Reading the Fifty Shades Phenomenon


Fifty Shades of Grey was 2012’s literary phenomenon, and its impact continues to be felt in the press, social media, the publishing industry and academic studies. How do these books continue to attract such attention and what does this reveal about the culture we live in? Three scholars, editors of a forthcoming Sexualities journal issue on E.L. James’ much-derided trilogy, discuss its legacy, audiences, fandom, and the impact it has had on the way we read texts, and view sex.

There was certainly a sense that Fifty Shades of Grey would be a “flash in the pan”, a brief craze. What makes it worthy of research and discussion today?

Dr Ruth Deller: The books have received a huge amount of media coverage worldwide, from discussion over the subsequent “mainstreaming” of BDSM, to debates over the quality of James’ writing. There has been speculation over who will direct and star in the forthcoming film adaptations of the series and articles claiming a rise in the profits of sex shops marketing their products as those featured within the novels, which have spawned a range of spin-off products, from Fifty Shades themed evenings at Ann Summers shops, to the EMI release: Fifty Shades of Grey: The Classical Album. Booksellers’ shelves are full of erotic romance titles aping the marketing design of the Fifty Shades covers, each being hailed as “the next Fifty Shades of Grey”. It remains to be seen whether or not it is/was a craze, but it’s certainly a noteworthy “moment” in contemporary culture for the sales figures, or the fact that women are now openly buying erotica at the supermarket, not to mention how it started out as fan fiction published online and went on to achieve such mainstream success.

Sarah Harman: It has certainly been a success at academic conferences – but received rather negatively. It used to be that Twilight was the go to “bad text”, I became rather tired of hearing the same derisive statements from people who refused to engage with the novels, refused to acknowledge any pleasure they took in reading them. I’ve also heard it said that Fifty Shades is so bad, one need not even read it to know this. I became perturbed by statements that began with, “I haven’t read it, but…”

Bethan Jones: Most, if not all, articles on the series – certainly in the popular press – talk about how Fifty Shades started life as a Twilight fan fiction story called Master of the Universe. I’ve been seeing a lot of reactions from fans, both within Twilight fandom and beyond, along the lines of “if they wanted to publish fan fic why couldn’t they find a good piece of work”, suggesting a distinct difference between “bad” and “good” fan fic. From this has risen a particular kind of anti-fandom. These fans undertake a close reading of Fifty Shades and engage critically with it, publically expressing their distaste through online platforms. Rather than simply rejecting the texts, anti-fans are often highly critical of Fifty Shades for a number of reasons: because it’s badly written, it’s poorly-researched, it normalises violence against women, it perpetuates a culture in which “no” can mean “yes”. However these anti-fans are also responsible for negotiating hierarchies in fan culture, acting as cultural gatekeepers of taste.

You’re editing a journal of responses to the trilogy with contributions from a range of authors.  Can you tell us about some of the articles?

Ruth: We’ve got nine different papers in all, some long, some short, that consider the trilogy from different theoretical perspectives, including sexuality and gender studies, media studies, English literature, religion, psychology and law. There are, broadly speaking, three categories that the papers fall into: 1) looking at the content of the books themselves, 2) the responses of readers/audiences and 3) the impact the books have had more widely. The papers cover everything from how sex shops use the books to sell products, the relationship between the books, other forms of erotica and the law, how religious readers blog about them.

When the books are discussed in the media and in the academic conferences that we’ve attended, not only have many of these commentators not actually read them, the people who have read them don’t seem to be listened to very much. So the three of us were particularly interested in representing the voices of readers. There are four papers that consider very different audiences of the books. Many of them read the books to mock them, but then there are others getting turned on by them – and some readers find them sexually exciting yet still criticise them.  So there’s been a very mixed reaction.

How do you think that the origin of Fifty Shades as Twilight fan fiction has affected this mixed reception?

Sarah: I’m reminded that a friend of mine wrote in a Tumblr blogpost, that because itstarted life as a Twilight fan fiction it already had two black marks against its name before I even started [reading]:
1. It has been marketed as “erotic”, which invariably meant it would be as genuinely erotic as a soggy plaster
[and] 2. Although the link may be tenuous, it was irrevocably tied to Twilight, which, as everybody knows, is The Worst Thing That Has Ever Happened To Anyone”.

Ruth: It’s not just its fanfic origins: genre fiction is one of those areas where there’s a lot of snobbery, and that’s especially the case for romance and for the kinds of bestsellers like Fifty Shades and Dan Brown that you’re not “supposed” to like for whatever reason – usually “bad writing”. The readers we surveyed were very aware of this and the majority read the books because of curiosity; many of them do so deliberately to mock them. At the same time, several readers were quite angry at all the criticism and wanted to read them in spite of the criticism, rather than because of it.

Bethan: I’m probably in a bit of a strange position here, as I’m both an academic studying fan culture, and a member of various fan communities myself. I hang out on LiveJournal, I’m friends with people in a range of fandoms and I’ve written about Twilight fan fiction previously, so I feel like I’m coming at this question from two different viewpoints. I think Ruth makes a good point that genre fiction is an area where there’s a lot of snobbery. That was easy to see when it came to Twilight – especially when the films were released – and I think Fifty Shades’ origins as Twilight fan fiction has affected its reception at least partly. I don’t think we’d have the same reaction to a book based on a James Bond story. There are also assumptions made about fan fiction. One of the more pervasive myths I’ve seen floating around is that it consists of stories written by strange people on the internet about men having sex. There’s still an idea that people write fan fic because they’re not good enough to be published on their own merit. I do think that these have an effect on the way people receive Fifty Shades.

As a fan I have found the way in which fan fic writers themselves have received the trilogy very interesting. There’s been a lot of controversy within Twilight fandom about Fifty Shades. A lot of fans have accused E.L. James of “selling out” by making a profit from a story which was originally published for free as fan fiction, and based on an already popular series. There have also been a lot of comments about the quality of the writing – the fact that there are much better works to be found online, with better characterisation, grammar, plot points, etc. is pretty galling for many fans.

Sarah: When Bethan and I began our research, we figured there were bound to be fan-produced stories that inverted the Dominant/submissive dynamic between Anastasia and Christian, or instead might pair Ana or Christian with the character of Jòse, Ana’s best friend. But when we went to look for it – it just wasn’t there. It was the academic version of the horse before the cart, I suppose. There are plenty of parodies though, especially on Amazon as E-books.

Fifty Sheds of Grey is a popular parody of the infamous trilogy. Image © friendlydrag0n
Fifty Sheds of Grey is a popular parody of the infamous trilogy. Image © friendlydrag0n

Bethan: The sheer number of Fifty Shades parodies that came out after the series was released was ridiculous – more than any other text I can think of. Some of these parodies have also made their way quite high up the book charts  – Fifty Sheds of Grey and Fifty Shames of Earl Grey are just two that spring to mind.

Sarah: I wonder how the recent Smash Pictures porn parody, Fifty Shades of Grey: a XXX Adaptation relates to these parodies. I mean, it’s not fan fiction in any strict sense of the word, as porn is rather a commercial product …

Bethan: True, and fan fiction is considered to exist outside such commercial industries. It is made up of giving, receiving and reciprocating. Attempts to commodify fan fiction for financial gain, like the for-profit archive FanLib for example, persistently misread “community” as “commodity”, and often alienate fans in the process.

What is your take on the great deal of current speculation about the forthcoming Fifty Shades… film? What do you think the reaction might be to the film on its release?

Sarah: I think it will be a really interesting development, not only in terms of audience and reception – it’ll be fascinating to see whether it sells the same numbers of tickets as it did books – but also as an adaptation/translation on the screen. It will really challenge the distinction between the “erotic” versus the “pornographic” – if such a differentiation can be offered, as I’ve discussed elsewhere. How will the film translate the book’s scenes onto the screen and still remain, I suppose, non-explicit or offensive, for a mainstream audience, in order to go out on general release with an, I presume, 18 certification?

Bethan: Fans (and anti-fans) are also talking about how the books might be translated to the screen. If you do a quick YouTube search for Fifty Shades of Grey it’s amazing how many fan trailers already exist. Bear in mind that we’re talking about a film that hasn’t yet gone into production so these fans haven’t got an existing text from which to draw clips (like with Twilight fan videos, for example). A huge amount of work has gone into finding alternative sources not only for the erotic scenes (Secretary gets used quite a lot, unsurprisingly) but for the right actors and actresses to portray Ana and Christian.

Ruth: Quite a few of the readers we surveyed were interested in the film. Traditionally adaptations of books inspire a lot of heated discussion: those who love the source material and hate the adaptation, those who love the adaptation and the books, those who love the films but haven’t read the books, and everything in-between. Many people on my Facebook feed tweeted one of the fan-made trailers the other day, believing it was “real”. I suspect some of the same discussions about the “quality” of the sex or the writing will remain, and the same discussions will be had about the acting, music, direction etc. I wouldn’t be surprised if it attracts the same kind of media comment as the likes of Mamma Mia! and Magic Mike – a vehicle for “silly” women on hen nights – as if women’s pleasures are somehow not to be considered seriously.

The Vintage edition paperbacks were the top-three bestsellers in both the UK and US in 2012. Amazon have also stated that the e-books outsold their physical counterparts. What do you think this says about James’ trilogy in particular, and the changing way in which we are now reading?

The trilogy as it appears on an iphone. Image © aneerenuj624.
The trilogy as it appears on an iphone. Image © aneerenuj624.

Ruth: In our research we found that 46% of the readers we interviewed had read the novels as e-books. One of them in particular found the subversive act of reading erotica on her Kindle rather exciting, and others said they liked this because “no-one knows you’re reading it”. Having said this, every single one of our respondents had discussed the books with other people, so even if they’re hiding that they’re reading it in some environments, there are other places where they are talking about it. It’s like the covers of the printed books – people said they were subtle and that was part of the appeal, yet everyone knows what they are.

Bethan: I suppose the ability to hide what you’re reading in some environments is the key thing there. I’m not sure if it says anything about Fifty Shades in particular though, rather it’s more interesting to consider this trend as an illustration of how the way we read is changing. I know the press have made a great deal out of Fifty Shades being read on Kindle, etc. but I don’t think we can make any assumptions without doing a lot more research on the whos, hows and whys of e-book sales. While I don’t think there’s any chance that paper books will be replaced by electronic versions, the role of social media in enabling discussions about the series – and in generating its anti-fandom – has been fascinating. I wonder if this is another legacy that fan fiction (with its online presence and internet archives) will leave us with Fifty Shades.

Sarah: Somewhat tangentially, this is something I’m also wondering about regarding the film adaptation. How will different spaces affect how the series is viewed? Will the film/s obtain general release? Will such a mainstream success be picked up by independent picture houses? And how will viewers prefer to watch it, in the public space of the cinema or the domestic space of the home? This is what I find so intriguing about Fifty Shades of Grey: while the research we’ve drawn together for the special issue will undoubtedly broaden our understanding of the phenomenon, there’s still more to be asked and understood in the future.

The special edition of Sexualities about E.L. James’ trilogy will be published later in the year.

Bethan Jones, Sarah Harman, Dr Ruth Deller

Bethan Jones, Sarah Harman, Dr Ruth Deller

Dr Ruth Deller is Senior Lecturer at Sheffield Hallam University. Sarah Harman is a PhD student at Brunel University. Bethan Jones is a PhD student at Aberysthwyth University.

Dr Ruth Deller is Senior Lecturer at Sheffield Hallam University. Sarah Harman is a PhD student at Brunel University. Bethan Jones is a PhD student at Aberysthwyth University.


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