Fifty Shades of Grey

By this point, E.L. James is a household name. You know her as the woman behind the 50 Shades of Grey trilogy. You know her as the fan-fiction writer who turned an online Twilight saga spin-off into a lucrative creative empire. And now, you know her as the woman behind what looks to be an extraordinarily popular film series.

But do you love her or hate her?

This seems to be the debate we face when talking about E.L. James, whose rise to off-the-charts wealth and extreme popularity have come with the hefty price of being associated with what many consider to be harmful messages and dangerous ideas. And yet it’s these same messages and ideas, or at least a different interpretation of them, that’s at the root of the author’s success.

By most tangible measures, it’s impossible to come to any conclusion other than that the reading, viewing, and even practicing public adores James. The titular first novel in her series has become Britain’s best selling book of all time, surpassing Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows for the honor, implying that in a quite literal sense more people are reading James’s book than any other book in the world. This of course means there are a ridiculous number of people reading the second and third books in the series as well, and all of this is the main reason that James is now worth in excess of £37 million (or $57 million).

Public obsession with the 50 Shades Of Grey trilogy has also paved the way for additional products and creative endeavors, which of course double as new revenue streams for James. The most obvious example is the budding film franchise, which kicked off earlier this year in the form of 50 Shades of Grey, a film that grossed over $500 million at box offices internationally. But even beyond the film, James’s work has found success in products linked to the bondage-related subject matter of the stories. As seen here, entire lines of sex toys and products boast the name of the trilogy, and they allow readers and fans to find their own ways of getting in on the action, so to speak. The very idea that readers are purchasing sex toys and bondage materials to put their 50 Shades fantasies into practice suggests a deep, very real attachment to James’s material.

If these numbers and examples were the whole story, it would be clear that there’s no debate regarding public perception of E.L. James. However, unlike other literary phenomena, which tend to attract the admiration of some and the disinterest of others, 50 Shades of Grey often draws very harsh criticisms from many who don’t count themselves among its fans. It’s a polarizing series to say the least, and some of the public backlash against James is so strong as to suggest that for every happy fan, there’s someone else who would sooner burn the books than read them.

The core issue, as many have suggested, is that E.L. James is writing about BDSM without conveying a real understanding of what it entails. The Atlantic’s Emma Green wrote a wonderfully thorough column on this issue earlier this year, theorizing that in misunderstanding (or at least poorly conveying) BDSM, James has created dangerous sexual messages with the potential to give millions of readers the wrong ideas. Instead of displaying the ins and outs of a functional, mature relationship that combines control and pain with appropriate sexual behavior, the article writes, 50 Shades shows the pain in a more abusive light.

Furthermore, this sort of opinion is not merely something we see occasionally in a major publication; rather, it’s a widespread point of view shared by many readers who are disgusted with how E.L. James has achieved her wealth and popularity. Until recently, this has been something apparent only in day-to-day conversation and in comment sections and message boards. However, the other day James took to Twitter to do an open Q&A session with fans, and found herself in the midst of a storm of criticism. Readers relentlessly bashed James for things like advocating stalking, suggesting abuse is fine as long as a man is rich, and various other problematic ideas.

All of this came in the midst of James’s promotion for her fourth book, Grey, which recaps 50 Shades events from the perspective of the male protagonist. And the excruciatingly public criticism James received during this process poses an interesting question: have fans begun to turn on the very idea of 50 Shades, and on James herself, so much that Grey will signify the beginning of a decline? Or are too many people still enthralled by the entertainment value in James’s stories?

This is the dilemma of E.L. James, and one that only figures to become more interesting as time passes and more projects come to light.