50 Shades of Embarrassment

After the plane reached its cruising altitude last week, I fired up the iPad and dove into my book club’s current selection. I had started the novel poolside the prior day, so knew the direction it was heading, but when I reached the potential “contract” between Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey, I started feeling a bit uncomfortable.

My unease was heightened by the fact that I was seated next to an elderly couple that was – along with their friends across the aisle, one of whom was breathing oxygen through a nasal tube – headed to the Northwest for an Alaskan cruise. The very sensibly dressed husband and wife at my side were eating sandwiches they had packed for the flight, and both were rushing to finish James Michener’s Alaska before landing in Seattle.

I’m not one for small talk on planes – I see them as mini vacations in themselves – so I generally give myself permission to keep my nose in whatever book I’m devouring. This time, as I read Ana’s thoughts on hard and soft limits with Mr. Grey, I was grateful that I hadn’t brought along a paperback with a tell-tale cover. However, just in case, every time the sweet woman next to me turned to take in the view out the window, I tilted my e-reader just a little to the right.

Those who know me well, and even those who know me just a little, will understand my discomfort and note the irony of my reading Fifty Shades of Grey. One of my college majors was literature – you know, writing papers on Chaucer, DeFoe and Hardy – and I’ve never opened anything by Nicholas Sparks or Danielle Steele, or with Fabio on the cover.

During my adult life, I’ve participated in several book clubs, and have always looked forward to monthly discussions of “real” literature (oh, and also the food, wine, gossip and general girlfriend time). Most of my friends and colleagues probably consider me a serious reader.

And yet, in the past few years, I’ve raced through the Twilight, Hunger Games and Stieg Larsson series, so I guess that even in my rapidly advancing age, I’m capable of change – or at least flexibility. Apparently, by relishing these popular, decidedly un-literary tomes, I’ve joined a new breed of “mommy readers.” And, like millions of others in this new demographic, I’m enjoying a book that’s widely considered “mommy porn.”

To enlighten the handful of you who have not heard of Fifty Shades of Grey, it’s the story of a virginal, soon-to-graduate college student who strikes up a relationship with a late-20s gazillionaire, who has a taste for eroticism and contracts the sexual novice to become his “submissive” for a three-month period. The troubled, yet handsome and very adept protagonist has a penchant for BDSM – a term that’s not part of my everyday vernacular.

Apparently segments of British author E. L. James’ book started appearing with the title Master of the Universe on a Twilight-related “fan-fiction” website a while back. After concerns of copyright infringement and the book’s sexual nature, James started publishing the series on her own site, FiftyShades.com.

About a year ago, an Australian “virtual publisher” released the trilogy’s first volume, Fifty Shades of Grey, as an e-book and a print-on-demand paperback. Through word of mouth and “viral marketing,” the book’s popularity snowballed, and this spring, Vantage Books reportedly paid James a seven-figure advance for the publishing rights.

In April, TIME Magazine listed James as one of the “100 Most Influential People in the World,” and as of this week, James’ trilogy holds the top three spots on the New York Times best-seller lists for “Combined Print & E-Book Fiction,” “Paperback Trade Fiction,” “E-Book Fiction” and “Combined Hardcover & Paperback Fiction.”

The series is being translated into some 30 languages, a movie is in the works and it has provided fodder for Dr. Drew on The Today Show and the 82-year-old Barbara Walters on The View. It even received the popular-culture stamp of approval via a Saturday Night Live parody.

To be clear, the book is not for the faint of heart or sexually reserved. It is very graphic and steps well beyond the bedroom boundaries most of us keep. In fact, Fifty Shades of Grey has been banned – so far – by public libraries in Florida, Georgia and Wisconsin, but perhaps that only adds to its allure.

And while the content is titillating, to say the least, the writing is far from high brow. I’ve heard many women voice the same assessment as Huffington Post writer Julie Gerstenblatt, who recently noted, “I thought it was awfully written and yet I couldn’t put it down.”

The good news is that adult women who rarely pick up books are now reading voraciously. And, as someone who would love to write a novel someday, I’m all for the publishing industry’s survival.

Here in the Seattle area – where much of the books’ activity takes place – Shades of Grey has become Topic A among moms at the gym, the grocery store, charity league meetings and dinner parties.

The phenomenon has spread across the nation. In fact, last week an LA-area friend posted a Facebook photo indicating that a dozen or so of her book club members tackled a 50 Shades discussion with cold beverages in a hot tub. Now that’s a meeting I would have liked.

As for my own book club, our tastes have recently ranged from The Help to The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. We advocate a low-pressure approach – understanding that most of us juggle zillions of obligations – and stress attendance and fun over book completion. And so, over the past few weeks, when I have run into my fellow book clubbers in public, conversations have taken place in hushed tones: “Are you reading it?”; “How far are you?”; and “I couldn’t put it down, and now I’m finishing the third book.”

In truth, I haven’t found much inspiration from the book. I am, and always will be, a somewhat prude Midwesterner at heart (just ask some of my former boyfriends). I don’t dream about Christian Grey, and I certainly don’t fantasize about cheating on my husband of 21 years.

And, yet, I’m still reading – mostly on the elliptical at the gym – and I’m determined to finish the book before my club’s meeting.  Maybe that’s the point: because my book club and just about every other 30-plus woman in America is reading Fifty Shades of Grey, I’ve given myself permission to do so, too. And, really, what’s the harm in that?

-       Linda Williams Rorem, 21 May 2012
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Comments

  1. Hi Linda, Loved this! After reading your piece, I just may pick this up–at least “The Hunger Games,” which my 27-year-old daughter has been assuring me I’d enjoy!

    • Thanks, Millie. I just finished the book and the ending definitely left me hanging, so I’ll probably move on to book two. The Hunger Games is worth a read; it takes a while to get into the first book, but before long, you’ll become engrossed in the story. It’s always good to find a book that parent and child can both enjoy!

  2. Hi Linda, Loved this! After reading your piece, I just may pick up this up–at least “The Hunger Games,” which my 27-year-old daughter has been assuring me I’d enjoy!

  3. kristinespinasse says:

    Hello Linda, I haven’t read the book but am fascinated by its viral spread and its range of readers (males and females of all ages).

    Like you, I hope to write a novel one day and stories of an author’s success give us hope. The reason I am writing is to tell you how beautifully written your article is! I don’t know about the 50 shades book, but your story is a page-turner :-)

    P.S. Just to be stubborn, and swim against the 50 Shades stream, I am reading Gustave Flaubert’s “Un Coeur Simple” (“A Simple Heart” or “A Simple Soul”). I remembered it being better than it is… As for racy? Does a stuffed parrott figure into 50 Shades?

    • Thanks for the message and support, Kristin! Flaubert sounds like a great author to turn to after I finish “50 Shades…” I think I’ll download “The Simple Heart” right now!

  4. Thanks for your comment, Fiona. It’s hard to understand why this book is so popular, but many women I respect (married and close to our age) have plowed through all three volumes. It will be interesting to see where this “trend” leads!

  5. Hi Linda, GREAT article! I am a member of a local book club as I love to read, however, my current book club decided that this was not appropriate for our members and I tend to agree. I have just finished the second book and will absolutey read the third one, but more because I like to be current with trends (and this sure is popular!) than the fact that it is a great novel. It is very racy and even I (pretty unshockable) have been shocked by some of the sexual exploits. At the end of the day this is very light reading and obviously will appeal more to ladies looking for love than someone who is happily married. However, I did get a few ideas from this book, and it certainly never hurts to spice up your life!!

Trackbacks

  1. [...] promise, this is not just another post about Mommy Porn (we’ll wait for the Fifty Shades film series for that). Instead, I’ll focus on how most women [...]

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