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Literary bondage

Books | A hugely popular paperback series crosses a new and disturbing cultural line

Issue: "Syria's pain," Sept. 8, 2012

What does it mean that the fastest-selling paperback in history is a trilogy of soft-porn novels that wallow in sadomasochism? Culture-watchers have been asking that question since last spring, when Fifty Shades of Grey and its two sequels, all by a previously unknown and minimally talented author, started smashing records on every bestseller list and every bookseller's inventory.

The series has a unique history. About three years ago, author Erika Leonard, calling herself "Snowqueens Icedragon," began contributing to a fanfiction web page. Fanfiction is an internet phenomenon: websites devoted to amateur authors writing themselves into their favorite novels or movies. Snowqueens was obsessed with the Twilight series by Stephenie Meyer; her web novel Masters of the Universe took protagonists Edward and Bella through scenarios that would have made Meyer blush.

That's not unusual for fanfiction, which is often an outlet for women (almost always women) to indulge in sexual fantasies with fictional characters. But Snowqueens' fantasies included bondage, whips, and other instruments of torture, which set the books apart, to put it delicately. Her novel was so explicit the website asked her to remove it, but not before it attracted thousands of fans. One of them, an Australian publisher, persuaded the author that she'd missed her calling as a romance novelist. In May 2011 the three books of the series under the author's pseudonym E.L. James appeared simultaneously-a smart marketing move, because the growing buzz allowed readers to go straight from one installment to the next.

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The plot, such as it is, follows a 22-year-old coed who meets an impossibly handsome and rich entrepreneur when he grants an interview for her college newspaper. Their mutual attraction explodes, after a few teasing chapters, into a steamy affair-but before they do anything physical he insists she sign papers giving him permission to dominate her, not only sexually, but in all her choices and decisions.

Our heroine is conflicted-and so is the feminist world, with some women condemning this jaunt back to the dark ages and others shrugging that everybody needs to lighten up. Fifty Shades is so popular among young-to-middle marrieds that journalists have dubbed it "mommy porn." BabyCenter.com reports that roughly nine months after it hit the best-seller lists, Fifty Shades babies are making their appearance. Some are being named for the two protagonists, Christian and Anastasia.

In spite of the inevitable imitators, Fifty Shades is probably not a trend. Still, it crosses a line, as several local librarians discovered when patrons and free-speech groups (including the American Library Association) pressured them to buy the books for their libraries in spite of the incongruity with community standards. Though soft-core, the subject matter is hard, indicating that basic intercourse (dismissed by connoisseurs as "vanilla sex") isn't pushing buttons anymore. It also indicates something that shouldn't be a surprise: Women express their sexual nature differently than men. A man's inclination toward the visual is well-known, but women live inside their own heads. A man objectifies both himself and the object of his lust, but a woman recreates herself at the center of an erotic universe.

That's why fanfiction is almost entirely a female preserve: There women can deck their fantasies in words, cheered on by other women. There the hunky, domineering man with the mocking eyebrow (who plays piano like a virtuoso) is ultimately undone by the virginal girl with unruly hair. And there we betray our brokenness. We want to rule, but play at being ruled. We put our heroines (and ourselves?) in slavish postures that are supposed to be somehow liberating. We live in the freest society in history but daydream about being tied up and physically hurt. We resort to role-playing where we should be most honestly ourselves.

Women, even Christian women, report that these books have sparked up their marriages. Sparks are notoriously short-lived, and what they leave is ash. Reading comparisons of Masters of the Universe and Fifty Shades is enough for me. I won't be reading Fifty Shades because that place I like to regard as my own-my imagination-is already too cluttered with trash. More and more, I need to find Jesus there, making Himself at home. This is mine, too, He says.

Email jcheaney@worldmag.com

Janie B. Cheaney
Janie B. Cheaney

Janie lives in Missouri, is a columnist for WORLD, writes novels for young adults, and is the author of the Wordsmith creative writing series. She also reviews books at RedeemedReader.com. Follow Janie on Twitter @jbcheaney.

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