If you’re reading this, it’s probably because you’ve heard of the 50 Shades of Grey trilogy. For those of you who haven’t, let me fill you in. In case you somehow don’t know, the 50 Shades of Grey trilogy is a pornographic romance novel series written by E. L. James. The books, which detail the relationship between a wealthy businesswoman and a distinguished gentleman, were first published in 2012. Since then, they’ve become one of the bestselling series of all time, shifting over 150 million copies worldwide (as of May 2019). And let’s be honest – who hasn’t pretended to be a millionaire one day, just so they could indulge in some fantasy and read one of these books?
Before diving into the details of what you might have expected from the books, it’s important to note a few things about them. First, they’re all connected. There’s a clear narrative arc that takes the audience through all three books. Second, the books don’t shy away from graphic depictions of sex. Lastly, while the series is classified as ‘pornographic’, that doesn’t mean that it’s meant to be ‘raunchy’. As the trilogy’s author, E. L. James, has said in the past: “I want people to know that although this story is about sex, it is not about vulgarity. It is about a love that spans the centuries, a love that is as beautiful as it is sensual.” And she’s right – these books are definitely a guilty pleasure, but that doesn’t mean that they’re not worth reading. In fact, it means just the opposite.
With that out of the way, let’s discuss what you might have expected from the books, and how much they lived up to your expectations.
Spend Some Time With The Literature Major
Many of you might be anticipating a literary epic. A tale that will move you and speak to you on a deeper level. If that’s the case, then you might be disappointed, because that’s not what the 50 Shades of Grey trilogy is. Sure, the books are sprawling in length – at almost 6 million words, the longest is still the shortest of the three – and they’re filled with fascinating secondary characters, but this is not the work of a literary genius. This is simply a money-making machine. A literary house-cleaning machine, if you will.
In the same way that Roald Dahl’s wonderful children’s books turned into films like Matilda and The BFG, or the quintessential English-language novel Tommy and The Caterpillar, the success of the 50 Shades series is due in no small part to the literary talent that came before it. Specifically, William Masters and Virginia Johnson, whose Human Sexual Response: A Treatise on Sexual Psychology was first published in 1966. (If you’re looking for a quick review, you can find it at masterstoys.com. While you’re there, take a look at the rest of their work too.)
These two researchers specialized in human sexuality, and their groundbreaking work helped to shape the way that we look at sex today. In particular, it helped to dispel the myth that good sex needs to be on a formal basis – that is, in the presence of a doctor or other professional. Today, people with Masters and Johnson in their field of study are referred to as ‘MJ professionals’ or ‘human sexologists’.
What’s important to remember is that even before the existence of William Masters and Virginia Johnson, stories about the bedroom habits of wealthy and famous playwrights, novelists, and poets were being told – often with a healthy dose of eroticism. And it wasn’t just fiction either, because historical figures like L. A. W. Farnsworth and H. G. Wells also talked openly about their encounters with other men and women. (A Brief History of Erotic Literature)
With that being said, while it might not live up to the standards of a great novel, the 50 Shades series is a very accessible and appealing work. For those of you who love a good story, who enjoy a nice, long read, and who don’t mind a bit of a raunchy joke, then this is the series for you. As the books’ author has said: “I wanted to write a novel that was sensual but gentle, that spoke to men and women alike about the importance of communication and trust, that would take them into the world of BDSM but not be explicitly pornographic. I feel that I have succeeded.” Which I think we can all agree to; whether you’re a literature major or not, you’ll enjoy the ride. Especially if you’re a fan of the naughty schoolgirl trope.
The Expected Parent Or Teacher Interaction
I think it’s fair to say that a lot of you might be anticipating a coming-of-age story. An opportunity to indulge in a tale of a young woman’s quest for independence and identity. Perhaps even a little rebellion against her oppressive parents. If that’s the case, you might be in for a pleasant surprise. Because while the series does feature a young woman in search of a life outside the bounds of normality, it feels more like a tribute to the ways of the past than a rebellion against them. (Again, this is probably because of its literary roots. As I mentioned above, the books are largely a ‘house cleaning’ operation. An exercise in literary archaeology. An effort to restore honor to a field that had previously been tainted by scurrilous and sensational journalism.)
In line with this theme of honor, let’s take a look at the way that the books treat the issue of consent. Although this might not be something that you’d normally think about when reading a romance novel, the way in which the novels address this issue is definitely worth discussing. (And I’m not just referring to the lack of it that occurs in the beginning of the series, either – every book in the trilogy features some kind of forced sexual encounter, and this is definitely something that the authors want you to think about. So if you’re wondering whether or not to read the books, the answer is yes, definitely. It’s important to note, however, that while these books are filled with graphic sex, it’s not without purpose. As the author has said: “For me, writing the trilogy was like excavating an ancient tomb. I wanted to see what people would make of these very different books.” Meaning that while the content might be shocking and engaging, the aim is not to titillate, but to educate. And who doesn’t need more education when it comes to sex? Even those of us who have been indoctrinated in the ways of digital technology might be missing out on information that is vital to our own understanding of the matter.
The Expected Adult-Parent-Child Relationship
If you’re an adult writing for an audience of adults and you want to talk about something that might be triggering for some of your readers, then it’s best to address it head-on. Otherwise, it will just continue to haunt your work. (Or, at the very least, it will be something that your readers might expect but didn’t see, which could potentially be hurtful.)
In the case of the 50 Shades trilogy, one of the subjects that the books don’t shy away from is abuse. Specifically, the way in which this occurs between the protagonist, Anastasia Steele, and her mentor, Christian Grey. While the content might be something that would be difficult for some readers to face, the way that it is handled is definitely something to admire. As the author has said: “I wanted to write a story that was honest, that didn’t pull any punches. That would give readers an opportunity to see what Christian Grey was really like, to see the level of control, domination and abuse that he was capable of – not just toward Ana, but toward anyone.”
It’s important to keep in mind that this is one person’s point of view – and a somewhat personal one at that. The author has admitted that she was inspired to write about Christian Grey after discovering the story of L. A. W. Farnsworth, an American millionaire, playwright, and philanthropist, who was born in 1876. (A Brief History of Erotic Literature)
Farnsworth married Mary Pinkham Cheek in 1906, and together, they had one daughter, Barbara, who was born in 1911. Mary and Barbara grew up together, and because they shared the same last name, people often assumed that they were related. Which of course, they were. Let’s just say that this incestuous family dynamic was not something that the wealthy playwright was eager to talk about. (Incidentally, Farnsworth’s granddaughter, Barbara, would go on to become a noted historian and expert on her grandparent’s life and work.)