Life, etc

Poetic Justice: Fifty Shades author named ‘Publishing Person of the Year’

By Kevin Bloom 7 December 2012

Soon to become as dead as the dodo—or the dinosaur, or the $1 TV dinner—the publishing industry is performing some strange moves in its quest for the self-deception of eternal youth. For instance, naming EL James, author of the Fifty Shades trilogy, its “Publishing Person of the Year”. As they say in the classics, you get the death you deserve. By KEVIN BLOOM.

On 30 March this year, it was announced that Merle and Patricia Butler of Red Bud, Illinois, were paid a combined post-tax sum of $157 million, their share of the biggest lottery jackpot in United States history. The other joint winners of the $656 million haul, a group of teachers calling themselves “The Three Amigos” and A.N. Onymous from Ottawa, declined (obviously) to go public. In an interview with USA Today, Merle said: “We are just everyday people who have worked hard all our life, who love our family and our city, and pay our taxes.”

Question: Should Merle be named Time magazine’s “Person of The Year” for 2012? Even better: Should the Nobel Committee name the couple joint winners of next year’s peace prize?

Admittedly, given that from 2009 to 2011 Time’s greatest honour was bestowed on (in order of appearance) Ben Bernanke, Mark Zuckerberg and “The Protester,” and that in October the Nobel Peace Prize went to the European Union, the above questions are kind of loaded. To date, however, not even these august institutions have called to the podium a lottery winner.

Which as of a few days ago could also be said of Publisher’s Weekly. Yet in deciding to name Erika Leonard James its own “Person of the Year,” this magazine effectively confirmed—to paraphrase the old adage—that a monkey could be placed before a typewriter and emerge a month later with the Complete Works of Shakespeare.

Not that EL James is a monkey, mind you. Or that Fifty Shades of Grey, Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed are in some alternate reality (even the simian reality) Shakespearean. Just that Publisher’s Weekly represents what once was a respectable industry—if you’re in the book trade, it’s pretty much your alpha and omega—and had you asked me in 2007 what the chances were of a porn-lite trilogy taking its most prestigious prize, I would have said 176 million to one (the same odds, incidentally, attached to winning the US lottery, or a caged vervet tossing off Lear, Hamlet and MacBeth).

Regrettably, the analogy goes further. On the Publisher’s Weekly website, the rationale for the decision included the phrases “initially posted online as ‘Twilight’ fan fiction” and “massive viral hit”. It was breathlessly pointed out that the trilogy has so far sold 35 million copies worldwide, earning its publisher more than $200 million in revenue. Because of this, noted Publisher’s Weekly, print sales have been boosted in bookstores and erotic fiction has been turned into a “hot category” (their pun, not mine).

Carolyn Kellogg, a perceptive reviewer at the Los Angeles Times, broke this all down into its constituent parts. James “borrowed” from the Twilight series of YA author Stephanie Meyer; she published initially with a tiny online imprint; the books “went viral” in the same inexplicable process that renders anything viral; Random House noticed and bought the rights; beleaguered bricks and mortar bookstores benefited from the frenzy. “You know what’s missing from the rationale?” asked Kellogg of the Publisher’s Weekly explanation. “Intent.”  

Exactly. Intent. James didn’t mean for any of this to happen. By her own admission, she’s been living a fairytale “beyond her wildest dreams”—and, for that matter, beyond any of the other clichés she’s so expert at working into her prose. If EL James “saved” the publishing industry by keeping it on life support for another year or two, it was a happy mistake. She just tripped and obscured the switch.  

Should we stop there, then? Should we say that any dying organism would be equally grateful of the help; that the award is akin to the lifelong gratitude showed its accidental rescuer by a condemned mongrel? Perhaps. Except in this case the mongrel used to be a purebred. Again, we’re talking about the book trade here, and for some of us it still matters that the primary product displays a certain measure of familiarity with the craft. 

So bearing in mind the fact that comedians have been known to read directly from Fifty Shades of Grey when they’re short of a laugh, let’s go directly to the text.  This from page 323: “At the touch of leather, I quiver and gasp. He walks around me again, trailing the crop around the middle of my body. On his second circuit, he suddenly flicks the crop, and it hits me underneath my behind… against my sex… The shock runs through me, and it’s the sweetest, strangest, hedonistic feeling… My body convulses at the sweet, stinging bite. My nipples harden and elongate from the assault, and I moan loudly, pulling on my leather cuffs.”

Or this from page 367: “‘The woman who brought me into this world was a crack whore, Anastasia …’ I slip into a dazed and exhausted sleep, dreaming of a four-year-old gray-eyed boy in a dark, scary, miserable place.”

Awesome, innit? Completely average sex, written in completely below-average prose, mapping out the completely ordinary rich-boy-rescues-bored-girl Cinderella story, in a completely typical milieu. As Andrew O Hagan noted in the London Review of Books (which, although incorrigibly elitist, by July 2012 could no longer ignore the phenomenon): 

“I suspect the book has taken the world’s mums by storm because there’s no mess on the carpet and there are hot showers afterwards. Everybody is comfortable and everybody is clean: they travel ?rst-class, the rich give presents, the man uses condoms, and everything dark is resolved in a miasma of cuddles. In some quarters the publishing phenomenon of the year has been called ‘?lthy’. But that must be a joke. It is a litany of swelling breasts and spent individuals, none of whom would be terri?cally out of place at the more modest end of Mills & Boon.”

Poetic justice (as per Wikipedia): a literary device in which virtue is ultimately rewarded or vice punished, often in modern literature by an ironic twist of fate intimately related to the character’s own conduct.

Dear publishing industry, you have been served. DM

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"A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong gives it a superficial appearance of being right and raises at first a formidable outcry in defence of custom. But the tumult soon subsides. Time makes more converts than reason." ~ Thomas Paine

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