Just days ago, an agent, editor, book critic, and literary blogger sat around a table at a private downtown club, discussing the book no one had heard of. “And I told my cousin, there is no bestselling book I don’t know,” said the agent, laughing, who is celebrated for getting her stable of literary authors big advances with all the best imprints. “But I was wrong.”
Every so often a manuscript, like an impudent toddler, rises on unsteady feet and toddles onto the bestseller list without so much as a by-your-leave to that ignorant publishing foursome. Such a work is E.L. James’s 50 Shades of Grey, which, out of a teeny e-publishing community in Australia, managed the neat trick of vaulting to the top of The New York Times e-book and print bestseller lists, garnering a seven-figure deal from Vintage, and leaving readers clamoring for the as-yet-unpublished rest of the trilogy, all without ever being in print in the United States at all.
From Twilight to The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo to The Lost Carolina Finger Club (I made that last one up), we’ve come to expect our bestsellers to rise from obscure circumstances. Only The New Yorker’s nonfiction scribes are allowed to churn out blockbusters from a known address. But readers who found the popularity of those Swedish sext-hack-repeat sagas somewhat mystifying may have an even harder time with Shades of Grey.
Spoiler alert. It’s roughly the story of a soon-to-be college graduate, Anastasia Steele, set upon by a BDSM-loving corporate magnate, Christian Gray. Beyond that, it does not trouble itself with novelty. Things happen in “nanoseconds,” eyes watch like “hawks,” people are “putty” in each other’s hands. Anastasia trips—not once, not twice, but thrice—literally into Christian’s arms. She narrates their chemistry in rafts of breathless interior monologue, while, at intervals, Christian stares at her with “obsidian” eyes and provides terse explanations for buying her lingerie: “Your jeans were spattered with vomit.”
The lover of the junkiest romance, the most hastily written porn, the most pieced-together chick-lit—even those free pamphlets at the gynecologist—might be allowed a touch of disappointment at the level of the proceedings. (If you forget that Anastasia is impervious to amour, remember, her name is “Steele.”)
Those nods to Tess of the D’Ubervilles, scattered like errant dandruff, will fool no one. That line about ordering everything on the menu for her at the hotel—that’s from Pretty Woman! And wait—this lady looks suspiciously like Twilight's Bella, but grown-up. Her memo-loving, last-minute-rescuing, nipple-clip-wielding lover is his own kind of cold-blooded vampire. Let’s not even get to the matter of the plot, for which the reader keeps poking around, like the elusive last hunk of white meat in a bowl of chicken soup. Popular trash isn’t new, but bad literature that’s all bad with no story to truck it along is.
But that’s the point. Blogs made us self-publishers. Now social networks have made us a world of self-sharers, tapping out our stories in Tweets, FB statuses, Pinterests, and, on a hardworking day, comments—all the while gracing the work of other authors with our Likes, retweets, shares, +1s, and Re-pins. In this cozy twosome, digitally pinky-linking, plot is beside the point. We don’t escape—we commune. Is it any surprise we’ve started to want our books the same way?
And James cops to it all. She published the book with The Writer’s Coffee Shop in Australia, a “book-loving community” that’s a social sharing site as well as a distributor. One tab welcomes visitors to “Become a Writer,” which James certainly did, happily basing her characters on Edward and Bella in her fan fiction, then morphing them, allegedly, into her own. But she, and we, are not disturbed that this transformation did not come to pass. Edward and Bella are meant—like her manuscript—to be shared.
And that’s why 50 Shades of Grey isn’t a terrible book. Nor is it an Eat, Pray, Love-esque word-of-mouth behemoth, and nor yet some viral YouTube drunk baby phenom. No. It is the ne plus ultra of emails, the most-Liked Facebook status, the most re-Pinned of Pinterests, a woman-to-woman pass-along that occurs alongside recipes for “skinny shakes,” mile-tracking statuses, and re-Pins of kitchen subway tile (guilty). 50 Shades of Grey needs no plot—it pokes along, just like us, that BDSM chamber only so much window dressing.
And don’t worry. In your fan-fic version, you can add in that blue subway tile.