Weekend Edition Sunday host Rachel Martin explores the literary and linguistic phenomenon given life by the romantic novel Fifty Shades of Grey with book critic Ron Charles of The Washington Post. Hardly a day goes by without some reporter or commentator describing very different circumstances through the lens of "fifty shades" of something, and Charles explains why.
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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Now, do you recognize this?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Reading) He holds his hand out to me. His eyes are bright, fervent, excited - and I put my hand in his. He pulls me up and into his arms so I can feel the length of his body against mine, the swift action taking me by surprise. He runs his fingers around the nape of my neck, winds my ponytail around his wrist and gently pulls so I am forced to look up at him. He gazes down at me. You are one brave young woman, he whispers. I am in awe of you.
MARTIN: Still not there? Well, there are tens of millions of people around the world who will recognize this breathless prose immediately. "Fifty Shades of Grey" was the publishing phenomenon of 2012. The novel's author, E.L. James, is a former writer for TV crime series. The first incarnation of the book appeared on her website, and in this year's most famous case of viral marketing, the tome went stratospheric. And like it or loathe it, the book has given birth to a whole new linguistic turn of phrase. Here to talk about it is Ron Charles of the Washington Post. Hey, Ron.
RON CHARLES: Hi, how are you doing?
MARTIN: OK. We're doing well. Let's deal with the book itself, "Fifty Shades of Grey." Deserving of its stratospheric fame?
CHARLES: Yeah, it's Proust.
MARTIN: It's Proust. (Laughter) Have you read the book?
CHARLES: I read about 35 pages - enough to write a feature about it when she came to town, when there...
MARTIN: The author.
CHARLES: ...interviewed people and observed the spectacular event. Nobody there was taking it seriously. Everyone there was just enjoying themselves and enjoying the humor of it, the sexuality of it, just the chance to let down their hair a little bit.
MARTIN: And it has also produced this crazy offshoot of derivations, this linguistic twitch, so to speak - 50 shades of absolutely everything now, right?
CHARLES: Yes. We've been trying to work the phrase "50 shades" into all of our headlines for the past year to increase our web search traffic.
MARTIN: Pakistan, White House budget, fiscal cliff - let's see if we can work in 50 shades.
CHARLES: Fifty shades of tax reform. Everything.
MARTIN: I have a few headlines here, just to give us a sense. In case folks out there haven't seen this phenomenon, we've got 50 Shades of Gratitude from the National Post; we've got 50 Shades of Crazy from the Huffington Post; 50 Shades of Brown - Toaster to Give Your Bread Perfect Hue; and, of course, 50 Shades of Santa, because 'tis the season.
CHARLES: That's a weird connection to make.
MARTIN: I mean, I doubt there is a journalist out there who didn't turn up his or her nose at this book initially, often in envy, perhaps, at the money it generated. Why adopt the phrase?
CHARLES: We don't have that many touchstones left. There aren't that many things that we all watch, that we all talk about, that we're all experiencing. So, when something like this comes along, I mean, it's a gift for journalists to be able to have some phrase that you can use that kind of ties us together, that we can all make fun of, that we can all recognize, we can all respond to.
MARTIN: I know you're a fan of this last little offshoot I want to share: 50 Shades of Chicken.
CHARLES: It is hilarious. It's such a great idea.
MARTIN: I mean, this is a book, right? This is...we've got the book here: "Fifty Shades of Chicken: A Parody in a Cookbook."
CHARLES: And there's a hilarious YouTube ad for it, too, involving a very in-shape model wearing, I think, just an apron.
MARTIN: I'll just leave it there.
We do have a little excerpt I'd love for you to read to give us a sense of this particular book.
CHARLES: Sure. It'd be my pleasure.
(Reading) Suddenly, the fridge door I'm resting on swings open. I find myself rolling off the shelf and falling toward the kitchen floor. Crap. My plastic wrapper bursts as I land and my giblet bag slides halfway out. Double crap. Damn, what cheap packaging. Instantly, I feel hands on me, lifting me carefully from the tiles. Long, powerful fingers cradled me from underneath and expertly tuck my giblets back in place.
MARTIN: I'm really never going to think about a giblet in the same way again. I mean, has this thing sold?
CHARLES: I don't know about that. But the original trilogy, of course, made $200 million for Vintage - enough to give all their employees from the mailroom all the way up to the top a $5,000 bonus. Nobody else in publishing is getting a bonus this year.
MARTIN: Well, Ron Charles of the Washington Post, 50 shades of happy holidays to you, sir.
CHARLES: Fifty shades of gratitude back at you.
MARTIN: Thanks very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.