Rags-to-Riches Stories Are Actually Kind of Disturbing

If “Pretty Woman” was a Cinderella story for the “American Pyscho” era of corporate raiding, its hero wearing his aggression on his sleeve, “Fifty Shades” is one for the “Dark Money” era. James presents Gray’s frustrating silences and elliptical back story, his pinchant for surveillance, as part of his allure. The fact that the effort is so wildly successful reveals the way that Alger’s DNA persists in chaotic bastardizations and reimaginings; “Fifty Shades” has all the potency of luxury and comfort but flirts also with the allure of submission, the dark side of the Alger oeuvre’s suppressed and troubled eroticism made palatable, mainstreamed.

Gray is controlling in and outside his dungeon. He finds out where Steele is by tracking her cellphone. He buys her a laptop that she uses only to email him. “I want you to behave in a particular way,” he tells her, “and if you don’t, I shall punish you, and you will learn to behave the way I desire.” Steele demurs. “I am not a merger. I am not an acquisition,” she thinks, before she is merged and acquired. And yet, while Gray does get Steele into his dungeon, ultimately the series is about his slow domestication — her ultimate rejection of his style of sexual dominance. Hailed as a filthy exploration of bondage, the S.&M. element is in fact subverted at every juncture for a marriage plot and what gray calls “vanilla” sex.

“Fifty Shades” has played an outsize role in the destructive, hypercapitalist consolidation of Amazon’s algorithm-based book business. Digital and physical shelves teem with additions to the house that James and Meyer built. Many are in explicit conversation with “Fifty Shades.” In “Bared to You,” where the billionaire is again a bad boy with a traumatic past and a heart of gold, the author Sylvia Day thanks EL James in her acknowledgments. And there are thousands of these books. Searching “billionaire romance” on Amazon Books yields more than 50,000 results with series like “Billionaire Bad Boys,” “Blue-Collar Billionaire$,” “Billionaire’s Captive,” “Boston’s Billionaire Bachelors.” In fact, the only kind 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 rehabilitory projects for billionaires, laundering their exploitative politics and recasting them as mildly edgy sex — not to mention putting hot young faces on a class of men that is in reality mostly approaching or past retirement age, for an audience of women who often have far less economic power. In “Everything and Less: The Novel in the Age of Amazon,” the literary scholar Mark McGurl writes of Gray: “While it is tempting to read him as little more than a poster boy for neoliberal capitalism, for that set of brutalities, he is also the symbolic vehicle by which that system is ‘softened’ and made caring again in the little welfare state of a loving marriage.” Billionaires already lived rent-free in our heads; these books simply extend the lease, adding ever weirder terms, continuing to disappear everyone who falls outside the beautiful capitalist trajectory of up, up, upward to domestic comfort. After all, Gray’s “ultimate goal is to help eradicate hunger and poverty across the globe.”

“Ragged Dick” and its sequel end with Dick’s fortune secure enough that the third book in the series can turn to the betterment of another boy. The ladder of Alger’s mythology is narrow, a queue of boys up from the street, most of them only reaching as high as the middle, and always with help. Do our heroes become lazier as our realities become harder? At the beginning of “Fifty Shades Freed,” the last book in E.L. James’s primary trilogy, Steele struggles with changing her name and her new status as wife and mistress of a house. “Everything is being handed to me on a plate — the job, you, my beautiful husband,” she protests, feeling that it’s unearned, fearful of being “crushed” by her powerful man. But by the epilogue, Steele surveys her young family and the green lawn of the so-called Big House, saving the ultimate pleasure: comfort without the taint of unease. All it took was a few light floggings along the way.

Alger put a line in Mr. Whitney’s mouth that resonates with any billionaire writing his or her story today: “In this free country there is every inducement for effort, however unpromising may be the early circumstances in which one is placed.” But Alger encoded something more truthful into the fantasy of “Ragged Dick,” one that James and her romance-novelist peers intuit to a better extent than the billionaires who set their recollections to paper today. We live under an economic system in which hard work by itself won’t get you to obscene wealth, not in a million years. So you better look cute, and hope someone comes along to give you what you need.

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

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