E. L. James’ infamous trilogy, Fifty Shades of Grey, has now sold over 100 million copies. This poses the question: if James’ critically condemned prose can be so commercially successful, what does this mean for the future of literature? Does its success denigrate our literary heritage with ‘low culture’? Well, the simple answer is no.
There is a tendency to dismiss popular fiction, purely for the sake of non-conformity. This, coupled with the fact that James’ novels were derived from fan-fiction, precipitated their negative reception. Commercial success, however, indicates notoriety more than critical praise. Whilst hugely popular fiction can, and surely must, impact on successive literature, it is hardly at risk of corrupting it. The joy of literature is in its conversation: in its ability to develop, converse, or contradict another work’s ideas. To overlook and dismiss a novel, which has appealed to so many readers, would be misguided and detrimental.
Popular, and controversially successful, hits are not exclusive to literature; we have arguably seen the same in ‘trashy’ TV, or in music with sensations such as ‘Gangnam Style’. These are as unlikely to have as much of a resounding impact on the Arts as James’ trilogy. It is also worth noting that this is not a new phenomenon. The same is true of some novels that we now critically revere. Jane Austen is one of many writers, including Keats and Kafka, who were appreciated only after their deaths. It seems unlikely that a couple of hundred years will be enough to reverse our opinions of 50 Shades of Grey, but the franchise is important if only for its evident expression of a demographic of current fears and desires.
Low and high culture will always co-exist, but we should be dissuaded from the unnecessary anxieties this inspires. It seems, to me, a positive thing: not at risk of depleting our artistic talents, but, rather, helping us to question and reaffirm our standards of quality and critical acclaim.
I cannot seriously suggest that James will reignite a passion for reading, saving our diminishing wealth of independent bookshops, but it is no bad thing if people have picked up this book. To those not entirely convinced, it is worth putting these numbers into context; the Harry Potter series have sold an estimated 450 million copies, so there is quite a way to go before James topples the nation’s best loved works of literature.