First off, snooty reviews like Salman Rushdie's and Julie Bosman's spectacularly miss the point. It makes no literary pretensions. EL James wasn't fishing for the Booker or the Orange prize when she wrote it. As a piece of fan fiction it was conceived and written as simple wanking fodder. James used her appropriated characters to explore kinky sex, BDSM and other fantasies she may or may not have. It has always been thus since the earliest days of the internet. The written word is a powerfully erotic but safe way of working through fantasies, in this case with the support and feedback of anonymous and semi-anonymous communities of fans. James's pieces grew because, for whatever reason, her work was passed around, read, and - ahem - used, more than her contemporaries. If you were getting great feedback about your naughty stories, wouldn't you try your hand at a book-length helping of filth?
I know what the literary snobs have in mind when they approach Fifty Shades. James would have had to turn something in like the erotic masterpiece, Delta of Venus. Making such a comparison is stand up ridiculous. Delta is a work of literary fiction. Its eroticism lies in the careful construction and corruption of believable characters, and their negotiation of scenarios involving old taboos around homosexuality and threesomes as well as problematic explorations of incest, abuse, and rape. Nin's collection speaks to sexualities repressed by the times and invites her readers to binge on an orgy of possibility, of letting the libido go and indulging all its fantasies, including (especially including) those dark places no one dared to speak of. All very disturbing and thought-provoking, but that's not where James wanted to go. Such comparisons are as facile as comparing Andy McNab to Leo Tolstoy, as opposing Dan Brown with Umberto Eco. James merely wishes to turn her readers on. Just as McNab and Brown want to thrill and puzzle theirs.
Dialogue and characterisation set the scene and fill the bits before and after erotic encounters. While the term "mummy porn" is problematic for all kinds of reasons, porn is what Fifty Shades most definitely is. Consider your average blue movie. Where they do have some sort of plot, it is almost entirely superfluous to the action that follows. It might establish the parameters of the situation (doctor/patient, teacher/pupil, cop/wrong 'un) to link in with the fantasies of the viewer, but they are relatively brief . Anything not to do with sex is merely filler. Fifty Shades operates on similar principles - scene setting, bonking, scene setting, more bonking, dialogue and development, yet more bonking. And the scenes themselves are written functionally from Ana Steele's perspective. While James fixates on the sex, it's not quite as crude as a crotch shot scene might be. This, for me, is one hook of James's writing. For Ana, sex, sub-play and BDSM (which is merely hinted at in the first book) are part of her process of sexual self-discovery. Christian Grey isn't just a beguiling billionaire with a penchant for kinky fucking, Ana wants him (and has him) as her first. For millions of James's readers part of the erotic charge is the connection between the broadening of the character's sexual horizons and their own early awakenings. It evokes that lost sense of excitement, of when everything was new, fresh, of that time when readers were at it like rabbits with their new and equally enthusiastic boyfriends and girlfriends. What James builds, especially for her core readership of 30/40-something women, is sexual nostalgia, of hot memories long since buried beneath the routine of the weekly fumble and occasional "alone-time". For large numbers of women, Fifty Shades is a welcome tonic.
All just good clean filthy fun? The characterisation isn't great, but that's not a problem in and of itself. It's just a means to a rather naughty end. Yet I'm not the first and I won't be the last to note the troubling gender politics underpinning the book. This owes something to its roots in Twilight, a tired and thankfully out-of-fashion reworking of the damsel-in-distress trope - but with vampires. Give me Buffy any day. However, James is not a prisoner of convention. Her protagonists did not have to be a naive, virginal young woman barely into adulthood, or a worldly-wise, brooding but mysterious billionaire who sweats masculinity. Ana didn't have to be the supplicant, the tool and foil of Christian Grey's sexuality. And yet she is, and this is James's second clever move.
As problematic the gender dynamics are, the relationship suffuses femininity's conventional subordination to masculinity with a sexual charge. Not every woman wants to be a princess, but gendered messages of that character bombard girls even before their infant minds awaken to consciousness. James's female readers are intimately acquainted with the domineering shadow of the masculine other, even if they consistently resist and reject the dependency it inculcates. Fifty Shades embraces that relation. The constant evocation of Ana's "inner goddess" when Grey is stoking and sating her desires affirms yin and yang gender essentialism, that knowing herself, finding herself, even discovering the pleasures of her own body is possible only by giving herself over to the powerful man. James here has provided an erotics of submitting to male domination. Power play is common in sex games, and by tying it to rather traditional but deeply embedded gender relations James allows her readers to experience its sexual power filtered through the intimate familiarity with growing up a girl.
Then comes the final move at the end of the first novel. There are glimpses of Grey's troubled past, and in the end Ana resists his will to make her his sexual receptacle. Yet she wants to save him. As his outward composure of mystery and demand for control dissolve with some mental disarray, the reader realises long before Ana does that he is equally as needy, that despite himself he can only become the settled man he affects to be if he truly shares with another. It's fairy tale stuff by way of riding crops, blow jobs, and sex in lifts, but provides a conventional narrative, one that is - despite the sex - quite conservative and totally unthreatening. Fifty Shades doesn't have the sophistication and nuance of literary eroticism, but its author's black and white play with the libidinal energies tied up in gender relations connects it to an audience of a size most writers can but dream.