The BBC reports

Erotic romance novel Fifty Shades of Grey, by previously unknown British author EL James, has topped the New York Times best-seller list.

We learn that…

The book started life as a “fan fiction” story posted online about lovers Edward and Bella – the lead characters in Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight books…

James shifted the details, though: Edward, now Christian, is no longer a vampire but a fan of sado-masochism. (This is not much of a change; it’s just less allegorical.) Here’s the novel’s priceless blurb…

When literature student Anastasia Steele is drafted to interview the successful young entrepreneur Christian Grey for her campus magazine, she finds him attractive, enigmatic and intimidating.

Has anybody met an Anastasia outside of romance novels? (Or Russia.) I think I’ve heard of one and she was aleading Tory activist”.

Convinced their meeting went badly, she tries to put Grey out of her mind – until he happens to turn up at the out-of-town hardware store where she works part-time.

It’s the details that elevate this above the offerings of Mills & Boon. What’s the significance of “part-time”? Why did I have to know that? (And why, if she can only have part-time employment, did she take work in such an impractical location?)

For all the trappings of success – his multinational businesses, his vast wealth, his loving adoptive family – Grey is man tormented by demons and consumed by the need to control.

I do like the idea that it’s counterintuitive for an owner of multinationals to be a control freak. Are they generally known for their docility?

There are quotes as well…

He’s naked except for those soft ripped jeans, top button casually undone.

Me, I prefer to have my jeans formally undone. Painstakingly undone.

“You’re a sadist?”
“I’m a Dominant.” His eyes are a scorching gray, intense.

I’ve never seen a “scorching” grey. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure that it exists. Scorching red, yes. Scorching orange. Scorching yellow. But I’ve never shielded my eyes from the dazzling sight of a rock. Or an elephant.

I’m being an arsehole, of course. Ms James’ book was never meant to rival Rushdie. It might be printed onto fibers but it’s not and, if she’s honest, was never meant to be literature. Its ancestors are the novels of Judith Krantz – who offered the baffling descriptions of lips, breasts and “hot sticky organs” that Clive James had such memorable fun with. Their success reveals a female appetite for porn that was barely disguised among reactions to the more demure Twilight. But while they’re wish fulfillment in the carnal sense they’re also wish fulfillment in the emotional sense.

These Edwards and Christians are precisely engineered to be the ideal boyfriends; flawed, yes, but only to indulge the characters’ and readers’ urge to, as James puts it, “bring [them] into the light”. This is clear from their reviewers’ breathless responses to the characters not as creations of the author but as fantasies. (One even addresses her review to “Mr Grey”.) Even the critics aren’t turned off by literary contrivances or tedious prose but by the insufficiently appealing male at its heart – some feel Christian’s “dominance is too much for [them] to handle”; others moan that he’s “not enough to get [their] blood pumping”. This fusion of sexual and emotional fantasies is, I think, almost exclusive to women. Men lust after the ideal bedmate but they’ll rarely fantasise or, at least, admit to fantasising about the perfect wife or girlfriend. As pornography became e’er more ubiquitous people asked whether guys and gals raised on such far out stuff would find sex underwhelming. As Edwards, Jacobs and Christians loom in the imaginations of millions of women, you’ve got to wonder if the patchily passionate unions of the real world are going to become a little uninspiring for them. There aren’t enough enigmatic young entrepreneurs for everybody, after all. Without or without scorching grey eyes.

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