Nathan Bransford, Author

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Why You Think Fifty Shades of Grey is So Popular

There were lots of great comments about Fifty Shades of Grey yesterday! I thought it would be cool to round some of them up into a separate post to show what you, the people think of the book that is more popular than pretty much anything ever.

First, about that helicopter, which I alleged was rather dorkily named:

Diane writes:
I didn't manage to read past the first 2 chapters which were offered as a the free preview on my Kobo... But as my father was a pilot, your mention of the helicopter name makes absolute sense to me. Charlie Tango is the radio call signal so the helicopter would be CT followed by a number. My father's plane was Charlie Whiskey Foxtrot. Unlike ships and boats, flying beasts don't often get called romantic names.
Okay, fair enough. I still maintain that using the words "Charlie Tango" outside of the singular and solely utilitarian purpose of communicating with air traffic control is grounds for laughter.

Josin L. McQuein weighed on on how the book didn't exactly come out of nowhere:
It didn't come out of nowhere. It didn't come out of close to nowhere. 
The original fanfictions were so popular and had so many fans that they organized their own fan event and flew her from the UK to the US to attend. When the books went on sale, that fanbase responded in droves. The sudden spike by someone who had never had a novel for sale before caught the attention of Amazon's algorithms. The original fans shared the book with their friends who snapped up every hard copy they could find and happily downloaded the e-version for clandestine reading. They got to feel like they were doing something "naughty" (oh, how I hate that word when applied to adults in a serious manner...) 
ELJames has basically the same story as every other success with a built-in fanbase. She gave those who already knew her what they expected and wanted, and in turn those people supported the writer they enjoy. They spread the word to people who likely had never heard of fanfiction, or might have hated Twilight, but might enjoy 50SoG.
As popular as fanfiction may be... I still maintain that is basically out of nowhere. It's certainly not out of a framework that could have propelled an all-but-self-published novel to massive bestsellerdom even five years ago.

Lots of people mentioned how iconic and important the cover is, which I totally agree with. Anne R. Allen sums it up:
I don't think we should ignore the brilliance of the cover design, which has changed the covers of erotica books forever. That understated symbol of male power, the simple necktie--in subtle shades of gray instead of screaming pink flesh tones--made the book LOOK respectable. It also appealed to what really turns women on, which is power, not little Magic Mike outfits. This cover made it clear this was erotica for women that understood women's fantasies.
Two Flights Down has a long but totally-worth-reading comparison to another book that was edgy for its time, Pamela, which was published in 1740:
Maybe I'm way off, but I am seeing a huge correlation between Samuel Richardson's Pamela or Virtue Rewarded and Fifty Shades of Gray . Pamela was written in 1740 and some credit it as being the first English novel. It started as a sort of sermon about young women becoming too bold and the importance of innocence. Richardson was looking for a unique way to reach young people, and thus Pamela is born.
Take a look at Richardson's title: Pamela or Virtue Rewarded . With the view, by some, that fiction was just lies, and therefore not a good read for intellectuals, the title serves to do two things: 1. There's a story, and 2. There's a lesson to be learned. The lesson gives the story its purpose. 
Fifty Shades of Gray does this, as well. As others have pointed out (and so I won't go into more detail), the title and cover give the impression that there is something more behind these characters than dirty sex. There's a lesson to be learned here. It justifies us in indulging in "mommy porn," as some call it. 
In Pamela, the heroine is an innocent young woman who follows the rules and faithfully fulfills her roles. She is a maidservant. Mr. B is the rich man with power who becomes taken by Pamela. As he learns more about her, he falls for her because of her innocence. However, she resists him because she represents all that is moral and good. Mr. B kidnaps her, tries to seduce her, tries to rape her, etc. In the end, her virtue wins out, they fall in love, and he marries her. 
I know Fifty Shades doesn't follow this plot exactly, but there is a correlation here, I think, between what these plots are trying to tell us. The idea that a "pure" young lady can change the rich and powerful (not to mention, sex-hungry) man, seemingly gives the female power over the male. It gives young women a sense of control, and also unity when they discuss the book together. 
Both books have scandalous scenes (though neither, the dirtiest of their time), but our indulgence in wild and violent sex is validated by the fact that there is a moral in the end. Because these women have avoided the advances of past men, they must somehow be above the "fallen" women. The men who star in these novels see them as different and desirable because they, themselves, don't want to be seen in that way.  
I think it a good point to note, too, that Richardson changed Pamela's writings in later editions of the book, because her speech was too low-class. In order to make the union between her and Mr. B more acceptable to society, she had to appear more intelligent.
I think we see the same thing with Fifty Shades. In order to make it more compatible with current views on feminism, the woman can't simply conform to purity and innocence. She has to be independent, career-oriented, and intelligent.  
So, we have some dirty, violent sex scenes in both books that would be viewed as extremely anti-woman, except that the ideal woman who is intelligent and doesn't succumb to pressures of society is the one engaging in these acts. Suddenly, the sex isn't so taboo. We can happily read these books by the pool because our desires to indulge in violent sex and be persuaded with mental abuse--our desire to be overpowered--is validated by a woman we can look up to with pride (one that is intelligent and thinks for herself). 
The danger I see here, is that both stories are unrealistic. No way in 1740 would a man as powerful as Mr. B marry someone of Pamela's status--no matter how innocent she was. As others have pointed out, how likely is it that a deep and fulfilling relationship could develop out out someone trying to change the other person? How likely is it that a young woman, even with all her intelligence, could change a powerful, rich man of his ways?  
I also think that both books present the problem of perpetuating the idea that woman want to be overpowered. Even the intelligent ones.
Anonymous speaks to the randomness factor:
My answer is d) Bestsellers are largely random. 
Everyone I know who has read it has done so because "everyone is reading it." None of my friends have admitted to liking it, but they all sought it out in the first place because of the peer pressure. There's a social component to bestsellerdom: once a book reaches the tipping point, everyone else reads it to see what the others are talking about. I saw this happen with The Da Vinci Code, too. 
How does a book build to that tipping point in the first place? I'm not sure anyone really knows. Whatever 50 Shades has in terms of romantic and erotic elements, there are other books that have it too, but never sell as widely. Perhaps the fan base that others mentioned was critical in building the initial buzz.

I don't think it's anything new to publishing to have these huge sensations, to have a book that's The It Book. But because that can't be forced, and that kind of success can't be manufactured, writers and publishers just keep working at it, chasing the dream and hoping that the lightning strikes.
A lot of people questioned whether selling a lot of copies means quite the same thing as popular. Karen Cantwell writes:
I venture a guess that this is a case of people purchasing the book because of the hype, but not necessarily finding it to be their cup of tea. Harry Potter has 5951 customer reviews on Amazon, with an overall rating of 4.7 out of 5, while Fifty Shades has 13,840 reviews with an overall rating of 3.2. My quick analysis of those statistics tell me that people are obviously snatching it up left and right, not necessarily enjoying it. I've talked to many people who have bought/read the book and I have yet to meet one who thought it was a decent story and many didn't get past the first few chapters. So - POPULAR? I'd say a better word is notorious. I believe people are buying the book to see what the fuss is about and why people like us keep talking about it.
And over on Facebook, Lee Prewitt had a succinct reaction:
People like McDonalds


Matthew MacNish said...

McDonald's? Hah! That does sum it up rather nicely, doesn't it.

Anonymous said...

I'll admit I have only read an excerpt, but being given a rundown of the plot by several friends, it strikes me as the classic 70s Harlequin novel (of which I read many, because my mother had them), plus bondage. You know--the good, innocent virgin pursued by the powerful tycoon who just won't take no for an answer. (As an adult, I've re-read some of those 70s Harlequins and there's a lot of date rape going on.)

In fact, there are now pretty explict Harlequin novels, although I don't *think* (not being an expert) that they have ventured into S&M. Not sure why this one took off over all the other romance novels.

Anonymous said...

"People like McDonalds."

- a sentiment fit for needlepointing on a silk pillow.

Love it.

Josin L. McQuein said...

Oh, I agree that the fanfiction isn't what made it a sensation. There are tons of hugely popular novel-length fanfictions written by hugely popular fanficcers that never make a blip on the commercial side of things. (Cassie Claire being the only other case I can think of, and even her success isn't near what James has had.)

The "secret" of the sensation behind the novel is a perfect storm made of platform, timing, buzz, and probably a dozen other factors we'll never know the extent of. And that's the truth of ANY sort of sudden mega-hit, whether it's a book, the hot Christmas toy, or anything else.

People want what they want, and there's not always a definitive reason why they want it.

dawnpier said...

Succinct is good. "People like McDonalds." Perfect.

Anonymous said...

I think it's about the "buzz." When the women on the Upper East Side started talking about it, that's when it took off in the mainstream.

I knew about the book before it went mainstream, and I also know that it wasn't reviewed well or even respected in most romance circles, or BDSM erotica circles. There's this unspoken rule that fanfic should not be written for profit...which is basically what 50 Shades is: fanfic. But the moment word started to spread with the Upper East Side crowd, the book took off. And they don't know fanfic from fanbelts.

I've also read that even though the sales have been great, e-books have been tracked and most people who bought it and started it did not finish it. How they track these things I don't know. But they have ways.

Elissa M said...

I'm in the crowd that loves Lee Prewitt's observation about McDonalds.

The thing about smash hits of any sort is they appeal to the least common denominator. McDonalds and 50 Shades both fit that category.

D.G. Hudson said...

I like that quote. Some readers just want to read what everyone else is reading. They troll the bestsellers lists.

50SofG certainly is front and center in bookstores, because the cover 'looks ok'. That cover to me screams chicklit or romance, not power and certainly not class.

NOT on my TBR list.

Anonymous said...

Two flights down has a very good analysis but is missing a point. The books are not about about a woman being overpowered but about her slowly turning the table on her oppressor. Hooking him with sex his way, to get him to do things her way. Still a loosing proposition in real life, but quite another scenario from what a cursory look would suggest.
Also, she peels the shell of a strong man to find the shivering little boy inside. She accomplishes that by tormenting him with his own desire for her, making her feel desired and powerful, and in the end she fixes what is wrong with him, emasculating him and remaking him in her image so he becomes a good father and husband and has sex her way.
That is the ultimate feminine fantasy, the reason why the book sells like hot cakes. And because controlling him is an iffy, twisted behavior, the author justifies everything by putting the guy in the wrong from the beginning: she is pure and altruistic, he is evil and kinky and sadistic, of course he deserved his fate. And evidently she is right and he is so much happier when he starts seeing things her way.
Now just add sex and dip it in chocolate.
Sorry, did I come across as twisted and cynic? Well, my husband says that when he does things my way he always ends up happier. So there.

Anonymous said...

People love McDonalds! :D haha You wouldn't believe how many times that company comes up in our college-level American History course during discussions on more noble themes from De Toqueville and Jefferson. ;D

It's a corporation that's become a nifty way to sum up American society! :D

Sarah (saz101) said...

" Okay, fair enough. I still maintain that using the words "Charlie Tango" outside of the singular and solely utilitarian purpose of communicating with air traffic control is grounds for laughter."

Ahaha! OK, I kind of agree, but my husband's a private pilot and works for a major airline, and this is legitimately how they refer to aircraft. Even outside of communicating with air traffic control, the airline/'Operation' (this is what they call they the day-to-day workings of the airline. "The Operation".) there's a lot of radio work. It's how baggage handlers talk with people co-ordination planes getting to gates, and how everyone in the airport talkes. They use the phonetic alphabet for the same reason we use punctuation in prose -- clarity. And... then I think it becomes habit. And sticks.

Husbandman refers to aircraft like they're people with STRANGE names, even outside of work ;D

Susan L. Lipson said...

People like McDonald's, yes. One would have to tie this reader to a chair and whip her to get her to eat a Big Mac, though. (:

Anonymous said...

Interesting how so many writers impugn the readers. It's McDonalds. It's the "lowest common denominator." Ergo, the readers have no taste.

Sounds like sour grapes. "I can't write a best-seller because I refuse to write trash for stupid readers."

I suspect the book has sold so well for some of the reasons listed, but also because it is full of inner drama, the inner struggle toward transformation and wholeness. One could argue that it's "fifty shades of character arc" when it comes to Mr. Grey.

Tiffany N. York said...

There are only two reasons why the success of this book irritates me. The first is due to the fact that young girls who otherwise wouldn't pick this up have devoured it, and now want to find a Christian Grey of their own.

It's no secret that romances with domineering, bordering on abusive alpha males have been around for years. But these books are usually read by adults who know that it's fantasy.

When you're young, you don't realize yet that f**ked-up men don't change, they simply drag you down with them. So if these young, impressionable girls are believing and hoping for the fantasy that is FSoG, they are in for a load of heartache.

The second reason why this book irritates is that had I written it without a fan base already in place, I'd soon be able to wallpaper the entire inside of my house with rejection slips. It wasn't held to the same standards required from other writers, and that really stinks, in my opinion. As a writer, I try to avoid cliches, and repetitive phrases. I try to flesh out my characters, and have my plots make sense. The fact that FSoG does not succeed at this feels like the equivalent of me not getting the job just because I'm 50 pounds heavier than the less qualified, but slimmer woman who did.

Two Flights Down said...

I totally agree with Anon that both books are the female transforming the male figure. This seemingly gives the females of both novels power. However, my argument is that this sort of power is an illusion. In the end, they still succumb to the desires of the men, but it is justified because of this "transformation." The male still holds some sort of power over her. She wants to run--but she returns.

At the end of Pamela another servant of Mr. B apologizes to Pamela for having aided Mr. B in his attempt to rape her. Pamela quickly forgives her with a line that went something like, "You were following the will of the one, that I, now, must also follow." I don't remember how it went exactly, but it is something along those lines.

I know Fifty Shades isn't going to have such a direct quote as this, because, like I said earlier, it would be too "anti-woman" for today's society. I do think, however, that Anastasia also gives up power to be with Christian Grey. She molds him into the ideal man in which she can give her will to, but she is still giving him her will.

I like your analysis, though, of the woman actually be the manipulative one, and that it is validated by the fact she is a pure virgin and he was a messed up man. I'm intrigued by this notion, "he deserves it."

Given the woman is giving up her power to this dominate figure, and the dominate figure must transform into a match that is agreeable by the female's standards, both relationships from these two books would, in real life, be doomed.

Two Flights Down said...

Tiffany N. York--

I wonder sometimes about the last part of your comment. When starting from scratch, writers go to great lengths to develop their characters.

In fanfiction, most of the character development is done.

Stephanie Meyers seems okay with this, but what about authors that would be offended by someone stealing their characters and just renaming them? There have been fanfics pulled from popular fanfiction sites because the author of the original series requested that their characters be left alone. What if authors began pursuing this further because people are now making money from their characters--like taking it to court?

If I took a recorded sound from a song and put it into my own song, I would have to pay royalties, even though my song sounds nothing like the original. Could publishing one day go this way?

Perhaps this is a whole other topic, but I am curious.

Laura Benson said...

My own opinion as to why 50 Shades is popular is because it's considered taboo. However, where were these people when Jackie Collins was writing smut? Harold Robbins?

Word of mouth is a great way to get a book to sell, but when you have playground mom's talking about a guy who wants to control every aspect of a woman and wants to use her for his own sexual deviances, to them it's exciting. After a few kids, the sex life becomes non-existent, so why not live vicariously through a book that tells you want a dominant male is like (although, Christian really isn't that dominant any real dom will tell you that.)

Women are bored with boy meets girl, boy gets girl, boy loses girl, then boy overcomes something silly and boy and girl get married.

They want characters to have sex and debase each other just because it's titillating.

Why did I read FLOWERS IN THE ATTIC in 1979? It wasn't because I knew that it was about flowers in an attic! ;p

Lexa Cain said...

I read all yesterday's comments with interest and think you picked the best to highlight here.

I'm with Karen. The book's controversial topics resulted in its notoriety--like a sex scandal--rather than a typical popularity.

Sadly, I still can't understand the appeal of needy, delusional women in either Twilight or 50 Shades.

Neil Larkins said...

Lee: "People like MacDonalds"
I love it. There are geniuses among us.

Anonymous said...

Hi Nathan,

When I read your original post, I had the same thoughts as Josin. The fanbase was already there. Fanfiction has a ton of readers--especially when it's for something as big as Twilight--and they are a captive audience because of the very nature of fanfic. Most of the time new chapters are posted on a weekly basis, and the fics use characters who readers already love.

There's even a site that basically takes the most popular Twilight Fanfics and publishes them. The authors take their stories down from the Fanfic site where they were originally posted, and the followers feel like they've lost something. I mean, they've followed this story for months, possibly years. They're committed. Of course, they're upset when the stories are taken down. Then they tell the old followers, "Hey, you can now purchase the previously free book here for just $4.99," and people snatch it up. New character names (like 50 Shades), but the same character quirks and plot, and now the authors ARE making money off of their fanfic.

Nothing unethical about that…right?

Hope you have a great one,

The Only Woman in the World Who Hasn't Read 50 Shades of Grey

Guilie said...

"People like McDonald's"--haha. Perfect summation, for me, of this whole 50 Shades thing. I read the sample on Amazon, couldn't get past Ch. 1. it's a free world, and everyone is free to read--and eat--whatever they think best nourishes either their health (intellect) or a guilty pleasure.

Vero said...

People watch the Jersey Shore too, that doesn't mean it's a brilliant show.

furrykef said...

Someone up above said:

The thing about smash hits of any sort is they appeal to the least common denominator. McDonalds and 50 Shades both fit that category.

While that's technically true, I feel I should point out that sometimes the least common denominator does have good taste. What about Jurassic Park, for instance? Excellent book, excellent movie, every bit deserving of its reputation. Sure, Crichton played a little loose with facts for the sake of the plot, I don't really agree with the allegory, and I don't like Michael Crichton as a person. But the way he tells the story is so damn good that all that stuff doesn't matter. (Contrast with Dan Brown, whose liberties with reality are just painful.) I checked it out at the library as a kid and I pretty much devoured it in a day. A few years ago I checked it out again and I devoured it in a day again. Hell, I'm sure I've got more re-reads in the future, and that's not something I can say for very many books at all.

So while "least common denominator" is often used as a pejorative, I'm not sure it should be. Then again, maybe it's just a matter of a stopped clock being right twice a day.

(In case you're wondering: I have no opinion on 50 Shades. I haven't read it, and I'm not going to.)

Dex Kerma said...

Seems to have been a case of 'pushing the envelope' and reader curiosity. It also stirred a lot of controversy and debate, (like this one) which I suppose helped the runaway snowball effect. We should all be so lucky. ;-)

Anonymous said...

Anonymous said...
"Interesting how so many writers impugn the readers. It's McDonalds. It's the "lowest common denominator." Ergo, the readers have no taste.

Sounds like sour grapes. "I can't write a best-seller because I refuse to write trash for stupid readers." "

THANK YOU, one anon to another. Saved me some time. Now I can get back to writing for a living instead of slagging off other writers (and leave that to the hobbyists).

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