Rags-to-Riches stories are actually quite disturbing

The origins of “Fifty Shades of Grey” are perhaps better known than those of BP Capital or Koch Industries. “Fifty Shades” was born from the mind of Erika Mitchell, an English television executive who, in 2009, wrote a fan-fiction riff on Stephenie Meyer’s series of vampire novels “Twilight” under the name of Snowqueens Icedragon. When the work attracted readers, Mitchell rewrote it, removing all reference to Meyer’s material but keeping its spirit, and sold the resulting work to an Australian publisher as “Fifty Shades of Grey”. , by EL James, in 2011. The small book press became a sensation that resulted in a seven-figure deal, one that transferred the rights to the original press to Vintage Books, a division of Knopf Doubleday, a division of Penguin Random House. It’s the kind of deal that could form a chapter in one of the billionaire’s memoirs, a complex transfer of capital that spawned a billion-dollar book and movie franchise, even before estimating the monetary value of the many books that have sprouted like mushrooms. in its shadow.

“Poor [expletive]-up, kinky, philanthropic Christian,” “Fifty Shades” narrator Anastasia Steele reflects on her billionaire, eponymous Christian Grey. Steele is a graduate student and a virgin who meets the 27-year-old “telecommunications” billionaire when she interviews him for the school newspaper. Gray has a vast and mostly unexplained business empire that leaves him plenty of time to pursue his interest in sadomasochism, domination and control – activities, we are told, that stem from a tortured childhood with a mother” crack-whore” and teenage sexual abuse by a much older woman. When he’s not courting Steele or pressuring her to join him in his sexual dungeon as a submissive, he’s giving gruff instructions about “Darfur” over the phone. In this setup, Gray is Ragged Dick reincarnated, the orphan made good, paying him off to “Darfur” but also playing the role of fairy godfather and letting Steele, another waif, step into her own power as the mistress of a astronomically rich man. Levels have levels.

If “Pretty Woman” was a Cinderella story for the “American Psycho” era of corporate raids, its hero wearing his aggression on his sleeve, “Fifty Shades” is one for the “Dark Money” era. James presents Grey’s frustrating silences and elliptical history, his penchant for surveillance, as part of his appeal. That the effort was such a great success reveals how the DNA of Algiers persists in bastardizations and chaotic reimaginings; “Fifty Shades” has all the power of luxury and comfort but also flirts with the allure of submission, the dark side of the repressed and troubled eroticism of Algiers’ work made acceptable, mainstream.

Gray controls the interior and exterior of his dungeon. He discovers Steele’s whereabouts by tracking his cell phone. He buys her a laptop which she uses only to send him e-mails. “I want you to behave in a particular way,” he told her, “and if you don’t, I will punish you, and you will learn to behave as I desire.” Steele hesitates. “I am not a fusion. I am not an acquisition,” she thinks, before being merged and acquired. And yet, as Gray ushers Steele into his dungeon, the series ultimately speaks to his slow domestication – his ultimate rejection of his style of sexual domination. Hailed as a dirty exploration of bondage, S.&M. The element is actually subverted every moment for a wedding plot and what Gray calls “vanilla” sex.

“Fifty Shades” has played an outsized role in the destructive, hypercapitalistic consolidation of Amazon’s algorithm-based book business. The digital and physical shelves are full of additions to the home that James and Meyer have built. Many are in explicit conversation with “Fifty Shades”. In “Bared to You,” where the billionaire is once again a bad boy with a traumatic past and a heart of gold, author Sylvia Day credits EL James in her thanks. And there are thousands of these books. Searching for “billionaire romance” on Amazon Books returns over 50,000 results with series like “Billionaire Bad Boys”, “Blue-Collar Billionaire$”, “Billionaire’s Captive”, “Boston’s Billionaire Bachelors”. In fact, the only type of book for which “billionaire” is an explicit category is the romance novel, where it has developed into its own distinct subgenre.

Ultimately, these books are rehabilitation projects for billionaires, whitewashing their exploitative politics and recasting them as mildly edgy sex – not to mention putting hot young faces on a class of men who, in reality, are approaching or have passed retirement age, for women. who often have much less economic power. In “Everything and Less: The Novel in the Age of Amazon”, literary scholar Mark McGurl writes of Grey: “Although it is tempting to read him as little more than a poster boy for neoliberal capitalism , for this set of brutalities, he is also the symbolic vehicle by which this system is ‘softened’ and becomes caring again in the little welfare state of a loving marriage.” Billionaires were already living rent-free in our heads; these books extend simply the lease, adding in increasingly bizarre terms, continuing to obliterate anyone who falls outside the beautiful capitalist trajectory of up, up, up to home comforts. After all, Grey’s “ultimate goal is to ‘to help eradicate hunger and poverty in the world’.

About Terry Simmons

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