I have been to plenty of release parties for albums, films and books over the years, but none that ever shackled its attendees with a handcuff instead of a wristband. But since I was attending the CD release party for EMI’s classical soundtrack companion to the mega-selling Fifty Shades book trilogy — and especially as the author E L James was there to be interviewed by Alicia Quarles from E! News — the gesture was more than appropriate. The event took place this past Monday night at the exclusive Soho House in NYC, and it was a rare opportunity to hear the normally shy author speak out about her work.
I have to confess that I have never read any of her books, but the friend who went with me, and other women I know, have told me about them. I have heard a wide range of opinions about the three novels — ranging from them being an absorbing erotic romance to half-baked smut for bored housewives — and I was intrigued about why they have created such a stir. And after hearing what James had to say on camera, it quickly clicked in my mind why the Fifty Shades phenomenon has exploded. But first, let’s discuss the author.
James herself came across as grounded, charming and self-effacing, and she seemed legitimately surprised at the success of her sexual fantasies come to literary life. She has been rather low-key in interviews and is the antithesis of what one might expect. When asked if she saw an awesome person in her mirror, she replied frankly that she saw a woman who was middle aged and overweight. She did not chose to respond about what misperceptions people may have about the BDSM lifestyle. When asked by an audience member what she thought of Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson getting back together, she replied that it was none of her business.
Regarding the books themselves, the British author stated that she viewed her controversial character of Christian Grey — who Quarles described as “a bit crazy” with “some stalker tendencies” — as “a very broken man”. From what I’ve surmised about the books, the story of a virginal young woman named Anastasia Steele who manages to seduce, become entangled with (literally) and then tame a handsome, multi-talented, philanthropic yet dysfunctional billionaire — who loves classical music, as does James, hence the music tie-in here — is certainly the “bad boy” taming fantasy that many women have and which is unrealistic and practically unachievable. Not to mention that this guy sounds too good to be true, S&M tendencies aside. But in the end, it’s fantasy. He’s got a dirty mind, she’s got a romantic heart, and the two meet, intertwine and eventually discover harmonious, loving bliss together. And how does that make this any different than male action fantasies where guys blow stuff up and bed unbelievably hot women who give in to their every desire? And perhaps find their supreme dream girl? It doesn’t, and that’s the point here, I think.
Before the interview started, I chatted with the two women sitting next to me. I told one of them that, judging from what friends had told me, I wouldn’t find the books kinky, and that I didn’t find bondage kinky. She regarded me for a moment and surmised that I “must have an interesting life”. Thank you, I do, but probably not for the reasons she was thinking. However, that statement got me thinking that the Fifty Shades books are giving less sexually adventurous or repressed people the chance (and permission) to talk about and explore things that they won’t find in dime-a-dozen romance novels. James even joked that finding a broad audience for her fantasies made her feel like not such a pervert, and she even indicated that she designed the book covers so that readers would not have to bend them back while reading them on the train like she did with the racy romance novels she eagerly devoured while commuting on the Tube in London year after year. Sure, the handcuffs on the third book’s cover are not exactly subtle, but they are when compared with the bodice-ripping art of many Harlequin romances. And the other two covers are much more surreptitious in their imagery.
According to James, her series has inspired many women who normally did not read to do so and into e-mailing her for other suggestions. She undoubtedly has many women talking about their untapped desires. (The Soho House attendees were at least 75% female.) And if it’s a healthy outlet for people’s unfulfilled or untested fantasies, why gripe? I often roll my eyes at people who are easily shocked or titillated by certain things, sexual or otherwise, but I work in the entertainment industry, so I get exposed to more unusual people and situations than the average person. And ultimately this is fantasy, whether you think it’s well-written or not or even erotic. I doubt I’ll ever read the books, but I believe that in our male-dominated society there is plenty of male sexual fantasy to go around, so women certainly should get more of their share represented.