Viv Groskop: 'Fifty Shades' – a force for good or ill?

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Where do you stand on Fifty Shades of Grey? Apart from aggressively on the head of the person you would most like to have sex with, obviously, whilst wearing a gimp mask and with flowing silk ties around your wrists. That is a given. Where, though, do you stand in terms of the publishing industry? Do you or do you not approve of the phenomenon that is Fifty Shades of Grey?

It's impossible not to hold an opinion about this "mommy porn" for the 21st century, in which the rakishly handsome millionaire Christian Grey converts the glowingly virginal Ana into a sex slave. And a completely unknown author of fan fiction – EL James – becomes the supposed saviour of the publishing industry overnight.

The book has become the fastest adult paperback novel to sell one million print copies. Amazon has confirmed that it's the first book to sell over a million on Kindle. However, scroll through the thousands of online reviews for Fifty Shades and the bad reviews easily outnumber the praise by 20 to one.

Is the popularity of their love affair great news, luring non-book-buyers into the fray and reinvigorating a confused, newly unpredictable market? Or is it a terrible indictment of the direction the industry is heading in, proving that digital hype, kinky sex (or, really, any sex) and the merest mention of "the red room of pain" are set to consign proper novels to the dustbin of history?

What Fifty Shades most proves is that there is nothing better for a book than bad publicity. The more the critics pan it, the more the industry wrings its hands, the more people want to read it to decide for themselves. The Amazon reviews say it all: "How on earth this book ever got published is beyond me." "My first thought was that this must be a spoof." "I am embarrassed to say that I bought this book to see what all the hype was about." "Unintentionally hilarious." "Unadulterated tosh." "Oh, my, what a pile of discarded panties."

At £3.99 in paperback and £2.99 on Kindle, we've now entered an age where it's easier and cheaper than ever to make up your own mind. And there's no holding back misplaced curiosity. "

As one reviewer puts it, "There goes a day of my life that I will never get back." One lost day we can cope with. But an entire industry? Fifty Shades has publishing in cheap, fluffy handcuffs. And they are going to be fiendishly difficult to wriggle out of. The cost to the reputation of reading? Limitless.