Fifty Shades of Grey: A Grey Area of Literature?

fifty-shades-of-greySince its mainstream release in June 2011, Fifty Shades of Grey has become one of the most popular novels to ever hit British shelves, physical and virtual. Millions of female readers embraced E.L. James’ turbulent love story, although the rest of the trilogy (Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed, both released in 2012) did not prove quite as popular. The series has also become a cultural phenomenon; dramatically boosting sales in stores such as Ann Summers, creating a plethora of other ‘mummy porn’ novels repackaged to resemble the trilogy, and becoming the typecast of female sexual desire. However, the novel has also attracted a variety of criticism for its literary validity, its representation of sadomasochistic relationships, and the characterisation of the female protagonist as submissive both in and out of the bedroom. For these reasons, the books have polarised opinion, and become ‘popular’ literature that is in some fields widely unpopular.

In terms of contemporary women’s writing, there are potential positives to take from the popularity of the Fifty Shades Trilogy; the mainstream representation of female sexual desire, the increase in female readership and the promotion of female authors all represent the ideals of networks such as this one. The way in which E.L. James as a female author chooses to construct the women in her novels, and how they relate to their own social environment could provide a variety of interesting and fruitful analysis from a literary feminist perspective. Although the novel has recently been the subject of a special issue of the Sexualities Journal, and even a Fifty Shades Conference, the text is still not widely researched, and certainly does not feature on the recommended reading lists of many literary courses. However, at Edge Hill University, the novel is a key text in third year English module ‘Sexuality and Subversion’, and Reader in English Dr Mari Hughes-Edwards, who runs the module, believes the novel more than warrants its place in amongst more well-known authors such as Sarah Waters and Jackie Kay.

Over the next few weeks the PG CWWN blog will be looking into E.L. James’ novel as a piece of contemporary women’s writing, and whether as a piece of popular literature it is appropriate to study within an academic environment. The blog will first be covering an event that is being held at the Waterstones store in Liverpool One, which is one of a series of ‘Lunchtime Classics’ events that are held at the store, focused on Fifty Shades of Grey, which includes a lecture by Dr Mari Hughes-Edwards. The blog will then publish essays by Edge Hill University graduates, Sean O’Brien and Suzanna Murray, who studied the novel during their undergraduate degrees. They will discuss their own experiences of studying the novel, and suggest why they think Fifty Shades of Grey is in need of further analysis.

As always, if any of our members are interested in writing anything on this or any other area of contemporary women’s writing, for the PG CWWN blog then please feel free to email blog@pgcwwn.org with your ideas. We are especially keen on anyone who would like to continue this theme by discussing the upcoming adaptation of the Fifty Shades novel which is due to be released in cinemas on Valentine’s Day in 2015.

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