E.L. James novel Fifty Shades of Grey has practically been flying off the shelves at bookstores and libraries alike. Over 60 million copies sold in 2012. Is it because the writing is top quality? Umm, no. I may not be a literary critic or the best writer myself, but I’ve read enough books in my life, both for enjoyment and when I was an English major, to recognize that the writing style of this book doesn’t compare favorably with the best writers of any time in human history. So, what gives?
I suspect there are several forces at play here. First, for many women, the book introduces a side of human sexuality that they may not have been aware of – and it does so from a woman’s perspective, through the lead character of Anastasia “Ana” Steele. We get to place ourselves right in Ana’s brain, reading about what she sees, feels, thinks, senses, all in great titillating detail.
We’ve all seen television shows where there’s a bit of male locker-room chat about women – and locker room chat tends to leave out the detail, where male characters, referring to a female character, describe sexual interludes as “oh, she was fine” or “long legs that just don’t quit, you know what I mean?”. In other words, typically there is almost no detail and everything is left to the viewer’s imagination. Likewise, most romance novels leave quite a bit of detail out, allowing the reader to use their imagination.
In the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy, with the amount of detail used to describe scenes in these books, not much is left to imagination. In effect, the reader gets to spy, to be a voyeur, into Ana’s inner self as she is introduced into the BDSM lifestyle through the character of Christian Grey.
Next, consider Anastasia Steele’s character. She’s bright, smart, full of life, quietly ambitious. Despite having had several step-fathers, she is portrayed as a likable character, a woman with very little baggage, who knows what she wants out of life. She’s not brash, pretentious or rude; and she doesn’t use her beauty or sexuality to try to manipulate her way through life. She has a small circle of close friends and is a reliable person – her friends can always count on her in a pinch. There’s nothing to dislike about her. Her adult life is just beginning and the entire world is an opportunity. How many of us would like to have had that for ourselves at her age?
Then, of course, there is Christian Grey. He’s described as beyond handsome… electrifyingly gorgeous, he comes across as self-assured, confident, in control, ambitious. Good family that he was adopted into as a young child; his mother is a top doctor, his father a successful attorney. He’s wealthy beyond imagination and his wealth was largely of his own making, a real go-getter type of man, the kind of person who gets things done. If his character had existed back in prehistoric times, this would have been the caveman who knew how to hunt, bring his kill back for his family and would have protected his family fearlessly from all dangers. This aspect speaks to the primal sense of finding the best mate to create and protect a family.
But oh no, that’s not all Christian Grey is. His flawed character, of the little boy wounded, speaks to the nurturing side so many women have. It calls to the “mommy will fix it and make everything better” aspect; more than that, it undoubtedly calls to the co-dependent that may lurk in oneself. Anastasia knows she has self-worth, but when interacting with Christian, her recognition of self is often subdued. Her thoughts and emotions become dependent upon what Christian says, what Christian thinks, what Christian does with her, to her, or about her.
For women who may have some chinks in their personal self-esteem development, this can be a potent draw. It’s the push-pull from what Anastasia does, affecting Christian, and vice versa. Anastasia finds that although Christian is portrayed as a powerful person, she also has power over him; this lends her a boost in her own self-esteem as she slowly begins to repair Christian’s wounded psyche. She leads him from a life of BDSM and dark sexual needs into a life where he can embrace “hearts and flowers” and romance. And who doesn’t like to feel powerful from time to time? There’s an obvious, yet subtle, power-play occurring between the characters.
And of course, there’s the sexual prowess of Christian. He comes across as a consummate lover. Christian is able to read the body language of his partner; in nearly every sexual escapade, he knows exactly what his partner needs, even if she doesn’t realize it. Except for one particular scene, Ana never needs to stop Christian to tell him that what he is doing isn’t working, it is almost always perfect.
And apparently Christian never fails to perform. Anastasia rarely needs to tell Christian what she wants; he knows, although he may not always choose to immediately deliver. Remember Carly Simon’s song, “Anticipation”? One of the lines refers to anticipation as “Is keepin’ me waitin’. And Christian uses that to good effect with Anastasia, so that delays turn out to be a good thing.
Anastasia and Christian simply don’t seem to encounter any of the little issues that might occur in real life. How many of us have had at least one encounter where things just didn’t work out for one reason or another, leaving one or both partners less than satisfied? That doesn’t happen that way in Anastasia and Christian’s world and undoubtedly, that is quite appealing to many readers as well.
So, there you have some of the reasons for the success of these books. Yet, they are not truly unique in terms of characters. Consider the Black Jewels series by Anne Bishop. Christian’s character bears an uncanny resemblance to the character of Daemon Sadi. Perfect sex almost every time, with a male character that is wealthy, good-looking, powerful and needs a little “fixing” from a subtly strong female character that is just about perfect.
Personally, I preferred the Black Jewels series over the Fifty Shades of Grey series; I think Anne Bishop’s writing is significantly better than E.L. James’, and the characters are better developed in the Black Jewels books. But that’s just my opinion.