'Fifty Shades of Grey': A winning romance novel goes from fan fiction to viral hit

By now you’ve probably heard the tale of the little erotic novel that could, Fifty Shades of Grey. Originally released last year, first-time fiction author E.L. James’s surprise bestseller has been quietly heating things up for months as word of mouth spread. The romance novel, which prominently features bondage, S&M, and assorted other deliciously debaucherous acts, has been gaining traction recently and headlines about the “cult hit” helped catapult it to the top of the New York Times Best Seller List this past weekend.

The Today Show even aired a segment wondering what it said about women and feminism today that we were devouring this bondage fantasy. But it is all about the fantasy. James originally wrote it as Twilight fan fiction, submitting it chapter-by-chapter online. Then Writer’s Coffee Shop Publishing House out of Australia snapped it up, breaking it into three books (Fifty Shades of Grey, Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed).

If you don’t recognize that jacket, it’s no surprise. A majority of the more than 250,000 copies sold have been through eBooks, surreptitiously consumed by women everywhere (myself included). But now that Vintage Books (Random House) has signed Grey and the rest of the books in the trilogy, more hard copies will be readily available.

The cover they’ve chosen is pretty nondescript, but don’t let that stop you. I’m pretty glad I got to read all about recent college grad Anastasia and Christian, the insanely hot CEO who wants to make her his submissive via my Kindle app. The vivid descriptions of both the “vanilla sex” and the kind that includes things like whips and floggers was utterly engrossing and I didn’t need anyone on my train home to know what I was reading.

And yet still I bristle at the term “mommy porn” that’s being bandied about in reference to the Grey series. It conjures up too many images of bored, frustrated housewives. And I can tell you from my seriously unscientific sampling that the book has appeal across socioeconomic and racial barriers. For all that you could nitpick about the book –repetitious phrases, enough references to Anastasia’s Inner Goddess and her Subconcious to make them extra characters or the Twilight comparisons (insecure and innocent beauty who doesn’t know she’s attractive meets controlling older man with a magnetic personality) — the story is just plain fun. In the realm of guilty pleasures, it’s far from the worst thing you could read – and it doesn’t deserve all the condescension I’m seeing in the coverage of James’ rise to the top.  Okay, now back to my Kindle.

The sales alone say I can’t be the only one who got sucked in! But what about you, Shelf Lifers? Have things gone all Grey for you?

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