Teaching Fifty Shades of Grey

Professor Jessie Matthews teaches a course on romance literature as an undergraduate course. In addition to teaching titles ranging from J.R. Ward’s Black Dagger Brotherhood books to Loretta Chase’s The Lord of Scoundrels, Matthews plans to take on Fifty Shades of Grey and its runaway popularity in her course.


Why was Fifty Shades of Grey so successful?

There are some practical reasons why Fifty Shades of Grey became so successful. To me it was this convergence of a wide adoption of the ereader and the maturation of social media, because ereaders made it very easy for women to buy that book and read it without anyone knowing they were reading it. And I think that whole notion of having to conceal the kind of romance reading that women often do, even if it’s not that kind of book, but just the whole sense of being caught on the Metro with a cover, you know, with the buxom blonde and Fabio and all of that—that kind of thing the ereader totally did away with all of that.

And I actually recall being on the Metro one day, and there were three women around me with ereaders, and I could see on each of their ereaders that they were reading Fifty Shades of Grey. But I only knew that because I had read the book, so I thought, “Okay, something’s happening here. They’re not here with the book, they’re here with it on their ereader.” So even in my classroom, this is the first semester where I’ve had maybe close to half of the class is using an ereader and that’s—there’s a shift coming and I need to be prepared for that as a teacher, as well.

But the other thing is social media. Fifty Shades of Grey is a word-of-mouth book. It took off because other women told their friends about this book. It was the way I found out about the book. It was on a Facebook reading group list, and one woman—and, you know, it just started and then it just built. And as more and more people read it, more and more people talked about it, and they were talking about it in conversations with other women outside of the publishing stream. That might have happened in a book group, 10 years ago, where neighbors might, you know, over the garden fence type thing. But today, the scale of it is immense. So you can have that kind of explosion in popularity of a book. So, to me, those are the sort of the practical aspects of Fifty Shades of Grey that made it so successful.

What does Fifty Shades of Grey provide readers?

It’s a way to give people a vocabulary for talking about that that was either safer or more publicly accepted or it’s been out there and women have been interested in it and something’s just sort of tapped into it. At the IASPR Conference—the International Association for the Study of Popular Romance—in New York in September, there was a woman there who—it’s their Romance Writers of America group. And she was talking about the history of Lady Chatterley’s Lover and how that book was a kind of an underground book and then finally censorship restrictions were lifted. And on the day that it was first available, it sold out in two hours and there were lines around the block. So there was a hunger for that. And her explanation for that was that that particular novel gave people a new vocabulary, or at least a comfortable vocabulary, for talking about sex.

I wonder, and I don’t have any evidence of this, but I wonder if Fifty Shades of Grey has given people a more comfortable vocabulary for talking about BDSM. In a way in which you can actually sit down with the women who you go grocery shopping with and talk about that, or talk about it in a classroom, which is what I’m going to have to do. My understanding is that it’s pretty soft BDSM and that maybe kind of entering the market in that way connected with all those other points and helped make it a success.

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