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Rags-to-Riches stories are actually quite disturbing

If “Pretty Woman” was a Cinderella story for the “American Psycho” era of corporate raids, its hero wearing his aggression on his sleeve, “Fifty Shades” is one for the “Dark Money” era. James presents Grey’s frustrating silences and elliptical history, his penchant for surveillance, as part of his appeal. That the effort was such a great success reveals how the DNA of Algiers persists in bastardizations and chaotic reimaginings; “Fifty Shades” has all the power of luxury and comfort but also flirts with the allure of submission, the dark side of the repressed and troubled eroticism of Algiers’ work made acceptable, mainstream.

Gray controls the interior and exterior of his dungeon. He discovers Steele’s whereabouts by tracking his cell phone. He buys her a laptop which she uses only to send him e-mails. “I want you to behave in a particular way,” he told her, “and if you don’t, I will punish you, and you will learn to behave as I desire.” Steele hesitates. “I am not a fusion. I am not an acquisition,” she thinks, before being merged and acquired. And yet, as Gray ushers Steele into his dungeon, the series ultimately speaks to his slow domestication – his ultimate rejection of his style of sexual domination. Hailed as a dirty exploration of bondage, S.&M. The element is actually subverted every moment for a wedding plot and what Gray calls “vanilla” sex.

“Fifty Shades” has played an outsized role in the destructive, hypercapitalistic consolidation of Amazon’s algorithm-based book business. The digital and physical shelves are full of additions to the home that James and Meyer have built. Many are in explicit conversation with “Fifty Shades”. In “Bared to You,” where the billionaire is once again a bad boy with a traumatic past and a heart of gold, author Sylvia Day credits EL James in her thanks. And there are thousands of these books. Searching for “billionaire romance” on Amazon Books returns over 50,000 results with series like “Billionaire Bad Boys”, “Blue-Collar Billionaire$”, “Billionaire’s Captive”, “Boston’s Billionaire Bachelors”. In fact, the only type of book for which “billionaire” is an explicit category is the romance novel, where it has developed into its own distinct subgenre.

Ultimately, these books are rehabilitation projects for billionaires, whitewashing their exploitative politics and recasting them as mildly edgy sex – not to mention putting hot young faces on a class of men who, in reality, are approaching or have passed retirement age, for women. who often have much less economic power. In “Everything and Less: The Novel in the Age of Amazon”, literary scholar Mark McGurl writes of Grey: “Although it is tempting to read him as little more than a poster boy for neoliberal capitalism , for this set of brutalities, he is also the symbolic vehicle by which this system is ‘softened’ and becomes caring again in the little welfare state of a loving marriage.” Billionaires were already living rent-free in our heads; these books extend simply the lease, adding in increasingly bizarre terms, continuing to obliterate anyone who falls outside the beautiful capitalist trajectory of up, up, up to home comforts. After all, Grey’s “ultimate goal is to ‘to help eradicate hunger and poverty in the world’.

“Ragged Dick” and its sequel end with Dick’s fortune secure enough that the third book in the series can turn to bettering another boy. The scale of Algiers mythology is narrow, a line of boys starting from the street, most only reaching the middle, and always with help. Are our heroes getting lazier as our realities get tougher? At the start of “Fifty Shades Freed”, the final book in EL James’ main trilogy, Steele struggles to change her name and her new status as wife and landlady. “Everything is handed to me on a platter – work, you, my handsome husband,” she protests, feeling undeserved, fearing she will be “crushed” by her powerful man. But by the epilogue, Steele watches over his young family and the green lawn of the so-called Big House, savoring the ultimate pleasure: comfort without the taint of discomfort. It only took a few light swipes along the way.

Algiers put a line in Mr Whitney’s mouth that resonates with any billionaire writing his story today: “In this free country there is every incentive to exertion, however unpromising it may be. the first circumstances in which one is placed.” But Algiers encoded something more truthful in the “Ragged Dick” fantasy, a fantasy that James and his fellow novelists understood better than the billionaires putting their memories to paper today. We live in an economic system where hard work won’t get you obscene wealth, not in a million years. So you better look cute, and I hope someone comes to give you what you need.

Lydia Kiesling is a frequent contributor to the magazine. She last wrote about on-screen depictions of motherhood. She is the author of the novel “The Golden State”, which was honored in 2018 by the National Book Foundation “5 under 35” and finalist for the VCU Cabell First Novelist Award.


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