Romance Fetish as Fan Fiction
By Heidi Simmons

Fifty Shades of Grey by E. L. James

Sometimes you have to read a book just to see what all the fuss is about. With all the hubbub and with two million copies sold in April alone (it was published in March), certainly Fifty Shades of Grey by E. L. James (Vintage, 514 pages), the first of a completed trilogy, must have some outstanding qualities that make the investment of money and time worth the read. I’ll let you decide.

Fifty shades of Grey is about a young college graduate, Anastasia Steele, who falls in love with the mega millionaire Christian Grey, who can only have a relationship with women that includes bondage and domination. The plot, if you can call it that, is: Will she or won’t she sign the contract that gives the handsome Mr. Grey complete control of her life.


Here is some of the fuss: Is it romance, erotic literature, fetish fiction or merely fan fiction? By the characters’ names, it should be apparent that Fifty Shades of Grey is under the genre umbrella of romance. But with the expressive sex scenes, some might considered it erotic literature, though the “literature” aspect is really stretching it. Author James, includes a detailed BDSM (bondage, domination and sadomasochism) contract and description of the BDSM toys and sex performed in the novel’s “Red Room of Pain”, which makes it fetish fiction. James, if I dare say, was stimulated by the Twilight series and originally wrote her trilogy as Masters of the Universe, which featured Stephenie Meyer’s characters, Edward and Bella. She later changed the names and title resulting in Fifty Shades of Grey. Thus it’s also fan fiction.

For the record, James is a middle-aged, married woman, with two children and lives in London. Fifty Shades of Grey is the first book she ever wrote.

Part of the fuss is, less than a year ago, Fifty Shades of Grey was published virtually. As an e-book and “print-on-demand” paperback it was shared by hundreds of thousands of women. It was then purchased by Vintage and published as a trade paperback in March. It appears that electronic books may provide readers with the privacy and discretion they prefer when reading such a provocative book. Women can safely enjoy the fantasy and read in public without the judgment of others. This has some calling Fifty Shades of Grey “mommy porn.”

Then there is the commercial fuss: Besides being a New York Times best seller, Universal Pictures’ Focus Features won the bid for the film rights, likely spending a huge undisclosed sum for the trilogy.

And how about the controversial fuss of what exactly is appealing to so many women? University professors of women’s studies and psychology are trying to understand the popularity beyond the fantasy of a love affair between a young woman and a millionaire. They want to know why BDSM is so appealing to and what it reveals about women today. Are woman dealing with trust or control issues? Perhaps women are overburdened or undersexed? Or both. Maybe women today have too much power — or still don’t have enough?

What might stand out to women readers may not be so complicated. Maybe it is that Grey’s sexual satisfaction comes from providing Ana with frequent, near heart-stopping orgasms — albeit not always traditional — like when she is hand-cuffed and hanging from the ceiling. He gets off, only when she gets off.

The author gives the reader some insight into the characters. Christian Grey is so complicated he is “fifty shades of f***ed-up” and Anastasia or Ana, is naive and inexperienced. Grey is her first lover. The story unfolds as a first-person narrative from Ana’s point of view. Her character regularly references Thomas Hardy’s, Tess of the d’Urbervilles, where a sweet, innocent girl named Tess, meets up with the manipulative and dangerous Alec. Grey is very much like Alec and Ana is like Tess.

Considering the book is practically two-thirds sex acts, there are brief moments when the reader almost gets a glimpse into the personality disorder that creates the need to dominate and cause pain. Ana asks Grey, “What’s a dominant?” He replies, “I want you to willingly surrender yourself to me, in all things.” When Ana asks why, he says, “To please me.” Ana wants to understand what made him the way he is. She narrates: “The BDSM is a distraction from the real issue. The sex is amazing, he’s wealthy, he’s beautiful, but this is all meaningless without his love.” Then there’s this exchange: Ana says, “Punish me. I want to know how bad it can get.” The poor girl hopes to understand his pain. Grey replies, “I’ll show you how bad it can be.” Careful what you ask for.

Fifty shades of Grey is not the first in its class, whatever that class may be. There is the 1954, Story of O, by Pauline Réage about a woman whose love affair leads to submissive behavior where she is sexually manipulated and abused, resulting in a rediscovery of herself. And there is the 1978, Nine and a Half Weeks: A Memoir of a Love Affair, by Elizabeth McNeill, the story of a casual relationship that becomes about domination and humiliation leading to dangerous sadomasochistic games.

You will have to decide for yourself if this romantic, erotic, fetish fan fiction means anything at all. If one or all of these genres appeals to you, it could be a very entertaining escape. And maybe the final two titles in the trilogy provide more insight into why women and others are all in a fuss. But for me, I’m sated.

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