Saturday, July 14, 2012

What's So Hot about 50 Shades of Grey?

by Joanne Kennedy

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?


  1. I'm going to date myself here! I remember when Interview With a Vampire came out years ago. I bought it because I wanted to read a book that brought an advance with that many zeroes behind the first number. It was a brand new idea and it sky rocketed. I haven't read Shades and can't say that I plan to do so, therefore, I can't offer an opinion on it. But I reckon it's like Anne Rice's's a wild new venture and folks will either love or hate it. There will be no gray areas (pun intended).

  2. I agree, Carolyn! It's exciting to see what the next big thing is and try to figure out why. I think "interview" was probably a better book, though:)

  3. I haven't read it yet but I am in line for it at the library. I am saddened by all of the nudging and winking that goes on with supposed adults who want to pretend that they are *shocked* by the subject matter and I wonder if we are ever going to eliminate the hypocrisy and remember that sex is a integral part of life...since most of us wouldn't be in existence otherwise!

  4. I read it, I enjoyed it as an entertaining read on a subject about which--as you point out--much, much, MUCH has already been written, and written well. I think the packaging had something to do with its success--literary packaging, NOT cliche romance packaging, though it's nothing more than a rambling romance.

    To me, it read like a YA, but for the erotic content. The relentless first person, the relentlessly, determinedly current voices of the protags, the tedium of the internal reflection... and of course, the heroine who was young and not just in years.

    I say, more power to EL James, whatever the reason. Maybe Fifty can do for adult romance what Harry Potter did for YA. Though I have to say, I have yet to get a single email from Amazon with the header, "If you liked Fifty Shades of Grey...."

  5. I haven't read it and am not interested. I have so few hours to read for pure enjoyment, I want to read authors' works that will deliver!

  6. Hey Joanne: sorry I missed this yesterday, I wasn't on-line.

    The entire trilogy is everywhere: my grocery store, the Walmart, etc. but since it's not my type of read, I won't be able to offer an opinion for you.

    I agree that you shouldn't change what you're writing to fit in with any fads or crazes. They do come and go, some stay longer than others.

  7. I have not read it yet... I just told someone this morning, that I can't give an opinion until I read it... So I will get back to you all....

  8. I haven't read 50 Shades either (I read the ebook sample of the first 3 chapters), but I think your analysis is really interesting.

  9. I read 50 Shades. I felt I needed to read the most popular novel in the US—a romance!—and I wanted to see what all the fuss was about.

    I agree with everything Grace says, esp. the YA comparison. However, I think Ana being dismissed as a throwback passive heroine is off mark. I didn’t see their first encounter as near-rape. She met with him specifically for sex and was holding all the cards. She's a lot stronger than most reviewers give her credit for, and Grey is a classic tortured hero—possibly abused as a child, terrified of being vulnerable, has major abandonment issues, and hides all this behind a cool controlling façade and a private need to dominate and hurt; all the while hating himself. She’s the young, innocent ingenue who will redeem him. We’ve heard this before. I think the bondage/dom stuff trips a lot of people up. It is basically Twilight with lots of (not well-written) sex and no Jacob third wheel.

    I’m thrilled that a previously unknown female erotic romance and fan-fiction (!) writer knocked George RR Martin off the top of the bestseller lists. For all the flap about bondage and dominance and a passive heroine in 50 Shades, GRRM’s world is fraught with misogyny and violence against women. Last week the top 10 on the USA Today list was dominated by women writers—EL James, Gillian Flynn, Suzanne Collins, and Sylvia Day (another romance writer!). How cool is that? I'm optimistic, like Grace, that Shades will do for romance what Harry Potter did for YA. Bring it on!

  10. It had a lot of publisher push, and a lot of money backing it, and a lot of publicity because of it. And then there's that always elusive word-of-mouth that publishers would love to get a handle on. And being in the right market at the right time. Oy, we could go crazy trying to figure out why some books hit and others don't. And that's what's never know what will be the next big thing. :}