Fifty Reasons These Grey Days Will Pass (2012)

Organise your personal effects, tally your will, and say goodbye to your loved ones: Fifty Shades of Grey is Amazon UK's biggest-selling novel yet, shifting more than four million e-copies in four months. So, surely it's time for the world to end.

That's not my opinion but rather that of millions all over the world who are convinced that the success of Fifty Shades is a harbinger of doom.

"What has the world come to?" asks one online commentator. "I weep for humanity," runs another. One poor petal moans, "I have no words to describe the sadness that I am feeling because of this." It continues: "Travesty!" "Drivel!" "Utter bilge!" The masses of readers with Good Taste lead online lives of not-so-quiet desperation.

A month ago, when I first wrote about E.L. James's erotic novel, it was merely the fastest-selling paperback of all time. With a little more time to reflect on the novel, I agree that it's not very good and, more compellingly, that it misrepresents and simplifies the complexities of the S&M scene.

But now that we've all had a chance to whinge about the silly, not-very-sexy book toppling J.K. Rowling from the Amazon all-time best-seller list, perhaps we might also remind ourselves that its impressive sales might not indicate anything other than water-cooler popularity and curiosity.

In 1963 - the year in which Morris West's The Shoes of the Fisherman both J.D. Salinger and Daphne du Maurier to the top of the best-seller list - William McPhee's Formal Theories of Mass Behaviour posited that the audiences for hits (films or books) tend to comprise people who are infrequent consumers of similar products; people who buy a best-seller don't tend to buy many other works of fiction, at least not in comparison with regular readers, who might be more drawn to obscure work.

As The Economist magazine noted in reference to McPhee's theory and the popularity of The Twilight Saga: New Moon, "That means the least popular books are judged by people who have the highest standards, while the most popular are judged by people who literally do not know any better."

It's all too easy to let pieces like this slide into idle list-making but, just for the sake of argument, let me throw a few names at you.

The inevitable big-screen adaptation of Fifty Shades is on its way, so let's start with cinema. Directors who never won best director Oscars include Charlie Chaplin, Orson Welles, Stanley Kubrick and Spike Lee. Kevin Costner beat Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and Stephen Frears to the podium in 1990.

Who's going to do the soundtrack to Fifty Shades of Grey: The Movie? Perhaps it could be compiled from the back catalogues of noted non-Grammy winners like Talking Heads, Bjork, Bob Marley, Patti Smith and Tupac. Santana's execrable MOR monster, Supernatural, won nine Grammys in 1999 and shifted 15 million copies in the US alone.

Tosh, you yell, you can't compare movies and music to the bestseller list. In which case, here are some novels that sank without a trace (relatively speaking) in their day: Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited and another book about bonking, D.H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover.

The list of great books that went off with a whimper and only built to a bang cumulatively is long. Pop charts, box office and bestseller lists rarely reflect the true wealth of human creativity.

It's not always terrible news for the global brain; Christopher Nolan's smart thriller Inception was an immense success and won 81 awards including two Oscars. Though as The Observer film critic Mark Kermode noted in his book The Good, the Bad, and the Multiplex, Inception's financial and artistic success only proves that, "if you spend enough money, bag an A-list star and pile on the spectacle, the chances are your movie will not lose money, regardless of how smart or dumb it may be."

In other words, there's no need to panic. The success of Fifty Shades Of Grey reflects no more badly on this generation (or, indeed, humanity) than the fact that 30 million people bought Jacqueline Susann's Valley of the Dolls, or that its film adaptation made $50 million and was nominated for an Oscar and a Golden Globe. If we can survive that, we can surely survive these Grey days.

- originally published in Sydney Morning Herald, 2012