When there is so much truly passionate fiction out there, it intrigues me that books like Fifty Shades of Grey are taken at all seriously. I wonder why people want to read the books, not for the story-lines surely? Perhaps they want to know what all the fuss is about? For that, they need read only the newspapers or watch the documentaries about the best-selling phenomenon.
Without a doubt the books have tapped into the zeitgeist. Yesterday, I was in my local hardware store buying an awl to dig out muck and small stones from horses’s hooves when I overheard this exchange between what looked like a daughter and her elderly mother.
Daughter: You should have got them.
Mother (distressed): I know I should have.
Daughter (impatient): We could go back; they’ll be closing soon.
Mother (glancing over the door knobs): I should have got them there and then.
Daughter (smug): I’ve read all three.
Immediately I knew what they were talking about. It was how they were talking that I found remarkable. Their tone was matter-of-fact. They needed to get the books because they were on offer; they might have been discussing a three for two deal on washing powder tablets rather than the latest in steamy fiction.
The books appeal not because they are steamy, but because they are cheap; you can pick up all three for less than a tenner at Asda. So, they are ideal easy entertainment. You get to read something titillating without feeling shameful and at the same time you get to know what everyone is talking about. Fifty Shades is the book equivalent of television shows like the X-Factor: fast, formulaic, fun. You can zip through them in a couple of days and be talking or texting or face-booking about them in the same week. I suspect that most people enjoy discussing the books more than they enjoy reading them.
What puzzles me is the level of attention the books have been given by the serious newspapers. When Primark sells out of a popular pair of jeans, it is not news, so why should it be news when a book sold along the same principles has massive appeal? Surely, it cannot be because of the ideas? If my encounter in the hardware store yesterday is anything to go by, most people have snapped up Fifty Shades because everyone else has. This impulse to follow the current trend is almost irresistible and unremarkable.
Some cultural commentators have claimed that the Fifty Shades craze indicates that Britons are becoming less uptight about sex. This is nonsense. At work on a stable yard one rare sunny day last week I watched a woman hitch up her dress to tan her legs and settle down with her copy. Her manner was nonchalant. We acknowledged she was having her coffee break and left her to it.
Reading about other people having kinky sex is not an expression of your own sexuality. Talking about what you have read is not sexy. Curiosity about what other people get up to is one of the traits of being human. Everyone is interested in everyone else. Light a bonfire and throw on a few crackling sticks and invite people to sit beside it for almost free. Who could resist that invitation? Once you’ve got people in a big huddled group, feeling warm and cosy and safe, then you can tell them any old story. Fifty Shades is the opposite of thrilling. The spotlight of attention means it is almost guaranteed risk-free. That is why it sells and sells and sells.