Thursday, March 15, 2012

Culture Shock 03.15.12: 'Dangerous' book sees everything in 'Shades of Grey'

"Fifty Shades of Grey" is also available in
a convenient paperback.
For all of the publishing industry's ups and downs as it adapts to an environment of e-books and the Internet, it's still rare for any single book to shake up the status quo on as many levels as has the new best-seller "Fifty Shades of Grey."

First, you see, "Fifty Shades of Grey" is not your typical best-seller.

Not that most best-sellers have especially impressive literary pedigrees, but "Fifty Shades of Grey" comes from a very lowly estate indeed. It began as fan fiction — and not just ordinary fan fiction, but "Twilight" fan fiction.

Fan fiction is itself a "gray" area — a shadowy world where mostly anonymous authors write mostly atrocious stories of legally suspect status featuring other writers' characters. The Internet is full of these stories, where sex scenes are plentiful, inventive and almost invariably bad. But no one makes money off fan fiction, and most professional authors are sensible enough to leave these besotted typists alone.

Then, sometimes, a fanfic writer or a particular work of fan fiction will gain a following.

That's what happened to British writer E.L. James, a former TV executive turned fanfic phenom. Her racy "Twilight"-based fan fiction became so popular she changed the characters and expanded the story into a novel — the first novel of a trilogy, actually.

It then took off, alighting atop the New York Times and Amazon e-book best-seller lists, which brings us to the second way "Fifty Shades of Grey" is helping change everything.

After becoming a very successful e-book — and having a small print run published by something called The Writer's Coffee Shop — "Fifty Shades of Grey" has been picked up by a major imprint, Vintage. It's scheduled for publication (again) on April 3 and, as I write, ranks No. 5 on Amazon's chart. This is the new way of things: publishers turning the self-published into the really published.

And, thirdly, this is all the more interesting given the book's content, which happens to involve bondage, sadomasochism and power exchange. The book is heir to "The Story of O" and that "Sleeping Beauty" trilogy Anne Rice wrote under the pen name A.N. Roquelaure — except, judging from the free sample I downloaded, nowhere near as well written. (But what does one expect of a novel that started as fan fiction based on another, badly written best-seller?) Maybe "Fifty Shades of Grey" is actually closest to the last several Anita Blake: Vampire Hunter novels that all of Laurell K. Hamilton's earliest fans love to complain about?

Maggie Gyllenhaal learns the "proper"
way to take a letter in the cult film
"Secretary," also starring James Spader.
Even the title, "Fifty Shades of Grey," evokes the name of James Spader's character, Mr. Grey, in the kinky S&M romance "Secretary."

So, this is where things get really fun, because now "Fifty Shades of Grey" is dangerous. (The word "disturbing" gets thrown around quite a lot.) And that leads to absurdist spectacles in which professional worriers fret on chat shows about the horrible, horrible things perfectly reasonable, adult women are reading of their own free will.

Does Dr. Drew Pinsky realize that he comes off like a sexist jerk when he goes on the "Today" show and worries about the erotic fantasies of women who read "Fifty Shades of Grey"? Probably not.

This one book, "Fifty Shades of Grey," demonstrates how a novel can, via new technology and publishing models, rise from a literary ghetto, elevate an obscure author to transatlantic fame and generate controversy with sensational — but actually quite common — subject matter.

Maybe I should have kept working on that trashy "X-Men" fanfic I started 10 years ago? I could be famous by now.

Probably not.

1 comment:

  1. I just heard about this book for the first time the other day. Thanks for the backgrounder on this.