The last time this happened, I was in college. It was the July of 2007 and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was going to release. And no, while I can’t see myself queuing up outside a bookstore at 6 am in the morning ever again, I was rather surprised to find myself on the waiting list for my copy of Fifty Shades of Grey. I can’t remember at what point I decided to read it. I think it was after the sixth time I had to physically restrain myself from banging on the door of the stall in the women’s loo in the office. ‘What could possibly be taking so long,’ I’d wonder. After the third time this happened, I began to suspect the answer was hidden somewhere between the 500-odd pages of the book peeking out of their bags, giving those women’s secret away. For a book that my reviewer friend had called ‘odious, poorly written and lacking intelligence’, it was making far too many appearances. I saw women, and sometimes men, lost in it at cafes, bookstores, in trains, buses, cars…
If the series was so popular, how had a huge chunk of the literary world gotten it so wrong? And if it was really as bad as the critics said it was, why were women everywhere rushing to bookstores to secure their copies? When I asked a bunch of women who’d read the book, not one single clear answer emerged. For some, it was the unashamed exploration of sex, something that they admitted was missing from their own lives. For others, it was literature at its voyeuristic best. The book made it okay to talk about sex. For all women, not just those with YouPorn on their ‘favourites’ tab. While few women would be okay with being caught reading Playboy on their way to work, there was no shame in being seen with a copy of Fifty Shades. That’s an irony if I ever saw one.
For a generation of women who had grown up on books that treated sex as a by-product, a book that used sex as its central character was a concept whose time had come. Sex is as vital to the storyline of the Fifty Shades trilogy as its two main characters—the wallflower Anastasia Steele and her control-freak, rich-beyond-anyone’s-imagination, whip-wielding boyfriend, Christian Grey. Sex isn’t something that happens to Ana and Grey in the course of the relationship, it’s the beginning, middle and end of their story. The rest of what happens to them is incidental—drivel that’s been pencilled in to fill up the spaces between the characters’ appointments with sex. I doubt that Ana’s irritating alter ego and inner goddess had anything much to do with the book flying off the racks. EL James sold sex to her readers—the only difference was that she’d done it in a way that was different from the steady diet of Mills & Boons and Nora Roberts that we’d been used to up until now.
A few days ago, I was at a café, casually eavesdropping on a group of ladies-that-lunch, when, much to my delight, the conversation turned to the Fifty Shades trilogy. Four of the six had read the first of the three books and were speedily making their way through the second or third. One of those four was making her husband read the book too. “I can’t stop thinking about those balls that he inserts in her before that party. It was so hot…” paisley-print told her little group. The ones who had read the book nodded vigorously. The other two’s eyes widened with shock. “I don’t know, since I read the book, I feel like trying stuff… You know?” Again, three heads nodded while two pairs of eyes blinked. By the end of the conversation, it was obvious that Rustam Uncle next door was going to sell least two more copies of Fifty Shades that day.
When James started writing the book as something of a cross between a Twilighter’s romantic inclinations and her own sexual fantasies, I doubt she’d thought it was going to turn into a manual of sorts for women who wanted to experiment but didn’t know how. Case in point being my friend, the only person I know who actually understood and enjoyed Ulysses. Perched on top of her volumes of Neruda and Rumi, there it was again. Her explanation: “Yes, the writing is worse than mediocre, but the sex is new. Or maybe it’s just new to me. Nobody taught me what it could be like. Did somebody teach you? It’s teaching me something, albeit in poorly-worded sentences.” Since the next best option is taking pointers from videos of women in bleached blond hair, ridiculously long talons with French manicures and nipples that resolutely point north no matter which shape they contort their limbs in (yes, I tried watching and failed miserably), I can understand the relief that women like my friend must feel.
That’s one set of readers; the kind that prefers to read about intense orgasms rather than seeing a pornstar’s body shuddering in climax. But I’ve encountered another kind of reader too—the ones who are riveted by the sheer horror-value of the book. “Christian Grey isn’t the disturbed hero, he’s a sick, twisted freak who needs therapy. Imagine your daughter in Ana’s place. Would you think she’s making a life choice or that she’s being exploited?” asks my cousin, mother to a teenage daughter. “It pains me to think we’re celebrating violence. You think it’s exhilarating, exciting and new. It’s simply glorified violence. Ask a woman who was subjected to it in the bedroom, I bet she didn’t think it was any of those things. Books like Twilight and Fifty Shades are dangerous. I wonder how the people who write them don’t see that.” That’s food for thought. I grew up with the idea of the tall, dark and handsome stranger who’d fall irrevocably in love with me and sweep me off my feet and into a palace. It took several heartbreaks, cheating boyfriends and financial pile-ons for me to accept reality. It was a bitter pill to swallow, and I paid the price for my delusions. But what happens to the generation of women who grow up thinking of vampires and sadists as desirable and acceptable partners? A generation whose heroines are okay with risking their lives and having objects shoved in their private parts because they believe they’re in love with the men who are doing it to them? What price will they pay for their delusions?
Fifty Shades of Grey raises as many questions as it answers. But no matter how much you’d like to shove a backbone into Ana, her annoying subconscious and spoilt inner goddess, and no matter how much you want to shake Grey out of his self-imposed victim complexes, you and I both know we’re going to go and buy the next one. And the one after that. We’ll tell our friends not to read it, we’ll tell them it’s crap, but they’ll buy it too. That’s just how it got to be the bestselling book (that’s not Harry Potter) of all time.