As 50 Shades of Gray hovers at the top of the bestseller lists, critics and readers are all trying to figure out what the heck happened. How did this book become so big, so fast? Why did it leap into the limelight so quickly?
A lot of writers—and readers—have declared the book unworthy. They pick it apart, exclaiming over every instance of bad writing, cardboard characterization, and poor plotting. It seems like blockbusters rarely follow the rules of great writing, so cataloging their faults is a game we can all play.
Others pore over the words of newly minted millionaire E.L. James in an effort to find the elusive key to bestseller-dom. (Get it? Bestseller-dom. Nudge nudge, wink wink.) Every new blockbuster is another chance to figure out the answer to the ever-present question: what do readers really want?
Bondage? I don’t think so. Male newscasters are having an awfully good time with the revelation that women like reading about kinky sex, but I’m not sure I’d get an instant spike in sales if my cowboys brought their ropes and spurs into the bedroom. I’ll leave the tie-me-down stories to the very talented Lorelei James.
And speaking of Lorelei James, there are lots of excellent erotica writers these days. So why this book? Why now?
One thing that separates 50 Shades from most current romances is its relatively passive heroine. I’ve read a lot of articles, mostly by women, that decry the popularity of a book about a young and innocent woman being dominated by a powerful man.
But is that what the book is really about? Christian Gray might be physically strong, and his wealth gives him power, too. But in the end, it’s the woman who wins--because she holds all the emotional cards.
Anastasia Steele strikes me as a throwback, the kind of heroine we found in the so-called “bodice rippers” of the seventies. The first sexual encounter in those books often involved the man overpowering the woman—but again, in the end, the knight/Viking/duke was helplessly bound by love.
After those books were declared politically incorrect, vampires arrived on the scene. These guys overwhelm women with their supernatural power, but in the end—you guessed it. All those fanged fellows eventually succumb to the power of love.
I like my girls spunky, so I won’t be following the passive heroine model. But all the fuss about 50 Shades did remind me that we love to see an alpha hero conquered by love. There’s nothing sexier than a tough guy who’s been thoroughly domesticated—a Navy Seal dandling a baby; a vampire who trades his immortality for love; a big strong sheriff behind a picket fence.
Lots of elements contributed to the success of 50 Shades of Gray. It had a built-in audience with lovers of Twilight fan fiction; it hit a point in time where the world was ready to let erotic fiction enter the mainstream; its shock value garnered a lot of media attention; and the confessional, diary-like quality of the writing resonates with a lot of readers. And then there’s luck and timing—the real keys to publishing success, which are only handed out by the hand of fate.
But in the end, I think the book is simply a different way of expressing an age-old story, confirming all over again that while men might have the brawn, love will always win in the end.
What do you think? Do you love 50 Shades of Grey? Hate it? Why do you think so many readers are excited about it? What do you think of the media coverage?