The “Fifty Shades”series, first published in print-book-you-can-pay-for form by Vintage in 2012 (but appearing before that as Twilight fan-fiction) has entered the 100 Million Pantheon. The number of copies of this work that have passed into the clammy hands of people who sit next to you on the subway exceeds the sales of “Redwall,” “A Song of Ice and Fire,” and “The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy.” We as a civilization are complete.
There need be no more words. Look on our works, ye mighty, and despair.
I’ve read a convincing essay by Laurie Penny at the New Statesman where she says that the only reason people heap such outsized contempt on “Fifty Shades” is that it is an erotica series that started out as Twilight fanfiction that is wildly popular among middle-aged women reclaiming their sexuality, and we are letting this scare us instead of embracing it, as we should. Just because it’s sold more copies than Paddington Bear doesn’t make it a BAD thing. If you actually look at the records of Wildly Bestselling Series, what you see isn’t a Pristine and Noble Record of The Greatest Moments of Civilization. What you see is Harry Potter and the books that are embarrassing the morning after — “Goosebumps,” “The Baby-sitters Club,” “Mr. Men.” Books on which the going line usually was, “Well, at least they’re reading SOMETHING.” It’s not swatting Gilgamesh down off the shelves.
Throughout its long, hard road to position itself on top of the best-seller list — er, let’s say “its eventful and noteworthy road,” just to be safe — it has demonstrated a changing world that spooks me. Not the riding crops part. Everying else.
My objection isn’t the fact that it’s former fanfiction and that it’s being read by middle-aged ladies. You go, girls! Empower yourself. As Lincoln said, “For those who like that sort of thing, that is exactly the sort of thing that they would like.” My objections are twofold: First, books like this, whose covers, once spotted, shame you forever among your fellow subway-riders, are leading us down the primrose path away from print books with covers, into the glowing arms of e-readers. Of the first 5.3 million copies sold in the Britain, 1.5 million were e-books. And this tome was the first to pass 1 million sales on the Kindle. Books like this are robbing us of the inexpressible joy of identifying instantly what our neighbors are reading without having to crane our heads and squint at tiny text at the bottom of the screen. My second objection is that if this is the sort of writing you like, there are absolute oceans of it available for free all over the Internet, and the fact that this has been a runaway bestseller for two years indicates that millions of people to whom it might well bring joy are unable to use Google properly to find it.
But mainly I’m sad about the e-readers. We laugh, now. We can read our fill about popsicles and mysterious wealthy men with dark secrets, and no one need be any the wiser. But what about the cost? I don’t care what Christian did with the ice cube. What about leather books with cracked spines and the smell of a new paperback? This is how the world ends — not with a whimper, but with a series of bangs.
Congratulations on the milestone, everyone.