After all, the author E. L. James has none of the poetry of Anaïs Nin, the muse of Henry Miller whose journals made her the 20th century’s pioneer of female erotica. Ms. James is not profound like Georges Bataille, the 20th-century French intellectual whose philosophical works explore the dark side of sex. She is not wanton like Catherine Millet, the French art critic and editor whose 2001 memoir graphically catalogs her never-ending anonymous sexual encounters — in swingers clubs, offices, parking lots, cemeteries and trucks in the Bois de Boulogne. And Ms. James is certainly no Marquis de Sade, the 18th-century French aristocrat whose fictional fantasies about sexual abuse, torture and murder created the word “sadism.” 

“Fifty Shades” has defied the naysayers, selling an estimated 900,000 print copies and 40,000 e-books since last October, according to its publisher, and rocketing to the top of best-seller lists. A half million copies of Volume 2, which arrived after the New Year, have already been shipped to bookstores in France.
“The French literary tradition of sexually liberated women in control of their bodies and their sexual pleasure is seen today as old-fashioned,” said Michèle Fitoussi, a novelist and social commentator. “ ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ is a fantasy fairy tale about a heroine trapped in the worst clichés — the ingénue, the innocent, the nursemaid, the bubblehead and, finally, the pregnant Madonna. But it has a special appeal to ordinary Frenchwomen who don’t read much and long for a classic fantasy fairy tale.”