Lifting Up the Shades: Sara Nelson on the "Fifty Shades" Phenomenon

Fifty-Shades-CoverSara Nelson, Editorial Director for Amazon Books, pulls back the curtain on years of racy reading tastes--and explains why this one's different.

Allow me to be the last person on the planet to weigh in on Fifty Shades of Grey. I put off reading it until I was actually getting embarrassed that I couldn’t respond intelligently when someone (inevitably) brought it up. So I hunkered down with the first volume in E.L. James’s trilogy last weekend. I’m doing research, I told my Beloved. He muttered something that sounded like, “Yeah, and when I was a teenager, I read Playboy for the articles.”

Theories abound as to why this particular series is so popular: because it’s empowering to women—or the opposite; because women who are in charge in the outer world like to imagine having someone else take charge at home (this is news?); because the stories offer more romance than sex, at least for the first 100 pages, so it doesn’t “feel” like porn. (File that under good news/bad news, depending on your mood.) But I have another, simpler theory: everybody likes a good steamy read, once in a while.

When I was a teenager, I kept the complete oeuvre of Harold Robbins under my bed so I could read the racier scenes aloud with my best friend after school. I know more than one person who can tell you the exact page numbers of the hottest parts of The Godfather in paperback. And what were Anne Rice’s books about, if not sex? (Well, vampires, of course—but apparently, to many millions of readers, the undead are the sexiest men alive.) Nine and a Half Weeks, Josephine Hart's Damage—about a man who has a torrid affair with his son's fiancé—and Naked Came the Stranger—a fabulous hoax of a novel written by a bunch of newspaper reporters—were the Fifty Shades of their times. Lady Chatterley’s Lover, by today’s standards more racy than downright dirty—oh, well, there are a couple good scenes—was so scandalous in its time that it spawned a Supreme Court case on censorship. In fact, I think that part of what made these books so appealing to us was their very verboten-ness. No one was supposed to know you cared about this stuff. Just by picking up a naughty book, you were being naughty, even subversive.

What makes 50 Shades different is that, while a huge hit in Kindle—e-technology being the plain, brown wrapper of our time—it’s become such a mainstream phenomenon that there’s really no need to hide that you’re reading it. While I kept my racy books hidden under my bed, readers today don’t seem to have the same hang-ups. Just the other day I watched as a well-dressed woman on a New York subway gestured to the man, presumably her partner, sitting next to her. Pointing to a tote bag at their feet, she waggled her fingers and looked into his eyes. Ever dutiful, the man reached into the bag and pulled out… no, not a plate of grapes to peel for his inamorata, but a plenty-perused copy of Fifty Shades. She winked at him, opened to a page past the halfway mark, and started reading right there, in front of God and everyone. —Sara Nelson

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Comments (18)

I understand all the comments mentioned and agree a little with everyone. One thing that struck me however, the one thing I can't let go of is the question of "honesty" - How Grey keeps asking Steel to tell him what is on her mind, and vice versa. There is something very deep in this pursuit and how so many of us shy away from it, even with our spouses and best friends. It rather haunts me to be that honest even with my own husband.....I feel different about honesty now. I feel compelled somehow to be more real as a result of this book.

Posted by: K2 | Friday November 23, 2012 at 7:19 PM

I am not usually a reader of any modern romance books. A friend of mine suggested this book and I was hooked from the first chapter. I read this book and the two following it in 4 days. To E L James....WOW....would love to see a fourth book in this series.

Posted by: Amanda Allen | Saturday August 25, 2012 at 9:58 PM

Finally gave in after daughter & granddaughter (22) read it. Also referred by book club members & male friend (72). Then WGN dj's talking about. Once started could not put down. Story hooks you, agree writing not literature & story line a romance. I really object to non-readers of book slamming thoes of us who have read it. Don't knock it if you haven't tried it or if it is just not for you.

Posted by: saraxh | Saturday August 25, 2012 at 1:34 PM

I read the first chapter for free online and had no wish to continue or to spend hard-earned money on mediocre writing. Use it to teach a class? You've got to be kidding.

Posted by: Angela P | Monday July 23, 2012 at 9:35 AM

I was curious about fifty shades I wanted to see if my writings were anything like the authers. I have been writing erotic fantasies for a while now, but never had the nerve to try to publish them. I started to share them with friends in the chat room of a site I play on. i now have readers all over the world who keep me going.E L JAMES is fantastic I can't wait for her next book. I am on my 4TH reading now and enjoy it as much as my first reading. I can dream of meeting a man like him even at 75 years of age. YOU GO GIRL. ANGIE HEFFERNAN

Posted by: JIMMIE HEFFERNAN | Monday July 23, 2012 at 5:43 AM

A family friend told one of his pals about my first book and mentioned it got a little racy in parts. He wanted his take on it. When he gave him the book the guy asked which pages had "the good stuff". He panned my character's morality in his review. But he finished every word.

Posted by: Virginia Llorca | Friday July 20, 2012 at 6:17 PM

Yeah, yeah. Why read a poorly written story. What about Anais Nin's erotica, Henry Miller' about Ann Rice's Sleeping Beauty trilogy, just to name a few. Erotica has been around since the day after the first book was printed (Gutenberg may have kept one of the first editions). The only good thing about this series, apparently, is that it is drawing people who have not picked up a book in 20 years and getting them to read again. Unfortunately, they may not be inclined to read again after reading these.

Posted by: Mike Kroes | Thursday July 19, 2012 at 5:41 PM

I jumped on board late, though when I did jump, I nearly took the boat down with me. I sent a text message to my best friend at 6.23am informing her that I had been reading 50 shades for 13 hours straight, hadn't slept a wink, that I had brought the whole series, that it was better than porn and to get on it. I realised at some point, it wasn't just the sex that draws you into this story. It's the idea of a man so skilled, educated and enticing (!!!), the ability to live and experience the lives of the obscenely rich vicariously, the romance that makes you swoon, but its also that it brings back that feeling we all have at the beginning of a relationship, that time when it's all new and we can't get enough of each other. All I have to say for people who are turning their noses up at it is, I really am sorry for you.

Posted by: Brookethechicken | Thursday July 19, 2012 at 4:35 AM

I do not partake in s&m or ever will! However, I was drawn into this story from the beginning. I was hooked and wanted more! I tend to get bored easily and put a book down without finishing. With this book I was able to escape into an unknown world and enjoyed it,, my body's response to my reading was unexpected! Steele has her way in the story many times and also brings Grey to meet her needs making him change. This shows her power as a woman,,,and love! The people who hate on this trilogy are afraid of new experiences of what they have no idea about. I say LIVE people...allow it to flow!

Posted by: DD | Wednesday July 18, 2012 at 9:08 PM

Ordered Fifty Shades off Amazon, read it immediately then ordered both 2nd and 3rd of the trilogy right away. This is indeed, erotic romance geared to women and I know if it makes me feel what the characters are feeling, then it's an excellent book or books. I'd surely love to read another series from this author. Terrific work.

Posted by: Susan Hart | Wednesday July 18, 2012 at 6:44 PM

Thank you Sarah Nelson... I like your take on this entire debate. I read A LOT. I have to say this series being on the NIGHTLY NEWS cracks me up and I say way to go Mrs. James.... and I am sorry for all those that have taken such a hysterical view of this book with out even reading it... I think it is written for adults who can separate themselves from a FICTIONAL STORY and not feel that because they read something that they are indulging in that behavior OR even agreeing to all of it. I read about Ted Bundy and Charles Manson as an older teen but it didn't make me a murder or psycho... I read all three of the Fifty Shades books and some of the reviews (but not until I read them first). They are fiction. An escape from our everyday reality of taking care of our responsibilities. I loved them. I loved the characters and how they changed and changed each other through the series. Was it the best writing I have ever experienced? Absolutely not. But I disagree with most of the harsh reviews, most especially those whom haven't even taken the time to read them. I would love to be able to finish one of the MANY novels I have attempted to write, much less have a publisher willing to take a chance. I enjoyed these books, thought of them while not reading them and was sorry when I finished. What more could an author ask for? How about an audience that wants more. I think she has it in her, I think she could do better and I would like to push her by asking her to do it again... I loved the characters and think that as she continues she will only get better. Also hoping for a movie???

Posted by: KWW | Wednesday July 18, 2012 at 4:44 PM

Oh! OH,MY!

Posted by: Colleen | Tuesday July 17, 2012 at 9:18 PM

A love story,fantasy, soap opera with a lot of kinky s&m sex, but basically a soapy love story.

Posted by: Ann | Tuesday July 17, 2012 at 7:29 PM

Miss Anastastia Steele; you go girl. Who is really the sex slave?

Posted by: Robin | Tuesday July 17, 2012 at 7:26 PM

Seductive, steamy, YES! Imagine having your mate perform foreplay deliciously without ever having to tell him what you like, or don 't. You don 't have to be a fan or interested at all in S&M. If you enjoy any aspect of intimacy your hooked. Talk about control, having the ability to redirect someone from their boundaries while promoting your own, in the essence of this book, sounds pretty (seductively) powerful to me. Maybe it would be more appealing for some if the book was titled "Fifty Shades of Steele " as in Miss Anastasia Steele.

Posted by: Robin | Tuesday July 17, 2012 at 7:19 PM

I have no desire to read this book. Why? I don't like bondage. I don't like a man making a woman his sex "slave." And I won't even get into the more salacious side of this story - the sex scenes that leave absolutely nothing to the imagination. Maybe you're making a mistake keeping your racier books out from under the bed. Then again, maybe it's a good thing. You may transfer them from under the bed to into the garbage can. I read Erica Jong (rhymes with ... ) and that was as far as I got. And yes, I know where the racier scene is in "The Godfather." And I was a regular "reader" of "Playgirl." But most men and women grow up. Apparently the author of "50 Shades of Gray" hasn't. Sex is (or should be) a gift, not a product. And sex is sex no matter in what disguise. I'd rather read "Jane Eyre." There was plenty of sex there and not a stitch of clothing ever came off! Why? Because it was left to the reader's imagination. I like that.

Posted by: Rosemary | Tuesday July 17, 2012 at 9:40 AM

With all due respect to E. L. James (and Sara Nelson), I prefer to read "Die, Die, Diet" by Robert Rosenblum, a tongue-in-cheek mystery thriller that is sexy, funny and satisfying. Best of all, it's only $3.50 when downloaded from

Posted by: Hermadite | Monday July 16, 2012 at 9:28 PM

I read E L James's first chapter online and there's more to her writing than sex. This lady has mastered fiction craft -- the art of hooking and holding reader interest. I could use that chapter as a teaching tool in NovelPro, my writing workshop. She's not just selling sex, but characterization, scene & sequel, dialogue, action and description. Let's give credit where credit's due.

Posted by: J R Lankford | Monday July 16, 2012 at 12:58 PM

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