The number-one-selling fiction book in the United States right now is Fifty Shades of Grey, a debut erotica novel that started out as Twilight fan fiction. I want you read that first sentence again. Now I want you to read that first sentence one more time. Now think about that. Done? Okay. The story behind Fifty Shades of Grey is really quite remarkable: E.L. James (well, the author now known by the pseudonym E.L. James) watched the Twilight movies, became obsessed, read all the books, and then set about emulating Twilight author Stephenie Meyer. “I came up with a story and I wrote it,” James told Entertainment Weekly. “I read an interview with Stephenie [Meyer] where she said, ‘You’ve got to start at the beginning.’ So I did that.”
The thing is, James's writing reads like a bad photocopy of Meyer's writing. Meyer is a terrible writer, but James is worse, by a magnification of ten. Even the opening line of her novel—"I scowl with frustration at myself in the mirror"—has at least two too many words. She throws adjectives at us until they finally don't mean anything at all. Characters are clumsily described every time they walk onstage: "Holy crap. What the hell is he doing here, looking all outdoorsy with his tousled hair and in his cream chunky-knit sweater, jeans, and walking boots?" The narrator's interior life is vapid and painfully literal: "My inner goddess is spinning like a world-class ballerina, pirouette after pirouette," and (italics hers) "Oh, the many faces of Christian Grey. Will I ever be able to understand this mercurial man?"
What began as Twilight fan fiction has been stripped of any pretense of fantastic elements. Like Twilight's Bella Swan, the main character of Grey, Anastasia Steele, is a clumsy young woman who is unspecial in just about every way. But her love interest, the aforementioned mercurial Christian Grey, isn't a vampire. Instead, he's "merely" a young Seattle-based multi-millionaire. Instead of vampiric secrets, he hides a "Red Room of Pain" in his penthouse suite, in which he takes out his sadomasochistic fantasies on willing young women. (Much of the book is made up of deliberation over a legal S&M-play contract Grey makes his lovers sign. Fisting, watersports, scat play, and genital clamps are off the table.)
Steele, who is a virgin, falls hard for Grey. And he starts to fall for her, too. He demonstrates his adoration by stalking her around the country, buying her fancy new expensive things, and trying to remake her into his sex slave. The book doesn't really end, instead leading directly into the second book in the trilogy. You can tell that the author hasn't read very many books in her life, because she seems to have no idea what a novel is supposed to be, outside of Meyer's works—the structure, characterization, and even writerly tics (heavy overuse of the word "murmur," frequent references to mouths "quirking" into a smile) are all cribbed shamelessly from the Twilight books.
Look: I can tell you all day long about how poorly written these books are, but the thing about critiquing erotica is, you can't tell someone what is and isn't sexy. These books are selling everywhere because people find them to be sexy. I don't begrudge anyone their right to get off on whatever they want to get off on, but I do encourage them to find some better erotica when they're done with these books. Unless bad-writing fetishes are more widespread than I feared, people are falling into James's books because they don't know there's a wealth of erotica out there that's way better-written. I encourage anyone who's read and liked Fifty Shades of Grey to do a little digging at their local bookstore and find Anais Nin or Anne Rice or Henry Miller or Nicholson Baker or Catherine Millet or Terry Southern or Erica Jong. The thing I want everyone to know is: Sexy writing doesn't have to be terrible writing.