One of the more startling cultural indicators of recent years, the bondage best-seller Fifty Shades of Grey, has generated a steady stream of negative publicity, which has added to its success. Moralists have disapproved of how it makes soft porn respectable. Respectable readers have recoiled from its clumsy, cliché-ridden prose.
Above all, considerable discomfort has been caused by the fact that, at the very moment when women are throwing off the shackles of the past, an extended submission fantasy has become one of the fastest-selling books in history. While society and the law are belatedly paying attention to domestic and sexual abuse, the adventures of Anastasia, doe-eyed and submissive, have been exciting millions of female readers.
Now we hear that EL James’s book is likely to cause “adverse health behaviours”. A survey of 655 female students at a Midwestern university in America has found that more than a third had read it – shocking in itself, one might think. Among these readers, researchers found, 25 per cent were more likely to have been in an abusive relationship than the non-readers, while 34 per cent were more likely to have been involved with a man who “exhibited stalking tendencies”. Weirdest of all, 75 per cent more of the Fifty-Shaders owned up to using dietary aids.
Those who had gone on to read the two sequels to the novel were in even worse shape, being 65 per cent more likely to have indulged in binge drinking, and 63 per cent more likely to have slept with multiple partners (five or more, that is).
According to press reports, the survey is the first to analyse how popular fiction relates to health risks. The academic who commissioned it, Amy Bonomi, a professor of human development and family studies at Michigan State University, has concluded that children and adolescents should be taught how to read with a more critical eye.
“The depiction of violence against women in and of itself is not problematic, especially if the depiction attempts to shed serious light on the problem,” she writes. “The problem comes when the depiction reinforces the status quo, rather than challenging it.”
These worthy words point up the yawning chasm between the way academics would like the world to be and the way it actually is. Indeed, the survey’s findings themselves raise more questions than they answer. What, for example, are “stalking tendencies” in a man? Don’t we all become a bit of a stalker when we’re in love?
Yet there is a wider, more positive message to Professor Bonomi’s survey, and it is one that should speak not only to publishers despairing of the future of the book, but to the Government’s resident punishment freak, Chris Grayling, who is so keen on restricting access to reading for prisoners, not to mention those benighted local councils who are busy closing down public libraries.
A novel can change lives. Reading fiction is a more intimate – and as a result a more potentially profound – experience than watching a film or a television series or even hearing new music. It is one person talking to another. If it is the right book at the right time, it can convey an important message of comfort and reassurance: you are not alone.
However determinedly schools and universities instil the importance of reading critically, a novel can break through society’s carefully erected barriers of respectability, responsible behaviour and correct thinking. For this reason, it is unlikely to have been tamed and institutionalised by being included on a reading list for exams.
Its effect is rarely predictable. For me, reading Frederick Exley’s wild, memoiristic novel A Fan’s Notes in my late teens provided – inexplicably, I now think – a sense of liberation, of what I was rather what I was being shaped to be by my background and education. A story of failure, rage, alcoholism and misogyny, Exley’s book would probably not win Professor Bonomi’s approval, but it was extraordinarily important for me.
Other novels affected me later in life – Joseph Heller’s Something Happened in the early years of my marriage, Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier when I started writing – but it was A Fan’s Notes whose effect was most immediate.
The fact that today it is EL James’s porny fantasies – little more than sexed-up versions of the sort of romances which Barbara Cartland used to write once a fortnight – which have such an effect on so many readers is admittedly rather odd, but it is helpful to be reminded, thanks to Professor Bonomi’s survey, how unpredictable the influence of fiction can be.
Over the holiday period, small acts of secret liberation have been taking place on beaches and campsites. The stories which have caused them may not be those of which academics and critics approve, and they may even lead to adverse health behaviours, but they will have helped readers to understand the reality, flawed and messy as it may be, of being themselves.