There are several ways to measure success – the kind when something does so well, everyone instantly hates it. Imitation is one; merchandising is another.
Perhaps the greatest indicator of all is when it jumps out of its commercial category. I thought of this during the summer, in New York, whenever I walked into a deli or a drugstore and saw, alongside the lip balms and key chains, a stack of 20 or so copies of Fifty Shades Of Grey (other titles on sale: none). Somewhere in there, it had stopped being a book and become a convenience, the literary equivalent of breath mints.
The success of EL James's erotic trilogy has caused a lot of moaning about what a terrible shame it is when "bad novels" do well, which seems a little rich to me, not least when most of the rest of publishing is so skint it would bend down in the street to pick up 5p.
So what if it's "badly written?" At least it was born, seemingly, of a genuine enthusiasm and James appears to be a good egg. If there's a Worst Of scenario in here, it is in the other stuff, the stampede that follows the original hit, unredeemed by individual voice or vision, just the cynicism of cashing in. Even the covers are the same. The original title was put out by an obscure Australian publisher that slapped the quickest, cheapest-looking stock image on the cover – and so, with a faithfulness approaching superstition, everyone has copied it.
So, too, with every other detail of the trilogy – which, given that Fifty Shades itself started out as fan fiction, is a doctorate in meta-meta-something-or-other waiting to happen. Hence a novel called Bared To You in which "two wounded souls come together in an explosion of lust and passion as intoxicating as it is devastating – the perfect read for fans of bestselling erotic romance Fifty Shades Of Grey by EL James", currently riding high in Amazon's charts and containing the following auto-generated gem: "Gideon Cross came into my life like lightning in the darkness – beautiful and brilliant, jagged and white hot. I was drawn to him as I'd never been to anything or anyone in my life. I craved his touch like a drug, even knowing it would weaken me. I was flawed and damaged, and he opened those cracks in me so easily…"
Reports from the Frankfurt Book Fair this year were of little else but Fifty Shades knockoffs. In some of the most feverish bidding, a six-figure sum was reportedly offered for a Canadian novel called SECRET, written under the pseudonym L Marie Adeline and featuring an organisation "that recruits women to help them realise their sexual fantasies and liberate their sexual selves". The competition, as a weary editor at Faber pointed out, included some form of "zombie erotica".
No market was immune. In Japan, Scandinavia and the rest of the world, dashed-off tales of sado-masochism dominated the auctions. In South Africa, a publisher told me of the surge in Afrikaans erotica, which had the advantage of sounding oddly hilarious as well as depressing.
Veterans in the field, accustomed to hiding their lucrative but shady output, were suddenly free to step into the (brilliant, jagged and white hot) light. Anne Rice, author of Interview With The Vampire, who had published a trilogy of erotic novels in the 1980s under the pseudonym AN Roquelaure, reissued them with a new preface and under her own name.
As for Fifty Shades, after selling an estimated 40m copies worldwide, it is now published by the poshest house in the US, Knopf, so EL James is in a stable with Toni Morrison, Alice Munro and Philip Roth. You can imagine the publisher's rationalisation, like those upmarket movie stars who tell you that every blockbuster they do funds their work in experimental theatre.
So it goes. There are reportedly Fifty Shades-branded sex toys coming down the chute, as well as lingerie and pyjamas, because we are, apparently, that tame and suggestible in the face of market forces. It is, however, somewhat cheering to note that, according to the Amazon metric, large numbers of people who bought Fifty Shades Of Grey also bought a herb kitchen garden kit, endorsed by no one, relating to no broader trends and on the heels of absolutely nothing.
See also in books
• Paul Auster's memoir in the second- person singular: you sounded silly.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010