In the week of June 4th – June 10th 2012 the Fifty Shades of Grey “x-rated trilogy”, to quote The Daily Mail, took the top three spots of the ten best-selling adult fiction books of that week. Prior to this I was ignorant of it; the only discussion of it I had encountered was a friend’s facebook status deeming it “basically porn”. Having then seen that it has surpassed the Harry Potter and Twilight series as the fastest selling paperback since records began, I was intrigued enough to post my own enquiry via facebook, asking if anyone had read, and had an opinion on, this phenomenon. The responses were hilarious; the same friend who had provided that first short but to-the-point review I had come across, replied simply “it’s filth.” Notably, this is a male friend. Another said he was convinced it is an elaborate joke. A couple of female friends gave it a little more thought, one deeming the protagonist “an annoying twat”, another praised its portrayal of “a young woman’s sexual innocence”. Well, from what I gather, that innocence is short-lived in the novel. I found a feature on The Sun’s website which offered a few celebrity women’s viewpoints. Anne Widdecombe advises that reading this novel is a “worthless experience”. Jodi Marsh apparently appreciates it as a love story, whilst Edwina Curry and Ulrika Johnson acknowledge the benefit of the escapism it provides, much-needed for some women.

The books were written by E.L. James, aka Erika Mitchell, a 49-year old mother who is now said to be worth almost £4 million after signing further book deals and a Hollywood contract for the adaptation of her story. What these stats prove is no surprise; sex sells more than anything else. Of course it does, it’s a primal instinct that many people, whether they like to admit it or not, are more interested in reading about than any crime, historical, epic, realist or surrealist stories publishers have to offer. But James/Mitchell is not just writing about sex, she is writing about sexual freedom, sado-masochism, bondage, dominance and submission, similar to that portrayed on screen in the film Secretary starring Maggie Gyllenhaal. Not only that, bizarrely, the phrase “mummy porn” has been coined in relation to Fifty Shades. Since when was BDSM associated with middle-aged mothers? Apparently since millions from this particular demographic have been reading and talking about this book, making it the fastest-selling of all time purely through word-of-mouth, which is highly unusual; often the fastest-selling books are ones which have already been adapted to the screen.

It is interesting to imagine if a man, a middle-aged father, had written such a novel, telling the story of a young man’s sexual escapades, whether this would’ve had a similar impact and roused as much discussion. Highly doubtful. What would there be to talk about? The public consensus of “men like sex more than women” would’ve been undisturbed. Even despite all the literature available on female sexuality, programmes and films made like Sex and The City, the backlash and outrage at Stephen Fry’s comment in 2010 that for women, sex is “the price they are willing to pay for a relationship”, still the notion of an older woman writing such “filth” for the benefit of other women is a shocking, exciting subject that provokes admiration in some, and repugnance in others. Even the Twilight franchise, a less explicit look at a younger woman’s longing, is a subject of scorn amongst a lot of people. Fair enough, a lot of novels like Stephenie Meyer’s and Fifty Shades are notorious for sacrificing intelligent writing and narrative style to get the thrills in, which is what makes them something to be laughed at or dismissed as stupid. However sometimes the conflict between those who enjoy this sort of fiction and those who publicly denounce it, is in fact a conflict between those who are comfortable with sexuality and those who are not.

The issues people have with Fifty Shades of Grey are more complex. We are all disturbed at being faced with the notion of “mummy porn”, a juxtaposition of two words that none of us want to see side by side. Furthermore it is a challenge to what remains a slight taboo – that women do think about the things that Erika Mitchell writes about, albeit many have criticised Fifty Shades  for the sheer saturation of sex in it; that such passages become tedious and readers often end up skipping those parts. The novel may not have much literary worth, it may not be particularly cleverly written, and the characterisation may be lazy, but if nothing else the release of books such as this give a fascinating insight, firstly into what really goes on in people’s heads (Mitchell probably had more fun writing it than anyone has reading it), and secondly how people react when confronted with such things.