Monday, November 12, 2012
Yep. I read it.
I have a series of reactions to Fifty Shades of Grey:
1) This book is popular.
I mean, really, really popular. It is bigger than Harry Potter popular in the UK, it was responsible for 20% of all book sales in the spring, it sold 25 million copies in 4 months; by contrast, it took the Stieg Larsson Millennium trilogy four years to sell 20 million copies.
Pop. U. Lar.
2) I called it. (Well, sort of.)
I've long maintained that although the e-book era favors people with existing audiences, freakish unexpected hits would come out of nowhere, including from authors without a major platform at all. Much like viral videos.
And make no mistake: This book came out of nowhere. It started as Twilight fanfiction, then was released as an e-book and POD paperback by Writers' Coffee Shop in Australia. From there it managed to attract so much word-of-mouth attention and sales it was acquired for a rumored near-million dollars by Vintage Books, part of Random House, and has gone on to aforementioned further massive success.
The publishing industry did not see this one coming. I think it's safe to say that virtually no one did. Even five years ago it's hard to see how this book would have rocketed to such success so quickly, if would have found its way to publication at all (I'm guessing it wouldn't have).
But note that Fifty Shades of Grey needed a publisher to get truly big. Publishers may not have seen it coming, but they caught up to it very quickly. I wouldn't use this as an opportunity to sneer at publishers. The industry's role as gatekeeper is changing quickly, it's likely evidence that they were missing books like this in the past and cared too much about writing quality, but they're still making money on this hand over fist.
3) It's not as bad people say it is
Given the howls have accompanied this book's success and the snarky takedowns, I was really expecting drivel.
It's not drivel. It's not Shakespeare, but from a prose perspective I would call it competently written.
Yes, there are writerly tics, yes there are elements that are implausible, yes yes OMG a helicopter called Charlie Tango, more on all that in a minute. But the end of the world for books this is not.
I've read worse.
4) That said...
I'm not exactly an expert, but I can see why some people have wondered aloud if this is one step back for feminism. Much of the book hinges on very confused 21-year-old virginal Anastasia, seemingly plucked straight out of the 1950s, wondering whether this 27-year-old experienced, troubled-but-heart-of-gold self-made billionaire industrialist likes her no I mean really likes her no I mean really really really likes her.
Their times apart consist mainly of Anastasia confusedly spurning the advances of other men who are interested in her, talking herself out of the notion that Christian Grey no I mean really likes her, and finding new reasons to feel jealous about his past, aided and impeded by both her subconscious and inner goddess (separate voices!), who alternately scold her and high five her for her adventurousness. Anastasia has few thoughts, feelings, emotions, or ambitions regarding anything other than how much Christian Grey actually truly no I mean really likes her and whether she can abide by the terms of the written contract and tortured legalese (in more ways than one) that governs their relationship.
Christian Grey is the type of person who will scare Anastasia to death then introduce her to his mom, leave her bruised and then soulfully play the piano, all the while being so stricken by his attraction for Anastasia (including, it can't be said enough times, the way she bites her lower lip) that he is willing to break all sorts of previously unbendable rules, such as being affectionate and sleeping in the same bed as her until, spoiler, whiting this part out, select it with your cursor if you want to read this: she concludes after a savage spanking that much as the great Meat Loaf sang, she would do anything for love but she won't do that.
Well. At least pending the sequels.
This, ladies and gentlemen, is one of the very most popular books of all time.
5) So, um, why is it so popular?
Needless to say, I am not exactly the target audience for this book.
But even I can see how Fifty Shades of Grey fits neatly into a very old archetype that continues to resonate in our culture. The aloof, successful, mysterious, wildly attractive rogue who shows interest in a woman despite her initial resistance and even after that man warns the woman about himself: It's not a new story. You can trace that archetype from Jane Eyre to Pride and Prejudice to Twilight to Fifty Shades of Grey and countless other iterations. It's a new spin on a very old trope: romantic entanglement with a Byronic hero.
I also don't think it's only women who are prone to stories of an ardent and attractive suitor arriving to shake up their life, as the manic pixie dream girl movie genre can attest. Many heterosexual guys seemingly want a hot girl to come along and take care of everything as well, preferably when she's played by Natalie Portman or Zooey Deschanel.
Fifty Shades of Grey may not break new ground, but surely it benefited from being released in the Kindle/iPad era (where onlookers can't easily see/judge what you're reading), it gave an urbane veneer to a romance genre that very often skews rural/suburban, and if you'll excuse the metaphor, Twilight may well have primed the pump for a book that maintains the same archetypal romantic dynamic while allowing its protagonists to consummate their relationship.
Why now? Maybe as we sprint toward chartering new gender and relationship dynamics with more sensitive guys and greater equality there's some appetite to escape into a story with a less complicated and familiar throwback to a dominant man and submissive woman. Maybe we've become such a sexually open society people were ready for the needle of mainstream edginess to be moved a little farther over. Maybe Christian Grey and his dorkily named helicopter are just that hot.
Maybe, at the end of the day, bestsellers are largely random.
What do you think? What has made Fifty Shades of Grey such a phenomenon?