Sunday, September 2, 2012

Fifty Shades of WTF?

Virtual rope burns hurt less
You’ve probably heard by now: Fifty Shades of Grey, the vampireless pornographic fanfic trilogy, has now outsold the Harry Potter series on Amazon’s UK site. I know, I know. We don’t really want to talk about this. We have better things to think about, like how “-saurus” became the suffix for both a kind of dictionary and a kind of flesh-eating lizard. But we must, people! We must square our little writerly shoulders and meet this information like grown-ups.

After I finished eating a few gallons of ice cream and writing bitchy things in my sparkly pink Hello Kitty diary, I sat down and tried to cope with this news from the world of fictiondom. How do I interpret the public’s apparent taste for bad porn thinly masked as a novel? And how should I, as a woman, feel about other women apparently eating up this notion that a really sexy guy is one who hurts you? This is a terribly tangled web to unweave.

First, the bad writing. When I groused about this on Facebook, I was accused of being an elitist who hated anything that was popular. (Although really, that would be more a “hipster” thing than an “elitist” thing: get your pejoratives straight!) This accusation is untrue: I actually liked the Harry Potter series; I also like other wildly bestselling authors like Stephen King and Diana Gabaldon. When I say E.L. James is a terrible writer, I am referring to her ... you know ... writing. As in: the words she has committed to paper. Let’s have a peek, shall we? (psst: This would be a good time to change the channel if your sensibilities are at all delicate.)

I seem to have lost my handcuffs
My heart starts pounding. This is it. I'm really going to do this. My inner goddess is spinning like a world-class ballerina, pirouette after pirouette.

And, in a separate passage:

I think of my dream … is that what it would be like? My inner goddess jumps up and down with cheerleading pom-poms shouting yes at me.

Oh yes! Ballerinas! Pom-poms! OMG Where’s my sparkly tiara?!?

Sadly, these are not the only times James uses the term “inner goddess." When I searched for that term in Google books, I got 45 hits in the first book alone. Forty-five. The “inner goddess” is almost always doing something an eleven-year-old would be doing. Funny, because when I think “goddess” I think “Athena” or “Ishtar.” Not “Lolita.”

Here’s another gem:

"Hard," he whispers, and he slams into me.
"Aargh!" I cry as I feel a weird pinching sensation deep inside me as he rips through my virginity. He stills, gazing down at me, his eyes bright with ecstatic triumph.
His mouth is open slightly, and his breathing is harsh. He groans.
"Aargh!" I cry!
"You're so tight. You okay?"

Right. Where do we even start with this? Who knew losing your virginity to a sadistic billionaire turned you into a pirate? I mean, really. “Aargh?”

To be fair, it’s not all like this. I read what I could stand, and there were a few passages that didn’t make me wince or snigger. But the excerpts here are fairly representative of James’ prose style, which is not at all comparable to J.K. Rowling’s prose style. Rowling may not be Virginia Woolf or Flannery O’Connor, but she’s not cringe-inducing. She’s actually pretty clever, and funny. Perhaps more to the point, she is a children’s writer. Writing for children. James (one fervently hopes) is writing for adults.

So how does a writer so blatantly talentless end up so wildly popular? I find this truly mystifying, and am ready to hear any theories. One theory is that nobody cares about quality writing anymore, or that we’re not trained to recognize it. This doesn't explain why one bit of terrible writing would outsell all the other bits of terrible writing, however. Another theory is that James simply hit a cultural button that overrides any problems with her prose: she tapped into the female sex’s latent desire to be pummeled into submission by a strong man. Who also happens to be a bajillionaire!

It's like the 20th century never happened
Which brings me to my next point: Are women really that stupid? Or backwards? Or warped? I thought the balance of power between Edward and Bella was bad, but this homage to Twilight kicks it up a couple thousand notches. I feel I don’t know my own sex at all, if this is what they crave — even in fantasy. I am not judging the desire for woman-centered porn, by the way. As previously mentioned, I’m not squeamish and have no issue with erotica generally. It’s the content of this erotica that worries me. From the passage above, we see Anastasia’s blatant childishness, contrasted with Christian’s literally sadistic older-male predilections. I find this more than off-putting, I find it truly troublesome. That it exists is one thing — there’s a lot of porn out there with overtones of pedophilia. That such material would sell like hotcakes — to women — is what’s got me confuzzled.

Because it is women who are buying this: I don’t think too many men are secretly stashing copies under their Sports Illustrated magazines. In fact, men seem remarkably uninterested in sub-dom fantasy, from what I understand: at least in terms of book-buying. Man-books seem to concentrate rather heavily on spies and guns. When they buy sexual fantasies, they’re in DVD form, not book. We’ve all seen these movies: they are focused almost entirely on the man bringing vast swaths of women to limp-limbed satisfaction. There’s not a lot of pain involved. I’m sure the pain market exists for men, but not in the numbers we’re seeing for Fifty Shades.

Is it related to socio-economic background? Are the women reading this uneducated and therefore socialized to believe that women should be submissive to men — should find that kind of powerlessness sexy? Not from what I’ve seen: the women I know who’ve read this are college-educated and relatively liberal: they’ve got enough Susan Sontag under their belts to resist that kind of indoctrination.
Pro tip: This isn't what "grown-up" means.

In a discussion of this elsewhere, friends pointed out that sadomasochistic “romance” isn’t a new phenomenon: Harlequin romances (and the like) have long revolved around on the domineering male overpowering the initially-resistant female. But if Harlequins were already out there, filling this demographic demand, why weren’t they also selling like hotcakes? No romance, no work of erotica, has ever sold as well as this trilogy. It must offer something beyond the average romance novel. What is it?

One thing we can agree on: it’s not the quality of the writing.

What do you think? Have you read the books? How would you describe the writing — and to what do you attribute James’ runaway success? Is there some lesson aspiring writers should take away from this phenomenon?


  1. A very well-written post, Steph. Big kudos on that count.

    The success of this book, may -- I'm no licensed therapist, here -- indicate some fairly deep wounds in the collective psyche.

    The novel I am currently querying was written in a spirit to address what I perceive to be that profound ailment, that festering schism between what edifies and what devastates in the stories we create and consume. It's the place from which all of my writing springs. It's all I can think to do with my fury.

    To be fair, I have not read the books. I didn't even read the passages you inserted in the text of your post. To be free to say or read or distribute whatever one wishes is only freedom if we are free to politely decline.

    But there's another subject, entirely.

    1. "It's all I can think to do with my fury."

      We totally need to hang out more.

  2. I'm still laughing at the handcuff-less ballerina!

    Great post, Sister Steph. I'm also having a hard time understanding this literary phenomenon when most people (including the fans) are making fun of the writing. Like I was telling you the other day, the only two 'appeals' I can blame for this incredible success are:

    1. Sex in this forbidden/taboo form. And I assume, fantasy-inducing for some (??)

    2. The 'bandwagon' appeal used in advertising. (Most people are reading this, so you should too). I think curiosity plays an important role here. Not wanting to be out of the loop on what's trendy, or, like Sister Malena was saying, some people may be reading in order to make an informed opinion and not judge it based on comments alone.

    Whatever the case, I think these books are getting WAY more attention than they deserve.

    1. So I've been quizzing my girlfriends who've been brave/curious enough to actually read the books. Or at least the first one. And what I've learned—in 24 hours!—is that so much of it is (as you said) the bandwagon effect. The women tell me they bought it because everyone is buying it and they want to know what the fuss is about. Having read it, they would not recommend it. This is baffling to me for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is: how does crap writing get to that tipping point? The first couple thousand people don't read it because everyone else is reading it. If virtually every reader's response is "meh," how does it reach a mujillion copies?

    2. I agree with the bandwagon theory. Every one I know who has purchased the book did so because they'd heard about it and were curious. I think it's just a case of marketing triumphing over quality...It was time for the "next big thing" after Harry Potter & Twilight mania were dying down, and due to some lucky breaks 50 Shades was in the right place at the right time.

      To be honest I'm sick to death of hearing about these books. Does anyone seriously believe that in a couple of years time anyone will care less about them? It just proves to me that media culture is a joke, people are easily manipulated by marketing hype and our collective unconscious has the maturity and intelligence of a 15 year old.

    3. "The first couple thousand people don't read it because everyone else is reading it. If virtually every reader's response is "meh," how does it reach a mujillion copies?"

      I predict a future Jasper Fforde novel in which a temporal paradox accounts for this.

      Great post - I'm sure I enjoyed it (especially the pirate and the ballerina) far more than I would the books!

  3. I think people should be paying more attention to our book, 10 Nights. Maybe I should get all my friends to say horrible things about the writing? I don't know why this book hit the way it did, but I wish I had written it.

  4. Thanks for such a thoughtful post on Fifty Shades. When it was such a runaway success I thought I should read the trilogy, but admit I'm limping towards the end. The sex is very same old by the time you get to the third book. But there are many likeable things about the characters, so maybe that's one reason it's selling hotly. Also it's a real fantasy - rich guy chooses average girl who turns out to be not so average in his hands, lol! nAlso the easy prose is easy to read for those who like a quick read. Overall, it's better than I expected and lucky lady for selling so many books.

  5. I think the reason these books becmse popular is due to a few things:
    - these books have most likely been purchased by women who read a handful of books a year, if tht much
    - the thematic core interest in the book isn't prevelant in most of the movies and tv these educated, yet busy women watch (they aren't buying Harliquins, they aren't avid readers)
    - the writing in the book allows it to be a fast read, and in reading fast it allows the reader to depart from the feeling of reading into a feeling of seeing aand feeling the story (these readers don't want a complicated read
    - the bulk of the women buying the book have a lot of grown up responsibilities, and the book's easy-to-understand language and "story" allow for an easy escape to very different lifestyle

    Advertising and stories about the author can assist in selling it, but not reading it ... and by reading it is when these readers are buying book 2 and 3.

    This is, in my opinion, why the books are selling well.

    1. These are excellent theories. Thanks for chiming in!

  6. Ahem! *tipping my tiara* I tend to think the inner goddess was a genius way to fill an otherwise character-less book.

    The sad truth is our society seems to adore the whole "abuse" angle. Well, who doesn't like a messed up character? Who doesn't hope the nonredeemable can be redeemed? BUT, would you sacrifice your daughter/friend/sister to such a plight? I quit early on. The things I liked: the writing was raw, and by that I mean emotionally raw. I think that was a huge appeal. Things I abhored: The MC. Man, she needed a backbone. I'd slap my MC around if she ever caved to a sociopath like that.

  7. Dearest Sister Stephanie, EL James is a lousy writer, you are a great writer!! You had me rolling on the carpet laughing.
    Thank you, thank you so much for the “Aargh” bit. It got me thinking “How was EL James ‘first time?” Was it so long ago, she can´t remember? Was it so bad she doesn’t want to remember? Then I thought that surely I would be making “aargh” sounds if I had deflowered myself with a hairbrush handle and that is what it reads like. Not a normal (even bad) loss of virginity. I strive to remember my first time (mind you, I had a good time) and I remember a lot of pain, whimpering, and screeching from my part, but no interjections or onomatopoeic sounds (since that “aargh” sounds like ripping something, I take it, it qualifies as onomatopoeic.)
    I have more to say about the blessed book, but first I must get some breakfast. One can’t attack EL James Shades on an empty stomach.

  8. Ok. Here I come. First of all, we don´t mean to put down or embarrass anybody who likes 50 Shades, we just want to know what lies behind its success. We also know that every time we badmouth the book we are contributing to its high sales.
    My first curiosity is who reads this book? Yess I heard about the “Mommy porn” but I don´t buy it. I have run into many young career women who are enthralled by Ana’s noisy lovemaking, and Sister Stephanie, men are reading the book (and loving it), at least in my country. One of my dearest friends is absolutely hooked on the trilogy. He is in his early twenties...and a virgin, so for him Shades is, besides god masturbatory material, a manual. I dread to think of him fantasizing over tampons and girls suspended from the ceiling, but that is what the book is for many young people, a didactic manual, and respectable porn”dressed as“romance. Pretty much what bodice-rippers were in my day, except they presented more romantic and better written stories.
    I have heard many people say they love Ana and Christian´s relationship. I wonder what is so appealing about a dude who treats like you a pet and who decides when or what you should eat, and yet that is another appeal of the wretched little tale. In days of social and economic upheaval, most women are frightened by seemingly unsurpassable obstacles. Most would be happy to have a millionaire taking care of their bills, making sure they stick to their diets, buying them pretty things. So he is a bit kinky...who cares? This reminds me so much of the “rape fantasy.” The way that fantasy worked was that the rapist was gorgeous and a great lover, the victim always reached an orgasm, she was remorse-free since it was all against “her will.” Pretty much what happens with Anastasia and Christian. Someone said that the fact hat Ana is an average girl who lands a rich hunk also adds to the novel´s attractiveness. In the rape fantasy, a woman relinquished everything, all self-control and dignity, but she got what usually only beautiful and sexually experienced women achieved.

    1. It just occurred to me that maybe James got some inspiration from 9 1/2 Weeks (though that film seems more subtle than 50 Shades). I see more similarities with Rourke/Basinger's film than with Twilight. And didn't 9 1/2 Weeks become extremely popular in its day?

      Honestly, I'm more offended as a writer than as a woman (ha!) Sex has always sold (but especially when we talk about something as taboo as the themes in this book) so I'm actually not *that* surprised that people are reading it (remember the Peyton Place phenomenon? Back then, it was scandalous, but women kept passing the novel around secretly to each other). I just think the combination of sex, taboo-breaking, curiosity and good marketing made it the success that it has become.

  9. Laughed so hard at this (and the accompanying photo), I had to stop reading to tell you:

    Who knew losing your virginity to a sadistic billionaire turned you into a pirate? I mean, really. “Aargh?”

    Maybe the sadistic billionaire was Johnny Depp? Great post so far!

  10. I know several men who are reading the book, because their wives loved it and have...become "Insatiable" (I wish I was joking!!) All the women I know who have read it are highly educated, read A LOT, and also loved it. I couldn't get through it, because the sex was boring and fake-shocking.

    If it is sweetness and light and a good relationship filled with mutual respect and love, I don't want anything to do with it in literature or movies. NOTHING. I want the dark, the depraved, the violent, because it is an outlet. I don't want my REAL life to be like that, obviously! :) Maybe it is because I have been fortunate enough not to have experienced anything tremendously traumatic in my real life. I disagree strongly with Suze's assessment of "that profound ailment, that festering schism between what edifies and what devastates in the stories we create and consume." Not everybody is devastated by the same things, or edified by the same things. To each his own.

    I GET wanting to be dominated to a certain extent, but if a guy got all Kanye with me (like he is with Kim Kardashian) and made me empty out my closet because my clothes were horrible and he wanted to pick what I wore? Um, no.

    The author didn't mean for them to be so popular. She was just writing out her fantasies. We have to blame the general public!

    1. Thanks for your insights! I'm fascinated by your seeking of dark, depraved, and violent with your rejection of this book as "fake-shocking." I find the darkness and depravity of, say, Game of Thrones, much more compelling than what I've read of Fifty Shades. I feel like Martin (who's not shy about sex!) understands humanity pretty well, and explores many corners of the human psyche and motivations. James' book is more like Twilight + BDSM. Fake-shocking: I love that.

  11. I have a theory, though I fear it may be an unpopular one. I think the feminist movement, in it's extreme form, has actually hurt and confused women. Of course we want to vote and be paid equally...don't take my comments out of context. But popular culture and feminist movements of the past 40 years or so have told us women can do anything men can do. There is essentially no difference between women and men. Such ideas are absurd. We are not just different physically, but have differences of all kinds, inside and out. And whether people like it or not, the fact is, there are some things women are just better suited for, as there are some things men are better suited for. So... my point here, is that the equalizing of men and women has caused a lot of gender confusion and identity issues. I think women get tired of taking on power and leadership roles they never really wanted to have in the first place. So this kind of perversion of sexuality meets our underlying need to actually be led, even controlled, on some level. jmho

    1. So you would see this as a backlash against feminism, then? I see that argument presented by feminists and non-feminists alike. Interesting. Probably that's why I'm so mystified: I can't think like that. I can't put myself in the position of someone who wants to be dominated.

      On the notion that women are naturally submissive sorts (don't want power, have never wanted power), I offer you Athena and Artemis, Esther and Sheba. There have been powerful women as long as there have been women. We also have our Aphrodites and Demeters. Women come in varieties, much like men. I don't think women can be said to inherently shun power and seek to be controlled. Perhaps some Fifty Shades readers do, though: or they think they do. I imagine a year or two of living in Saudi Arabia might cure that. :)

  12. Sister Steph, I laughed all the way to the last period (or was that a question mark) at the end of your post. Anyway, I'm not a big women's-libber, and although I can see some interest in the whole domination thing, I just don't get the craze. It's as you say, most who have read it don't even recommend it. I don't care what kind of fantasy an author is trying to feed the reader -- if it's poorly executed, then I have no interest in slogging through it.

    I have no plans to read James' novels, simply because I'm not into the whole erotica scene. To me, it's just porn on the page, and that just doesn't interest me. I need a good story with good characters that I can sink my teeth into.

    Although, I must say, I might need to look into getting one those "inner goddesses." They seem to have a pretty good time of it!

  13. Well I tend to turn up my nose at such drivel as the 50 shades, so I seldom comment on them, but your thoughts do coincide with some I've had. There seems to be a mass movement of the grotesquely bizarre not only in "readers" but movies...shades of Transformers and the like. Someone, Anonymous above, mentioned it is for those who read maybe a book or two a year, which is using the term "read" loosely; does one really have to read or can one simply skim. . Give me words worthy of my imagination and concentration. Why waste our eyeballs on this junk? Who knows but as long as it sells, or the market makes it welcome, it will continue. Oh yes, the "inner goddess" spare me!

  14. Stephanie, Congratulations on a clever article! The conversation here is interesting. My two cents: I DO believe that this is a backlash against feminism. But not because I believe that women are inherently weak or submissive as has been suggested above. More because men have been conditioned over the last twenty or thirty years to be more submissive than before and I imagine that a lot of women would prefer to have a mate who didn't act like a sorority sister. Don't be offended because you don't think that your man is like that, well than he probably isn't. But, I have seen many examples of men who are submissive to their wives. In fact I find this phenomenon to be pervasive in American society. By the way, I don't believe that if a man is powerful that means that his partner has to be weak. There are many great examples in history of powerful couples who have long wonderful relationships. Now, it is natural that this type of fiction would be distasteful, to many folks, man and woman alike. Different strokes for different folks. All of that is really not the point, as Pat so well states. The point is that it is very poorly written (as I have been told) yet it STILL SELLS LIKE HOT CAKES. Why? I am not an expert but I suspect that it has something to do with the publishing houses and how they have shaped the market. The public is hungry for variety and if a manuscript scratches an itch the people are so hungry it doesn't really matter if it is well written or not. Just my view on things, like I said I am not really very knowledgeable about the literary world. But I think that I know my people pretty good. Chao.

    Major H

  15. A fantastic post that captured all of my same thought. Argh!

  16. I, personally, am not surprised that Fifty Shades of Grey has taken off and this soul-crushingly true story will tell you why:
    I happened to get a bus one morning at around 8AM from my village into the closest city and it was packed with secondary school children (11 - 18 year olds). Due to the amount of people on the bus I was left standing beside a crowd of girls around the ages of 12 - 14. One of the girls was telling the others about a boy that she'd been seeing. She was bragging that he called her "fit" and "sexy," and got her to perform sexual favors for him. It then came up in conversation that this boy was not a boy but was, in actual fact, a man of 23 years...
    Furthermore, I have a friend who adores Fifty Shades of Grey. She has a child of six months old and during her pregnancy, her sexual partner strangled her. I could give many other examples based around the young women of today but I feel that is enough. Women subject themselves to this sort of treatment in the real world and from a very young age. What's worse is that they brag about it. E.L. James just put it on paper.

    1. Wow. These stories are so sad. I feel like I've been living inside a bubble.

    2. I agree. But at the same time, I've seen some of what anonymous is talking about. Sadly, our society has become so depraved that people flock to what James has written. Literally. The saddest part is that we've become so excepting of such depravity.

  17. The first time I heard about 50 shades I inmediately thought about 9 1/2 Weeks, they seemed too similar for me. But at least in the film the girl gets so scared of the kinky stuff and abuse she leaves for good. Knowing that 50 shades is the firs of a trilogy I get Anastacia does never leave. I don't think the writer can innovate that much the theme in three books (or is she thinkig of getting animals or corpses involved sometime soon?). I've already watched the movie, so I don't feel compeled to read that book -or the movies based on it that are coming-. Much less with those parts I have seen in the post. Being a great fan of classic mithology I feel slightly offended by the use of ''inner-godess'' there. I'm not sure of the reason it is selling that many copies. I used to be a fan of Sue-Ellen Welfonder's medieval Scotland set bodice rippers and yet I don't find 50 shades appealing at all.

    But now reading all that has been said, I'm shocked and scared. It is awful in a book, but just thinking some litte girls or teens grow to think that abuse is OK in a ''healthy'' couple relationship just breaks my hearts badly. Sex should be about love or a least respect IMHO. U.U

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