. Contemplating Christian’s repurchase is an “unwelcome thought.” Seven pages later, Christian declares his love for Ana; seven pages after that, the pair visit a Saab dealership. Ana’s acceptance of a different car marks her out as different from the other submissive women in Christian Grey’s life. This strangely empty difference defines James’s love plot in Fifty Shades.

Since the eighteenth century, novelistic marriage plots have implied that what makes you marriageable is your stuff, and your access to more stuff. Sex was imagined as a part of this discourse, but the respectable novel rarely trafficked in explicit representation of sexual acts. Readers took marriages or children as signs that sex had happened. The novel’s investment in its own decency pushed sexual description into metaphor, into euphemism. In the early twentieth century, the novel’s techniques of sexual description shifted from being entirely metaphorical and hermeneutic to being more and more explicit. Under the modernist pen, this was a way of demonstrating the obvious fact of sex’s centrality to cultural life, and of calling sexual metaphor out as part of respectability’s disciplining force on sexual life.

By the time we get to Fifty Shades, however, sex acts have, like other consumer goods, become brand names organized into hierarchies: “anal sex,” “gag play,” “blood play,” “BDSM.” In pornographic literature, masochistic contracts of total control imply that the master has power over his submissive, or slave, to the point of death. James’s contract can never work this way. In the world of Fifty Shades, you can contract for a bit of bondage but not for absolute domination. Sex acts are line items on a term sheet. For E. L. James, “Anal Sex” is just another kind of Audi.

The love story in Fifty Shades begins as a potentially contractual negotiation. Like taste, contract in Fifty Shades is contentless, unnecessary because the relationships it could try to enforce are unenforceable. Love blocks any attempts at contractual oversight. Grey might have been able to order his earlier partners to work out three times a week and only eat from a list of prescribed foods, but he couldn’t stop them falling in love with him, and he can’t stop himself falling in love with Ana. The novel depends on love’s unwieldiness when it comes to contract. Grey’s contract features safewords, hard and soft limits for different kinds of sexual activity, assurances that pain will not result in permanent or life-altering scars, and an explicit clause that frees the submissive from the contract at her will. Some of this reflects James’s nods to the BDSM community; kink, far from producing a real risk to life and limb, emphasizes role-playing and the goal of orgasm in the sexual act. In kink, risk can never be too great, because its deployment relies on concepts of equality, openness, and communication; kink relies on liberalism. In this world, Grey only asks his submissives to submit on weekends.

This is very different from the contracts that masochism’s literary parent, Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, introduced in his novellas and stories. In those texts, the masochistic contract works as a parody of a marriage contract, one that suggested that the masochistic submissive (always a man, it should be noted) was the slave of the dominant female master. Sacher-Masoch’s contracts aped the implicit hierarchies that support heterosexuality, patriarchy, and conventional marriage in most nineteenth-century novels, but his contractual parodies have no place in contemporary BDSM literature and practice. One reason might be the rise of a central surety in our sexual culture: that unwanted sexual acts are legally and morally reprehensible. Another might be that our concept of heterosexual marriage no longer depends on the voiding of a woman’s legal person.

The contract in Fifty Shades, however, departs even from the carefully respectful and voidable contracts typical of present-day BDSM. Grey’s initial contract, even with its caveats, is too powerful for Ana, who implicitly understands contract’s limits. Even after rewriting the terms to accord with what kind of sex she thinks she can handle, Ana builds in resistance—and lays secret plans for voiding Grey’s contract’s terms with the twinned powers of time and affection.

So, as it turns out, Ana and Christian’s BDSM contract never gets signed. It doesn’t need to be. The novel’s ascendant love plot means that the contract, with its clear outs, could never be enforced. Ana doesn’t even promise to obey in her marriage vows. What’s striking about these crisscrossing plot motives is that James’s love plot ends up being more powerful, and certainly more binding, than the BDSM contract Christian initially presents to Ana. Because of the extremity of the pair’s sexual connection, and because love becomes the source of their romantic compulsion, there is no way out of their bond. In a strange reversal of Sacher-Masoch’s historical critique, the only contractual obligation worthy of this pair’s romance is a marriage. The ways the marriage contract naturalizes its contractual shape; the ways the marriage contract blends into the social fabric of life; the way the marriage contract places sexual life securely behind closed doors all mean that Fifty Shades has to end, as Austen’s novels did centuries ago, with married, and reproductive, futurity. And, as in Austen’s time, those plot-level carrots, love and money, are enough to spur on an unequal marriage, no matter what its indignities.


Jump to remarks:


Minou Arjomand, Noah Berlatsky, Jane Gallop, Hilary A. Hallett, Claire Jarvis, Bethany Schneider, Marianna Torgovnick

Bethany Schneider


J. K. Rowling has promised her editor that she won’t read E. L. James’s Fifty Shades of Grey, or so she tells the press.9 That her editor takes the fall for this reading ban tells us Fifty Shades is dangerous to Rowling as a writer, rather than as a reader. James, the publishing industry’s greatest success, might somehow contaminate Rowling, the industry’s second greatest success. Rowling herself understands that the taint lies in Fifty Shades’ genre, acknowledging that the thin line between teenage wizard and billionaire BDSM top is only a matter of style: “Think how many books I could have sold if Harry had been more creative with his wand.”10

Two-time Booker Prize–winner Hilary Mantel, author of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, has taken up her pikestaff against both Rowling and James; their crime is genre. “There’ll always be some kind of genre fiction,” she said in an interview with BBC Radio 4, “whether it’s whips and chains or boy wizards, making its way to the top. But what is important is that there is a healthy appetite for what people off-puttingly call serious fiction…. I have always thought, fiction can be popular but it can also be good, and worth reading twice.”11 Mantel sounds uncomfortable about her own chart-topping sales putting her in the company of witches and women of low repute, and what that might mean about her novels’ cultural value.

Mantel outlined her own, personally imposed reading ban in a recent speech that discussed, among other things, whether Kate Middleton can be a happy princess. She quoted Sue Townsend’s assessment of Diana, an unhappy princess, as a “fatal non-reader,” then qualified that point by noting that Diana did read, but “enjoyed only the romances of Barbara Cartland.” Mantel proceeded to deny all knowledge of Britain’s most prolific author: “I’m far too snobbish to have read one, but I assume they are stories in which a wedding takes place and they all live happily ever after.” This is a notable abdication of expertise for such an erudite writer, especially since Mantel ends her speech by invoking Cartland again and petitioning her listeners to let romance remain the appropriate genre for princesses: “I’m asking us to back off and not be brutes. Get your pink frilly frocks out, zhuzh up your platinum locks. We are all Barbara Cartland now. The pen is in our hands. A happy ending is ours to write.”12

Dame Barbara Cartland (1987)

Dame Barbara Cartland (1987)

Barbara Cartland is long gone and safely camp, and it is fun to imagine dressing up, just for a moment, in her extravagant clothes. Do we find it as amusing to say that we are all E. L. James? Clearly not. Yet in spite of all the handwringing about violent erotica, E. L. James is a romance author, and one who is as dedicated as Cartland to the containing powers of marriage and family.

I have read both Cartland and James and the erotic relations in Cartland are more violent, for all that the heroines remain virginal until after the final page. Cartland’s plots are routinely structured by the threat of rape,13 while the sex in the Fifty Shades trilogy is padded with negotiated layers of consent. The faux legal contract that Christian Grey’s submissives must sign is where the novels describe his sexual desires and practices most explicitly; his kink revolves around getting a woman to say yes within a “binding” framework. Anastasia’s triumph lies in getting him to change the play contract into one that binds them both, and changing the “yes” into “I do”: a speech act rather than a sex act.

Each Fifty Shades book exemplifies a subgenre of romance. The sexually innocent, emotionally experienced woman who teaches a sexually experienced, emotionally innocent man to feel love. Established lovers who find their way through lust to commitment. A married couple struggling with their vows; their reward is pregnancy. Sex is an allegory for the characters’ emotional journey. James herself says that “the domination aspect is completely overstated, and many people are missing the point … A broken man who needs fixing through love—what woman could resist that?”14 These books found a global readership because their ultimately mild erotic content is built into a tried and true architecture—romance.

The violence of a world set against female advancement demands strategic responses from women if they are to participate in world-making at all, even if “only” at the domestic level, even if “only” in marriages; romance pursues and examines those strategies, makes them instrumental to the incidents that drive plot. Female strategy and the carving out of power in the bourgeois home is what Samuel Richardson’s 1740 novel Pamela is about, and critics like Pamela Regis trace the genre of romance back to Richardson’s moment.15 In the hundreds of years since, the questions that romance asks of power dynamics and the answers that romance provides have been as varied as the answers provided by the full spectrum of feminism.16

If we follow the scarlet thread of romance further back, past Pamela, we discover another moment of genre panic, much like the one that now surrounds Fifty Shades, another moment when it became unfashionable, even taboo, to read and enjoy the novels of certain women writers. The foundational storyline of romance—defined as a plot that follows the events leading up to and culminating in a middle-class marriage—became the proper subject of fiction in the early 18th century, in direct opposition to the popularity of erotic fiction written by women. Scandalous figures like Aphra Behn, whose persona as a writer and whose female characters were deemed too sexually, economically, and intellectually free, had to be repudiated.17 This origin story of the romance novel is the same as the origin story of the bourgeois novel in general. Whether it is your editor or your snobbery that cordons you off from a particular romance author, if you are a reader of contemporary novels or a contemporary novelist, romance is your mother. Love her, hate her, read and write yourself away from her … there she stays. Yes, we are all Barbara Cartland now … we always have been.

Aphra Behns <i>Love-Letters Between a Noble-Man and His Sister</i> (1684)

Aphra Behns Love-Letters Between a Noble-Man and His Sister (1684)

E. L. James’s books are sexually explicit, but she is no Aphra Behn. James’s trilogy replays the very repudiation of freer and freeing sex from which romance novels (and novels in general) sprang. That it does this through explicit descriptions of sex should only be briefly confusing. The lovers’ negotiations of sex are the means by which James achieves what she calls “fixing,” and what others might call normalizing. So why a genre panic over E. L. James specifically, well into the 21st century? Nobody is in a tizzy over the hundreds of other erotic romances published yearly. The biggest reason is the oldest reason. Fifty Shades is an erotic romance by a woman that has made a huge pile of money for that woman. It doesn’t matter that James’s plot celebrates vanilla sex in the marital bed. Women who make money from sex, who give voice to that sex, must be repudiated.

Another reason why so many people are in a flap may be that, if romance isn’t your pleasure, Fifty Shades is not the best introduction. I don’t mean to say that the books are “bad.” Rather, they indulge in elements of the genre least appealing to those unfamiliar with the form. The treatment of female professionalism in the novels might shock, for instance. Christian Grey’s business partner and former lover is reviled for her business acumen as well as her sexuality. Christian Grey’s pediatrician mother rejoices in her son’s choice of a woman far less educated and ambitious than she is. Anastasia Steele’s employment—which she maintains in spite of her lover’s demands that she quit—is nevertheless the stage for much erotic struggle, and her advancement in her job is one of the side-effects of her sexual relations.

Is there any way to read these scenes of female retreat from professional equality—not unusual in romance, although many romances portray successful career women—as something more than anti-feminist? Back in 1992, Jayne Ann Krentz, one of the most successful romance authors writing today, asserted in an edited volume subtitled Romance Writers on the Appeal of Romance that most writers came to the genre at a very specific moment in their lives, namely, the moment of professionalization: “It is interesting to note that many of the contributors discovered romance novels in college or shortly after entering the work force, at a time when they were becoming fully aware of the battles they would face as women for the rest of their lives.” Romance is the opposite of escapist fantasy, Krentz argues, pointing out that her contributors’ “experiences have made them well aware of such things as glass ceilings and old boy networks.” Romance novelists are writing about those institutions by turning them upside down and showing us a world where different rules apply: “Romance novels invert the power structure of a patriarchal society because they show women exerting enormous power over men. The books also defy the masculine conventions of other forms of literature because they portray women as heroes.”18

These seem like simple points. Not so. If romance authors who employ marriage as the “happy ending” are laying out strategies for female power in the domestic sphere, they are also writing an imaginative counterpoint to women’s lifelong battle for survival in the workplace. Neither the battlefield of career nor the battlefield of marriage has changed enough since 1992 for us to expect romance writers’ alternative spaces for female ascendancy to have entirely altered. Seen in this light, romance doesn’t look like romance anymore—it begins to look like speculative fiction. Condemned as “bodice ripper” fantasy, sometimes difficult to claim as feminist, romance is nevertheless fantastical, because it resolutely pursues something we call female, against the narrative rip tides of what Krentz quietly calls “masculine conventions.”

So yes, let’s play dress up. Let’s inhabit the “female form”19 of the novel long enough to celebrate the fortune of E. L. James as well as Great Aunt Cartland, long enough to learn to critique romance as literature, and romance authors as artists, with the same knowledge and respect that we critique everyone who writes in and across the traditions of the novel. There are scholars, and a world of writers and readers, out there who do treat the subject with respect. It is time for everyone else to stop making romance a laughingstock and a whipping dog.

Hating romance allows us to forget that all fiction is genre fiction. Hating romance allows us to pretend that, as long as we aren’t reading or writing romance, we are neither participating in the structural misogyny of the literary marketplace, nor are we affected by it. By hating romance, by distancing ourselves from novels like Fifty Shades of Grey, we simply recapitulate the turn critics of the novel and novelists made in the early 18th century.

As Anastasia Steele is critiqued for saying in moments of extremis, “Argh.”


Jump to remarks:

Minou Arjomand, Noah Berlatsky, Jane Gallop, Hilary A. Hallett, Claire Jarvis, Bethany Schneider, Marianna Torgovnick

Marianna Torgovnick


First a confession: not only did I read all three books in the Fifty Shades trilogy, I enjoyed them. At the end of volume one, I just couldn’t leave the heroine in tears and not discover how things work out, so I followed E. M. Forster’s classic narrative imperative and kept reading to learn “what happens next.” That is not the same thing as saying that the series is especially good. The books deserve some strong criticism, even flogging. But having infiltrated our culture, our conversations, and perhaps most of all our lingerie, they should not be ignored.

Like many such books, from de Sade through The Story of O, the Fifty Shades series trades on a familiar sexual trope: the desire to be a humiliated, passive sex slave in fantasy, though not in actuality. Here is Connie Chatterley in D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, a book published only in expurgated form until 1959 in the US and banned in Britain until 1960:

It cost her an effort to let him have his way and his will of her. She had to be a passive, consenting thing, like a slave, a physical slave. Yet the passion licked round her, consuming, and when the sensual flame of it pressed through her bowels and breast, she really thought she was dying: yet a poignant, marvelous death.

The Story of O amplifies these themes, making O sexually available by training and by choice, gaining not just pleasure but also power. The hero in the Fifty Shades series repeatedly urges the heroine to slow down and to feel rather than to move: “suffer and be still” becomes stay still and be ecstatic.

Fifty Shades takes the likeable Anastasia (Ana) Steele on a journey from hip, attractive college student—an unlikely virgin in her early twenties—to mistress of pleasure, her own as well as that of Christian Grey. First her Dom, then her lover, and finally her husband, Grey soon becomes the father of her children. While it makes a titillating case that rough stuff can be fun, the books’ sexual activities remain fairly modest: wrists bound, a little light spanking, orgasms delayed and forestalled.

In volume one, Grey offers Ana a contract that prohibits much (Grey cannot share Ana as O is shared) and stipulates acts that, in the end, never come to pass. (Puns are almost impossible to avoid when writing about this material.) Ana never signs it. Instead, Christian becomes first a conventional boyfriend and then an almost exemplary husband, whose only faults are a reluctance to let his wife work and irritation that he becomes a father almost as soon as he becomes a husband. “I wanted to show you the fucking world and now … Fuck. Diapers and vomit and shit!” Christian says, with blunt honesty, even anguish. His reaction seems at least as plausible as Ana’s instant bonding to her “little [ultrasound] Blip” after she forgets her birth control.

All three novels deploy Gothic motifs, with a contemporary twist: instead of the dark, brooding Byronic hero, the icy Christian is not just a financial wizard but a humanitarian too; instead of the mousy Jane Eyre, we have the awkward Ana, who stumbles and falls into Christian’s office the first time they meet; instead of an isolated castle, Christian dwells in a deluxe urban penthouse, fully equipped with an S/M playroom. A few pages into volume two (if not earlier), most experienced novel readers will see where we are heading. Ana and Christian will become man and wife, with the classic two children—first a boy, then a girl. They remain honest enough to find Junior a little tedious at times and rich enough to have servants and a playroom on the side. The really interesting question, for me (and I may be a bit perverse in this), is how soon Junior and his future sibs will stumble into the playroom and find out what Mommy and Daddy get up to in their spare time.

Although Ana retains her job at Grey Publishing (where “the e-book side of our business has exploded,” she tells us), Christian would prefer his wife “barefoot and pregnant and in my kitchen.” So, in the end, Fifty Shades deploys the 18th- and 19th-century marriage plot with a vengeance, even as it adds a nominal feminist twist. James’s recourse to that traditional plotline makes the progression from Fifty Shades of Grey to Fifty Shades Freed function as Fifty Shades Clichéd. While set in our e-mail-saturated 21st century, the plot of Fifty Shades and of much recent popular fiction resembles books from 1813 or 1863 or 1920, despite being wrapped in what looks like radical packaging. In fact, Fifty Shades’ recourse to the marriage plot and to the sanctity of the pregnant body are surprisingly typical of our age.

Catarina Campino, <i>Esposas de Matrimonio Wedding Cuffs</i> (2005)

Catarina Campino, Esposas de Matrimonio Wedding Cuffs (2005)

Consider, for example, another guilty pleasure: The Hunger Games trilogy. I thought the first volume terrific and savvy—especially in its parody of reality TV. The Hunger Games offers a conventional love triangle. But there’s also a life-and-death televised competition in which likeable Katniss turns into an effective killing machine and, eventually, into someone who brings down the whole rotten system. I felt let down by volume two, but nonetheless read on.

Spoiler alert: Katniss ends up much like Ana: married to Peeta, a local success story, who (I’ve got to admit) lacks some of Christian Grey’s polish and finesse. Katniss is ultimately a sadder character than Ana, having lost her beloved sister and many friends in the devastating war to defeat the Capitol. Like a Victorian heroine, she finds modest consolation in the children she bears at Peeta’s behest. Once again, we are in marriage plot territory, without the benefit of Jeffrey Eugenides’s 21st-century twists.

Finally, as Exhibit Three, there is Gone Girl, the kind of popular novel I wish I had written, whose first half is as suspenseful and good as any recent fiction I know. Did the husband in the novel kill his wife on their fifth anniversary? The book expertly manipulates our intuitions and sympathies with a found diary and letters until they reveal that the wife is alive and has laid a cunning plot to avenge herself against her man. There are further twists, but let me move quickly to the end, where the husband, having been seduced into loving his wife again, realizes she’s a monster and considers killing her, for real this time. What intervenes? Her pregnancy, with his child, accomplished without intercourse but by covertly gaining a sample of his sperm and using it to artificially inseminate her. Wife pregnant, the husband Nick makes a decision to surrender to the power of the unborn child: “I was a prisoner after all. Amy had me forever, or as long as she wanted, because I needed to save my son … I would literally lay down my life for my child, and do it happily.”

A final confession: I have a husband of many years and two wonderful daughters and they are the center of my life. I should be a sucker for this stuff except that, like many long-married women, I like to think of myself as someone of independence and spirit who need not have gone through life with a man, though in fact I have: the marriage plot I have lived feels too conventional, too limited, too scripted to match my inner self. Still, or perhaps “so,” I find the baby solution to the modern marriage plot retrograde, clichéd, and more than a little hard to take. The pill, Roe v. Wade, feminism, the Internet, the “me generation,” AIDS, 9/11, gay rights, empowered women and sensitive men—despite them all, popular fiction is still singing a 1950s tune:

Love and marriage, love and marriage.
Go together like a horse and carriage.
Dad was told by Mother: You can’t have one.
You can’t have none.
You can’t have one without the OTTTTTHHHHERRRRRR.

Jump to remarks:

Minou Arjomand, Noah Berlatsky, Jane Gallop, Hilary A. Hallett, Claire Jarvis, Bethany Schneider, Marianna Torgovnick

  1. Barbara Kiviat and Bill Gates, “Making Capitalism More Creative,” Time Magazine, July 31, 2008.
  2. The tenacious personality of social entrepreneurs is at the center of much of the literature valorizing social entrepreneurship. They are “relentless in pursuit of their vision, people who simply will not take ‘no’ for an answer” (Bornstein); they “relentlessly pursue new opportunities; they act boldly without being constrained by current resources … they are obsessed with results” (Crutchfield and McLeod Grant). We might also look to the accounts that two women working at American Apparel give of Dov Charney, the CEO known at once for sexually harassing employees and instituting high labor standards: “Dov’s not sexist. He wants nothing to do with PC backlash. He rejects early-90s feminism. Sure, he might come across as offensive, but truthfully, he really respects women who work here. And he would never hurt anybody … He’s never [masturbated] in front of me” (as he had in front of the reporter of the story). Another woman adds: “Maybe if he wasn’t where he is now, he’d be one of those perverts on the subway … But this is his empire, and when you’re with him, he welcomes you into his life” (Ko). See David Bornstein, How to Change the World: Social Entrepreneurs and the Power of New Ideas (Oxford University Press, 2004); Leslie Crutchfield and Heather McLeod Grant, Forces for Good: The Six Practices of High-Impact Nonprofits (Jossey-Bass, 2008); Kati Ernst, “Social Entrepreneurs and their Personality,” in Social Entrepreneurship and Social Business: An Introduction and Discussion with Case Studies, edited by Christine K. Volkmann, Kim Oliver Tokarski, and Kati Ernst (Springer, 2012); and Claudine Ko, “Meet Your New Boss,” Jane Magazine, June/July 2004.
  3. Lisa Downing, “Safewording! Kinkphobia and Gender Normativity in Fifty Shades of Grey,” Psychology & Sexuality, vol. 4, no. 1, pp. 92–102.
  4. After graduating from college, the English major goes to work for a publishing house, where she reads manuscripts to decide which would make good books. Christian buys up the publishing house, which nonetheless remains a regular site of her resistance to his power.
  5. There are some striking similarities between the trilogy’s plot and that of Jane Eyre: the superior, rich man with the secret past, the heroine’s running away from him at the point where the reader expects a romantic happy ending, and even details like the crazy woman in the heroine’s bedroom while she is sleeping.
  6. George Jean Nathan, “The Girl-Alone-in-the-City Novels,” The Bookman (April 1911); “Why Do Women Write More Bad Books Than Men,” Current Literature (January 1908); “Three Weeks,” Current Literature (December 1907).
  7. Andrew O’Hagan, “Travelling Southwards,” London Review of Books, vol. 34, no. 14, July 19, 2012.
  8. Fifty Shades of Grey Author E. L. James on Erotica Book Boom,” Newsnight, BBC News, April 19, 2012.
  9. Decca Aitkenhead. “JK Rowling: ‘The Worst That Can Happen Is That Everyone Says, That’s Shockingly Bad,’” Guardian, 21 September 21, 2012.
  10. Jennifer Byrne, “Life After Harry,”, September 29, 2012.
  11. Cole Garner Hill, “Hilary Mantel, J. K. Rowling Bash Fifty Shades of Grey by E. L. James,” Books & Review, October 17, 2012.
  12. Hilary Mantel, “Royal Bodies,” London Review of Books, vol. 35, no. 4, February 21, 2013.
  13. Consider, for instance, this speech from Cartland’s 1949 novel, A Hazard of Hearts. In it, the heroine is speaking. She was abducted and molested by an evil man, and is now speaking to a different man, whom she will eventually marry: “Is it not enough that I have had to suffer the indignity of being abducted? Of being touched and kissed by a man I loathe more utterly than anyone else in the world? Is it not enough that I reach home bruised and exhausted only to be bullied by you and insulted by infamous suggestions that I have been enjoying myself? I hate you! Go away and leave me alone! Leave me I tell you!” Notice how the man to whom she speaks—the man she will marry—recapitulates the rapist’s physical violence on an emotional level. The man’s marriageability, in other words, is not compromised by the fact that he clearly thinks and feels like the rapist.
  14. Justine Jordan, “The Women Who Dominated Publishing in 2012: E. L. James,” Guardian, November 30, 2012.
  15. Pamela Regis, A Natural History of the Romance Novel (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003), pp. 63–66.
  16. Mary Bly, a scholar who writes romance under the name of Eloisa James, ably parses the problem of whether or not all romance novels are feminist (or indeed whether we can talk about “all romance novels” at all) in her essay, “On Popular Romance, J. R.Ward, and the Limits of Genre Study,” in New Approaches to Popular Romance Fiction: Critical Essays, edited by Sarah S. G. Frantz and Eric Murphy Selinger (McFarland, 2012), pp. 60–72.
  17. Roz Ballaster, Seductive Forms: Women’s Amatory Fiction from 1684 to 1740 (Clarendon Press, 1992), p. 3.
  18. Jayne Ann Krentz, “Introduction,” in Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women: Romance Writers on the Appeal of Romance, edited by Jayne Ann Krentz (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992), pp. 3–4.
  19. Ballaster, ibid.
Featured image: Julia Roberts and Richard Gere in Garry Marshalls Pretty Woman (1990)