books, men and women, william shakespeare

How long do I have to sit here sighing and looking mysterious before he comes over her and asks me to sign his damned contract!

Every generation thinks they invented sex; and every erotic novel that takes off has the media twittering and gasping like – shock horror – this has never happened before.

Unless you’ve been to Mars with Curiosity you’ll probably have heard of a book by EL James starting with the number 50. I don’t wish to denigrate the book and its author in any way. Far from it. It’s just that I’m amazed by the yabber this book has inspired, especially regarding its supposed pornographic content.

After all, it keeps to a tried and true formula: Boy meets girl. Boy whips girl. Boy flies off in his personal helicopter.

Substitute ‘seduce’ for ‘whip’; and ‘horse’ or ‘pirate ship’ for ‘helicopter’ and what have you got?

Barbara Cartland, tied to a bed.

For all the hype, I don’t agree that 50 Shades is pornography. For that, all you need is a bored and scantily dressed widow and a man who’s come to clean the pool.

William Shakeapeare, books, men and womenI believe it comes from a much stronger tradition.

But for the sake of argument – okay, let’s characterize it as porn. What’s wrong with that? At the beginning of his career Shakespeare wrote two highly erotic poems, ‘Venus and Adonis’ and ‘The Rape of Lucrece’, which became runaway bestsellers and made our Will an awful lot of money. It was reckoned that every young lady of the day had a copy of V&A under her pillow.

The eighteenth century saw the success of John Cleland’s Fanny Hill; then came the early Early Gothic novels, like Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho – which were frowned upon as ‘sensationalist women’s entertainment.’

Does this sound familiar to you?

books, men and women, William ShakespeareThe novels of the Marquis de Sade – whom Christian Grey consciously imitates – owed much to the Gothic tradition that also influenced Gogol, Dostoievsky and Shelley and later inspired the early vampire stories. Then came Edgar Allan Poe and the Bronte sisters.

50 Shades of Grey is actually ‘Jayne Eyre’ with shopping and a table tennis paddle.

It is Gothic fiction. In fact it started out as fan fiction in 2010 based on the Twilight vampire series – Anastasia and Christian are Bella and Edward. And there is nothing wrong with EL James leaning heavily on another work. Shakespeare took almost every story he ever wrote from some other source and created what I think you’ll agree is a reasonably impressive body of work.

books, men and women, William Shakespeare

photograph: Allan Warren

EL James also, perhaps unknowingly, inherited the mantle of the inimitable Barbara Cartland, she of the permed hair and the poodle. Cartland’s books always featured shy virgins initiated into romance by stronger, older, richer men. They often rode horses and carried riding crops and were, without exception,  misunderstood.

Do you recognize the plot? Barbara sold 700 million books with essentially that same story.

This is possibly because virginity, sexual dominance and submission aren’t “trends.” They aren’t even vaguely about sexual politics or economic equality. They are myths deep seated in our subconscious. Ask Joseph Campbell.

And which particular myth are we drawing on here? Think about Beauty and the Beast for a moment; there’s a virgin – tick; there’s a young woman who is looking for an awakening to love, tick; there’s a alpha male who is wounded, tick.

books, men and women, Willima Shakespeare

photograph: Raelene G

Yes, you’ve heard it all before, just in different ways; but finding different ways to tell the same stories is what we call literature.

But if you believe the media, 50 Shades is unique, a phenomenon. Yet to me the true phenomenon is the success of this particular book, when there are so many like it.

But why did it take off? Why Grey and not fifty thousand others?

I have a theory. But more of that in a later post

Until then, even if you didn’t like the book, you can at least enjoy the commercial. It’s hilarious.


About colinfalconer

author of bestselling historical novels like Anastasia, When We Were Gods, Aztec and Harem. My books have been published in the UK, US and ANZ and translated into seventeen languages.
This entry was posted in WRITING and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.


  1. susielindau says:

    Colin, you should add twitter to your share buttons!

  2. Emma says:

    That is funny. Who knows why Fifty Shades took off like it did? Word of mouth, I guess.

  3. I had a similar discussion with a new author not too long ago. Not about this book, but about how there are no new stories to write, just different ways to tell what’s already been written. Which does make you ask the question…with so many well written versions…what makes one more popular than another. We’ll probably never know.

    But…this is great news for fan fiction writers everywhere, isn’t it? 🙂

    • Well, it is, but as we’ve seen here, there wasn’t a lot of Shakespeare that was entirely original either, and there’s been a lot of great fiction written since his day. I think the idea of new stories is a misconception. It’s been almost 300 tears since the first vampire story – but Fifty Shades of Grey actually morphed from a vampire story. And you’re right Kristy – there will probably be a surge in fan fiction and bondage novels – but my guess is the new big thing will come from somewhere else!

  4. prudencemacleod says:

    As always, sex sells. hmmm, what does that say about us as a species? Oh who cares, sex is fun, sex sells, and all we have to do is find the right formula for the packaging. hehehe
    Yes 50 Shades is great news for fan fiction writers, but then, Shakespeare was into that, wasn’t he?
    Great post as usual, Colin. Keep ’em coming. 🙂

  5. Liza Perrat says:

    Great post… hilarous ad! Yes, you need a Twitter button.

  6. CC MacKenzie says:

    Great post. 50 Shades is not porn. Most of the peeps who call it that have not read it. I know this because of the number of women who tell me it’s porn and yet say the’ve not read it. A ‘friend’ told them it was porn. Sigh. And you need a twitter share button. Told you! 🙂

    • You did tell me, CC!! Finally, it’s done. And thank you. I agree, it’s not porn, it’s just explicit. To my view, pornography objectifies women, and there is no story. But surely just because something is explicit, doesn’t make it pornography. This is written by a woman for women readers with a female MC. And it has a story! Porn doesn’t.

  7. corajramos says:

    Very funny video. Thanks again for a captivating post.

  8. Author Sherry Jones says:

    What’s “wrong” with porn is that it objectifies and degrades women, and hegemonically encourages them to do the same to themselves. Too many don’t realize that rape is not a sex act, but an act of violence. And yet, I recognize the power of sexual fantasy. Our Puritanical culture requires women, even today, to be “forced” to engage in sex in order to enjoy it.

    • Couldn’t agree more, Sherry, but my point here is that just because narrative is explicit does not make it pornographic. I’m not arguing that 50 Shades is a great book, but that it is in the tradition of myth, not porn. After all it’s written by a woman with a female MC for a female audience. The story itself has clear antecedents going back to Gothic literature and ancient fairy tales. I think the debate – and I believe we agree on the fundamentals here – should be about our society’s Puritanical view of women instead of this book’s supposed pornographic content. But we’ll get to that in the next week. I want to talk about exactly the issue you raised here!

  9. I am ROTFLTIME at that video! That’s one of the best I’ve seen!

    I never understood why 50 Shades took off like it was something new and different. I have friends who’ve been writing erotica – and writing it very well – for years. Why not them? As another commenter said, guess we’ll never know.

    • Isn’t it a great video! Cracks me up every time. And we’ll maybe have some more to say about it in an upcoming post. And I agree with you -why this book? But then there were a lot of people writing great fantasy – why Harry Potter? Why Amanda Hocking? I guess every publisher and author would like to know the formula. But I do still have something I’d like to say about what is interesting about this book’s success – and what it may owe to the ePublishing revolution.

  10. another entertaining post Colin and the comments are just as interesting.

  11. Call it what you will folks…”50 shades” makes women look pretty superficial and “tied up” in what a man thinks of them and their bodies. When Christian Grey lets Anastasia do to him what he does to her…then we’ve got a book worth reading…just MAYBE 😉

    • Have you read Girl with a Dragon Tattoo then? The interesting thing is no one raised the subject of the sex in THAT book which was pretty graphic and disturbing and in which the girl did a little tying up of her own. And I might agree with your sentiments, except this book is not aimed at men – it’s mostly women who are reading it and women who caused it to become the massive bestseller that it is. But more about that tomorrow …

  12. asraidevin says:

    i wrote ages ago that 50 Shades is the same as every other “old school” romance. Young inexperienced girl seduced by older, experienced man of means. It’s somewhere on my blog.

    I didn’t mind the story of 50 Shades, though it would have been better IMO if Ana was introduced to S&M a little more slowly (really, I don’t think a lot of dominates throw the full force of whips and handcuffs what they want on a women new to being submissive) and if her feelings towards the BDSM relationship were explored. But I guess if I am that frustrated, I could go write some fan fic about it …

    • Asrai, I completely agree with you about this being ‘old school’ romance. I have a theory that the book owes its success to contemporary sexual politics, rather than the originality of the content. Girl with a Dragon Tattoo – now there was some disturbing sex. But FSOG is not disturbing sex – but just maybe it’s about making it cool for women to read about graphic sex. More of that tomorrow and everyone can have their say …

      • asraidevin says:

        Romances and women’s lit have had graphic sex scenes for many years. Danielle Steele wrote some disturbing sex is mid-late 90s. No one talked about it before.


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