Rags-to-Riches stories are actually quite disturbing

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The origins of “Fifty Shades of Grey” are perhaps more famous than those of BP Capital or Koch Industries. “Fifty Shades” sprang from the mind of Erika Mitchell, an English television executive who wrote a fanfiction riff on Stephenie Meyer’s “Twilight” vampire romance series in 2009 under the name Snowqueens Icedragon. When the work attracted readers, Mitchell rewrote it, removing all references to Meyer’s material, but preserving the spirit, and sold the resulting work in 2011 to an Australian publisher as “Fifty Shades of Grey”, by E.L. James. The book became a sensation that resulted in a seven-figure deal, a deal that transferred the rights of 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 be a chapter in one of the billionaires’ memoirs, a complex capital transfer that spawned a billion-dollar book-and-movie franchise even before the cash value of the many books that mushroomed. have sprouted in his shadow.

“Arm [expletive]-up, kinky, philanthropic Christian,” Fifty Shades narrator Anastasia Steele muses about her billionaire, the eponymous Christian Grey. Steele is a freshman and virgin who meets the 27-year-old “telecommunications” billionaire when she interviews him for the school newspaper. Gray has a large and largely inexplicable business empire that leaves him plenty of time to pursue his interests in sadomasochism, domination, and control — pursuits, we’re told, that spring from a tortured childhood with a “crack-whore” mother and sexual abuse. by teenagers by a much older woman. When he’s not courting Steele or pressuring her to join him as a submissive in his sex dungeon, he gives gruff instructions about “Darfur” over the phone. In this setup, Gray has reincarnated Ragged Dick, made amends to the orphan, paying out to “Darfur”, but also playing fairy daddy and letting Steele, another bum, step into her own power as the mistress of an astronomically rich man. The levels have levels.

If “Pretty Woman” was a Cinderella story for the “American Psycho” era of corporate heists, and the hero wears his aggression on his sleeve, “Fifty Shades” is one for the “Dark Money” era. James presents Gray’s frustrating silences and elliptical backstory, his penchant for surveillance, as part of his allure. The fact that the effort is so wildly successful reveals the way Alger’s DNA persists in chaotic corruptions and reinterpretations; “Fifty Shades” has all the potential of luxury and comfort, but also flirts with the allure of submission, the dark side of the suppressed and troubled eroticism of Algerian oeuvre, appetizing, mainstreamed.

Gray checks in and out of his dungeon. He finds out where Steele is by tracking her cellphone. He buys her a laptop which she only uses to email him. “I want you to behave a certain way,” he tells her, “and if you don’t, I’ll punish you, and you’ll learn to behave the way I want.” Steele protests. “I am not a merger. I’m not an asset,” she thinks, before being merged and taken over. And yet, even though Gray gets Steele in his dungeon, ultimately the series is about his slow domestication – her ultimate rejection of his style of sexual domination. Hailed as a sordid exploration of slavery, the S.&M. element is basically undermined at any moment for a marriage plot and what Gray calls “vanilla” sex.

“Fifty Shades” has played an outrageous role in the destructive, hyper-capitalist consolidation of Amazon’s algorithm-based book business. Digital and physical shelves are teeming with the additions to the house James and Meyer built. Many are explicitly talking to ‘Fifty Shades’. In “Bared to You,” where the billionaire is yet another naughty boy with a traumatic past and a heart of gold, author Sylvia Day thanks EL James in her acknowledgments. And there are thousands of these books. Searching for “billionaire romance” on Amazon Books yields over 50,000 results with series like “Billionaire Bad Boys,” “Blue-Collar Billionaire$,” “Billionaire’s Captive,” “Boston’s Billionaire Bachelors.” The only kind of book for which “billionaire” is an explicit category is the novel, where it has evolved into a subgenre of its own.

Ultimately, these books are rehab projects for billionaires, laundering their exploitative politics and recasting them as mildly tense sex — not to mention putting hot young faces on a class of men who are in reality approaching or past retirement age, for an audience of 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 Gray: “While it’s tempting to see him as nothing more than a showcase for neoliberal capitalism, for that array of atrocities, it’s also symbolic vehicle with which that system is ‘softened’ and nurtured again in the small welfare state of a loving marriage.” Billionaires already lived rent-free in our heads, these books just extend the lease, add increasingly weird terms and keep disappearing anyone who falls outside the wonderful capitalist trajectory of up, up, up to home comforts, because Gray’s ultimate goal is to kill hunger. and eradicate poverty around the world.

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