'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.

“Initially, I had to put it down,” says one reader of '50 Shades of Grey.' “The sexual part was just, it was disturbing to me... [But] once you get through the initial shock, like anything else, you become desensitized in a way, I think,”

“50 Shades of Grey” is not exactly your typical book club read. An erotic novel with fan-fiction origins, penned by a mysterious British mother named E. L. James, this first book of a now infamous trilogy, includes explicit scenes and heavy doses of bondage and sado-masichism. It's being described by bloggers and reviewers as “Mommy porn."

Needless to say, Oprah has yet to bestow her seal of approval.

But across the country, this originally self-published romance which now stands at the top of The New York Times bestseller list, is taking over the discussion at book clubs – mystifying more than a few industry experts and dismaying some social commentators in the process.

In Shari Von Holten’s neighborhood, it started with a buzz among friends on Facebook. Then Van Holten’s Long Island neighbors started asking each other about the book the street, discreetly, or during chance encounters the market. “My friends were saying things like: 'I just finished it, it’s the best,'” says Von Holten.

Intrigued, she floated the title at her book club’s next meeting, and the women quickly agreed to read it for March.  “I knew it was a little explicit,” Von Holten says, “but I thought maybe we could try it."

A mother and the owner of her own celebrity news and review blog, haveuheard.net, Von Holten admits it wasn’t the easiest read – at first. “Initially, I had to put it down,” she says. “The sexual part was just, it was disturbing to me. At one point, I couldn’t even read it. I wasn’t enjoying it.” But in the name of her book club, Von Holten persevered, and this time, she couldn’t put it down. “Once you get through the initial shock, like anything else, you become desensitized in a way, I think,” she says.

Von Holten went on to finish the next two books in the series on her own.  In her review of the book on her blog, Von Holten wrote: “If you do read the series, consider yourself warned.  Once you pick it up – there is a 99.9999% chance you will not put it down.”

"50 Shades of Grey" tells the story of the very unconventional “romance” between the dashing, wealthy Christian Grey, a tycoon with a taste for the whip, and the innocent Anastasia Steele, a college literary student who willingly enters into a complicated dominant-submissive relationship with Grey.

“It’s erotic and sadomasochistic,” says Rose Fox, Publisher Weekly’s fantasy and romance reviews editor.

It's also a spin-off of sorts on the Bella and Edward dynamic from the popular young adult "Twilight" series. Although James created different lovers and a different plot, she drew her original inspiration from the romance between the "Twilight" characters – one a 100-plus-year-old vampire and the other an innocent young teen.

"Twilight," however, has been noted for its rather chaste depictions of love and romance.  "50 Shades of Grey" takes readers into a very different universe.

“James got her start on fan fiction forums, where word of mouth recommendations are highly valued and readers tend to really get into works that sexualize a familiar story in outrageous ways,” Fox says.

When the book first began receiving some attention on sites like The Huffington Post, more than a few commentators accused James of ripping off the idea from a 2009 story entitled “Master of the Universe,” published on fan-fiction site www.fanfiction.net. It has since been established, however, that Snowqueens Icedragon – the author of “Master of the Universe” – and E.L. James are indeed one and the same.

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."

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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