There’s nothing I like more than reading a book which doesn’t feature on my prescribed reading list. And after weeks of furious cramming I’ve had enough of Beowulf, Shakespeare, and I hate to say it, even George (Eliot and Orwell). This summer, I thought, was the time to see what the nation is reading and to dabble in some popular literature.
Naturally, the best place to start would be with the book impressively dubbed fastest selling paperback of all time: E.L James’ Fifty Shades of Grey (if you haven’t already heard of it, you’re taking the Oxford bubble too seriously). It’s the baby of the digital download revolution, the raunchy result of a public too modest to show off their erotic library on the tube. Because let’s face it, revealing you know the correct knot required to tie someone up could be seen as socially daunting. But even then, if you happen to own a tangible copy, the cover art is deliciously elusive. Taking a glance at the cover, you’d have no idea that the silver-patterned tie illustrates a volume containing the phrase: “Come, I want to show you my playroom.” Walking into Waterstones, I carelessly picked up the bestseller prepared for its erotic content. What I wasn’t prepared for was my subsequent lack of faith in Britain’s literate population.
Ok, so that last comment probably sounds a bit harsh. But I did encounter Fifty Shades with an open mind, I really did. I just find it incredible that a book which is written with mediocre skill (at best), has trumped any and every Orange prize winner with its ‘oh my’s and casual references to riding crops. Reading Fifty Shades it’s easy to see its origins as a Twilight Fanfiction as James makes the parallels between characters easy to identify. Readers have their beloved Bella in the guise of technologically challenged Anastasia Steele (at 22 she has yet to discover email), and the vampire in the guise of vampish but still very much alive, Christian Grey. However, my disappointment with this piece of literature (the term is used loosely), is not in its blatant parallels to Twilight, but more so in the fact that nothing really happens. At all. Ever. Christian Grey, “dominant” and perhaps the biggest control freak in fiction, desires Anastasia Steele to be “submissive”. She complies then decides that, actually no, she’d rather not. Spoiler alert – oh wait – that was the whole plot.
So, why is the world reading this book? Possibly not for its comedic value, which admittedly was my incentive following the phrase: “He’s my very own Christian Grey flavour Popsicle”. What some readers may class as erotic, I found to be delightfully humorous. But perhaps this is due to my robotic English student analysis, which picked up an array of amusing literary features. For example, we have the motif of the “foil packet” which makes a continued appearance, Grey apparently possessing at least twelve condoms on his person at any given time, just in case. We have repetition of the phrase “my inner goddess” every other line, and a great deal of “lip biting” which appears in juxtaposition to Grey’s growing erection. James also includes many an intersexual, sorry, intertextual reference to Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Anastasia likening both herself and her relationship to Hardy’s classic. But perhaps most worryingly of all is the voice of our heroine. I could almost overlook the fact she orgasms multiple times (on demand) if it wasn’t for the regrettable truth that she sounds like a juvenile. Ana constantly refers to “down there” and is prone to the occasional outburst of “holy hell!” or “holy Moses” when something particularly shocking occurs. Usually when Grey gets naked.
Fifty Shades of Grey is as far as I could get from Beowulf without resorting to actual porn, and in that sense it certainly achieved its purpose. And I must confess, I did actually enjoy the book, and read aloud it made for glorious entertainment at a £4.09 steal. It may not be great literature, or deserving a 17 week reign in the charts, but it’s worth knowing what all the fuss is about. Even if you’re not completely whipped.