The Fifty Shades series is an undeniable success. The first book has sold over 125 million copies, been translated into 52 languages, and remains the fastest-selling paperback ever in the United Kingdom. The film trilogy has grossed over $1 billion worldwide. Television studio manager turned author E.L. James was named as one of TIME Magazine’s 100 most influential people in 2012, and her grosses make her one of the richest writers on the planet. Currently, there are five books in the series: The original trilogy, and two books that repeat the story of said trilogy from the shifted point-of-view of its hero, Christian Grey. It is assumed that there will be one more of these books to complete the set. Now that the films are done - and the third one is trailing behind Peter Rabbit at the American box office in its second week - it stands to reason that we ask this question: What the fuck is she going to do next?
Talking about how the Fifty Shades books used to be Twilight fan-fiction is commonplace nowadays. I remember when the first book became an unexpectedly stratospheric hit and interviewers and newspapers would never acknowledge this fact. Sometimes, they’d note that the books were ‘influenced’ by Stephenie Meyer’s YA vampire romance, but the truth seemed to elude them. This is probably because, to those not in the know, fan-fiction is weird and complicated and kind of gross, so they just don’t go there. Now, it’s better understood, and it only stands to highlight just how James’s success has been. We could be here all day talking about her painfully bad prose, her staid characterization, her laughable depictions of love and passion, and her utter refusal to just call a vagina a vagina. As fan-fiction, the series is bad, but as literature, it’s outright offensive. As TK said in his masterful take-down of the latest film, it’s actively bad for your health.
And that’s what makes James’s influence and success as a writer so fascinating. Technically she meets the definitions for an author, but she has no dedication to the craft or real desire to grow in her chosen field. Why would she? She got mega-rich off the backs of glorious ineptitude. There’s no incentive for her to try harder or make different choices. Her publishers lose nothing if she turns in the equivalent of first-draft screeds and bypasses the entire editing process. At this moment in time, James is one of the true behemoths of publishing, an undeniably review-proof figure.
So where does she go after this?
On top of having no drive to evolve or improve, James has no incentive to make shifts in the genre or themes of her work. We don’t know if she plans to write anything outside of the Fifty Shades world, and for now, her only plans seem to be to finish that Grey trilogy. It will probably sell very well, and she knows that. The question is, can that cow be milked for much longer? What does she do after this?
I have trouble calling James a writer, not just because she’s so awful, but because she has done nothing but trace another woman’s work. Say what you want about Stephenie Meyer and her Twilight saga - believe me, I have - but you can’t deny how those books were such an obvious display of passion from their author. Meyer clearly adored writing those stories, she had evident love for her characters and it felt like a real triumph for her and her fans to see that story come to completion. Even in the series’ worst moments, Meyer has fervent drive to tell the tale, and there’s true potential brimming throughout - think of the backstories to the Cullen-Hale clan, or the bittersweet story of the lone female werewolf, Leah, or every other vampire who merits only a brief mention in Breaking Dawn. That’s not to say that Meyer’s work is above criticism. (Although, as Lindsay Ellis mentioned in one of her most recent video essays, the volume and nature of what she received was, in hindsight, a tad overblown.) But whatever your qualms with her work, it is at least her work.
E.L. James’s work is not hers. It is the faded scratchings of a hack who valued business over craft. Whatever strength she lacked as a writer, she more than compensated with her financial and branding savvy. She and her team navigated the legally tricky waters of fan-fiction to make serious bank, and she turned that into a merchandising frenzy. You can get official Fifty Shades sex toys and the writing journal to ‘influence’ your own stories. That all makes sense, given how fetishistic about money her work is, but when that business drive collides with her Twi-rip-off, it makes for some galling action.
When she announced that she’d re-write the books from her questionable hero’s point-of-view, we all thought of Midnight Sun, Meyer’s unfinished version of the exact same idea. She stopped working on that project after someone leaked the manuscript, and at New York Comic Con, she confessed to feeling emotional when she heard James was about to do the same thing. It felt like James wanted to rub it in Meyer’s face, but it was also a sign that she had nothing else to give the world beyond the scraps of the person who did all the true work. That’s partly what makes figuring out her next move so intriguing: She really has nowhere else to go, because Meyer brought her series to an end. Meyer did do a gender-swap re-telling of her first book as part of the 10th-anniversary re-release, and you just know James has pitched the idea to her agent. But after that… What?
Meyer still writes, but focuses mostly on producing these days. Her latest book, a Bourne-influenced thriller called The Chemist, sold well enough but didn’t set the sky alight with enthusiasm. Then again, it didn’t need to. Meyer’s done her time and now she has the kind of freedom few writers will ever have. She can write what she pleases, have no trouble getting it published, and never have to worry about money. James could do this if she wanted to as well, but it’s difficult to imagine her wanting to commit to something that would require hard graft or a modicum of her own imagination. She’ll always have fans and they’ll stick around for whatever comes next. We morbidly curious book lovers and pop culture experts will peek in, I’m sure. She won’t be able to drive the conversation alone anymore, and that may be the most upsetting thing to her. There’s nothing left to milk, and the cow’s about to go home.