Why '50 Shades of Grey' Is Great Literature

Published: JUNE 20, 2013 | Updated: JUNE 7, 2022 10:09:46
Clearly, "50 Shades" has done something right to trigger such fascination - and sales.

This article was originally published in 2012 on It is reprinted here with permission from the author.


I got an erection this morning while reading "50 Shades of Grey" by E.L. James, the newest nominated book for the National Book Award. I can’t help it. She speaks to me.

Everyone is very upset. Even angry. I’ve seen about five blog posts already this morning that have cried out that "great literature" is now officially dead because of E.L. James (born "Erika Leonard") reaching heights of either marketing or recognition that they can never hope for.

"Never" is a strong word. How do I know? Because when they try to put her in the stuffed up closet of how they define "great literature" they will limit whatever art they hope to produce. Art can happen in every moment of your life. It’s not about colors or words or message, it’s about your personal authenticity this moment. You can be an artist driving a bus if you do away with conventionality and become the individual without masks, without jealousy, without intrigue, without hate. People are interesting when they do the opposite of conform, when they strike out despite the criticism and the attempts to put us all in the box of robots.

One blogger states: "Bestseller or not, most literary critics would agree that E.L. James' trilogy lacks unforgettable characters and that the books are neither epics nor classics. I wonder if great novelists will soon be an endangered species."

Another blogger is shocked that a book with the following passage in it ("it reeks", she says) has the potential to be considered great:


"I pull him deeper into my mouth so I can feel him at the back of my throat and then to the front again. My tongue swirls around the end. He’s my very own Christian Grey-flavored popsicle. I suck harder and harder … Hmm … My inner goddess is doing the merengue with some salsa moves."

There’s a couple of assumptions people are taking it on their own to make:

  1. That EL James is not a great novelist.
  2. That the trilogy is not an epic.
  3. That her characters are forgettable.
I think these assumptions are unfair and that most people at this point are extremely jealous of the success E.L. James is enjoying. I strongly disagree with all the assumptions. Clearly, the characters are not forgettable (I will not forget the above passage so easily). Clearly, it’s an epic (all three in the trilogy are bestsellers), and clearly, the marketplace has bestowed its grace on the talented writer. Then one blogger says its "not all about sales" but that "artist should be agents of change!"

First off, what is "great literature?" Why are all of these people trying to put their own assumptions on a concept that is pretty subjective. I’ve never once seen a definition of "great literature". There’s two ways I can think to define it:

  1. If I determine something is great, but that seems somewhat arrogant.
  2. If history determines something is great, i.e. a book withstands the test of time. Many books were published in 1952, for instance, but the only one I’ve ever read and will probably at some point re-read is "The Old Man and the Sea."

Why would something withstand the test of time? It may or may not have great writing. That seems subjective and also determined by the colloquialisms of the time. If someone wrote like Shakespeare right now, for instance, they would have a total of zero sales other than the author’s mother. But it does seem like great literature touches on elements that are universal (why are we here, what is the purpose of life, etc.) or push the envelope on issues that are controversial. In the past that might’ve been racism, slavery, poverty, class warfare, the decline of the close-knit family, sexual taboos, etc.

Clearly "50 Shades of Grey" has done something to trigger the fascination (and sales) it has. It’s sold over 50 million copies (editor's note: this figure is now more than 70 million copies worldwide) to become the fastest-selling book of all time not because of the quality of the quotes above but because it hits right at the core of what the boundaries of a healthy sexual relationship might be and how wide those boundaries can get. Soft-porn and romance do not do that. "50 Shades" did. We can all be so lucky to write a book so thought-provoking. Artists are often met with hostility, disturb the establishment (including the ones who try to define art). They provide a sincere map of the human condition that both entertains and resonates with a "that’s how I feel!" Is E.L. James soft-porn, great literature, or both? Time will tell. Not random bloggers (including me).

Some other observations:

  • EL James originally self-published her book and had already sold 250,000 copies before being picked up by a mainstream publisher. Interestingly, despite her sales figures, Amazon’s imprints rejected the book.

  • At one point, "50 Shades of Grey" accounted for 25 percent of ALL book sales in the world. Without that single book. Barnes & Noble would probably have had serious financial problems this quarter. So, despite the hatred the book seems to inspire in the industry, it’s actually saving the industry. The ones slamming the book should be thanking her. An artist trailblazes.

  • The rise of digital technology has an interesting side-effect, which has helped propel sales. Nobody knows what you are reading if you are using a kindle or a kindle-app. Technology basically gives "permission" to read soft porn and nobody can see. And technology allowed for self-publishing when many "respectable" publishers would probably have rejected the book. In fact, I’m willing to bet many publishers did reject the book. Now Random House has it but only after it proved itself in the marketplace.

  • Is the book thought-provoking? Perhaps it is. While other books may have exposed issues in poverty, race, familial relationships, etc., "50 Shades" certainly exposes the sexual taboos that many couples face that perhaps hit at the core of why the divorce rate is so high. It could be that "literature" is only one part dependent on writing and one part dependent on how the subject matter is relevant to the important issues of your life. And, in that sense, "50 Shades" becomes very important literature regardless of the grammar. Perhaps it really is the most important book of the year, given the effect it has had.

  • Revolutionary: "50 Shades" shows that we don’t need to wait for the 22-year-old editorial assistants at the Big 6 to reach down and bless our little books with their magic. We can now choose ourselves to publish, to have a bestseller, to be nominated for awards, to make millions. I find the book to be inspirational in that regard.) See, "The Choose Yourself Era- How to Sell 300,000 Copies of Your Self-Published Book".)

  • Ageism. I think many people are also jealous that EL James didn’t go through the mainstream route of publishing: Get an MFA, write a boring first novel or two in your 20s, publish a story or three in obscure literary journals, spend a week at the Macdowell Colony, become a professor, get an agent, continue to pump out crappy literary novels. E.L. James is almost 50 years old and didn’t even start writing until she was 46. You know what her first attempts at writing were? Fan fiction for the movie, "Twilight." Not the typical route to literary success.

Many people tell me, "I’m 40 - I’m too old to make a big change in my career." Even if you had one-tenth of 1 percent of the success of E.L. James, that would be enough to change any career. And you can have it. But people like to make excuses. You can say, "well, clearly she’s an outlier". But then you would also have to say that about Alex Haley, Annie Proulx, Raymond Chandler, James Michener and about 100 others who wrote bestsellers even though they never wrote a word of fiction until they were at least age 40.

I wonder what other positive things we can say about this book that has so drastically changed and perhaps saved the publishing industry as well as shown the power of self-publishing that Amazon has unleashed.

When we all fall in line with the rest of the troops of the human race, we wither and die. We give up. We become ashamed to step out and do our own thing. We become critics instead of artists, regardless of the field.

The other day I was telling my 10-year-old to try to consider the opposite view when everyone has the same view. "If everyone wants to own a house," I told her, "consider renting. If everyone wants to drive to work, take the train - it will be less crowded. If everyone wants to go to college, consider getting a four-year head start on them by skipping college."

"What if everyone thinks that way and switches so that they are all doing the opposite?" she asked me.


"Then switch again."

"That’s confusing!"

Yeah, it is.

Now excuse me while I go handcuff my wife. (Check out 5 Extraordinary Sex Tips Women Can Learn From '50 Shades of Grey.")

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