Fifty Shades of Grey's cover
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Laurie Penny in defence of Fifty Shades of Grey

Critics' main problem with these books seems simply to be that they are porn for women.

Fifty Shades of Grey is easy to mock. The reason it's easy to mock is that it's porn. I picked up the book, with its dark-and-mysterious cover that looks, through half-closed eyes, a bit like one of the Twilight novels, in an airport. I read it on the plane, and I enjoyed it. There, I said it. I enjoyed it because there were, amongst some terrifically trashy bits of girly romance and some eye-watering blow-job scenarios[1], a few quite good, quite detailed descriptions of fucking written from the point of view of a woman who seemed to be really enjoying herself.

That's it. That's all. Fifty Shades of Grey is porn, and porn can be quite fun. With the publishing industry in such choppy waters, I fail to understand why this record-pounding paperback has come in for extra-special derision all over the world, other than the fact that some people are appalled at the idea that somewhere out there, well over ten million women might be – whisper it – masturbating.

"But it's badly written!", I hear you cry. Um, hello? It's PORN. Whilst there is some pornography out there written with a deft stylistic hand – from Anais Nin and Henry Miller to Anne Rice's luscious, filthy Sleeping Beauty series – that's hardly the point, even if you don't buy Oglaf author Trudy Cooper's adage that "erotica just means porn that works for me." A dildo painted with an intricate lubricant-insoluble motif may look delightful, but a plain old rubber shocker gets the job done just as well. This book is porn. It is for wanking to. Pornography made for men is rarely judged on its artistic merits – the average 20-minute RedTube clip has hundreds of thousands of views and practically nobody leaves comments complaining that the lighting is garish, that the pounding cheese music is weird and unsettling, or that there's someone's Bassett hound running about in the background[2].

Similarly, I can't recall Page Three of the Sun ever getting taken to pieces for its lack of artistic imagination. The point, the only point, is to show three million men some tits in the morning, and they've been happily ogling those pixellated teenage breasts on public transport for thirty years. That's understood. Exactly the same basic principle applies to the Fifty Shades series, which has the added bonus that no actual nubile, desperate postpubescents were harmed in its production – but somehow the idea that women might gobble down a poorly-written book in their tens of millions just because they've heard there might be some fucking in it is uncomfortable for the sort of snobbish commentators who have absolutely never themselves bashed out a cheeky one over FHM magazine.

When you get down to it, the problem most people seem to have with Fifty Shades of Grey is that it's for girls. Even worse - it's "mommy porn", porn for mommies, for older women to read and get excited about, and that dangerous nonsense really needs to be stopped right now. Everyone knows that the only women who are allowed to actually have sexuality are slender, high-breasted twenty-one year old virgins – rather like, it has to be said, the heroine of "Fifty Shades of Grey".

Tens of thousands of words have been wasted over whether Christian Grey, our well-tailored, long-dicked hunk of fictional man-meat, is an appropriate lust-object for today's right-thinking feminist, but less attention has been paid to the fact that Anastasia Steele, the protagonist, rather embodies the contemporary concept of "fuckable". Those of us reading Fifty Shades may not all be innocent virgin college graduates, but getting moistly involved with a hardcore sexual fantasy feels less uncomfortable if you can temporarily imagine that you are. Virgin college graduates don't have to feel guilty for fantasising about being seduced by a gorgeous young multi-millionaire entrepreneur with his own private jet and a fleet of audis who's rather unnervingly like Mark Zuckerberg, if Mark Zuckerberg were hot and well-dressed.

Derivative and aesthetically childish though they may be, women everywhere are reading these books, especially now that ebook technology uptake has reached a point where anyone with a smartphone or Kindle can read porn privately on public transport, or one-handed in their bedrooms. The only people who haven't bothered to read the damn books, it seems, are most of the journalists writing about it – which seems to be the only possible explanation for why the parts of the series that have been most anxiously discussed are also the least interesting.

Firstly, there's the sadomasochism. Katie Roiphe's now-infamous Newsweek cover story claimed that the popularity of the Fifty Shades books was evidence that women everywhere are tired of all this feminist liberation and secretly want to be tied down and whipped by wealthy plutocrats. But in fact, there are barely two spanking scenes in the whole of the first book – by far the most in-depth and detailed sex-scenes are "vanilla" – and our protagonist spends most of the time feeling shocked and horrified about her paramour's predilictions, to an extent that anyone actually involved in the S&M community might well find offensive. The watered-down approximation of sadomasochistic sex in the first book, at least, is merely an extended fantasy of possession, of being utterly desired by a person who takes full physical, moral and social responsibility for any boning that may or may not ensue. In a world where women are still made to feel ashamed of ever wanting to experience sexual pleasure for its own sake, that's an appealing fantasy.

Secondly, and most importantly – these books started out as smutty fan fiction. The publishers are extremely keen to underplay this aspect of the Fifty Shades books, and E. L James doesn't discuss it in interviews, but the fact that these books began as extended stories published on the internet in the Twilight fandom community is, to my mind, the most fascinating aspect of the whole Fifty Shades phenomenon.

If you're not familiar with fan fiction, or "fanfic", please just take my word for it that there are countless thousands of men, women and girls out there on the internet – mostly women, mostly young women, and some of them extremely young women – writing and sharing long, dirty stories set in their favourite fictional universes, from Harry Potter to Buffy and Twilight. These stories tend to place beloved characters in sweaty pairings that make private sexual fantasies a community experience – readers comment on and critique one other's work, correcting the most anatomically implausible details and discussing the ins and outs and ins and outs of possible scenarios at breathless length.

Not all fan fiction is filthy, but a great deal of what makes the enormous volume of dirty short fandom stories out there on the internet so exciting is that it's a unique way for readers to re-occupy a text, to rewrite anhedonic, sexless sagas like Harry Potter or actively disturbing chastity propaganda like Twilight with all the bonking and bodily fluids back in. Dirty fanfiction existed before the internet, but online forums have allowed enormous communities of antsy fifteen-year-old girls to crowdsource the education their classmates are getting from RedTube. It was in one of those communities, written largely by women, largely for women, that Fifty Shades emerged, and that fact probably goes quite a long way towards explaining why it works so damn well as what it is. Which, to reiterate, is porn. For women. To masturbate to. Horrifying, I know, but I suggest we all get used to the idea.

[1] "My very own Christian Grey-flavoured popsicle" is not a phrase I'm going to be able to burn out of my brain any time soon.

[2] For more on this theme, visit the absolutely genius indifferent cats in amateur porn tumblr, which just goes to show that the oceans of human time lost in the lonely, backlit wank-alleys of the internet have not been entirely wasted. If you're under 18, get someone who isn't to Google it for you.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

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The age of self: the strange story of how YouTubers saved publishing

When 21-year-old Alfie Deyes released his first book, it was No 1 on the Sunday Times bestseller list for 11 weeks. Who are the YouTubers – and why are their books so successful?

It’s a sunny Saturday May morning in Cardiff city centre, and shoppers are throwing confused glances at a large, cordoned-off queue outside WHSmith attended by a hulking cluster of guards. The queue is here for an author signing – a common enough sight at high-street bookshops – but the barriers and the bouncers are all new. “Even Charlotte Church didn’t have security,” the shop manager tells me. The queue is waiting for Caspar Lee.

The general population divides into two categories: those who have never heard of Caspar Lee and those who think he is one of the biggest stars in the UK. Lee, a 22-year-old British-born South African, is a YouTube star. Vlogging, or video blogging, first took off around 2005 – also the year that YouTube was founded. By July 2006 it was the fifth most popular site on the internet. A huge amount of content is uploaded every day, but Lee and his friends are the site’s celebrities. At the time of writing, he has 6.7 million subscribers on his main account – and his videos have notched up 633 million views.

His clips centre on pranks, chats with other YouTubers and records of his daily life. One series showed his trip to Paris with a girlfriend: we saw him singing in the shower and her drawing on his face with make-up. It all feels very up close and personal, until you start to wonder just who is holding the camera as the pair skip up the Eiffel Tower together, holding hands.

Until recently, Lee shared a flat with another YouTube star, Joe Sugg (the 25-year-old brother of the YouTube megastar Zoella). The pair’s influence is so great that the established media has had to take notice: BBC Worldwide recorded the travel documentary Joe and Caspar Hit the Road in 2015.

Inside YouTuber world, Lee is almost unimaginably famous. In October 2015 he recorded an interview with Léa Seydoux and Monica Bellucci, the two most recent Bond girls, titled “KISSING MY NEW GIRLFRIENDS”. He thinks, in short, that an implied insight into his love life will get more clicks than the names of two of the world’s biggest actresses. He is probably right. The video has over 1.9 million views.

***

To understand that queue outside WH Smith, we need to go back to 2014, when Blink, a small British publishing house, decided to bring out a book with a vlogger named Alfie Deyes.

The Blink editors knew they were taking a risk: Deyes, then 21, was virtually unknown outside YouTube. Not only that – his book was, quite literally, pointless. Based on his vlog of the same name, The Pointless Book featured mostly blank pages on which readers could complete a task. “Do a finger selfie,” reads one, suggesting that you draw round your own fingers. Another page wants you to “draw your pet”.

At best, it was a playful take on his channel. At worst, it was a middle finger to the whole publishing industry.

“No one had published a book with a big-name YouTuber before,” says Karen Browning, head of Blink’s public relations. “We knew Alfie had huge platforms and a big teenage fan base, but we didn’t know if that would translate into an audience.”

Blink did a big PR push. At first, the press wasn’t interested but then, as the sales figures rolled in, it began to take notice. Metro called Deyes “the most famous celebrity you’ve never heard of” and the Telegraph demanded: “Who on Earth is Alfie Deyes?” Blink decided to hold a signing at Waterstones Piccadilly days after the book was published, predicting a crowd of about 500, and handed out wristbands accordingly.

What happened next can be read in baffled news and police reports. Conservative estimates indicate that at least 4,000 fans descended on the store for the signing. Half an hour before it was due to start (YouTube fans are, it seems, nothing if not prompt), police helicopters and horses had to intervene and the shop was closed. Westminster City Council allegedly advised Waterstones not to hold any more signings until it could control them properly. “It was unprecedented,” Browning says. “They had never seen crowds of this size for anyone before. Including David Beckham.”

The book was No 1 on the Sunday Times bestseller list for 11 weeks and Deyes was featured in Debrett’s list of the 500 most influential British people in 2015. PointlessBlog now has 5.4 million subscribers. To date, the book has sold 300,000 copies and its sequels, The Pointless Book 2 and The Pointless Scrapbook, have sold 160,000 and 60,000 respectively. To put that in context, Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings, winner of last year’s Man Booker Prize, had sold 12,237 copies by the time he won.

Within days of Deyes’s signing, heads in the publishing world snapped towards YouTube. Isabel Prodger was working in publicity at Simon & Schuster at the time. “We had a book coming out by Grace [Helbig, a US YouTube star] and it wasn’t really on the radar at all – we were just distributing it,” she tells me. “There was no publicity campaign, no marketing. It was pretty much Amazon-only.” After the Deyes events, Helbig’s book, Grace’s Guide: the Art of Pretending to Be a Grown-Up, began to sell well, despite having no UK publicity.

Prodger’s job became YouTuber-focused: in the summer of 2015 she held events all over Britain for YouTubers, including Connor Franta, Tyler Oakley, Louise Pentland (YouTube name Sprinkleofglitter)and Miranda Sings. Today, publishers and bookshops alike are operating what many describe to me as a “slick operation”. Tickets are sold online and the location, which is kept secret (though when an event is marketed by WHSmith for certain cities it’s not hugely difficult to guess where it will be), is texted to visitors a week before the event. Security is high – for the fans’ protection.

Publicists such as Prodger and Browning measure signings in hundreds and hours – Oakley did 1,000 in three and a half hours. “It all depends on the length of their signature,” Prodger says.

Deep in the bowels of WHSmith in Cardiff, I sit down with Lee in the makeshift green room to discuss his book, Caspar Lee. It’s a memoir written by his mother, Emily Riordan Lee, with annotations, presented in a font resembling handwriting, by him. It covers 21 years out of his 22, from a photo of him as a baby – “Oh my God, Mom” – to his recent trip down the red carpet with Joe Sugg to promote their BBC documentary.

Lee is tall, with a neat haircut and the high cheekbones and piercing eyes his fans downstairs are whispering about. He is also far more serious than you would expect, given that he makes videos with titles such as “CARA DELEVINGNE SHOWS ME HER UNDERPANTS” and “ROOMMATE SHOWER PRANK”.

Why has he waited so long to do a book, until practically everyone was doing them? By my count, at least ten big or medium-name YouTubers will have released books between August and October 2016, and many are on their second or third. “I think I’m the last one to do it of the YouTubers I’m close with,” he says – by which he means the likes of Zoella, Deyes and Oli White, whose Generation Next young adult novel about an aspiring YouTuber appeared around the same time as Caspar Lee.

Lee says that he was approached by publishers before but wasn’t inspired until he thought of writing a book with his mum, a former journalist.

“I didn’t really want to write a book,” he says slowly, as if worried that he’ll say the wrong thing, “but then I realised I could spend more time with her while making the book. It’s really nice to have someone good at writing to do it, who knows my story.”

Lee has a busy schedule of signings – another one today and then to the Hay Festival; he will be the first YouTuber to appear there. (Katya Shipster, a publicist for Penguin, later tells me that the audience was full of dedicated Lee fans: “It felt pretty great to be bringing in a new generation of literary festivalgoers.”)

Back at WHSmith, the queue snakes right through the travel section. A mother barks at her pre-teen daughter, “Camera ready! Are we camera-ready?” A brother and sister, one nine, one 11, say they love Lee’s videos but would never watch them together. “Oh, we’re definitely each getting our own copy of the book,” the girl adds. Who is more excited to be here? “Me!” both shout at the same time. But why bother buying a physical book when Lee’s vlogs are there to watch, for free, any time? A shy 14-year-old explains: “This feels different – it looks really cool and funny. I’m going to read the whole thing this weekend.”

The noise mounts as the clock ticks closer to midday.

***

YouTuber books are a difficult genre to define. Lee rejects the definition altogether. “It’s important for people to understand that YouTube is just a platform, like TV is, and everyone makes completely different types of content on it.”

Indeed, the books come in disparate forms. Yet although one interviewee after another tells me that the grouping is a bugbear for authors and publishers alike, there is no doubt that it works as a marketing technique. Near Lee’s table at WHSmith is a special “YouTuber” book display, featuring everything from cookbooks to novels.

When we say “YouTuber”, especially in the UK, we don’t mean local schoolboys uploading skateboarding tricks. We mean an elite cadre of high-profile stars at the top of a complex UK YouTuber food chain. Most of these figures make personality-led videos. The women often talk personal life, make-up and shopping; the men veer towards interviews or pranks. A common trope is interviewing other YouTubers using a “tag”, or list of rote questions that has been circulating in the community, which might include “When was your last holiday?” or “How did you meet your best friend?”.

Somehow, the YouTubers manage to make even these dull questions interesting. They most resemble reality stars or presenters, in that they all have specific skills but are keen to emphasise that they are just like their viewers, and are really only there to chat. A common refrain in Zoella’s make-up videos is: “Remember, I’m not a proper make-up artist – these are just the techniques I use!” They are a new form of celebrity and they glimmer with that particularly irresistible quality: they all know each other. Zoella and Deyes are a couple. They share a £1.5m house in Brighton.

Philip Jones, the editor of the Bookseller, says the YouTubers’ books fill the vacuum left by celebrity biographies. “Until 2008, celebrity publishing was a big plank in most publishers’ armoury – massive sales generated over Christmas, with A-, B- or even C-list celebrities dominating the charts and underpinning a lot of the publishers’ work for the rest of the year. But that really sank without a trace from 2007-2008 onwards. Since then, publishers have been looking for the new celebrity publishing, and this is it. It came along at exactly the right time.”

Some are snobby about YouTuber books (a Guardian piece about a box set of Deyes’s first two books called them “the worst thing you’re likely to see in a tin this Christmas”), but Jones insists that the phenomenon has been a saviour for an industry that was struggling; the books are a key factor in the upturn of physical sales from 2015 onwards. YouTuber books, with their big, colourful images and hardback covers, most certainly fall into the printed-books category. Print’s overall resurgence encourages bookshops to invest, Jones says. “I think it was an important affirmation that the book is ­probably going to survive. The next reading generation, buying their YouTuber books, clearly want books. It has given everyone a lot more confidence in what they’re doing.”

Although they may have plugged the hole left by old-style celebrities, YouTube stars generally seem more invested in the overall process than their predecessors. As Briony Gowlett, a senior editor at the publisher Hodder & Stoughton, explains: “Because YouTubers are creative people, they know what they want – they’ve grown up on a platform where the restrictions are very few.”

These are young celebrities in direct control of every part of their personal “brand” and they are not about to let go. Which is wise, because digital-savvy audiences can sniff out inauthenticity, as Zoella (arguably the UK’s biggest non-gaming YouTuber, with 11.1 million subscribers) and her publishing team learned to their cost.

Zoella was the first YouTuber to catch the attention of the press, thanks in part to lucrative deals with brands taking advantage of her huge online following. But her breakthrough also brought backlash: a 2014 piece in the Independent – which argued that an “irritatingly Disneyfied” make-up vlogger was not the ideal role model for young girls – went viral, both because her fans hated it and because it resonated with many parents befuddled by her appeal.

Breakthrough also meant a book deal, and Zoella produced a young adult novel about a socially awkward blogger, Girl Online. The children’s author Siobhan Curham was credited as an “editorial consultant”. There followed accusations that the book had been ghostwritten but was not marked as such. A spokesperson for Random House told the Sunday Times: “To be factually accurate, you would need to say Zoe Sugg did not write the book Girl Online on her own.” Zoella tweeted: “Of course I was going to have help . . . everyone needs help when they try something new.”

Zoella’s debut sold 78,109 copies in its first week, making her the UK’s fastest-selling debut novelist ever. She didn’t hold meet-and-greets like her brother, boyfriend or friends: she has spoken about her problems with anxiety and hundreds of signings would have been too much for her. Girl Online, whether ghostwritten or not, is surprisingly moving. The protagonist writes in her first post: “This can be our very own corner of the internet, where we can talk about what it is truly like to be a teenage girl – without having to pretend to be something we’re not.”

Zoella has become an important figure in breaking the taboo around mental health. She tries – with questionable success – to ensure that her make-up videos promote a message about being creative with your appearance, rather than “fixing” your faults or simply appealing to a crush.

For sequels, she has written alone, though she holds weekly meetings with her publisher. And she has launched the Zoella Book Club with WHSmith, which presents a curated list of young adult books she has “selected” herself. (I requested more information about the ­process from WHSmith, but it remained tight-lipped.) In June, her recommended books drove a sales surge on Amazon – sales of The Potion Diaries by Amy Alward went up by 11,000 per cent.

***

Tanya Burr is on her way. The staff of WHSmith at the Bluewater shopping centre in Stone, Kent, are buzzing around a giant poster with her name on it and worrying about the table. “It’s ugly,” one of them says, pushing £20 into her colleague’s hand. “Go and buy a tablecloth.”

At the ticketed signing for Tanya Bakes, Burr’s new cookbook, the queue has been sent up the escalators to the mezzanine floor of the shopping centre, and faces peer down, stretching as far as you can see. Burr is not quite as big a star as Deyes, Zoella or Lee: she has only 3.6 million subscribers.Her UK book tour hasn’t quite sold out, but has still made waves – the Liverpool Echo did a liveblog of her signing. When it was published at the end of June, Tanya Bakes moved straight to No 1 in the non-fiction charts. It hit the top spot on Amazon, thanks to pre-orders, even before it was published.

A hush falls over the store – “She’s coming!” – and in walks Burr, wearing jeans, Converse trainers, a stripy T-shirt, impeccable make-up (she’s best known for her beauty tutorials) and a choker. She smiles sweetly and then sits down at the table. “Take away the tablecloth,” she says, her smile dropping. “It slips around when I’m signing.”

One by one they come, most of them too scared to say a word but eager to take their selfie. (Prodger says most fans far prefer a selfie to a chat.) The more outgoing ones immediately hold up their phones to take a reaction video: “We just met Tanya!”

This engaged young audience is just as exciting for publishers. Trade insiders compare the titles favourably with ­colouring books, the other chart-topping genre of 2015-16. Prodger says that during her long summer of signings, she saw “incredibly well-dressed, stunning 17-year-old girls” at signings who would say, “Oh, I’ve never been in a bookshop before.”

“It’s not seen by everyone as a totally positive phenomenon in publishing,” she remarks – “nothing ever is – and some people just don’t understand it. But that’s one thing that’s undeniably good about it.” As the author Neil Gaiman said at a lecture in London in 2013, “There are no bad authors for children. You don’t discourage children from reading because you think they’re reading the wrong thing. Well-meaning adults can easily destroy a child’s love of reading.”

Later, I sit with Caspar Lee, in a shop that will owe no small sliver of its profits over the next year to a book filled with his face and faux-handwriting, and ask him about his own relationship with books.

“Writing a book feels like a huge responsibility. It’s so overwhelming.” He looks towards the stairs with confusion and trepidation. “When I walked into the bookshop earlier, I just looked around and realised . . . how many types of literature there are.”

Downstairs, a side door opens, an alarm accidentally rings out and Lee, his mum and his sister step on to the shopfloor. “He’s REAL!” yelps a teenage girl to her friend. A hundred iPhone cameras click as the trio make their way to the signing table. The rumble of the crowd rises to a roar.

Barbara Speed is comment editor at the i, and was technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman, and a staff writer at CityMetric.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times