This weekend saw the release of the cinematic adaptation of the best-selling novel by E. L. James, Fifty Shades of Grey.
The book - once described by Salmon Rushdie as the most badly written ever published - traces out the relationship between a 21-year old college student and virgin, Anastasia Steele, and her handsome, slightly older lover, Christian Grey.
He is an extremely wealthy and successful entrepreneur who knows precisely what he likes in the bedroom and in the boardroom (power and control) and who demands much the same thing from the women in his life as he does from his employees; i.e. total subordination. In Christian Grey's world, everyone is expected to lick his arse and have theirs spanked.
Although she finds Grey intimidating, Ana also finds him irresistible and before long she's happily riding in his helicopter and letting him have his wicked way with her; he might not be a hearts and flowers kind of guy, but he sure knows how to beat, bully and abuse a girl.
The work thus not surprisingly features explicit scenes of bondage, discipline, and sado-masochism, as well as more conventional - though no less problematic - forms of romantic cliché and is a prime example of a genre known somewhat sneeringly by critics as mummy porn. Despite being atrociously written and promoting a highly suspect form of sexual politics, the work has topped best-seller lists here and in the US, sold over 100 million copies worldwide and been translated into more than fifty languages.
As for the film, directed by Sam Taylor Johnson of all people and starring Dakota Johnson (as Anastasia) and Jamie Dornan (as Christian Grey), it too has provoked a huge amount of media attention, faced significant opposition, and received mostly negative reviews from the critics. But it too has raked in millions of dollars and set opening day records at the box office.
What, then, is there to say at last? Is Fifty Shades simply a contemporary version of Lady Chatterley's Lover; a novel perfectly suited to our pornified and semi-literate culture?
It's certainly possible that we get the fiction and the authors we deserve. But it's rather depressing to realise this and to accept our own complicity and shameful submission as readers; for multiple shades of grey merge finally into one unpleasant shade of brown ...