El James hit the big time with the release of her book “50 Shades of Grey”. She went from unknown to household name with breakneck speed, making plenty of dough along the way. The first installment of the trilogy lead her to become the worlds highest earning author between 2012 and 2013. She made $95 million. $95million. That was just for the first book. That’s before three more books and a movie franchise. This monumental rise to success has me envious, impressed and deeply curious. How the hell did she pull this off?
Watching James’s success feels very much like being in the crowd as the Emperor proudly displays his new outfit. Although I’m definitely not the first person to say it, it does have to be said that the Emperor has no clothes. It has to be said that, frankly, that the books suck.
Surely this woman deserves to be recognized amongst the great swindlers of history. Her place in the hall of fame should be between Bernard Madoff and Joseph Ponzi, because she certainly doesn’t deserve a seat between Shakespeare and Shelley.
EL James is not a good writer. On a fundamental level. The books are full of bizarre phrasing and barely legible lines. Every tenth word is “Jeez” or “Holy Cow.” The first book in particular is threaded with this idiotic metaphor about Anna’s “inner goddess” verses her “subconscious ” that is neither narratively compelling nor accurate to Freudian theory.
But hey, not every successful book gets attention purely for its prose. Sometimes even in spite of less than perfect writing there is a unique selling point that makes the book deserving of public attention. Maybe James was able to skyrocket to success because “50 Shades Of Grey” had something other books didn’t.
Maybe her secret was the books originality. A timid brunette who for the most part is unremarkable becomes the obsession of an older more powerful guy. Their love is forbidden and he’s always in danger of hurting her. They constantly question weather they should be together. He saves her from an oncoming vehicle when they first meet. She has a weird hippy mom who lives far away and a guy friend who’s also super into her. Sound familiar? It should because it’s “Twilight”. Far from being original “50 Shades of Grey” started out as “Twilight” fanfiction.
If not original, maybe the books were educational? BDSM is a taboo topic in most societal circles. Is it possible that they rose to fame because they shed a light on the inner workings of a largely unknown community? Is the selling point that these books helped to lift the taboo and promote a healthy and open conversation about unconventional sexual relationships? Nope. The BDSM community hated “50 Shades Grey”. It turns out that James was largely wrong about both the how and the why of BDSM. The community objected to the notion presented in the book that it’s something people turn to after being damaged in some way. They also expressed concerns that the books and movies portray the relationship between Anna and Christian in a way that is largely abusive, and ignores some pretty fundamental rules regarding consent.
So if the books aren’t well written, original, or educational, what was it that made them explode the way they did? The only possible answer is that we’ve been had. EL James somehow convinced everyone that her mediocre fan fiction was in fact an international phenomenon. It’s a level of deception that most of us regular humans could only dream of pulling off. And for that she deserves recognition. From this point on EL James should be known as ultimate fraudster, the master of fakery… the greatest con artist of a generation.