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Mommy porn phenom 'Fifty Shades of Grey' anticlimactic, though it fits mold of bestseller, as shown in 'Hit Lit' by James W. Hall

Here's the dirty little secret of Fifty Shades of Grey: It's not that dirty.

Despite the fact that E.L. James' debut novel — born of Twilight fan fiction and now perched, with its two sequels, atop bestseller lists — has been widely described as shockingly X-rated and even called "mommy porn," its moony main characters don't even do the deed until about a quarter of the way into its 514 pages.

And despite lots of hyperventilating about the book's motif of BDSM (if you're not up on your sexual preference acronyms, that would be bondage and discipline, domination and submission, and sadomasochism) and its eponymous character's "Red Room of Pain," most of the sex that does happen is strictly what Christian Grey would call "vanilla."

The jacket of the print edition of Fifty Shades of Grey, published April 3 after the trilogy was acquired in March by Random House in a seven-figure deal, categorizes it as "erotic romance," a robustly popular genre both for traditional publishers and self-published authors. (The wider romance category, which includes erotic romance, has sales of about $1.4 billion annually, more than the mystery and science fiction genres combined.)

Fifty Shades and the other books in the trilogy, Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed, have benefitted from the same technological factor that has helped the whole genre of erotica for women grow: e-books. Women who might hesitate to shop for erotic novels in bookstores or to be seen reading them can easily stay on the down-low with an e-reader.

James, a former television executive from London, began writing the books as fan fiction based on Twilight's main characters, the virginal Bella Swan and her vampire suitor, Edward Cullen. Fan fiction, an online phenomenon with millions of participants, often imagines the sex lives of characters from popular films or fiction, and that's what James did. When she rewrote the fan fic as Fifty Shades, she altered it to diminish the Twilight similarities and published print and e-book versions with Writer's Coffee Shop, a small Australian company, in May 2011.

The e-books went viral, selling so many copies all three appeared at the top of the New York Times' combined (print and digital) bestseller lists in March, even before Random House made its deal. (The two sequels came out in print Tuesday.) James also cut a $5 million deal for movie rights with Focus Films/Universal.

Capping it all off: A parody, Fifty Shames of Earl Grey by Andrew Shaffer, is due to hit shelves in a couple of weeks.

All that adds up to a phenomenon. So what's so special about Fifty Shades of Grey?

All back, no bite

I'm not a snob about genre fiction — I devour mysteries, enjoy fantasy and science fiction and horror. I've never been much of a romance fan, but I've been reading erotica for a long time, starting with Anais Nin and Henry Miller and my namesake, Colette, when I was in high school.

And Fifty Shades of Grey? As a book critic, I have to give it two thumbs down, and only because I don't have any more thumbs.

The plot is pretty much nonexistent. (Will she or won't she? Why yes, she will.) The prose is clunky, florid and gratingly repetitive. Narrator Anastasia Steele is, improbably, a 21-year-old college senior who not only is a virgin but has never masturbated or had a sex dream. (She does gab all the time about her subconscious, although she clearly has no idea what that term means.) Ana's first-person narrative voice sounds less like a college grad's than that of an 11-year-old girl who thinks she's seen Justin Bieber at the mall.

Her version of the Bieb is Christian Grey, he of the copper hair and gray eyes (if you forget, she'll remind you every nine paragraphs) and the very vaguely defined high-tech business that has made him a billionaire at 27. (It can't be too cutting edge — he still uses a BlackBerry.)

Though their age difference would seem to be trivial, Ana's childishness and sexual inexperience combined with Christian's sexual obsessions and persnickety fussing about her diet, sleep and clothes gives the relationship an icky Lolita-ish quality.

Fifty Shades of Grey reminded me even more of two popular romance stories, Pretty Woman and Phantom of the Opera — and that's not a compliment, given that one is all about getting the highest return on selling sex and the other romanticizes stalking.

And how about all that sex? Christian, not exactly a man of mystery, starts telegraphing his BDSM preferences practically from the moment they meet. Ana is flummoxed, although it's not nearly as exotic a practice as she thinks — the Folsom Street Fair in San Francisco, billed as the world's largest BDSM event, draws about 400,000 people every year, more than the Gasparilla parade. BDSM erotica dates back at least to Petronius' Satyricon, written during the early Roman Empire, and The Kama Sutra, written between 200 and 400 AD. But, like almost everything else, it's new to her. (No fan fic for Ana! And apparently no world lit class, either.)

Then there's Christian's idea of foreplay: a contract. A 10-page contract, with addenda, spelling out sexual practices and the dominant-submissive relationship, reproduced in full in the book. Well, what's hotter than a contract?

When they do have sex (very little of it BDSM), Ana's descriptions, except for the occasional f-word, contain no obscenities or even slang terms — she sounds like some blushing Victorian maiden, referring to her lady bits only as "my sex." She does throw in the occasional "holy crap," and then there's her immortal response at the moment of losing her virginity: "Aargh!"

Hit hallmarks

So, reading Fifty Shades of Grey didn't give me a clue as to why it's a bestseller.

Luckily, another (vastly more readable) book had landed on my desk at about the same time. Hit Lit: Cracking the Code of the Twentieth Century's Biggest Bestsellers is by James W. Hall, who is familiar to mystery fans as the author of 17 crime fiction novels, many of them featuring Key Largo investigator Thorn.

Hall recently retired after several decades as a professor of literature and creative writing at Florida International University in Miami. Hit Lit grew out of a course he taught there for many years, in which he and his students tried to determine what made bestsellers — the really big bestsellers — achieve that status and endure, selling well not just for weeks but for years.

Hit Lit focuses on 12 books in a variety of genres, from across the 20th century: Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind, Grace Metalious' Peyton Place, Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, Jacqueline Susann's Valley of the Dolls, Mario Puzo's The Godfather, William Peter Blatty's The Exorcist, Peter Benchley's Jaws, Stephen King's The Dead Zone, Tom Clancy's The Hunt for Red October, John Grisham's The Firm, Robert James Waller's The Bridges of Madison County and Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code.

What on earth do those books have in common besides millions of copies sold (and successful films based on them)? Quite a lot, it turns out.

Hall breaks them down in terms of characters, plots, settings and themes and finds a surprising number of links. Hit Lit might not be a blueprint for writing your own megabestseller, but it's a smart, engaging guide for readers.

And it did give me some clues about Fifty Shades. James' novel doesn't have all of the dozen qualities Hall defines as essential to the enduring bestsellers. It's certainly not a novel of scope, set against a historical event like the Civil War or other cultural clash where more is at stake. Its plot doesn't put the characters in any danger more dire than a broken heart, and they're both such narcissists that seems like a minor risk.

But Fifty Shades does have some of the hit hallmarks. Ana's not much more of a feminist than Scarlett O'Hara was, but her relationship with Christian does reflect long-term divisions in American culture about women's roles, as well as commenting on American materialism. Like everything from Peyton Place to The Da Vinci Code, Fifty Shades introduces readers to a secretive subculture or group and provides inside information about them.

Both main characters can be seen as rebels or mavericks in some ways, rejecting conventionality. And both come from fractured family backgrounds that have shaped their personalities.

And, of course, Fifty Shades boasts a theme that runs throughout American literature, highfalutin or middlebrow: sex. From Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter to all twelve of Hit Lit's bestsellers, a pivotal sexual incident, often a violent one, has an impact on characters' lives.

It's a reflection, Hall writes, of "our intense and deeply rooted national ambivalence about sex." What better reflection of ambivalence than BDSM, which is pleasure and punishment at once?

Thanks to Hit Lit, I have some sense of why Fifty Shades of Grey is dominating the bestseller lists like Christian with a riding crop. I still don't like it, but I understand. And I hope I haven't hurt E.L. James' feelings. She'd be crying all the way to the bank.

Colette Bancroft can be reached at cbancroft@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8435.

Fifty Shades of Grey

By E.L. James

Vintage, 514 pages, $15.95

Hit Lit: Cracking the Code of the Twentieth Century's Biggest Bestsellers

By James W. Hall

Random

House,

294 pages, $16

Mommy porn phenom 'Fifty Shades of Grey' anticlimactic, though it fits mold of bestseller, as shown in 'Hit Lit' by James W. Hall 04/21/12 [Last modified: Saturday, April 21, 2012 4:30am]

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