#AskELJames: The Poignant & Profitable Martyrdom of E.L. James

CHzU1xkVAAAMl90Roman emperors knew a thing or two about how to keep a population happy: bread and circuses. They built a coliseum to do it, complete with cringing Christians and half-starved, rabid lions.

While most of the media fans itself, disingenuous and titillated, over the delicious #AskELJames Twitter Slaughter, there are PR executives high-fiving each other over a brilliant marketing strategy.

Do you honestly believe that E.L. James’s new offering ‘Grey’ would be garnering the kind of press attention in the Independent, The NY Daily News, The Mirror, Huffington Post, Time, the Daily Mail, the Guardian, yeah, you get the idea.

Ms James is not a PR newbie, and neither is her publisher. Lord knows they can afford the very best when it comes to social media strategists. And any competent social media public relations person worth their fee could have told you exactly how the #AskELJames session was going to go down. It might have been convincing as an unintentional PR gaff 8 years ago, but not now.

It went down exactly as it was supposed to, with all the drama of a witch burning or the martyrdom of St. Sebastian: the cruel, ravening hoards; the occasional tweets of sympathy; the outrage; the righteous indignation; the blocking; the snarky subtweeting. This was online smackdown spectacle at its finest.

And I don’t believe for a single moment that anyone in E.L. James’ camp was naive enough not to have expected it. In fact, I’m sure they banked on it. They’ve now written the game book on how to perk up sales on an abysmal follow-up novel.

And perhaps I am naive for being stunned that all the people participating in the spectacle couldn’t figure this out. Apparently, our appetite for virtual bloodsport trumps our ability to recognize a manipulative piece of social media marketing every time.

Nor am I surprised at how little dignity E.L. James has, how little self-respect as a writer, and how non-existent her regard the genre she writes into. Not only has she succeeded in ensuring the mainstream believes that erotica is a talentless, craftless, politically, sexually, economically oblivious genre, but now she will also have succeeded in convincing us that we’re all media-whores too. Because, although I don’t flatter myself that many will read this post, the penny will – eventually – drop.

Meanwhile, what fascinates me is this: Fifty Shades of Grey sold over 100 Million copies worldwide. For all its literary deficit, its unreflective representation of women who will sacrifice their sexual preferences to get ‘love’, and its badly-researched portrayal of BDSM, it addressed an appetite the reading public had for unapologetic, explicit erotic content in a novel aimed at women. And yet it’s clear that many, many people feel so ambivalent about that need, and consuming a product that addressed it, that my guess is that a fair number of them have taken hypocritical glee in nailing the woman who brought it to them to a cross. How many people read that book with their hands in their crotch, felt guilty about it, and took out their sense of shame on its author? Many.

The PR machine behind the Fifty Shades brand is entirely aware of this particularly ugly little example of social neurosis. And they’re profiting from it greatly. Because for all the derisive furour, I’d conservatively estimate that 500,000 women just penciled ‘Grey’ on their shopping list.

You know, “just to see what all the fuss is about”, and so they can talk about how awful it was with their friends after a quick wank.

P.S. Behind this rather bitter post is a message I failed to get across. There are glorious, eloquent, intensely literary erotica writers out there. There are exquisite novels that both arouse and deepen our understanding of who we are as erotic creatures. And they aren’t getting read because the public’s perception of the genre is so negative.  Good erotica contextualizes erotic desire, confronts us with our own discomforts, holds a mirror to our erotic fantasies. Like any good piece of literature, good erotic fiction allows us to know ourselves better. Not by pretending to be self-help manuals, or models best practices of sexual etiquette, but by being a witness to the powerful way desire works on both our inner and outer lives.