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Ruth Marcus: Grey matters of fantasy and reality

BY RUTH MARCUS Published: June 15, 2012

There are several highbrow ways one could write about the publishing phenomenon of “Fifty Shades of Grey,” the soft-core, S&M trilogy that has found its way onto the Kindles of millions of women worldwide.

One could ponder the conundrum of public libraries confronted with consumer demand for “Fifty Shades.” Should libraries, um, submit to the public's craving or take a stand for decency? Answer: It's a bad idea for librarians to turn themselves into the taste police.

One could lament the lamentable prose. As one reviewer noted, “characters roll their eyes 41 times, Ana bites her lip 35 times, Christian's lips ‘quirk up' 16 times, Christian ‘cocks his head to one side' 17 times, characters ‘purse' their lips 15 times, and characters raise their eyebrows a whopping 50 times. … If I wrote like that, I'd use a pseudonym too.”

But going highbrow on “Fifty Shades” is a way to evade the larger, uncomfortable question: What's the attraction?

In case you've missed the hoopla, “Fifty Shades,” by E.L. James, a pseudonym for British writer Erika Leonard, tells the story of Anastasia Steele, an inexplicably virginal recent college graduate, and Christian Grey, the impossibly handsome and twisted 27-year-old billionaire who falls for her. Boy meets girl, boy whips girl, boy loses girl.

In the end, which takes a looong time to get to, Ana has it her way: She declines to sign Grey's “submissive” contract; they keep on having kinky sex, but not too much; and Steele helps Grey recover from his wounded childhood.

The “Fifty Shades” books have sold 15 million copies in three months, split between e-readers and paperback as the novels jumped the barrier from the cyber-equivalent of plain brown wrapper to prominent display at bookstores.

In a Newsweek cover story on “The Fantasy Life of Working Women: Why Surrender Is a Feminist Dream,” Katie Roiphe suggests a link between women's empowerment in the public sphere and their fantasies of submission in private.

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