I’ll preface my answer with a disclaimer: I haven’t read the books and I don’t intend to. This isn’t to say I think people should refrain from expressing feelings and opinions about books they haven’t read (we all do it: the practice is part of a vibrant and passionate literary culture); just that I realise I don’t know everything there is to know about them and that it’s possible I got some of the details wrong. The reason why the books sound bad to me is not that they’re erotica, it’s that from the excerpts I’ve seen the writing seems pretty awful (I keep seeing knowledgeable people point out that there’s much better written erotica out there), and also that most of the commentary I’ve read indicates that the story’s approach to relationships and gender roles is deeply conservative (although it’s possible that, as with Twilight, some people read it in more subversive ways).
But however much that puts me off personally, I don’t see the trilogy’s popularity as a sign of the impeding literary apocalypse or anything like that. Let’s start by assuming, for the sake of argument, that the large numbers of people who have been reading and enjoying the books buy into the reactionary view of gender and sexuality they present wholesale. If that were true it wouldn’t be something I’d find very shocking – we do live in a deeply sexist world, after all. At any point in time you’ll find a considerable number of incredibly sexist (or otherwise icky) and poorly scripted movies and TV shows become hits. Obviously that doesn’t mean we should just go, “Oh well, that’s the way the world is always going to be” and give up – we should carry on challenging stereotypes, providing thoughtful commentary that calls shenanigans on these things, and making room for alternative views. But some of the reactions to the 50 Shades phenomenon make me think that people believe literature should be entirely separate from the rest of pop culture; that it should be “purer” than other media, and that’s what I don’t get. I mean, I happen to like books better than anything else, sure, but that doesn’t mean I don’t think they’ll always be (and, importantly, have always been) a mixed bag. Bad books don’t erase the good ones and don’t “corrupt” literature as a whole – they just exist, and are read by some people and ignored by others.
However, I don’t think we can even assume that the people who are reading these books a) have all been tricked into thinking they’re literary masterpieces and b) never question the ideas about gender and sexuality behind them. Without a large scale survey no one can know for sure the extent to which they do or not, of course, but I’d rather err on the side of expecting better, you know? Sometimes people read things they find really problematic because their friend or sibling or co-worker convinced them to; sometimes they read them for the lulz; sometimes they read them because everyone’s talking about them and they want to know what the fuss is all about. The last point in particular is important, I think – there’s often a snowball effect with “cultural phenomenon” type books like The Da Vinci Code, Harry Potter, Twilight, The Hunger Games, and now these. Their popularity feeds on itself; people read them because it’s the done thing and because they want to be in the loop. But this doesn’t necessarily mean everyone has taken leave of their senses or that people aren’t reading other more thoughtful books alongside these.
The one thing I’m really wary of is pathologising or condescending to the people, especially women, who read and enjoy these books. The fact that they’re reading erotica so openly is certainly interesting as a social phenomenon and worth talking about, but personally I try not to jump to conclusions about what them reading this erotica means. It doesn’t necessarily signal that they’re trying to compensate for something that’s lacking in their lives, or that their views on gender and sexuality are unsophisticated, or that the patriarchy made them do it. Sure, it can mean any or all of these things in some cases, but the appeal of the books will be different for different people. We can never assume we know why other people are reading something or what they’re getting out of it, because at the end of the day we’re all individuals.
A while ago someone asked a similar question to Neil Gaiman, and I think the point he made in response was an excellent one. There have always been inexplicable bestsellers; books whose popularity no one can really account for and which are forgotten in a few years’ time. This isn’t new or unprecedented, and it’s important to bear that in mind. Again, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t discuss what might be behind the success of these particular books (because cultural criticism and social analysis are useful and fun), but personally I don’t see a reason for moral panic quite yet.