In news that, for the sake of hilarity, we’ll attribute to The Daily Mail, EL James’ piece of Twilight slash fiction Fifty Shades of Grey has well and truly transcended its origins as a word of mouth e-book success story (most likely whispered about behind a theatrically raised hand) to become the fastest selling UK paperback since sales records began. Having topped the UK bestseller list for four straight weeks, sold more than 550,000 copies (over 100,000 of which were shifted in a single week) and overtaken the likes of J.K. Rowling, Dan Brown and, funnily enough, Stephenie Meyer, the book is now on track to sell over a million copies in the UK alone by year’s end.
All of which proves – or rather, reiterates – one simple point: sex sells, as long as everyone else is buying too. Much like the confused feelings that drive The Daily Mail itself, which can scold the novel as ‘depraved’ whilst ogling ‘the body that snagged a billionaire!’ in a sidebar on the very same page, there’s a comfort in knowing that thousands of other readers are likely experiencing the same conflicting urge to laugh, tut and finger wag with one hand whilst simultaneously trying to resist guiding the other hand southward. Oh yes, literary merit, with the similes and the personification and pathetic fallacy and such, but on the other hand, flowery descriptions of genitals. Tough call.
Many assumed that the digital success of Fifty Shades of Grey was a by-product of other people not being able to tell what you’re reading on your Kindle, thereby lessening the potential embarrassment of, say, taking it on the train (full disclosure: I haven’t read it. Is being taken on the train a thing that happens to the protagonist at some point?). The print run, however – with its nice, big, clear cover – doesn’t have that going for it, and its sales have nevertheless exploded in a totally non-suggestive manner (those UK numbers contribute to 10 million copies sold worldwide in the space of six weeks).
Draw whatever conclusions you will from that, but maybe don’t make them the same conclusions that have led, in the words of the Mail, to publishers ‘rushing to bring out more similar erotic fiction – including Jane Eyre Laid Bare, an explicit rewrite of Charlotte Bronte’s novel.’ Reader, I… well, I’m sure you can imagine.