Beyond Shades of Grey: What’s Next For EL James?

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Serious author scarf. Image from Fox.

You may have missed the low key release of Grey, the retelling of 50 Shades of Grey from the point of view of its so-called hero, last week because you were all too busy celebrating my birthday. Understandable, of course, but as with all things related to the (depressingly) biggest selling book series of all time, there is much to discuss. Sales were as predictably high (pre-sales were in the millions and several bookshops slashed the prices on day one) as critical acclaim was low, even amongst fans. Then again, such things really don’t matter in the short term. James at this point in time, like JK Rowling and Stephen King, is essentially a review-proof writer. A massive fanbase, media attention to match, and sheer morbid curiosity will bolster sales long enough to keep her in Scrooge McDuck money, and her name remains in the public eye while we wait for more news on the 2nd film.

Moving on from a public phenomenon has always been difficult for writers. Arthur Conan Doyle never could get past Sherlock Holmes thanks to a devout and demanding readership, AA Milne’s post-Pooh efforts were forever overshadowed by such expectations, and while JK Rowling found solid acclaim with The Casual Vacancy, her pseudonym quickly found its way to public knowledge thanks to an incompetent lawyer and his nosey friend. Stephenie Meyer briefly returned to the Twilight world with a novella for charity, but seems more comfortable in her new role as a producer of other people’s work, which includes letting other film-makers play in the Twilight sandbox. She had also published another book not related to her most famous series, and left Midnight Sun abandoned to the dark corners of the internet. Many writers return to the worlds that made them stars; many leave them behind. What will James do?

I sent this question out to my Twitter followers and pretty much everyone answered the same way, predicting James will finish the series from Grey’s point of view, with all future work sticking to the same universe. I couldn’t help but find this pretty sad in many ways. As I noted in my post when Grey was announced, it feels as though James has thrown up her hands and admitted she has no original ideas. Why bother with them when a photocopy of a photocopy sells a million copies in less than a week? Readers are sticking around for now, and even if a significant portion of them step away from the world of Grey, enough will inevitably stick around to keep sales high. With each project, James continues to strengthen her brand, which is an exercise in irony, if nothing else. From a strictly business point of view, it’s a smart move, if somewhat lacking in artistic merit. Then again, James was never exactly lauded for possessing such skills.

There’s also been news that James will release a writing guide, which sends the Irony Bell clanging like wedding bells but also adds another notch to the Grey brand, forever tied to its sparkly roots but with enough distance to give James a shred of legitimacy. There’s also enough official merchandise for sale to do that. However, other writers who benefited from the post-Grey boom have moved on, sustaining their careers with a varied output and a keen eye towards industry change. For them, it’s necessary. For James, not so much. Her wealth and fame don’t so much put her in another level of publishing as they put her in another solar system. She could do basically whatever she wants, publish to her heart’s content and stretch her muscles free from industry fads, risk-averse publishers and a slowly declining market.

Of course, this is all dependent on one question – Does she really want to do anything else? She’s shown no real desire to move beyond her successful personal fantasy and two upcoming films ensure she won’t have to. As a producer of the series, she can wield her power in a new way (and if the on-set rumours are anything to go by, she did so with serious aplomb, much to the chagrin of Sam Taylor-Johnson). Her insistence on script approval, something very few authors get when it comes to adaptations of their work, hints at a possible desire to become more involved with the film-making process. Her husband, a seasoned screenwriter, will pen the Darker film, so perhaps she’s got her eye on the director’s chair. That could explain the delay in further announcements related to the sequel, and would promise the kind of production drama that would fuel gossip columns for years to come.

I doubt I’ll ever read anything else James publishes unless I’m heavily compensated or inebriated, but I can’t help but roll my eyes at the lost opportunities offered to her. Imagine having that kind of power to share your stories with the world free of the usual restraints, only to fall back on your fan-fiction time and time again. Then again, I keep coming back to the point that she doesn’t need to do anything more than she wants to. It’ll take success of nigh-on biblical proportions for another author to beat her sales record, so until that day happens, James can truly rest easy.

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