America’s conservative critics of higher education will, I suspect, really enjoy looking into this one. Fifty Sades of Grey for three academic credits.

American University will soon be offering a class about Fifty Shades of Grey, the 2011 erotic novel by British author E. L. James. Grey, which explores the sadomasochistic relationship between a recent college graduate and a successful businessman, is now a major bestseller around the world.

According to an article by Emma Beck in USA Today:

A pop culture phenomenon that spurred conversation, sparked controversy and broke records in online sales is what influenced the American University (AU) adjunct professor to develop the syllabus for her newest spring semester course, “The 50 Shades Trilogy.”

“When it comes to a trilogy that inspired so many conversations and such discussion, whether related to PR, marketing, sexuality or health, the Fifty Shades trilogy has broken a lot of records and a lot of rules,” [AU Adjunct Professor Stef] Woods said. “When I thought of discussion with that, it seemed perfect for an academic setting.”

The first book in the series, which began as Twilight fan fiction, has been dubbed “mommy porn” by critics.


Woods was careful to explain that the course, which will require some 25 pages of written work and extensive reading, was not some book club. While I’m not really familiar with the quality of the 50 Shades trilogy, Woods does have a point about the marketing of the book and what its contents may say about our culture.

“Broken a lot of rules” is right. Beck apparently wrote parts of the original book on fan-fiction websites. Her characters were based on, and had the same names as, those in Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight. When some readers objected to the weird sexual content of the writing, James published the piece on her blog, and subsequently renamed the characters.

While it’s difficult for any aspiring novelist to publish his first book, this particular series of developments is very unusual. I might be missing something but I can’t think of any runaway successful novel that started as fan fiction on a blog. What this says about the changing nature of the publishing industry alone might be worth a class.

“I would say it’s a conversation piece,” Woods explained to Beck. “It gives students who take the class this opportunity to turn anything into a learning experience of an academic caliber.”

Anything. [Image via]

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Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer