Welcome to the mainstream, kinky romances! Image source: Public Disgrace.com.
I didn't like Fifty Shades of Grey as a read. Not because it was badly written, it struck me as well written in many respects. I didn't like it because it was a romance, and I generally don't like romances. Too much characterization and plot development, not enough sex. I'm a guy, what can I say?
I was pleased, however, that the kinky sex was quite kinky, I had feared that the kink would be watered-down stuff ... you know, blindfolds and eating strawberries off the tummy, etc., ... the old 9 1/2 Weeks treatment. But it was not. Cuffs, chains, gags and ben wa balls, oh my! Also, the characters really loved and enjoyed their kinky sex, and James did a great job of portraying that, something she did not get much credit for, among other things.
Also, I don't read a lot of kinky fiction, since I write kinky fiction, thus, reading other people's kinky fiction is a busman's holiday kind of thing.
That's why I read the book, not recreationally, but because I realized it was an IMPORTANT book, part of several important breaking cultural phenomena, the most important of which was the more widespread acceptance of BDSM sexual fantasies among women (“mommies") but also the rise of fanfic as an acceptable form of writing, and hopefully, the demise of traditional big publishers in favor of self-publishers and small publishers that actually serve their authors and readers' interests. (it's hilarious the way the big publishers are now trolling the Twilight fanfic community for "the next 50 Shades of Grey").
I also think much of the criticism is incredibly superficial, concentrating on minor stylistic errors ("Oh my!" and dancing inner goddesses) which bothered me not at all when I read Fifty Shades. Or they criticized Fifty Shades for having a male protagonist and a relationship which were not poster children for good BDSM practices. (HELLOOOOOOO! It's a work of FICTION! It's supposed to be DRAMATIC! If Ana and Christian's characters and relationships had been role models for BDSM, NO ONE would have read the books because they would have been TOO FRICKING DULL!!!!)
Also, the critics have left out some VERY GOOD ASPECTS of Fifty Shades of Grey in terms of social responsibility that are not present in most romances. The topic of contraception comes up early in Christian and Ana's relationship, plans are made and carried out, it's not ignored or neglected as in so many romances. There is also much emphasis on communication and trust in the relationship. Christian almost always is very careful to get Ana's explicit, enthusiastic permission for whatever high-jinks he is up to. It's something that NEVER happens in your average bodice ripper (which is OK, they're FICTION, they aren't sex eduation manuals, just as Fifty Shades of Grey is fiction) but it's nice to see it happen in Fifty Shades. The WHOLE STORY is about the way Christian and Ana build a real, trusting relationship instead of the superficial paid sub/dom contractual relationship that Christian initially offers Ana.
(Ana NEVER signs the contract in the book, you have NO IDEA how many times I've read posts by writers who inadvertently revealed themselves to be lazy, lying idiots because they say at some point that Ana signed the contract. It's a KEY point and they missed it … probably because they never read the book. Of course some admit straight up that they never read the book when they write articles dissing it, and that's all kinds of sad. Do your homework, people.)
Reading all the stupid, stupid criticisms of the book has been tough. I set up news agents to bring me articles about Fifty Shades of Grey and related topics early in 2012 (like, February or so) and I would estimate I have read well over 300 articles a month (a conservative estimate, probably more like 1000 a month in late spring and summer when the media finally caught on to the phenomenon) on the topic of Fifty Shades of Grey, and the vast majority are incredibly stupid and superficial. I realize that that's largely because big aggregator sites like the Huffington Post, Gather and the Examiner hire whatever stupid-ass word monkeys they can get to write for them for the glorious sum of … NOTHING … and the ones who DO pay, pay so little it wouldn't keep a budgie in sunflower seeds so they get intellectual mouth-breathers writing for them, too … but still, it's MADDENING to see so many thousands of displays of stupidity and butt ignorance displayed as if it were intelligent, insightful commentary, completely missing the key points about Fifty Shades time after time after time.
It's exactly like being a progressive and watching Fox News, only Fox News is everywhere and nobody knows it's Fox News. Whenever I find intelligent, insightful analysis of Fifty Shades I post it to my blog immediately because, at last, a pony under all that horse manure!
Still, I am glad I did set up those news agents and read all those articles (OK, the obviously stupid one like “who will they cast to be Christian Grey in the movie?” got no more than a glance, and they constitute the majority of the posts I've seen) because it's put me in a catbird seat to see the way the media responds to a big cultural phenomenon.
I first became aware of it via publishing sites which started taking note of this former fanfic ebook that was THE best selling ebook, selling hundreds of thousands of copies despite the fact that it had virtually no marketing muscle. Fifty Shades was beating the books that the big publishers were hawking with ALL their marketing muscle, primarily because the Twilight fandom from which it arose were completely behind it. The Obsidian Wings website still has the best coverage of this part of the phenomenon.
The early articles tended to be more intelligent and accurate and on point than what came later, mainly because they were looking at Fifty Shades as a phenomenon. One thing the early articles didn't do that later articles DID do, massively, is miss one of the KEY issues of Fifty Shades, which is that it was ALREADY an ebook bestseller when Vintage Books bought the rights to it in a fierce bidding war. THAT'S why James got a six-figure advance for the rights to the book -- they were buying a book that was already a bestseller, all they did was buy the right to print it in paperback and hardback and put their marketing muscle behind it. Publishers don't have bidding wars over books that are not sure things.
It's kind of suspicious that so many reviewers, posters and commentators missed the importance of the fanfic community in promoting Fifty Shades and making it what it was: it gives the impression that it was just another instance of the traditional publishing meme of a Wonderful Big Time Publisher giving an Unknown But Deserving Writer a shit-ton of money for being so good at what she does, when it was actually Big Time Publishing using money to muscle in on a sure thing created by Internet fandom.
Once Fifty Shades started selling in the millions, the coverage immediately got dumber. It started off with a lot of posts showing genuine bewilderment: what were all these “mommies” doing liking hardcore BDSM porn (which was how Fifty Shades was portrayed, and to be fair, it did have strong BDSM scenes and content)? There was a combination of prurient interest (“Soccer moms wearing ballgags, oh my!”) bewilderment (“Women are reading … BDSM porn? Bwuh?”) and some but not much viewing with alarm (“Women are reading porn! The sky is falling!”)
Once the book was selling in the tens of millions and showed no sign of slowing down, the viewing with alarm increased, and people started coming up with reasons why Fifty Shades is a phenomenon, most of them shallow and bogus. And people started bandwagonning furiously. Every erotic romance that any publisher bought the rights to was “The next 50 Shades” (and still is). Every poster on every blog had to call at least ONE post “Fifty Shades of (fill in the blank)” no matter how unrelated it was to the book. I mean, I think there was some kind of Internet law, or maybe a contest.
Criticism of the book cranked up, as the author's copious use of “Oh my” “inner goddess” and lip biting apparently rendered Fifty Shades unreadable for many delicate souls – but it was NEVER (well, rarely ever) the BDSM content or the romance novel elements that bothered any of them, they had NO ISSUE with those, oh, no! These delicate souls could HANDLE BDSM.
This is when viewing with alarm started happening, as many did not welcome the trend toward mommies reading BDSM porn. Religious types didn't like it because of the sex. Prudo-feminists didn't like it because maledom/femsub was not one of their approved sexual modes. And there were also the people who think that bestsellerdom is a meritocracy, so they viewed it with alarm too, because it had all those stylistic errors and it was a romance, let's face it. It's been going on since, but has never really drowned out the overwhelming message of surprise that greeted Fifty Shades and continues to be its main message: “Mommies like kinky porn!”
Plus, as the sales figures indicate, those who dislike Fifty Shades have not made any noticeable dent in its success.
Another thing that happened when the book really cranked on the mainstream media is you started to see how the media machine was working on the Web. With traditional print media the machine's work is seamless: stories get placed, planted, picked up, often in conjunction with advertising. There's never a quid pro quo, of course, but everybody who plays the game knows how the game is played. Favors get done, deals get made, the wheels of commerce spin and the big publishers, distributors, etc., get their products publicized as they like and are willing to pay … how else do you think Snooki's book got on the New York Times Top Ten bestseller list?
But the Web is different, not everybody is part of the traditional media machine, and even those that are sometimes don't behave like they are. But it was interesting to see the big aggregator sites like Huffington Post, Gather, Patch, etc., and the online versions of traditional media, picking up the stories about Fifty Shades like they were on a schedule. Or more likely, passive receivers of whatever came in on the transom, and the agents and publicists were making sure that what came in on the transom was Fifty Shades stuff.
Whereas the way independent, weird sites like Politically Sexy covered Fifty Shades was much more random, because nobody was trying to place stories (or, sigh … ads) with us.
Over time the surge of stories directly about the book Fifty Shades of Grey have lagged. They have been replaced by endless speculation about the movie, mostly who will be cast in the lead male role. (There has been speculation about who will play the lead female role as well, but I think it's fair to say that the vast majority of people who read the gossip blogs that are totally covering this story are primarily interested in the male lead.) There has also been plenty of bandwagon-jumping, and an increase in prudo-feminist and social conservative viewing with alarm.
Oh, and a huge proportion of the bondage-related scandal and crime stories that deal with female submission/enslavement have had Fifty Shades tied in with them. The most egregious: a recent story about a wealthy female banker in Britain who sued to divorce her husband because he would not give her any Fifty Shades type fun, and a women's shelter, also in Britain, which plans to recycle copies of Fifty Shades as toilet paper. (Well if you can't distinguish between consensual BDSM and domestic abuse. I can see how Fifty Shades might alarm you if you ran a women's shelter.) Basically, any story about human trafficking has a potential Fifty Slaves hook, however inappropriate, and it gets used very often.
It's obvious to me that the media buzz for Fifty Shades is being expertly milked by the publicists for whatever movie studio has the contract to make Fifty Shades, they've stretched out the casting of the leads forever. And of course there is also news of a new book being written, almost certainly new books, because as the James Bond movies show, if there's one thing those Brits know how to do, it's milk a franchise.
So I don't expect news of Fifty Shades to ever become RARE, certainly not in the next few years. Even if the movie flops, and just on general principles it probably will (see: Nine and a Half Weeks, the Gor movies and, well, everything based on a kinky book except Story of O, which was a French film) there will always be new books.
What there WON'T be, I feel confident in predicting (which generally means I am wrong) is that there will not be ANOTHER Fifty Shades of Grey. There will be other kinky erotic romances that do well in terms of sales, though probably not as well as Fifty Shades did. But there will never be another book that makes the same kind of splash that Fifty Shades did, because its success was the product of time and tides.
My theory, which is worth exactly as much as you are paying for it, is that Fifty Shades succeeded because it was a romance which featured the hot, kinky sex that most readers of the bodice-ripper species of romances have always enjoyed. However, traditional publishers like Harlequin have long acted as a brake on romances. Oh, sure, they've published “spicy” romances but there were no butt plugs, ben wa balls, ball gags or other fun stuff in them because, “Oh no, too kinky for our readers.”
Well, the readers did a student body left on the publishers and started reading ebooks which, being self-published or published by small publishers like the one who initially published Fifty Shades, were just as raunchy as they wanted to be, and what was more important, just as raunchy as their readers wanted them to be. That phenomenon cannot be repeated, though it may continue to create surprises for traditional publishers. It may be that the new model for writers will be to grow from fanfic communities and succeed on ebooks and then get bought up by traditional publishers as James did. We shall see.
But Fifty Shades will always be the book that broke the traditional publishers' stranglehold on bestsellerdom and brought BDSM relationships (as opposed to BDSM scenarios disguised as damsel in distress stories) into mainstream romances. There will never be another Fifty Shades of Grey.