Why readers love Fifty Shades of Grey (and why the literati still don’t get it)

By | 10 July 2012 | 61 Responses

Fifty Shades of Grey by E. L. James

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.

Thanks to @infogenium@SonomaLass and @mieldv for beta reading this post and for their excellent suggestions on how to improve it.

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Kat

Killer of Fairies
Kat Mayo is a freelance writer, Twitter tragic and compulsive reader. She is the editor of Booktopia's Romance Buzz and hosts the Heart to Heart podcast for Destiny Romance. Her reviews have appeared in Books+Publishing, and in 2014 she was awarded RWA's Romance Media Award. Kat firmly believes in happy endings. She kills fairies with glee.

61 comments »

  1. Merrian

    Love your thoughts on the social phenomena that is 50 and I share your experience with the books. 

    I just read an article today about an Australian author hopping on the 50 bandwagon – there were two 50 articles in today’s Age, up from one yesterday! Her erotica as described contravenes all your points above about why people are reading 50. It sounds interesting but not what 50 is…

    http://www.theage.com.au/entertainment/books/destined-for-an-erotic-record-20120709-21qw7.html

    I am equally fascinated by the unwillingness of regular social commentators to go beyond the sex in the story in trying to understand what this means. I read this anti-50 blog post yesterday which made me sad. I enjoy this Australian literary blogger but was disappointed at the mora/feministl panic and the complete lack of understanding of BDSM
      
    http://hila-lumiere.blogspot.com.au/2012/07/fifty-shades-of-sexism.html
      

  2. Kelly Hunter

    Thanks for the mention, Kat. I laughed when you mentioned The Story of O and how it’s so often trotted out as The Mother of all erotic Literature. I’ve always considered that one more horror story than anything else…
    Recs for FSoG readers? Sylvia Day’s ‘Bared To You’.
    If m/m is not a problem, Damon Suede’s ‘Hot Head’ hits all the what-readers-are-looking-for points suggested above and then some. It’s my fave read of late.

  3. Jen

    You’re right, the literati have much to blame in the hoo-hah from their spreading misinformation about a genre which they don’t even understand. Or attempt to.

    I think the only book I can think of right now that is on par with the Fifty Shades’ feel is Sylvia Day’s Bared to You. And by all accounts it is way better in every aspect. Really unfortunate that it is deliberately being marketed like Fifty (I just saw this: http://www.angusrobertson.com.au/book/bared-to-you-a-crossfire-novel/35816790/ and I cried. No object is sacred now…) and even more unfortunate that she is being criticised for copying James. Pfffft. There are no vacuous characters here, and any implicit creepiness is overshadowed by the mutually desperate and ardent obsession between the couple, something that I love best about ALL of Day’s novels. But what’s the deal with all these smutty trilogies

    Have you read this article, “Reader I shagged him — then I married him”. Had me rabid. The smugness laced in with the moral outrage (which I actually agree with in this case; Jane Eyre is untouchable. Always.) was only made worse by how misinformed the writer still is about the erotica genre. http://www.theage.com.au/entertainment/books/reader-i-shagged-him–then-i-married-him-20120706-21lyr.html

    Agh I probably just need to read Fifty, confirm all my pretentious opinions, and get it out of my system, pronto. Flushing out sin with sin, isn’t that how Rasputin put it? Hah! 

  4. Fiona Marsden

    I have the first two 50 Shades books.  I want to read them.  I really liked Twilight.  I believe you are right in the key elements that people are looking for.  A romance that it is clear that the protagonists are Made For Each Other.  They are faithful to each other.  The gorgeous guy who could have anyone but chooses little old ordinary me.  Every teenagers fantasy, translated into grown up land. I just wish grownup land wasn’t quite so littered with explicit language.  Twilight started off clumsy and the writing improved.  I hope 50 Shades does the same.  It’s just that every time I pick up the book I am confronted by the F word or Inner Goddess or some other phrase that jolts me out of my romantic dream.  I want to wallow, not feel like getting out a red pen.

  5. Kat (author)

    Kelly — I saw the film and could barely make it through. I doubt I’ll ever pick up the book. Earlier this year (before Fifty Shades) someone recommended Story of the Eye to me. I only read an excerpt and GAH! I’d rather read through bad erotic romance. At least its heart is in the right place (if not other body parts – heh).

    Jen — I had intended to read at least 50 pages before posting this rant, but I couldn’t wait anymore. I really have to read the Sylvia Day. It’s been recommended to me by a number of people. Also Tiffany Reisz.

    Fiona — I think the clumsiness is what’s irritating me the most. I haven’t had to read through too many inner goddess references, but I can see how that would bother you (and me). Are you reading the original ebook or the Random House edition? I wonder if they edited out some of the repetition?

  6. Kat (author)

    Merrian — (Apologies, your comment got stuck in moderation.) Indigo Bloome seems to be getting a lot of publicity. I’ve seen her name popping up in various places, but with adultery in the blurb I doubt I’ll be picking up her book.

    As for Hila Schachar’s post, I can see where she’s coming from, and this is something that pops up in romance blogs when a rapish hero makes an appearance. What I think it unfairly discounts is the legitimacy of BDSM as a fantasy (and that’s not even taking into account the actual practice and enjoyment of BDSM, since I’m assuming most readers who enjoyed the Fifty Shades books don’t practice BDSM). 

  7. Efthalia

    Hi Paula,

    What a marvellous post. I thought you said it all brilliantly.

    As I said in my own post about Fifty Shades, if some of the literati can tear away all the insignificant components and get to the bare basics then they’d see that it’s a perfectly simple story of love and that is why it has gained so much ground. 

    Let’s face it, the average reader isn’t going to sit there and look for grammar and punctuation mistakes but rather what you said which is very fitting and precise, “…most of them love it because it entertains them and gives them a positive emotional rush and with a touch of naughty of excitement.”

    When I sit down to read a book I treat it with respect and the way I would all books in all genres. I treat it as if I was going to review it. It’s amazing how much grace and how much ones mind is open when willing to give each writer the benefit of the doubt. 

    Out of principal I don’t like to trash other writers. I believe it’s wrong. 

    It also amazes me how people are influenced by negativity and scared of actually saying that they liked a book (not on literatures A list) because of fear of being ridiculed. 

    Well I can say I read them, I enjoyed them for my own reasons and yes I have read brilliant stuff from our own Authors that you’ve mentioned above.  But I don’t compare an established author within their genre to someone that admits they are new in the field. It’s like comparing a Chef to an apprentice.

    Quite clearly, we read because we want to be entertained and to escape, we do it for pleasure. 

    Thank you for a wonderful post.  

    Smiles,
    Effie 

        

  8. Amy Andrews

    Thanks for this post.
    I have 50 Shades on my digital TBR pile and am looking forward to reading it.
    BDSM isn’t really my thing so I cant make any recommendations but I would like to congratulate you on hitting the nail right on the head with this –  “the humungous disconnect between Australian romance genre readers and those who influence the literary scene in Australia”
    Never were truer words spoken!
    The literati just don’t get it. And I’m over feeling mad about it. I just feel sorry for them now – they’re missing out on so much great genre fiction!

  9. Anna Campbell

    Hi Kat! Thanks so much for the shout-out. I’ve got to say I get kind of annoyed at all this press about the discovery of sex in books through 50 Shades when romancelandia has been a pretty steamy place for years now. Sigh. And I cringe at the ‘mommy porn’ description. Yuck! Really interesting piece!

  10. Helene

    Interesting discussion about 50 Shades and its sequels.

    Quite a few of the young women at work are reading them and loving them. Several complained that the writing is clumsy, but they don’t care because the story sucked them in and they can’t put the books down. They are all very happy to refer to it as “Mummy Porn’ – almost as a badge of honour – and to share it with their partners.  Most haven’t read anything like it before, but will in the future. It’s sparked a whole new conversation.

    I’ll be sure to pass on the recommendations from this post!

  11. Kaetrin

    Great post Kat. I haven’t read 50 and I’m not planning to because I think the lack of editing etc I’ve heard would drive me nuts. 

    Romance readers have been shamed by the literati so much in the past – as much as 50 doesn’t appeal to me, I don’t want to get on the reader shaming bandwagon with 50. (nb, I think there is a difference between a critical review and reader shaming – you can have one without the other).  

    But you are quite right:  there are posts bashing readers for liking 50 while at the same time flogging totally unrelated books with the “if you like 50″ tag. Buried in amongst them are some genuinely helpful lists though – usually reader compiled.

    I read and really enjoyed Bared To You. I don’t think enjoying 50 means you will love it though. I’ve had some comments on my blog where the commenter suggested that Sylvia Day was copycating 50 (which is SO not true) and therefore they hated it. I think there is something very compelling about the mutual obsession between Gideon and Eva in BtY and it’s certainly well written (IMO) and well edited. Like 50 though, readers tend to love or loathe BtY. Me? I loved. 

  12. Lisa Heidke

    Great post. Loved it! Will be sharing!

  13. Sami Lee

    I’m with you on the ‘mummy porn’ tag. I shudder every time I hear it. But then I think the word ‘porn’ is overused everywhere these days–pics of stilhetto heels are called ‘shoe porn’ for example. It seems to pop up everywhere, like the playboy bunny, which little girls think is cute (as the mother of two little girls, I’m shuddering again). It all disturbs me a lot, although I wish I could better articulate why.

    This was a great breakdown of the reasons why this trilogy has become so popular. I feel a lot more understanding and forgiving of people for liking it :).

    Cheers,
    Sami

  14. Erica Hayes

    What a great post!

    I join you in not ‘getting’ 50 SHADES. I’m too much of a romance reader to find anything fresh or interesting in it — “pushing boundaries in a non-threatening way” is pointless, if you ask me — and too much of a writer to get past the clumsiness. But if my years as a writer have taught me anything, it’s that mainstream readers don’t give a monkey’s about ‘good writing’. They just want a story that entertains them.

    I tried BARED TO YOU and didn’t finish it. I found it to be excellently written, and I’ve enjoyed some of Day’s previous books. I just didn’t care about the romance. That’s my problem, not the book’s.

    But. If 50 SHADES readers want the “man who can have anyone but chooses an awkward, clumsy ingenue” — and that’s a good a description of this kind of fantasy as I’ve seen —  then in my opinion, BARED TO YOU is not the book for them. The heroine isn’t an ingenue. I didn’t get as far as the BDSM (I’m assuming there is some) but from what I could tell, the power dynamic in BARED TO YOU fluctuates. A lot of the time, the heroine has the upper hand, and isn’t afraid to use it to get what she wants. The hero is commanding, but he’s also vulnerable, and randomly inexperienced in situations where you’d expect him to be all over it.

    Anyhoo. I haven’t read 50 SHADES, so I really have no right to comment ;) but from what I’ve gleaned, all those “If you love…” lists should include TWILIGHT and HUSH, HUSH and maybe a few Harlequin Desires. Not BARED TO YOU or Joey W Hill or other modern erotic romance, and certainly not Anne Rice’s SLEEPING BEAUTY {boggle}

  15. Jayne @ The Australian Bookshelf

    Great post Kat! I’ve seen 50 around the blogosphere a lot lately and have seen many people out and about with a copy in their hand reading it in public (including a guy at an airport!). I think reviews of the ‘clumsy writing’ have turned me away from reading it but I think you have nicely summed up what draws in readers to romance. I think those aspects tempt me to give this book a try!

  16. Kandy Shepherd

    Thank you for such a thoughtful and well-considered post, Kat.
     

  17. Efthalia

    HI KAT, Please excuse my errata at the beginning of my post. Bad editing on my part and that’s what usually happens when you’ve got screaming kids in the background and you’re trying to write something. Please accept my apologies in calling you Paula (I’ve got Paula on my mind not Georgia). I’m laughing at my kooky self.  LOL. 

    What I did want to say and left out was that I have read Sylvia Day’s “Bared to You” and found that it was well written. The character’s are also well developed and it is evidently clear that readers of 50 Shades will be jumping over to read her books.    

    The other book everyone is recommending if you want to go with all the hype is Tiffany Reisz’s, “The Siren.”

    Smiles again,
    Effie

          

  18. Babette F

    You know, the way I look at it….it went viral. You can break it down, put thumbs up or thumbs down but IT…WENT…VIRAL. Period!! Donald Mass… Writing the Breakout Novel needs to add a  chapter for Fan Fic.  We voted with our purchases. I don’t think it was the BDSM sex, the sex, the emotions..none of it was the best that has been written but all together, as a reader, it was a delight. As Anna said,  I’m not sure why it sells better than what has been around in Romance for years but it did and well..good for her!!

  19. Jennifer Stevenson

    I understand these books are not for everyone. Would everyone please meet me halfway and admit that not all books are for them?
    Every genre has its reader protocols. Romance readers want a happy ending, or else it’s a wallbanger.  Mystery readers want a crime that gets solved, or else….  Science fiction readers want ideas galore, carefully executed, or else.  Western readers want heroes in a lawless world.
    Somebody, please add what literary readers want, besides having their intelligence flattered? Obviously I’m the wrong person to speak for their protocols, even though I’ve written literary fiction myself.
    If part of your literary taste requires you to hate on the taste of others, what does that say about your taste?

  20. Kat (author)

    Efthalia — No worries. I figured you clicked through from Paula’s tweet feed. :D To be honest, after one chapter I can already tell that any review I write about FSoG won’t be favourable—and I have nothing against criticisms of elements of the writing—but that doesn’t mean I can’t attempt to understand why others love it so much. I think you also make a good point between seasoned authors and those just starting out, especially given that these stories came from fanfic and probably bypassed the more rigorous editing processes that traditional books undergo.

  21. Kat (author)

    Amy — My understanding is that the BDSM isn’t very heavy. I’d be interested to know what you think of it. I’m not sure why genre fiction still struggles for acceptance if not with literary critics then certainly with publishers and booksellers. I really can’t understand when booksellers sell FSoG on one hand and snigger at the readers on the other.

  22. Kat (author)

    Anna — You know I love to pimp your books out. :-) I love that when a bit of bondage becomes popular, it’s omg porn! But we see glorified violence all the time and quite often critics rush to defend their artistic merit.

    Helene — I’m glad to hear that the term ‘mommy porn’ isn’t shaming women out of reading the books. I’ve also had conversations at work about FSoG as well as Twilight and Hunger Games. My feeling is that the mainstream is crying out for plot-driven stories and good storytellers. It’s a shame romance still carries a stigma, because I think the genre has heaps of books that would appeal to these readers.

  23. Kat (author)

    Kaetrin — Poor Sylvia Day. The Furious Horses post I linked to, while not blaming the author, at least blames the publisher for making the book look like it’s jumping the FSoG bandwagon. We saw it happen with Twilight, too, though I don’t think it happened as much for Hunger Games. I’m not sure why that is.

  24. Kat (author)

    Lisa and Sami — Thanks. :-)

    Erica — Would you recommend a different Sylvia Day book? I really need to try her. I drew up a reading list for lit erotica readers who want to try some erotic romance/romantic erotica. That’s where I put Hart, Holly and Hill. I’m guessing Rice would belong, too, although I haven’t read that trilogy so I’m not sure if it’s romantic enough. For FSoG recs, I’d suggest books with alpha males and explicit, pseudo-boundary-pushing-but-not-really sex scenes. A few authors have already come to mind. Heh.

     

  25. Kat (author)

    Jayne — I think what fascinates me most about the FSoG phenomenon is how such a clumsy prose has become so popular. I mean, I could barely get past chapter 1! I can imagine it must chafe every other author, especially those who have been working on their craft for many years. I wonder if FSoG’s origin from fanfic enabled James to hone in on what her readers wanted from the story and incorporating that into the story, as opposed to how writing usually works—the writer dictating what is read by the audience.

  26. Kat (author)

    Kandy — Thanks for reading it. I didn’t realise it would generate so much interest!

    Babette — I guess what the industry is trying to figure out is why it went viral so they can publish more books with such wide appeal. This doesn’t surprise me, but I wish they’d do it without expressing contempt for readers. (And to be fair, I think many are genuinely trying because they can see it’s good for the industry.)

    Jennifer — I think the literary crowd want beautiful words, and I must admit that it sometimes takes a lot of trading through genre fiction to find those gems. It also requires, as you pointed out, an understanding of the constraints of the genre. Popular fiction is just as much a part of our culture as literary fiction and I believe we’d have more robust discussions about literature if people didn’t forget/ignore that.

     

  27. Jennifer Stevenson

    Kat–I remember reading a “glitter” novel, which is a genre that has almost disappeared, by Joan Collins. The prose seemed clunky to me, and her sentences had been shaped with a machete, not a sculptor’s knife.  I put it down many times before page 50.  Then…something happened.  Around page 50 I realized what she was doing *right*.  I noticed that she was grabbing the steering wheel on that plot and giving it a huge wrench with every new character she introduced–and she had about fifteen viewpoint characters!  Not only then, either.  I started watching more closely.  It seemed that on every *page* she derailed the plot or sent it spinning in a wow new direction.  Then it seemed every *paragraph* twisted the plot!  I couldn’t believe it!  What a terrific talent! I wish with all my heart I knew how to do that!
    Publishing always wants to know why something they don’t like or understand hits it big.  Graham Joyce once said (I think it was Worldcon in Glasgow 1995) “as a young author I labored under all the disadvantages of a literary education.”  That can certainly hamper a reader trying to get to the bottom of a genre novel’s success, if that genre isn’t their cuppa.

  28. Kat (author)

    Jennifer — At the end of the day, I think people want their imaginations to be stimulated. For some, exquisite craft is essential, and for others not so much. I think the popularity of FSoG serves to remind us that perhaps the majority of readers fall into the latter group. I can see why this would be depressing to some! But at the same time, how can we blame readers/writers for reading and writing stories that capture their imaginations? It will be interesting to see if the FSoG phenomenon will increase book spending generally or if it’s a one-off.

  29. Kaetrin

    @Kat I’ve read only 2 Sylvia Day books (I DNF’d a novella I didn’t think much of – Lucien’s Gamble – I think I got it as a Kindle freebie) – The Stranger I Married and BtY.  I liked both equally well from my Goodreads ratings.  The first one was the first or second book I reviewed on my blog I think! :)
     
    I have Seven Years to Sin on my TBR also – the author has said that the germs of the idea for BtY came from this novel – although it is an historical romance and there are no related characters.  I gather that in SYtS the characters are drawn together because of trauma and she started thinking about characters who were kept apart/in conflict because of trauma and thence BtY.
     
    I have The Siren on my TBR and I’ve heard raves about it but I think it is very very non traditional and doesn’t have a HEA or anything.  There are also some things which could be triggering for some readers and that some readers may have a big “ick” factor about.  I won’t give away spoilers but it definitely does not follow the traditional romance story arc.
     

  30. Jennifer Stevenson

    Kat–a lot of readers have less education and less vocabulary than the literary fan.  They might find the language in literary fiction impeding their entry into the story.
     
    Maybe that’s the key phrase.  The reader’s entry into the story is unique to them and particular to their genre.  Some writer I know, forget who, said, “I want to fall through the words into the story.”  He was a big Stephen King fan. King has a very transparent voice–one might think it isn’t a voice at all, until one tries to write like him.

  31. Kat (author)

    Kaetrin — The Siren doesn’t have a happy ending? Oh, boo. I was planning to read it!

    Jennifer — ‘The reader’s entry into the story is unique to them and particular to their genre.’ I like that.

  32. Kaetrin

    @Kat – I haven’t read it of course (although it’s on my TBR, I’m not sure if I will or not) but I gather that the story is to be told over a number of books.  Mandi at Smexy Books reviewed it (she loved it) and said it was not a traditional romance and hid some spoilery things (which I clicked on of course!).  You might want to head over there and take a look.  Just because it’s non traditional doesn’t mean you won’t like it :)
     
    here’s a link:  http://smexybooks.com/2012/05/review-the-siren-by-tiffany-reisz.html

  33. Lisa Heidke

     I think what this book is proving is that you can take it, leave it, love it or loathe it…as long as it gets people talking about books and READING, that’s where this book’s genius truly lies.
     and for the record, I really liked it…and I find it truly bizarre that so many people have opinions without reading it.  
    BTW, Stephen King’s ‘On Writing’ is my bible. I don’t read his fiction because I’m not into horror and sci fi but what he has to say about craft and writing? Brilliant. And brilliance crosses genres.

  34. Decadence

    I don’t think I’ll read The Siren, but I take my hat off to anyone who does. I’ve read some spoilers (and I’m sure some of them were Mandi’s) and I have read some things that worked on the page, but when I think about what actually happened, it shouldn’t have worked, such as a scene from Anne Rice’s Beauty trilogy. So I’ve heard that people have enjoyed the book even though it included things they didn’t like at all. Even though I’ve experienced that kind of strange phenomenon with other books, since I know from the spoilers what I’d be getting into, I definitely want to give it a pass. Having said that, I wouldn’t criticise someone who liked it.
     
    The Beauty trilogy has a HEA, but it’s not really a romance. Beauty is awakened and claimed by the Crown Prince and humiliated for most of the first book. She never chose him and later admitted that he didn’t interest her much, but she’d still had sex with and submitted to him, which isn’t the most romantic thing written. Throughout the series, Beauty, Tristan and Laurent have sex with each other, multiple partners, same sex partners, objects and strangers. There was a scene with a cat (and this is not a euphemism, I mean an actual feline), so FSoG would not prepare readers for the content of this series.
     
    I saw a film version of The Story of O and, when I was 15 I read The Story of R, which is F/m, rather than M/f. Even though both stories seemed to end happily enough, what I objected to was that the submissives (O in particular) had little say in anything at the beginning. From memory she went to this club with a young man (who I’m assuming she was attracted to) and was given to an old man she never chose and ordered to please him. That makes me feel squicky. But I guess that’s OK because it’s literature.
     
    The BDSM in FSoG is definitely on the light side because Christian was trying to seduce the untried Ana into his lifestyle, so he watered it down with a lot of vanilla, especially in the later books, when a relationship with Ana was more important than causing her pain. His Red Room of Pain had canes and whips that Ana decided were a hard limit, so he got rid of them but kept toys he thought she’d enjoy. This is part of why I don’t like to say if something should count as BDSM, because it’s a matter of degrees. There was a power exchange between them and that enhanced their romantic relationship, so it worked for me. She was in charge in so many ways, but she didn’t try to top from the bottom.

  35. Kat (author)

    Kaetrin — Thanks for the link. Definitely not romance, although if the series ends on a happy note, my personal definition of romance is broader than the genre’s. I’ve also been led to believe that while the Fifty Shades trilogy ends happily, the first book doesn’t quite get there. But still, from Mandi’s review it sounds like The Siren is probably too different from FSoG to put it on the recommended reading list! I need more spoilers before I’d decide to pick the book up (or not).

  36. Kat (author)

    Decadence — I haven’t read the Rice books, but based on what I know of her and her writing, I had my doubts about them being close enough to FSoG to make the list. But I think the BDB would do. Paranormal romance goes very well with FSoG, I think. (Perhaps for obvious reasons.)

    I’ve read some pretty bad BDSM (one of my pet peeves with romantic erotica, as you may know, which is why I’m very tentative about trying new authors in that subgenre), and the thing that gets me with literary erotica is the indulgence with which darkener emotions are treated. With bad porn, there’s at least that recognition that it’s there for titillation and nothing else. I can read it as a fantasy and leave it at that. With bad romance, there’s at least some reassurance in the attempt to show how it makes the protagonists happy. In the absence of any of these mitigating factors, I really find it very challenging to read scenes of humiliation and reluctance/non-consent.

    That said, well-written BDSM in the context of a romance can be such a gem. 

  37. Jennifer Stevenson

    Kat, I’m interested in working in this genre, but I need to get caught up with recent developments, i.e. written by women.  All the erotica I read in my earlier years was written by men.  Can you name four or five authors you feel are doing it ‘right’? I prefer plottier, character-based erotica to the episodic style.
     
    In “The Bearskin Rug” I had my sex demon disappear into a bearskin rug being used as a prop in a women’s porn production company, where he gets a formal education in sex work.  (He’s been an informally-educated sex worker for 200 years.)  The heroine rescues him from emprisonment in the bearskin rug (he has to give her an orgasm to be freed) and he satisfies her by acting out *her fantasy* of being in a porn movie.  Which he tells her later is not much like the real thing.  It was my feeble attempt to address what I’ve learned from sex workers about their work, and the disconnect between that and the “nice girl’s fantasy” of what sex work could be, for better or for worse.
     
    I have no idea how well or poorly I pulled that off.  I’d like to know.  And I need exposure to “the good stuff”–the stuff I’d like anyway.  (Bearing in mind our foregoing discussion of the reader’s entry into the work being very personal ; )

  38. Jennifer Stevenson

    And I’m interested to hear what you say about the “darker emotions.”  I’ve also been disturbed with the light-hearted way romance heroines seem to accept being virtually kidnapped and enslaved, not because a normal woman would tolerate this in reality, but because the romance genre is supposed to deliver a pleasurable fantasy and the author is taking short-cuts, by claiming the heroine likes it when it sure doesn’t look like fun to me.

  39. Shannon

    Oi! I’ve had more discussions (really personal, intimate, sometimes TMI discussions!) on this book. I’ve started reading the first installment, and my views of the book aside, I think you’ve very much hit the nail on the head with regard to the literati not ‘getting’ the concept of an erotic romance (NB: not mommy porn, erotic ROMANCE). I would have thought in this day and age we’d get past the sniggering and name-calling, but, well, small minds…

    I think that regardless of the perceived quality of the novels, the fact that it’s created so much dialogue on the subject of the story itself, of the sub-genre as a whole (OMG, yes, there is a whole sub-genre, not just this one book!) has to be a good thing.

    As far as my reading recommendations go – BDSM can be such a hit and miss (no pun intended). Erotic romance – well, there are some really fantastic Aussie erotic romance authors out there; Denise Rossetti and Lexxie Couper, for example. For dramatic romance, love an Anna Campbell novel, and for really strong alpha heroes and their challenging yet innocent (not necessarily virgin) heroines, Annie West comes to mind – oh, and one of my all time absolute rock-solid angsty conflict-ridden dramatic romance authors has to be Sarah Mayberry. But that’s just me… and none of them are in the “If you like 50 Shades…” category!    

  40. Jennifer Stevenson

    Well I just went over to Amazon and read the sample and I didn’t think the writing was clunky at all!  It wasn’t what romance readers call “smooth” but I would call it “tight”.  A lot of romance fiction, down in the belly of the beast (not out on the fringes with my favorites Evanovich, Crusie, Kinsale, Carla Kelly, Heyer, Beverly) is what I call “clunky” and romance readers call “smooth”–full of explanations of how everyone feels all the time, in fact, full of explanations of everything, and diversions into backstory just when you want them to get down to business.
     
    I’m gonna buy this book.  If it pays off, the trilogy.  Thank goodness for this blog post and thread!  I’d have missed out on someone whose style and voice pleases me a lot.

  41. Meagan

    I have just finished reading the Fifty Shades trilogy and enjoyed it!Yes,I agree the writing is clumsy and the books could have been edited a lot more carefully but I still got caught up in the story especially in regards to Christian’s motivations and his lifestyle choice.
      So what if women are buying it for the salacious bondage scenes?Women shouldn’t feel guilty about enjoying erotica or having to justify why they are reading it. I like erotica:)
    I have previously read erotica by Linda Jaivin(eg.Eat Me) -I think she is Australian from memory. Have read some others…
    Enjoy it for what it is or read something else!  

  42. Nicola O.

    I read the first 2 50 shades books; I’ve read Story of O and the Beauty trilogy and Exit to Eden and The Siren.
    I’m baffled by people who call 50 Shades a BDSM novel – it isn’t.  The hero fancies himself a Dom but Ana “cures” him.  She’s open-minded enough to try things his way, but doesn’t like it and pretty much declines 99% of it after that.  Furthermore, she becomes his therapist, approaches the woman who brought him into the lifestyle and denounces her publicly, and lo, they live happily ever after.  (well, technically, they don’t start living happily ever after until the 2nd book.  The first does not actually have an HEA.)
    The Story of O. is an entirely different beast.  I can’t even describe it, but horror – psychological and erotic horror- probably works best.  Tiffany Reisz called it a woman’s fever dream on a GoodReads thread, and yeah, that.  Similarly, sort of, the Beauty trilogy is utter high fantasy, in a fairy-tale land.  It’s about total immersion in sexual and sensual BDSM hedonism.  Definitely not a romance.
    I liked The Siren a lot, but it also isn’t a romance.
     
    Jennifer Stevenson asked, “Somebody, please add what literary readers want, besides having their intelligence flattered?” – I think Jayne Ann Krentz had a fantastic answer for that in <a href=http://www.krentz-quick.com/bgspeech.html>this speech</a>, where she says among other fabulous things, “The literary genre, on the other hand, tends to focus on an intimate examination of characters who are victims, either of their own flaws or their dysfunctional childhoods. It dissects and explores in often painful detail neuroses, psychoses, obsessions, depression, sexual dysfunction and other frequently destructive aspects of the human condition….Literary fiction, on the other hand, does not concern itself with seeking positive resolutions to these problems. It does not usually take that as its task. The job of modern literary fiction is to illuminate and examine these things, not to resolve them or to affirm the possibility of triumph over them. That is the primary reason why a happy ending is so darn rare in literary fiction.”

  43. Nicola O.

    eeek, sorry about the formatting above.  I really blew that..
     

  44. Jennifer Stevenson

    Nicola, thanks for the Krentz quote.  She really nails it. 

  45. Lisa Walker

    great post and comments

  46. Kat (author)

    Jennifer — For great character arcs, I’d recommend Megan Hart. For great psychological exploration of BDSM, I’d recommend Joey Hill (although I find her vampire series so disturbing I can’t read them). They are not, however, always strictly within the romance genre.

    With darker emotions, the writing has a significant impact on my reaction. If I feel it’s mostly fantasy, I tend to be able to ignore short cuts to an extent. I generally don’t like humiliation and non-consent, though, especially if I feel there’s no reason/redemption/pleasure involved and particularly if the power dynamics don’t feel balanced. If I feel that the story is character-driven, then I need to be able to understand why the characters are doing/accepting what they do. In this case, I can accept practices I wouldn’t find entertaining in a fantasy, as long as the author can get me to empathise with the characters.

    Please do let me know how you go with Fifty Shades. I’m interested to know what you think of it.

    Shannon — We do have quite a few successful erotic romance authors in Australia. It’s a shame they’re not being mentioned when the media and publishing folk talk about Fifty Shades.

    Meagan — Do you think readers who love Fifty Shades would also like Jaivin? (I haven’t read Jaivin.) I find that BDSM without a happy ending pretty much wrecks me so I tend not to pick them up.

    Nicola — Thanks for the link to the Krentz speech. The part you quoted makes a lot of sense to me—and yet here we are, many years later, still debating! :-) I haven’t got past chapter 2 of the first book (not even to read the sex scenes), but It tends to bother me when BDSM is portrayed as something to be cured. I’ll have to see how I go with that!

    Lisa — Thanks. :-)

  47. lee

    the “literati” don’t care about the book. they care that THEY are NOT getting the money

  48. Jennifer Stevenson

    Lee- ouch! brutal but probably true. I can’t point that finger solely at the literati, however.  I find that anyone who breaks out of the squalor at the bottom of the indie barrel and becomes wildly successful is immediately the target of a lot of abusive criticism; skeptics who are sure they have employed crack somehow to get ahead; belittling comments about the quality of the writing… yup, it’s all here.
    I can’t remember which is which–is envy the one where one wishes one were that person, and jealousy the one where one feels convinced that that person stole something that was rightfully one’s just dessert? Or t’other way around?
    I’ve found in my career that a healthy envy (per above) spurs me on to work harder.  The jealousy thing is just dumb.

  49. Kat (author)

    Lee — I think that’s true to an extent, but I also believe there are genuine book lovers who are a little appalled that FSoG has done so well. I mean, I’ve read the beginning of the book and I can’t say I blame them. I not disputing that there’s better quality writing out there. I’m just saying that I don’t think they can tap into the popularity of FSoG without understanding why people love it—and it’s not because of quality writing.

    Jennifer — It might just be in genre, though, and specifically in genres dominated by female readers. When it happens in non-fiction, for example, I don’t think you get the same level of mockery. Even in sff, when Christopher Paolini hit it big with Eragon, IIRC there was much more said around what an achievement it was for him rather than the quality of the writing.

  50. Kat (author)

    Just adding this from an AAR thread by a commenter, Diana:

    So about those recs from readers who liked the 50 books…I think a big part of the appeal is the powerful, dominant man who falls hard. In that vein, I recommend:

    Shannon McKenna — Behind Closed Doors
    Linda Howard — Dream Man, Kill and Tell, All the Queen’s Men, Diamond Bay, The Mackenzies
    Sarah McCarty — Promises Linger, Caine’s Reckoning 
    Lisa Marie Rice — Midnight Man. Actually all of her books.
     

    There are a few more recs by other commenters for those who are looking for follow-on reads to FSoG.

  51. Kaetrin

    Pretty much all the Shannon McKenna’s actually!  She writes OTT suspense and uber-alpha males who zero in on their heroine and have the stamina of teenagers and the creativity of a… really creative person.  :)  They’re my crack actually.

  52. Woolly

    I still don’t get the appeal of the books… Does that make me a literati? :-)
     

  53. Kat (author)

    Woolly — I’m not saying it has to appeal to you, but if you were to attempt to write an ‘if you like FSoG then you might like…’ list, it would be a good idea to know why it appeals to others (which is what I was really whingeing about — recommendations of erotica that I don’t think would appeal to readers who love FSoG). That said, I’m struggling to get through chapter 2 of FSoG!

  54. Jane of the Jungle

    There is absolutely nothing wrong with Meanjin’s post on the subject, which is basically only pointing out that erotica written by women is nothing new. That you feel attacked by it is as hilarious as it is pathetic. That you then characterise anyone who has a different opinion to yours as “ignorant” says an awful lot about you, but it’s hard to what it does say seriously.

  55. Kat (author)

    Jane of the Jungle — There’s a lot wrong about Meanjin’s post, starting with its snooty attitude towards readers of Fifty Shades of Grey. It actually is possible to talk about erotica without putting down readers of other genres or book you don’t happen to like. I love Krissy Kneen but there’s no way I’d recommend her books, without context, to readers who love FSoG. The audience is just not the same, and I’m pretty disappointed that a blog attached to a literary magazine doesn’t recognise that.

    For the record, I didn’t feel attacked by Meanjin’s post. I was frustrated by it because there wasn’t even an attempt to understand why people love FSoG so much. And nowhere in my post do I call people who disagree with me as ignorant. The fact that you interpreted it that way and then quoted me as writing something I didn’t makes me wonder if you actually read the post.

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