If you haven't heard of the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy, you've surely been hiding under a literary rock. They are right up there with Harry Potter or The DaVinci Code for splitting readers into emphatic factions. I have read the first two books of the three and find myself leaning towards the "pro" camp, but the books themselves are not what's really being debated.
The books started as fan fiction - "stories about characters or settings written by fans of the original work, rather than the original creator...and almost never professionally published"*. Fifty Shades is based on the characters from Stephenie Meyer's Twilight series and originally appeared in serialized form on a fan web-site. It went through several re-writes and adaptations and was eventually published in trade-paperback and ebook form. And then began the firestorm.
I've never read the Twilight books - actually I read about half of the first one and realized that they weren't for me. I just couldn't get interested in teenage vampires, or even teenage non-vampires. So, the fact that Fifty Shades is based on those characters would have blown past me if it hadn't been so widely talked about. That seems to be one of the objections - even though the characters in Fifty Shades are older and the setting/premise is different, the basic relationship is not original. However, can Twilight fans claim that Ms. Meyer is the first author to envision characters in a moth/flame relationship? I suspicion that, if Fifty Shades had gone straight to publication without first being on a fan fiction site, few would have recognized it as such.
There's also controversy over the genre. It is pigeonholed as BDSM erotica. In my opinion, the "erotica" classification is questionable. I've read many, many excellent mainstream authors who write scenes just as steamy as these - Linda Howard, Sandra Brown, Karen Robards - but because they didn't involve the masochistic elements, they are classified as romance rather than erotica. Honestly, I started the books with trepidation about the BDSM stuff, but it wasn't as frequent or graphic as I feared. In fact, I loaned my copies to my daughter when she asked what I knew about them. Certainly not worse than what she can see on TV or read in a $5 paperback from Wal-Mart. Still, the "guilty pleasure" stigma fanned the flames and made everyone curious. Readers are disguising the cover when in public and whispering about it at the office.
As far as my review of the books, I'm really not going to write one. I enjoyed the first two, and will eventually read the third. They didn't have me bubbling with recommendations like some books, but neither did they have my struggling to finish them. On the scale of books I've read, they fall above the center line. But the writing style and plot are also not what is being so hotly debated.
The core issue is book snobbery. Based on the Tweets and blog posts I've read, the vehement anti-Shades camp can mostly be subdivided into two groups: the Snooty and the Jealous. (That should probably be developed into a Soap Opera.) The Snooty dislike the books because they aren't "literary" enough. Well, honestly, neither is a Stephanie Plum mystery or anything Nora Roberts ever wrote, but I enjoy them. The Jealous are just annoyed that someone else got published, not to mention a movie deal and big bucks, without struggling through the usual channels. There are those who disliked the books for any/all of the reasons a reader usually dislikes a book, but they aren't the ones raising a ruckus on-line.
The biggest surprise in this debate is the number of ruckus-raisers who haven't actually read the books. You read that right - they are Tweeting their disgust, followed by "that's why I refuse to read them." They are blogging lists of things they hate about the books, none of which involve actually picking up a copy. I'm baffled! Why?
Among nay-sayers who have read one or more of the books, there are those who are compiling lists of nit-picky details to dislike and airing their disdain on Twitter. I'm sure these normally affable bloggers have read other books they didn't like, but still managed to write a review that said so without being derisive or mean-spirited. I have received books for review that were so bad they were laughable, but I politely declined to post a review rather than insult the author or, for that matter, the readers who might disagree. Why doesn't this author or these books get the same courtesy?
There are fifty shades of controversy surrounding the Fifty Shades series, but the biggest question is, why are so many people rushing to hate books?