Let's talk about 50 Shades of Grey. Everyone else is. And by "everyone," I mean middle-aged ladies getting re-blonded in the nicer salons of Manhattan's Upper East Side (according to a friend who tweeted me about overheard conversations there), girlfriend book clubs on the Right and Left Coasts (and some in between), a panel of female fans of the book on HLN's Dr. Drew talk show, ditto The Today Show and NPR, mommy-bloggers around the globe and, as of this week, all the major movie studios in Hollywood.
Written by a London TV executive named E.L. James, 50 Shades of Grey started as a self-published piece of e-book erotica, dubbed "mommy porn" by its readers. An Australian publisher put it online and 250,000 downloads later (erotica being safer to read on a Kindle than in paperback), the first of a trilogy by the author has become "Twilight for grown-ups." New York publisher Vintage bought the American publishing rights to it last week for a seven-figure advance. They're rushing it into print, with 750,000 copies due in bookstores April 17.
It's a word-of-mouth phenomenon, all right, pushed to the top of the pop culture buzz-o-sphere by women readers turned on by the mildly racy BDSM encounters between 50 Shades' two lead characters. They are: Anastasia Steele, a 22-year-old virginal college student in the Pacific Northwest; and Christian Grey, a 27-year-old billionaire industrialist with a deep streak of bedroom kinkery. She visits his office to interview him for the college paper (he's an alumnus) and he's deeply attracted to the dark-haired beauty who trips and falls onto his office's plush pile carpet.
Precisely 85 pages into the book, Christian at last deflowers Anastasia. (E.L. James believes in protracted verbal foreplay.) The author is a careful, if inelegant writer. In the de-virginizing scene, Christian explores Anastasia's nethers gently with his fingers, then "kneels up and pulls a condom over his considerable length" before doing the deed.
Among words not used in the book: penis, vagina, cock and pussy. Genitals are simply referred to as his or her "sex." Descriptions are both breathless and clunky: "He's going to kiss me there! I know it! And part of me is glorying in anticipation."
Anastasia's reaction to everything Christian does, whether running her bath water or using her as his sexual finger puppet, is either "holy crap" or "holy shit." By comparison, Lady Chatterley is the Dowager Countess of Downton Abbey.
Secrecy may be the secret to 50 Shades' success so far. Readers don't want to admit they've read it, but they can't wait to share it with their galpals.
The way women whisper about the book's sex scenes, Christian Grey is the Marquis de Sade preying on Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. But the book is mostly talk, not action, and about as racy as an episode of Showtime's Gigolos. Christian has an S&M playroom in his spectacular home, but while he threatens painful punishments on the naïve-but-willing Anastasia (he's had her sign a contract about what she will and won't do as his sexual submissive), all she ever suffers is a couple of light swats with a cat o'nine tails and a spanking or two before some mind-blowing sexytime.
On his prime time panel discussion of the book, Dr. Drew Pinsky, who said he wanted a refund for the hours he spent reading 50 Shades cover to cover, classified the treatment of Anastasia as "abusive" and uttered stern warnings about women getting caught up in fantasies about being dominated by a sexual sadist. But he missed the point, as his wife of 20 years, Susan, on the show that night as a fan of the book, kept trying to tell him.
The book actually keeps its female protagonist in charge of everything that happens in the bedroom. She has the power. The couple in 50 Shades only pretends to be slave and master. Anastasia is actually the one setting the rules (she renegotiates the sex contract on just about every page) and Christian accedes to all her wishes. Christian's basically a nice guy (though, as Dr. Drew would put it, he has "childhood chaos" issues) and he respects Anastasia for her wit and intellect. For all his slick authoritarian posing, he's sensitive in the extreme and not stingy about lavishing attention and gifts. (I thought the hottest scene was when he gave Ana a brand new two-door Audi, but that says everything about my fantasy life.)
James isn't a great writer, littering 50 Shades with too-obvious allusions to Tess of the D'Urbervilles. The e-book is replete with terrible punctuation (two and sometimes three spaces after each sentence fill the paragraphs with visual potholes, which I hope the editors at Vintage will remedy) and though her characters are supposed to be Americans, they use British-isms like "amongst" and feeling "at sea" instead of just "confused." Christian threatens to give Ana a "good hiding." As literature, it's less polished than a Danielle Steel romance. "My subconscious sneers," Ana thinks to herself at one point. And how does it do that exactly?
With the big publishing deal already done, movie studios piled on this week to compete for film rights to 50 Shades of Grey. According to the Los Angeles Times, top execs from Warner Bros., Sony Pictures, Fox 2000, Universal and Paramount made elaborate presentations to E.L. James and her literary agent, Valerie Hoskins. They all want to make the winning deal for turning the trilogy into a series of movies. Paramount, according to one source quoted in the Times, put female execs on video, raving about the novels. Warner Bros. production president Greg Silverman went after the movie rights after personal endorsements of the books from his wife and her mother.
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The movie studios seem to be slotting the 50 Shades audience as a slightly older version of the Twilight demographic; both appeal to female fans in love with a story of forbidden romance. It's Pretty Woman without the hooker connotations. It's 9-1/2 Weeks with Armie Hammer instead of Mickey Rourke.
There's one scene in the book that finds Anastasia knotted to the bedposts with one of Christian's gray silk ties. Fans of 50 Shades, perhaps living out some bedroom fantasies of their own, have made the ties best sellers, according to the UK paper The Daily Mail. They give them to their husbands and boyfriends - their own little private message.
On a recent visit to CNN's studios in Los Angeles, I spotted Dr. Drew in the makeup room, donning just such a gray silk tie before he went on his HLN show. "Secret code to 50 Shades fans?" I asked him. Nope, he said. His wife asked him to wear it.