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'50 Shades of Grey': What is the appeal?

'50 Shades of Grey,' an erotic novel inspired by the 'Twilight' series, is soaring in popularity across the US.

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Fan fiction itself is not without controversy, however, and some famous authors, including Anne Rice, the prolific writer behind the "Vampire Chronicles" saga, among many others, is a vehement opponent to the movement. In a message posted to her website, Rice wrote, “I do not allow fan fiction. The characters are copyrighted. It upsets me terribly to even think about fan fiction with my characters."

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But despite the objections of some that fan fiction is less flattery and more intellectual theft, the fandom community is thriving, and as James is finding out, potentially very lucrative.

Originally, James published the first book of her trilogy through small Australian press The Writer’s Coffee Shop Publishing House and print copies were extremely hard to come by. Demand was so high that booksellers with copies available began advertising in the comments sections of blogs. Many women, including Von Holten, took advantage of their Kindles to purchase copies online, which is how the majority of the book’s over 250,000 copies have been sold. As a bonus, online books come with their own coverless guarantee of anonymity.

“Romance and erotica have been at the forefront of the e-book revolution because you can take e-books anywhere without telltale lurid covers revealing your reading habits,” says Fox.

Without the benefit of a sophisticated publicity campaign, the title has soared to No. 1 on The New York Times combined print and e-book fiction best-seller list for sales for this week, and is the No. 3 position on Amazon’s best-seller list, behind two installments of blockbuster young adult series "The Hunger Games."

Last week, however Vintage Books, a paperback division of Random House Inc., announced it had acquired the series, affirming the widespread popularity of the title, as well as ensuring a second wave of copies both in print and online. Even Hollywood has taken notice, and talk is swirling of a potential Tinseltown deal as well.

But what of the elephant in the room – the book's highly sexualized content, which ventures well beyond what has typically been considered mainstream. Is anyone talking about that?

In a Today Show segment that aired earlier this month, Dr. Drew Pinsky, a practicing physician and television personality, voiced his concerns.

This goes beyond the “swept away” fantasy, he said, arguing that the book might even go so far as to advocate violence against women and children. “It says something socially about us that’s a little bit disturbing,” he said.

Absolutely not true, said Dr. Logan Levkoff, a relationship expert, author and sexologist. “This is a relationship that is strictly consensual, and the power dynamics between the couple keep going back and forth.... While it  may be politically incorrect to fantasize about being submissive or taken care of, this is kind of an escape for people who are always taking care of everyone else.”

For Westchester-based mother and professional blogger Stacy Geisinger of StacyKnows.com, another early reviewer of “50 Shades of Grey,” the appeal of the book is perhaps less complicated. “These are hard times,” says Geisinger. “Not everything needs to be so serious.  Sometimes you can read a book just for enjoyment. [The book] makes you giggle when discussing this with your girlfriends.”

And from an "average" male perspective? Frank Santo offered his take on the book in The New York Daily News this week. According to Santo, "50 Shades of Grey" is "pornography, plain and simple," but its popularity shouldn't be a surprise. "When sex is used to sell blue jeans or bubble-gum, the effect is  cheap and cynical," Santo said. "But in "50 Shades" sex is used to sell, well, sex. So who is shocked that women are buying?"

Meredith Bennett-Smith is a Monitor correspondent.

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