With global sales running into the tens of millions, Fifty Shades of Grey and its two sequels by E.L. James are not so much books as a publishing phenomenon.
Why have these books been so successful? For a start, they follow a tried and tested formula straight out of Mills & Boon: take one slightly clumsy, socially inept, plain and virginal girl and one cool, handsome, incredibly rich and powerful young man - put them together and eventually, despite trials and tribulations, (you guessed it) it all works out. The novelty in E.L. James' books is a fairly explicit eroticism. This is of a very feminine kind: despite 'gentle' sadism and bondage being major themes there is little sense of genuine threat, and the encounters are (rather tiresomely) always orgasmic. It is interesting that there are also limits to the sexual practices: the author is clearly aware of not just what turns women on but also what turns them off. The sales of these books have also been helped by them being simultaneously published in digital format; they can be bought and read in secret.
The sexual nature of these books has aroused a storm of criticism and the eroticism is certainly problematic. Yet deciding where acceptable boundaries lie in this area is very difficult; after all, throughout history the Church has frequently found Song of Songs in the Bible to be too hot to handle. Yet at the risk of sounding puritanical and even legalistic, I don't think these are healthy books.
However, the issues of sex disguise deeper, more subtle and possibly more dangerous problems, and they also present a challenge to women. These books are sheer fantasy; indeed there are Pixar cartoons with a greater sense of realism. The real world, dear readers, is not like this. If you are waiting for a similar Mr Right (did I mention his helicopter?) you may be waiting a very long time. Once more we get the myth that all you really need in a good relationship is lots and lots of sex. Another desperately dangerous idea is that sadism is pleasurable. Frankly, if any man starts to suggest that he'd like to tie you up and beat you then get out very quickly, possibly passing by the local police station on the way home. There is also a disheartening materialism present throughout the books: a 'possessions-pornography' of things and brands that repeats another lie: wealth and power are ultimately significant. But my biggest complaint is simply that I find the theme of a woman's submission to a dominant man to be extraordinarily depressing. There is a tragic irony here that although some feminists have labelled Christianity as male-dominated and oppressive to women, what our post-Christian society is producing is beginning to look infinitely worse.