EL James: Women’s Writer or Not? blog post by Angela Melville

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Fifty Shades of Grey caused a huge stir when it first arrived on the shelves, and the publicity it generated just by word of mouth had avid readers, who normally wouldn’t condescend to reading such trashy novels, running to the nearest Waterstones to grab a copy. There were very mixed reviews as well, some people suggested it was a glorified Mills and Boon for the very modern age, while others called it light pornography.
The first in a trilogy, Fifty Shades of Grey introduces the suave Christian Grey who is rich and powerful but also flawed. The heroine of the story, a naïve and innocent virgin, is swept up in emotion that she doesn’t understand on her first encounter with the handsome Mr Grey. Add into the mix a sex chamber with chains, whips and butt plugs and S&M is introduced into a modern day relationship that is anything but conventional.
The idea that a formula is being followed in this romantic novel, is quite clear when you compare it to a typical Mills and Boon, whereby the hero is handsome, clever, strong, rich, and independent, and the heroine is in need of saving. The story is a tool to highlight the notion that love conquers all and as in these formulated romantic novels, Fifty Shades’ is no different, unless of course you read the chapter on Sado-masochism, or S&M as it is nicely abbreviated.
In many ways within the novel we see the heroine Anastasia Steele, being submissive and controlled by Christian as she navigates through her sexual experiences with him having never experienced sex with anyone else. The idea that S&M received bad press because of this novel is also something to be aware of when thinking about whether or not this novel served to empower women or whether it makes them look weak and helpless.
Rachel Cusk denied that Iris Murdoch was a women’s writer, stating that she had made a choice to ignore the fact of her sex when writing and therefore lived as an intellectual which may not have been possible had she written as someone like Virginia Woolf who lived a very ‘ordinary life, she spurned the intellectual shelter of academic institutions, she lived and hence she wrote as a woman.’
The same could be said of E.L James (Erika Mitchell). Not that she is an intellectual, although she clearly saw a niche in the market for a novel like hers and her marketing of such a product was genius, but that she is not a women’s writer. I however, believe that she is a women’s writer. Whether she writes for women by empowering them through the concept of sexual liberation and freedom of choice or whether she aids them in escaping the mundanity of their own lives and for a brief period, allows them to disappear into a world of fantasy where anything is possible, this really is writing for women.

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7 responses to this post.

  1. I agree with Angela in this blog, that 50 Shades Of Grey does follow the conventions of the Mills and Boon, with the execption of being sexually explicit which has made it so popular. I would add to this that E L James has been very lazy in creating this formula, where I think she could have maybe used more techniques that would be ‘women’s writing’ or even just creating a more interesting or three dimensional female narrator. Even with these small changes to the novels she would be more of a ‘Women’s Writer’.

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  2. Posted by Salma AlTabari on March 14, 2016 at 2:35 am

    Erika James has repeatedly stated in interviews that she considers the Fifty Shades of Grey saga to be a tale of romance. She claims that this story is a part of her personal fantasy. It could have easily passed as a Mills and Boon novel, however, the circumstances surrounding its publication and advertisement made it into something of a phenomenon, starting a wide discussion about S&M and female empowerment. These kinds of themes, while relevant, were not part of the author’s intention. Therefore, I find the reception of Fifty Shades quite fascinating, as most people have read too much into it, interpreting themes that are not necessarily applicable to the overall narrative.

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  3. Posted by Eliza on March 14, 2016 at 10:45 am

    I suppose by virtue of being a woman writer whose novels are widely read by women, E. L. James is a women’s writer, objectively speaking. She is able to be so, as Angela points out, because she has successfully located and targeted a niche in the market, although I doubts she knowingly did so. If the books are based on her own personal fantasies, and these fantasies have resonated with vast numbers of women, I suppose this actually makes her the quintessential women’s writer.

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  4. Posted by Christie on April 1, 2016 at 10:39 pm

    Whilst the question surrounding whether or not E.L. James might be referred to as a ‘woman’s writer’ is a complex one, I really like Angela’s summary:
    “Whether she writes for women by empowering them through the concept of sexual liberation and freedom of choice or whether she aids them in escaping the mundanity of their own lives and for a brief period, allows them to disappear into a world of fantasy where anything is possible, this really is writing for women.”
    Female readers, just as every reader, will desire an intellectual read on some days, whilst desiring an ‘escape’ on others. A woman’s writer might therefore be anyone who accommodates to either of these demands, and James can be seen to offer the escape reading that so many readers desire.

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  5. While Angela’s piece is well written I cannot see E.L James as a Women’s Writer. Her fiction reinforces patriarchal gender stereotypes, which is damaging to women in 2016 and the steps towards equality that we have made in the past 100 years.

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  6. Posted by Lukas on April 10, 2016 at 3:07 pm

    I agree with Chloe, I do not think of E. L. James as a women’s writer. From what I have read of the novel, the main focus is on Christian, and Anastasia is merely the body through which we observe and explore him. I think that if James would have wanted to be a women’s writer, she could have reversed the roles of Christian and Anastasia, making Anastasia a wealthy, sexual woman, and Christian the younger, naïve virgin.

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  7. Posted by Phoebe on May 7, 2016 at 9:47 pm

    I think that ‘on paper’, E. L. James can be considered a women’s writer, in that she writes novels that supposedly help women to escape reality, as we identified last week. Her work has been dubbed ‘mummy porn’. However, I do not think she SHOULD be considered a women’s writer. I couldn’t agree more with Lukas comment that Anastasia is merely a body.

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