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:
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.
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.
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