Our generation has experienced a slew of literary pop culture sensations. We grew up alongside Harry Potter, suffered through high school with Twilight and found time between classes to devour The Hunger Games novels. The most recent book series to fly off the shelves, however, is decidedly different.
Ask the average Ole if he or she has read the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy and the responses range from emphatic denials between snorts of laughter to the occasional enthusiastic – if slightly embarrassed – “yes.”
Whatever the answer may be, one thing is for certain: It’s the book everyone’s talking about, on and off the Hill. This week, “Fifty Shades of Grey” by E.L. James began its 29th uncontested week atop the New York Times Bestseller List. However, determining the reason behind its campus-wide buzz is more challenging.
For those who haven’t heard, E.L. James’ cause célèbre centers on the anything-but-ordinary relationship between a wealthy, troubled entrepreneur and a naive college student. While it sounds like a plot readily found in any paperback romance, it’s the highly erotic nature of the novel and its soaring popularity among housewives and college girls that has brought the book so much attention.
“It’s like junk food,” Annie Gilbert ’13 said. “It’s really satisfying, but not necessarily something you want to eat every day.”
Many of her peers agree. The novel, regardless of its literary merit, managed to be striking enough to keep their attention to the very last page.
Riley Palmer ’14 described the book as “ridiculous, contrived and weird . . . but at the very least, entertaining.” If not particularly intellectually stimulating, the Fifty Shades series’ readability and unique content make it a fast and fun read.
It’s no surprise, then, that it was the beach read of the summer for many students on campus, including Laura Begin ’14.
“I read it mostly because it was overwhelming pop culture all summer; there were references to it all over Pinterest,” Begin said. Like Harry Potter and The Hunger Games, Fifty Shades of Grey gained popularity through enthusiastic word of mouth.
Fifty Shades marks a fascinating turn in the world of publishing because it gained its greatest popularity digitally. Originally published online as Twilight fanfiction, the author self-published her work as an e-book due to popular demand. The erotic narrative, paired with the discreetness of an e-reader, enabled readers to indulge without having their reading preferences made obvious.
The books’ success has been such that they are now available in print everywhere, from the Northfield Target to the St. Olaf Bookstore.
Whether Fifty Shades of Grey deserves such attention and praise is the stuff of philosophical debate – at least for St. Olaf students.
“It is extremely poorly written,” Begin said. “I’m reading the next two only because I need to know what happens next.”
“It’s definitely not Great Con material,” Jon Erik Haines ’14 said.
The perceived demographic of Fifty Shades, much like its predecessor, Twilight, is overwhelmingly female, so much so, in fact, that the book has been dubbed as “mommy porn” by many of its critics.
“Up in my hometown, a lot of book clubs are reading it . . .. What do they even talk about?” Carl Graefe ’16 said.
It appears that the content of the book, along with its reputation for titillating middle-aged moms, has tended to deter the majority of male readers.
“Most guys I know just open up to a random page and read it out loud as a joke,” Josh Martin ’14 said.
Nevertheless, guys and girls alike understand the deeper implications of the book.
“I would read it if only for its view on gender roles, whether it’s really reinforcing traditional views on sexuality or offering up something new,” Mac Leydon ’14 said. Other readers echoed his sentiments.
When reading these books, it’s important to realize that what is explored is how a person discovers herself as a sexual being and learns her comfort level, how she communicates with her partner and, eventually, how she creates an equal, deeply emotional relationship that extends beyond the bedroom.
While erotic literature is by no means new, the accessibility of Fifty Shades of Grey and the reading public’s acceptance of it certainly mark an exciting trend in literary culture. However you may feel about its success, few can deny the series’ unique, transgressive glamour and ability to give the everyday reader an opportunity to be rebellious. So, if first semester hasn’t given you a heavy enough reading load by now, maybe it’s time you pick up something a little hot and heavy.