Why readers love Fifty Shades of Grey (and why the literati still don’t get it)
If you don’t understand the appeal of the Fifty Shades trilogy, then please stop pretending to recommend books to FSoG readers when you’re actually recommending books to readers who are not them.
Here are some of the most frustrating things about the Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon:
1. The term ‘mommy porn’. Enough said.
2. Booksellers who snigger about how terrible it is while promoting it to within an inch of Christian’s, um, tie.
3. ‘If you like Fifty Shades of Grey then you’ll like…’ reading lists that demonstrate how badly genre fiction is understood by the literati in Australia. (Or I could be less gracious and say it’s snobbery, but I’ll give them the benefit of doubt.)
Look, I get it. I’m stuck on chapter two of my 50 pages of Fifty Shades challenge because of the awkward prose, vacuous heroine and creepy hero. I get that this book isn’t going to win literary awards. I get that there are a bajillion better written books out there that booksellers, publishers, editors and authors would love to foist on readers.
Believe me, I get it.
But the thing is, the people who love the Fifty Shades trilogy aren’t in it for spectacular writing. They’re not even in it for salacious bondage scenes.
My guess is—because, of course, every reader is different—most of them love it because it entertains them and gives them a positive emotional rush with a touch of naughty of excitement.
They will not get this with the Marquis de Sade. They will not get it with The Story of O. They will not get it with any story that ends with separation, adultery, misery, death, pain, humiliation, incest or bestiality.
Just because someone loved Fifty Shades of Grey does not mean they will enjoy erotica. The primary objective of this book is not to provide an erotic thrill—it’s to provide an emotional one. The titillation is great—particularly for the marketing people—but take away the love story between Ana and Christian and I doubt it would have become so popular.
Consider where Fifty Shades of Grey came from. It originated as Twilight fanfic. That’s a young adult paranormal romance. Fifty Shades of Grey turns the story into an erotic adult contemporary romance. It didn’t try to become literary fiction. All E L James has done is translate a book that many adults loved into a more adult kind of book.
So when I read lists like these at Meanjin and Momentum or posts like these at SMH or Furious Horses, I despair at the humungous disconnect between Australian romance genre readers and those who influence the literary scene in Australia. (Kudos to Furious Horses for at least not treating the genre and its readers with contempt.)
Here’s what I think lovers of the Fifty Shades trilogy are looking for:
A fairly conservative approach to relationships. Ana and Christian are young, white, heterosexual and well-educated. At least Twilight had vampires. Fifty Shades doesn’t even have that. Ana and Christian don’t cheat on each other, and they don’t have sex with other people.
A fairly conservative approach to romance. The entire story revolves around the connection between Ana and Christian. It’s about love at first sight. It’s about a man who can have anyone he wants but chooses an awkward, clumsy ingénue. This is a very common trope in the more traditional Mills & Boon lines.
A fairly conservative approach to sex. The BDSM, by all accounts, is fairly vanilla and light—thrilling enough for people who don’t know much about it, but nowhere near where boundaries in erotic fiction are pushed.
A happy ending. Take this away and I daresay you couldn’t persuade people to read the books for free.
The Fifty Shades trilogy speaks to mainstream readers interested in reading stories that push their boundaries in a non-threatening manner. The irony is that the romance genre and popular (as opposed to literary) erotica are actually more diverse than this.
Take Australian Mills and Boon author Kelly Hunter’s books, many of which are set in Asia and some of which feature confident, successful heroines. Or Australian historical romance author Anna Campbell’s books, most of which feature sexually experienced courtesan heroines. Or New Zealand paranormal romance author Nalini Singh’s books, some of which feature heroes who turn into animals. Or Australian erotic romance author Jess Dee’s books, some of which feature heroines who have two sexual partners at the same time.
The romance and popular erotica genres have a large pool of talent from which to build recommended reading lists for people who want to read erotic romance and romantic erotica. The literati need to stop co-opting our bookshelves in order to push ‘quality’ books, when in fact they’re recommending the literary equivalent of foie gras to people who are starving for steak and potatoes with a dash of spice.
It’s ironic, too, that romance readers who didn’t like the Fifty Shades trilogy are forced to suffer through the media hype and misunderstanding directed at them. It’s become so frustrating that we sometimes forget that blame for the literati’s ignorance shouldn’t be laid at the feet of readers who have fallen in love with Ana and Christian’s story, despite its flaws.
There’s room in the market for both literary and popular erotica, but there is definitely a difference. Those who don’t understand the appeal and constraints of erotic romance will never understand the popularity of the Fifty Shades trilogy, and it’s useless pretending to recommend books to these readers, when you’re actually recommending books to readers who are not them.
What do you think? What books—and why—would you recommend to someone who has just read and loved the Fifty Shades trilogy? I’d love to know your recs so I can compile a genre-friendly list.