I first heard of this book sometime in 2012 when my fifteen year old daughter announced that it was all the talk at her private secondary girls’ school in Oxford. It seems that the book had become unofficial compulsory reading for fifth and sixth formers and in due course a copy came home. I had often complained that my daughter didn’t read enough, she confined herself mainly to reading compelled by her studies, but this book was compelled too, by peer pressure. In due course she announced that she had finished the book and I asked how she found it. It was pronounced to be, ‘not at all suitable for you, Dad, and rather badly written.
That was three years ago, and it seems that by that time the book had already broken many best seller records. I discovered that as early as 1 August 2012, Amazon UK had announced that it had sold more copies of Fifty Shades of Grey than it had the entire Harry Potter series combined, making E. L. James its best-selling author, replacing J. K. Rowling. My daughter had never shown any interest in the Harry Potter series, and none of these volumes graced our bookshelves, so the temporary intrusion of Fifty Shades of Grey represented her first step into what might be called popular fiction crafted for a mass market.
With my curiosity roused I looked for literary reviews of the book and discovered that its erotic nature had led to it being dubbed ‘Mommy Porn’ because it was supposed to be most popular with married women over thirty. However it was also said to be popular among teenage girls and college students, a fact I could confirm from my daughter’s reports. I also learned that the book’s popularity had excited renewed interest in erotic literature, leading to the republication of past best sellers of this genre. However, I have no knowledge of any lingering interest developing at my daughter’s school, the Fifty Shades of Grey having seemingly cast its fleeting shadow and passed on in a clear blue sky.
Not having read the book I cannot write a review, but many literary critics have reported that the Fifty Shades of Grey is badly written and has a ‘puny plot.’ Sir Salman Rushdie is reported to have said that he had never seen anything so badly written that got published. So it seems that my daughter is in good company in her judgement of the writing. This provokes the question: why is the book so popular? Perhaps I should go back to my own schooldays to find the answer. In the 1950s it was D H Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover that was being condemned as obscene, and plain covered copies were going the rounds. Then, as now, I suspect, the real interest was confined to a few well-thumbed pages.