Fifty Shades of Grey follows Anastasia “Ana” Steele, a 22-year-old college senior who lives with her best friend Kate Kavanagh; Kate writes for their college’s student paper. Because of illness, Kate persuades Ana to take her place and interview 27-year-old Christian Grey, an incredibly successful and wealthy young entrepreneur. Ana is instantly attracted to Christian, but also finds him intimidating. As a result she stumbles through the interview and leaves Christian’s office believing that it went badly. Ana tries to console herself with the thought that the two of them will probably not meet each other again.
However she is surprised when Christian appears at Clayton’s, the largest independent hardware store in the Portland area, where she works. While he purchases various items including cable ties and rope, Ana informs Christian that Kate wants photographs to go along with her article about him. Christian leaves Ana with his phone number.
Kate urges Ana to call Christian and arrange a photo shoot with their photographer friend José Rodriquez.
The next day José, Kate, and Ana arrive at the hotel Christian is staying at, where the photo shoot takes place and Christian asks Ana out for coffee. The two talk over coffee and Christian asks Ana if she’s dating anyone, specifically José. When Ana replies that she isn’t dating anyone, Christian begins to ask her about her family. During the conversation Ana learns that Christian is also single, but is not “a hearts and flowers kind of guy”.
This intrigues Ana, especially after he pulls her out of the path of an oncoming cyclist. However, Ana believes that she is not attractive enough for Christian, much to the chagrin of Kate. After finishing her exams Ana receives a package from Christian containing first edition copies of Tess of the d’Urbervilles, which stuns her.
Later that night Ana goes out drinking with her friends and ends up drunk dialing Christian, who informs her that he will be coming to pick her up because of her inebriated state. Ana goes outside to get some fresh air, and José attempts to kiss her but is stopped by Christian’s arrival. Ana leaves with Christian, but not before she discovers that Kate has been flirting with Christian’s brother, Elliott. Later Ana wakes to find herself in Christian’s hotel room, where he scolds her for not taking proper care of herself. Christian then reveals that he would like to have sex with her. He initially says that Ana will first have to fill out paperwork, but later goes back on this statement after making out with her in the elevator. Ana goes on a date with Christian where he takes her in his helicopter to his apartment. Once there, Christian insists that she sign a non-disclosure agreement forbidding her to discuss anything that they do together, which Ana agrees to sign. He also mentions other paperwork, but first takes her to a room full of BDSM toys and gear.
There Christian informs her that the second contract will be one of dominance and submission and that there will be no romantic relationship, only a sexual one. The contract even forbids Ana from touching Christian or making eye contact with him. At this point, Christian realises that Ana is a virgin and agrees to take her virginity without making her sign the contract. The two then have sex. The following morning Ana and Christian once again have sex, and his mother, who arrives moments after their sexual encounter, is surprised by the meeting, having previously thought Christian was homosexual because she had never seen him with a woman. Christian later takes Ana out to eat, and he reveals to her that he lost his virginity at fifteen to one of his mother’s friends and that his previous dominant/submissive relationships failed due to incompatibility. They plan to meet up again and Christian takes Ana home, where she discovers several job offers and admits to Kate that she and Christian have had sex.
Over the next few days Ana receives several packages from Christian. These include a laptop to enable the two of them to communicate, since she has never previously owned a computer, and a more detailed version of the dominant/submissive contract. She and Christian email each other, with Ana teasing him and refusing to honour parts of the contract, such as only eating foods from a specific list. Ana later meets up with Christian to discuss the contract, only to grow overwhelmed by the potential BDSM arrangement and the potential of having a sexual relationship with Christian that is not romantic in nature. Because of these feelings Ana runs away from Christian and does not see him again until her college graduation, where he is a guest speaker. During this time, Ana agrees to sign the dominant/submissive contract.
Ana and Christian once again meet up to further discuss the contract, and they go over Ana’s hard and soft limits. Ana is spanked for the first time by Christian; the experience leaves her both enticed and slightly confused. This confusion is exacerbated by Christian’s lavish gifts, and the fact that he brings her to meet his family. The two continue with the arrangement without Ana having yet signed the contract.
After successfully landing a job with Seattle Independent Publishing, Ana further bristles under the restrictions of the non-disclosure agreement and the complex relationship with Christian. The tension between Ana and Christian eventually comes to a head after Ana asks Christian to punish her in order to show her how extreme a BDSM relationship with him could be. Christian fulfils Ana’s request, beating her with a belt, only for Ana to realize that the two of them are incompatible. Devastated, Ana leaves Christian and returns to the apartment she shares with Kate.
The Fifty Shades trilogy was developed from a Twilight fan fiction originally titled Master of the Universe and published episodically on fan-fiction websites under the pen name “Snowqueen’s Icedragon”. The piece featured characters named after Stephenie Meyer’s characters in Twilight, Edward Cullen and Bella Swan. After comments concerning the sexual nature of the material, James removed the story from the fan-fiction websites and published it on her own website, FiftyShades.com. Later she rewrote Master of the Universe as an original piece, with the principal characters renamed Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele and removed it from her website prior to publication. Meyer commented on the series, saying “that’s really not my genre, not my thing… Good on her—she’s doing well. That’s great!” This reworked and extended version of Master of the Universe was split into three parts. The first, titled Fifty Shades of Grey, was released as an e-book and a print-on-demand paperback in May 2011 by The Writers’ Coffee Shop, a virtual publisher based in Australia.
The second volume, Fifty Shades Darker, was released in September 2011; and, the third, Fifty Shades Freed, followed in January 2012. The Writers’ Coffee Shop had a restricted marketing budget and relied largely on book blogs for early publicity, but sales of the novel were boosted by word-of-mouth recommendation. The book’s erotic nature and perceived demographic of its fanbase as being composed largely of married women over thirty led to the book being dubbed “Mommy Porn” by some news agencies.The book has also been reportedly popular among teenage girls and college women. By the release of the final volume in January 2012, news networks in the United States had begun to report on the Fifty Shades trilogy as an example of viral marketing and of the rise in popularity of female erotica, attributing its success to the discreet nature of e-reading devices.
Due to the heightened interest in the series, the license to the Fifty Shades trilogy was picked up by Vintage Books for re-release in a new and revised edition in April 2012. On 1 August 2012, Amazon UK announced that it had sold more copies of Fifty Shades of Grey than it had the entire Harry Potter series combined, making E. L. James its best-selling author, replacing J. K. Rowling, though worldwide the Harry Potter series sold more than 450 million copies compared to Fifty Shades of Grey’s sales of 60 million copies. It was number one on USA Today’s best-selling books list for twenty weeks in a row, breaking a previous record of 16 weeks set by In the Kitchen with Rosie: Oprah’s Favorite Recipes by Rosie Daley and The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins.
Critical reception of Fifty Shades of Grey has been mixed to negative, with most reviews noting poor literary qualities of the work. Princeton professor April Alliston wrote, “Though no literary masterpiece, Fifty Shades is more than parasitic fan fiction based on the recent Twilight vampire series.”Entertainment Weekly gave the book a “B+” rating and praised it for being “in a class by itself.”Jenny Colgan of The Guardian wrote “It is jolly, eminently readable and as sweet and safe as BDSM (bondage, discipline, sadism and masochism) erotica can be without contravening the trade descriptions act” and also praised the book for being “more enjoyable” than other “literary erotic books”.However, The Telegraph criticised the book as “treacly cliché” but also wrote that the sexual politics in Fifty Shades of Grey will have female readers “discussing it for years to come.” A reviewer for the Ledger-Enquirer described the book as guilty fun and escapism, but that it “also touches on one aspect of female existence [female submission]. And acknowledging that fact – maybe even appreciating it – shouldn’t be a cause for guilt.”
The New Zealand Herald stated that the book “will win no prizes for its prose” and that “there are some exceedingly awful descriptions,” but it was also an easy read; “(If you only) can suspend your disbelief and your desire to – if you’ll pardon the expression – slap the heroine for having so little self-respect, you might enjoy it.” The Columbus Dispatch also criticised the book but stated that, “Despite the clunky prose, James does cause one to turn the page.” Metro News Canada wrote that “suffering through 500 pages of this heroine’s inner dialogue was torturous, and not in the intended, sexy kind of way”.Jessica Reaves, of the Chicago Tribune, wrote that the “book’s source material isn’t great literature”, noting that the novel is “sprinkled liberally and repeatedly with asinine phrases”, and described it as “depressing”.
The book has also been criticised for the author’s use of British idioms which, syntactically, clash with the would-be American voice of the protagonist, thus adding further strain to the dialogue. The book garnered some accolades. In December 2012, it won both “Popular Fiction” and “Book of the Year” categories in the UK National Book Awards. The same month, Publishers Weekly named EL James the ‘Publishing Person of the Year’ to an “outcry from the literary world,” for example “What was Publishers Weekly thinking?” asked LA Times writer Carolyn Kellogg, while a New York Daily News headline read, “Civilization ends: E.L. James named Publishers Weekly’s ‘Person of the Year’.”
Fifty Shades of Grey has attracted criticism due to its origin as a fan fiction based on the Twilight novels, with some readers predicting copyright issues due to this connection. Amanda Hayward of The Writer’s Coffee Shop responded to these claims by stating that Fifty Shades of Grey “bore very little resemblance to Twilight” and that “Twilight and Fifty Shades trilogy are worlds apart”. In April 2012, E. L. James was listed as one of Time magazine’s “100 Most Influential People in the World”, with Richard Lawson of The Atlantic Wire criticising her inclusion due to the trilogy’s fan fiction beginnings. Depiction of BDSM (bondage, discipline, sadism and masochism) Fifty Shades of Grey has also attracted criticism due to its depictions of BDSM, with Katie Roiphe of Newsweek asking “But why, for women especially, would free will be a burden? …It may be that power is not always that comfortable, even for those of us who grew up in it; it may be that equality is something we want only sometimes and in some places and in some arenas; it may be that power and all of its imperatives can be boring.”Andrea Reiher expressed frustration at Roiphe’s depiction of the series, stating that “[being submissive sexually is not tantamount to being the victim of abuse” or that they’re “giving up their power or their equality with their partner”.
Other sites such as Jezebel have responded to the article, with Jezebel listing reasons for Fifty Shades of Grey’s popularity, stating that “the vast majority of fans fawn over the emotional relationship Anastasia and Christian have, not about the sex.”In an interview with Salon, several dominatrices have responded that while submission can be an escape from daily stresses, they also frequently have male clients and that trust is a big factor in dominant/submissive relationships. One interviewed former dominatrix and author, Melissa Febos, stated that even if the book’s popularity was a result of women’s “current anxieties about equality” that it “doesn’t mean that it’s ‘evidence of unhappiness, or an invalidation of feminism,’ …it might actually be a sign of progress that millions of women are so hungrily pursuing sexual fantasies independent of men.”
Writing in The Huffington Post, critic Soraya Chemaly argued that interest in the series was not a trend, but squarely within the tradition and success of the romance category which is driven by tales of virgins, damaged men and submission/dominance themes. Instead, she wrote, the books are notable not for transgressive sex but for how women are using technology to subvert gendered shame by exploring explicit sexual content privately using e-readers. Instead of submission fantasies representing a post-feminist discomfort with power and free will, women’s open consumption, sharing and discussion of sexual content is a feminist success.
At the beginning of the media hype, Dr. Drew debated sexologist Logan Levkoff on The Today Show, about whether Fifty Shades perpetuated violence against women; Levkoff said that while that is an important subject, this trilogy had nothing to do with it – this was a book about a consensual relationship. Dr. Drew commented that the book was “horribly written” in addition to being “disturbing” but stated that “if the book enhances women’s real-life sex lives and intimacy, so be it.”
In March 2012, public libraries in Brevard County, Florida, USA removed copies of Fifty Shades of Grey from its shelves, citing that it did not meet the selection criteria for the branch and that reviews for the book had been poor. A representative for the library stated that it was due to the book’s sexual content and voiced that other libraries had declined to purchase copies for their branches. Deborah Caldwell-Stone of the American Library Association commented that “If the only reason you don’t select a book is that you disapprove of its content, but there is demand for it, there’s a question of whether you’re being fair. In a public library there is usually very little that would prevent a book from being on the shelf if there is a demand for the information.” Brevard County Public Libraries later made their copies available to their patrons due to public demand.
In June 2012 pornographic film company Smash Pictures announced their intent to film an adult version of Fifty Shades trilogy entitled Fifty Shades of Grey: A XXX Adaptation. A release date of January 10, 2013 was announced. In November 2012 Universal, who had secured the film rights (see below), filed a lawsuit against Smash Pictures, stating that the movie violated his copyright in that it was not filmed as a parody adaptation but it “copies without reservation from the unique expressive elements of the Fifty Shades trilogy, progressing through the events of Fifty Shades of Grey and into the second book, Fifty Shades Darker”. The lawsuit asks for an injunction, for the profits from all sales of the film, as well as damages.