In praise of E.L. James

I know a lot of people who couldn’t wait for the movie version of 50 Shades of Grey to open. Not because they looked forward to seeing Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan bring the characters to vivid life, but so they could heap scorn on it. They fully expected the movie adaptation to live down to their expectations, which were low. They didn’t like the book—even though many of them didn’t actually read it—and they have nothing but disdain for the woman whose “midlife crisis writ large” spawned a trilogy that has to date sold 100 million copies worldwide. To put that figure in context consider this: James did not publish her first book until 2011 and it was self-published to begin with, available as an ebook and in print on demand.

That’s right, while Kindle millionaire Amanda Hocking was getting the press and the praise for turning her paranormal romances into big bucks, E. L. James (real name Erika Mitchell) was quietly making the transition from writing fanfic to crafting the erotic novel that would become a worldwide sensation.

And she was doing it the hard way—as an indie author.

I celebrate E. L. James’s success.

She was 48 when she published 50 Shades of Grey. She is two years older than J.K. Rowling, who published the first Harry Potter novel when she was 34, and 12 years older than Stephenie Meyer, who was 32 when Twilight was published in 2005. James deserves to be part of that trilogy of powerhouse writers because she achieved her 100 million sales with just three books while Meyer wrote four Twilight novels and a novella and Rowling’s series spanned seven books over the course of a decade.

Of the three women, who I would argue transformed the literary landscape, only Rowling gets any respect, which she richly deserves. Not only did she create a terrific universe populated by a wide and diverse cast of characters, but in real life her charitable works have made her an admirable role model.

I (heart) J.K. Rowling.

But I also have a lot of respect for Meyer and James. I’ve read both women’s work and you won’t find me among those who reflexively bash their books. (That goes for the Suzanne Collins haters, too. If you don’t like the Hunger Games books, you should read her Gregor the Underlander series, which has some of the best characters you’ll ever meet in a book).

I first heard about Twilight from a friend’s daughter, a teenager with writing ambitions of her own. She loved the book and recommended I read it.

I first read 50 Shades of Grey when one of my best friends—who rarely read anything longer than a People magazine article—told me how much she’d liked it. I figured a book that captured (!) and held her attention had to be worth a look.

And it was. James, by sharing her own fantasies, had tapped into a deep, dark vein of female longing that had really only been explored before in Nancy Friday’s landmark book My Secret Garden. And that book came about—if the writer of the Wikipedia article is to be believed—because Friday had included a woman’s sexual fantasy in a novel she’d written and an editor had objected.

When I hear the dismissive phrase “mommy porn” applied to James’s books, I find myself sighing and wondering if things really haven’t changed all that much in 40 years.

But mostly what annoys me about much of the criticism leveled at James (and to a certain extent at Stephenie Meyer as well) is that it’s disguised as “litcrit.” The blogsters bashing this writer are doing so as if her prose has personally offended their high standards of what a written entertainment should be. They gleefully extract paragraphs and quote lines in their reviews to demonstrate just how clumsy James’ writing is or to illustrate whatever point they want to make about her shallow characterization and superficial plotting.

This intellectual snobbery might be more persuasive if these same writers were reviewing works of true literature on their blogs and sites—if, say, they were showcasing the latest novel by Herta Muller, the German novelist who received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2009. More often than not, though, these same writers are waxing rhapsodic about an episode of a cult television show that changed their lives.

There’s a disconnect there—like native New Yorkers who dismiss Los Angeles as a cultural wasteland, not because they can’t find great museums and theater and symphonies and restaurants, but because they miss the bagels they used to purchase on their way home after a night of serious hipster hijinks.

I think of James as the natural successor to romance novelist Jackie Collins, whose first book, “The World is Full of Married Men”, was published in 1968 and immediately slammed by Barbara Cartland, the best-selling romance novelist of all-time (one billion books sold) as “nasty, filthy, and disgusting.” But Collins’ books combined sex and celebrity in a way that caught on and almost 50 years later, she’s sold more than 400 million copies of her 29 novels.

To put that into perspective, the combined sales of Stephen King’s 54 novels is in the 350 million range. He doesn’t get the respect he’s due either, but he gets more than Jackie Collins ever did.

Or Stephenie Meyer.

Or E.L. James.

If you didn’t like 50 Shades or Twilight (or Hunger Games), you are entitled to your opinion. But you are not entitled to belittle the people who did.

Because your opinion is not worth more than anyone else’s.

It really isn’t.

And you should probably think twice before you get personal and bash a writer who wrote a book that connected with a worldwide audience in a visceral way.

E.L. James is a writer who is living the dream that many aspire to.

I celebrate E. L. James.