Erotica Readers & Writers Association Blog

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Why Fifty Shades of Grey Matters

Vanessa Redgrave as the masochistic nun
in Ken Russell's The Devils

On the social consumption of sin as spectacle & its exploitation in the marketplace

I've run across a number of erotica writers who've said they haven't and won't be reading Fifty Shades of Grey.  In all honestly, this blows my mind. You can try to dismiss it, as many critics have, by calling it 'mommy porn'. You can deplore its writing style - lord knows, even die-hard fans don't attempt to defend the poor quality of the prose. But you can't ignore the fact that it has now sold over 20 Million copies in the US. In the UK it became the fastest selling novel of all time.

As writers, it is important for us to interrogate its success and to attempt to understand what it means for the genre, for levels of explicitness in mainstream fiction, and for the way publishers are going to inevitably behave in the light of it.

I have a theory.

Less than three years ago, some very prominent writers and agents in the publishing world told me, flatly, that there was no market for erotica. It was unsaleable. It was a niche product that held little interest for them and would tick along at its own obscure pace. You can put sex in your murder mystery, or your sci-fi novel, or your romance, they said. But a straight-up erotic novel, with sexual desire as a central theme, was simply not saleable.

But they were wrong. I think that the rising levels of explicit sexuality in film, television, and the ubiquity of porn on the web meant that there was a large mainstream audience whose tolerance for and interest in fiction with heavy erotic content had been growing for years. And it is a comment on just how out of touch mainstream publishers have been with their market that, with a very few exceptions that were associated with individual authors, they did not cotton onto it. Many, many well written erotic novels, with good character development and credible plots, came across their desks and they slush-piled them.

Along comes Fifty Shades of Grey. A novel that started off as Twilight fanfic, and gained a considerable devoted audience within that context. Its author, E.L. James, is a retired television executive who had some advantages over most erotica writers. She knew the media landscape and the concept of 'audience' very well. She understood her own work as 'marketable property'. She had a keen sense of how to pitch the work just right to convince publishers that they should reconsider their ambivalence toward erotica. But mostly, I think she had an instinctive understanding of how a mainstream public needed to find engagement with kinky sex, while providing them with a moral escape clause.

Fifty Shades of Grey does an interesting dance with the explicit. It revels in the details of the taboo of BDSM while seeming to condemn it. Like the torrid pseudo-journalistic pieces written about Tiger Woods' illicit affair, it whispers to a rather creepy corner of the mainstream psyche which has a propensity to enjoy the titillation inherent in a sin while, at the same time, censuring Mr. Woods for being such a faithless bastard.

And many, many readers love this. They can masturbate furiously to the scenes played out in the Red Room of Pain, while waiting for the heroine to cure Mr. Grey of his perversions.

 I am reminded of the masses who enjoyed the spectacle of the Salem Witch Trials or denunciations of heretics during the Spanish Inquisition. 

"She consorted lewdly with the Devil!" the inquisitor proclaims, partly for the judges but loudly enough to entertain the masses. He lovingly details the proof of her perfidy. The women gasp and feel a quiver between their thighs right before they all scream, "Burn the witch!" If you've never seen Ken Russell's "The Witches", based on the historical events of the trials of the witches in Loudun, France, in 1634, you should. He understood and then illustrated the eroticism and hypocrisy that plays out in these sorts of public discourse on morality and sin with an insight that few others have.

I don't think a large portion of mainstream society has evolved much since then. And for erotica writers, who usually situate themselves firmly in the sex-positive camp, this is very hard to comprehend. We write novels about how erotic experience and the exploration of new sexual territories helps us grow as individuals. For us, sex in a doorway. Very often our themes are about revelation, completion, redemption through experience. Not through shame or rejection or closing down our sexual options.

From the point of view of mainstream publishers, Fifty Shades of Grey is simply a very successful product. In the last year, in the editorial boardrooms in London and New York, large publishers have spent time analyzing the success of the novel and figuring out how they can get on the bandwagon.  They may not be risk-takers when it comes to new literary product anymore, but they're damn good post-game quarterbackers. The moral dynamics that underlie FSOG will not have escaped them, nor will the poor quality of the writing.

If you had hoped to produce a 'better written Fifty Shades': "Thirty Shades of Grammar" or "Eighty Shades of Character Development" or "Twenty-Six Shades of Plot", I don't think your efforts are going to be appreciated.  Publishers have proof that the vast majority of people who have bought, read and enjoyed the series simply don't care about the quality of the writing.  In fact, its very hamfistedness may play a subtextual role in convincing the reader of Anastasia's innocence and her genuine desire to cure the perverted Mr. Grey.

Of course, in the over 40 million world-wide readers, some of them will wish for and seek out better written erotica. And there will be some who are emotionally and sexually honest enough to admit the BDSM in the novel was what drew them to it and felt unaccountably let down when the heroine finally succeeds in leading Mr. Grey into the vanilla light.  It will not be a large percentage of them. And, consequently, there will be something of an upsurge in erotica sales for years to come.

But I don't believe it will be the explosion we are hoping for. I genuinely hope I'm wrong in this, but I don't think I am. Nonetheless, we may have gained a few more intrepid souls.


  1. I've also seen a number of people writing Fifty Shades of Grey off without giving it a chance and it's not something I understand. On a simple level one of the things I've heard is not so much a simple writing off but they've found the twilight connection offputting, especially when one of main reviews that shows up on Amazon makes quite a heavy reference to it.

    I've wondered too about the Mommy Porn label, but am not sure it should be allowed to develop into a derogatory term. For me although it might be used that way in some spheres, I think it too sums up some of what you write in this excellent post in that there are a wider group looking at the genre with a fresh eye and they're from a more mainstream slice of life than presumed for erotica. That's not to say that historic readers of erotica came from an odd slice of society, but society presumed that of erotica readers and Fifty Shades has forced a rethink on them. Some might say I would think that wouldn't I, but I do.

    I think you're also right about the writing. It's not a reason to write it off. I've seen and heard others debating the book and the writing argument gets shot down in flames as soon as it's raised. It's readers for the most part know what they're after. They're intellignet and savvy enough to turn the writing whatever the quality into whatever their minds need it to be

  2. RG,

    Insightful as ever.

    I've read half of the first title but I put it down after that. Life's too short for me to waste my time reading poorly written rubbish. I could be spending that time writing poorly written rubbish :-)


  3. Mommy Porn Review:

    Hello there. Thanks for your comment. As a writer, it's simply not possible for me to overlook the awful writing. I love language, and I love its deft construction in the medium of fiction. So, for me, the bad writing is every reason in the world to write it off. But you are right, readers don't have a problem with it at all. I think this speaks more to the poor level of language education and the death of good sentence construction in mainstream written media. Many of them are not extensively read enough to KNOW its poorly written.

    And what it says is that there is an ever-widening gulf between certain groups of people and it is drawn along literacy lines. But that's another topic all together.

    There are a lot of reasons why I, on a personal level and as a writer, find FSOG revolting. And its poor prose is the least of them. The worst is that it reinforces an ugly propensity for social hypocrisy, and then makes money of it.

    Ashley: Hey there. Thanks for commenting. You know, you're an academic - take a step back and examine it as a piece of social phenomena. It's interesting.

  4. Hello RG

    I agree that the mass market is not as well educated as we could wish, and so not as appreciative of our efforts to write well as we would want.

    However, I can't so easily dismiss the impact of the scramble to publish erotica by the Mainstream over the coming years. The latest is good old Mills & Boon! I see the books selling out everywhere from bookstores to my local supermarket. It may be the same prurient fascination as drove the examples you gave but it is growing the mass market for erotica.

    The crusade to enlighten and broaden minds is worthwhile and is slowly working. Sex positivism is creeping into the greater awareness, not as fast as we might wish, but at least it is. Having a stronger market overall can only financially support those writers with such an objective.

    As regards FSOG, the writing may be abysmal but it seems the story drags the reader along so that they want to know more. It may be like the married couple who fight in a restaurant, we may not want them as friends, but we are fascinated to find out what happens next. The kink is the added spice.

    If it now means our MS don't get automatically slushed for a few years, then there will be better erotica writing finding its way out there.



  5. Interesting and thought provoking stuff; I don't think I've seen the eroticism/hypocrisy angle mentioned elsewhere. Which seems odd, considering how fundamental it seems to be to the books. I say 'seems' because I haven't actually read 50 Shades myself, and don't really have plans to. Apart from anything else, I've got too much else to read!

  6. I haven't read the book, and don't intend to do any more than scan a few chapters of a borrowed copy.
    I have heard enough, good and bad, about the book to know (without parting with my money) that I don't want to read it all.
    As a reader, I hate to have to struggle through bad prose and poor grammar - this alone is enough to put me off reading ANY book regardless of genre.
    When coupled with thinly veiled (and inaccurate) moral judgements about those who indulge in BDSM, or enjoy D/s relationships, and alluding to the the notion that 'these people' can be 'cured' somehow, it seems the book does little to actually explore it's own central theme. Yawn.
    The only aspect of the book that I do want to look at is how this particular relationship begins at all. At the moment, in my head, their first bedroom scene involves a strap on, a flogger,and some Japanese bondage - and choirs of angels sing when she opens her legs for the first time - I have a feeling that when I read the book it will let me down horribly!

  7. I agree with this premise, and yet I also think you're being overly certain about the condemnation of the kink. While that's probably true for many, I think a lot of people have read it and gone, woah, this is hot! And maybe I can enjoy it too! And what a romance! Sure, they're reading without questioning but I believe they've thought little more than that. And they like it, sad as it might make Real Writers who Write Well.

    And this is why it will always sell better than the better books with more solid style and content. It's fun, it's non threatening material, it's appealing to many.

  8. Essemoh:

    Hi there. Well, I'm really glad you have a more positive outlook on it than I do. And I sincerely hope that I'm wrong and you're right!

    Oh dear... well, that's not how the relationship begins. Your version is much hotter.


    I want to point your attention to the end of my post, in which I say that SOME readers will be intrigued and turned on by the kink and have the emotional honesty not to require the ritual witch burning at the end. I took particular care not to generalize about ALL readers of FSOG.

    However, storywise, the moment of redemption in the novel is not Ana's enjoyment of the kink, but Mr. Grey's cure of his propensities. I find it very hard to see how the moral message of the tale can be overlooked. The fact that some readers aren't critical enough to consciously register it does not mean that it is not perpetuating a culture of hypocritical titillation. It is.

  9. "waiting for the heroine to cure Mr. Grey of his perversions."

    And this is what disgusts me about this whole series. As a submissive, I am offended that a book with these kind of viewpoints is allowed to exist in the mainstream. Not to mention that the BDSM elements are extremely ill-informed, and it worries me that people might actually read it and go, "Hey, maybe I'd enjoy a bit of that too."

  10. As a writer, and as a woman, I have visceral negative reactions to both 50 Shades and the Twilight books. I can't decide which offends me more: the messages about female sexuality and role in sexual relationships, or the sloppy writing.

    But as someone who sells her work, I agree that it's important to "interrogate the success" (great phrasing!) of both series. They sell, not because of great writing or politically correct messaging, but because they touch something primal in readers' psyches.

    The challenge, as I see it, is to find a way to touch that primal place while maintaining a high level of craftsmanship, and not sending a message about female sexuality that makes my higher brain cringe.

  11. Hi Daniel:

    Well, I think they might be doing a lot of that. One of the interesting reader reactions to FSOG has been 'it spiced up my sex life'.

    It could be that hubby decided to take a belt to her without her permission, but I rather think it just has to do with the heightened interest in sex that might come from reading any sexually explicit book. It's important to remember that most people don't usually read them (hard to conceive of when you write erotica, but there it is).

    I think that's a worthy aim. I hope you succeed!

  12. I think your theory may be right on the money; and I don't think FSoG is going to be the thing that suddenly blows the erotic genre open to the world… in fact, although slowly, I already feel like it's dying down a little.

    But anyway, for me, the important part of this article is THIS: "As writers, it is important for us to interrogate its success and to attempt to understand what it means for the genre, for levels of explicitness in mainstream fiction, and for the way publishers are going to inevitably behave in the light of it."

    I really appreciate and admire the ongoing importance you put on thought and understanding. As a cultural phenomenon and a best selling piece of literature, FSoG is undoubtedly important. So we ought to know about it.

  13. A very smart piece, and I'm in agreement with most of what you say. The only thing I would add is that I think the troubling success of 50 Shades is due to more than its provision of a moral get-out clause and is an indicator of more than the usual cultural hypocrisy surrounding sex.

    Because we have to remember that its readers are women ie readers who have largely been excluded from their own sexuality, who live in a culture which inhibits female sexual agency. 50Sh allows them to identify with a central character who is poles apart from anyone who could be considered a bit of a slapper. Ana is safe. Her lack of sexual agency means the reader is not tarnished by association with 'excessive' desire.

    So I would want criticism of the phenomenon to be levelled less at the book's readers and more at a culture which has created these readers by disallowing women sexual self-awareness and honest expression of that.

  14. Kristina:
    "Her lack of sexual agency means the reader is not tarnished by association with 'excessive' desire. So I would want criticism of the phenomenon to be levelled less at the book's readers and more at a culture which has created these readers by disallowing women sexual self-awareness and honest expression of that."

    I think you're absolutely spot on, Kristina. Once something sells so many copies, however, I'm not sure its possible to identify 'society' and 'readers' as being two separate groups.

    But I do agree that the phenomenon of the cipher character as 'victim' of lust, rather than a woman with sexual agency of her own, and the moral 'safety' that encodes, is a reflection of a deep social ambivalence towards owning our own sexuality.

  15. Sloppy, ham-fisted writing. Laughable dialog. Poor grammar. These things make it impossible for the discerning reader to have an immersive experience in a novel. Full stop.

    I am reminded here of "Quills," the semi-fictive biopic of the Marquis de Sade, in which he asks an interlocutor: "Did you read the whole thing, or did you just skip ahead to the racy bits?"

  16. The only upside of the 50 Shades phenomenon is posts like this which put it in cultural perspective. Certainly at a point, people begin to buy the book out of a timeless human urge to be part of the latest fashion, plus we all know that curiosity about sex is used to sell us cars, entertainment, pretty much everything. In this case, it's worked like a charm.

    I especially appreciate the point that the 50 Shades story keeps us safe in its approach to sexuality. I've read a number of international "erotic" bestsellers for research purposes over the years. All have pretended to be the classic tale of a woman discovering her sexual desire, yet all have been disturbingly bleak and punishing in some way. Female orgasms are never convincingly described or even mentioned at all, and there's always some stint the woman must serve as a degraded prostitute. I suppose being a sub in a BDSM relationship is an adequate substitute. And there is always some sort of child abuse that leads to the sexual "perversion." This meta-narrative is obviously comforting to us in some way.

    You also make an excellent point about the publishing industry. While claiming to be interested in fresh, new voices, they have proven themselves to be timid conservatives. I do think erotica will have more of a chance for a few years, then there will be a downturn in opportunities, then it will rise again for some other reason. I've been urged to try to get my piece of the treasure, but deep in my heart, I just can't approach writing in this way. I need to write the stories only I can write, with respect for myself and my audience, however small. I've personally experienced the tragic results when people do something purely for money (my mother died a horrible death from an unsafe diabetes drug that was pushed to the market for stockholder benefit). Writing a 50 Shades rip-off might not kill my body, but it would my spirit! Maybe this is an opportunity for all erotica writers to reaffirm what matters to us (and if it is money, that's fine, too, I suppose).

  17. RG, I'm not so much trying to separate readers from society, just trying to highlight the position those readers have in society ie one in which, historically, their sexuality has been oppressed and distorted, something men don't experience to anywhere near the same extent.

    It just felt to me, in your championing of readers who are brave and honest enough to fight these strictures, you were implicitly criticising, as individuals, those unable to see their way clear of it. And yup, granted, 50Sh readers are probably perpetuating that cultural hypocrisy surrounding sex but I think their reasons for *reflecting* it, or something that looks like it, are more complex and gendered.

    Donna, yes. I don't think many of us started writing erotica believing there was pots of money to be made. Writing with integrity is, I would hope, vital to those of us who've been around a while. Otherwise, we'd probably have quit by now!

  18. Donna & Kristina,

    I think there is a very interesting discussion to be had on the extent to which any fiction writer should be responsible for promoting any particular ideology. Society does have very ambivalent feelings about sexuality - especially women's sexuality and that reality is clearly reflected in FSOG, and the other books you allude to, Donna. It's a debate in which I find myself very torn. But it's fair to say that FSOG does nothing to further it. I don't feel I can condemn E.L. James for it, although I feel pretty safe in saying she didn't break any ground.

    For me the fascination lies in its reception. And Kristina, you're totally right in saying that that readers' reasons for embracing it are very complex, and yes, gendered too.

    As to making money, I come from a generation that believed that money alone was a very poor motivation for doing anything. Not that there is not dignity is feeding oneself, but pragmatism seldom is the mother of good art.

  19. The success of these "books" is interesting and in considering it I think it's important to go back to its roots. Honestly, I personally believe the success is really due to Twilight. It's successful for exactly the same reasons Twilight is successful and directly because of Twilight.

    Think about it. It uses the same characters. It has the same relationship dynamic: young innocent girl gets mixed up in the world of a super attractive, super rich guy who's "dangerous" and no good for her. And eventually, because of her relationship with this man, her life ends up in danger but rather than him saving her she tries to sacrifice herself to save him. Just like in Twilight. I actually plan on doing a complete side by side comparison at some point because as I read the Fifty series it became so glaringly obvious that it was just Twilight re-written. The characterizations, the relationships, the locations, almost everything was exactly the same. Okay, moving on.

    So then you need to factor in the fan fiction aspect. Icy (E. L. James) posted Master of the Universe (Fifty Shades of Grey) right when BDSM fics were starting to gain momentum in the Twilight fic world. I think part of why hers took off when others hadn't is because she was one of the first to write an all-human (meaning no vampires) Twilight BDSM fic. I've seen it said many times in the Twilight fandom that what the fans care about is not the vampires but rather the romance. Reading a Twilight story without the vampires suddenly makes the character of Edward Cullen a hundred thousand times more accessible than any vampire ever could be. Vampires aren't real. End of story. But a kinky sexy rich Edward Cullen? He could be real. And that's all the tinder that's needed to start a wildfire.

    As happens with Twilight fanfic, stories become popular not by how well-written they but by how many reviews they receive and how many of the "right" people recommend them. Icy posted at the right time and through word of mouth gained reader after reader after reader. Like Twilight her story became like a drug to these people. It was new to them and allowed them to relive the fantasy of Twilight all over again this time in a human world with sex. And as they say, sex sells and this is most definitely true in the world of fan fiction.

    The rest is history as they say but I do think a large part of her success is because of the pre-existing success she had with the story as fan fiction. Her fic reading fans were rabid and ravenous. Some even made death threats on Twitter to a young girl they believed was plagiarizing the story. When they discovered they could buy Master of the Universe in book form (via The Writer's Coffee Shop) they were ecstatic and renewed their efforts to spread the word about it. That coupled with Icy's connections have given us Fifty Shades of Grey.

    It's a sad commentary on the state of the general public's reading level and a shame that a major publisher would publish fan fiction. That being said, I hope it does open doorways for current and future erotica writers. In the hands of a skilled and talented writer I think Fifty Shades of Grey could have been a moving exploration of sexuality and the human psyche. But I suppose, then, it might not have been so successful if that were the case. The anonymous comment above is spot on. In M (mature) rated fics people don't really care about the story. They just want to get to the sex. It creates a pressure on the fic author to throw sex into places they might not have otherwise put it. And it creates pressure to continue to try to outdo each previous sex scene in the story until it becomes almost laughable.

  20. Hi Jennifer,
    The insight into the world of fan fic is much appreciated and it was very interesting to know more about it.

    I don't necessarily agree that the reasons for its success within the fan fic world can explain its success in the mainstream.

    40 Million readers are not getting mouth to mouth recommendations to read it.

    But I think the fact that both Twilight and FSOG lack the moral complexity of an adult novel might have something to do with it.

  21. Your article is very well written and your commentary and opinions are exceptional. I write quality erotica also. Albeit from a male point of view. Although I haven't read 50 Shades Of Grey, I understand and have heard about the difficulty of reading it because of the poor grammar. I pride myself in proper English. However, I have been writing my own erotic novel. I am disabled and in a wheelchair due to MS. I've always called the shots between the sheets and now that my body is at the mercy of another person, I find myself in the intriguing position of being a submissive. I have physically been with dominatrix's and other Femdom situations, and it's becoming pleasantly obsessive.

  22. T-Boner

    Now there is an erotic situation that would make a great book. I do hope you write it.

  23. "The moral dynamics that underlie FSOG will not have escaped them..."

    You've made some solid points in this wonderful essay, RG, but I honestly doubt publishers are analyzing the "moral dynamics" of FSOG nearly as closely as you have. If they can make money, they really don't care what sort of subtextual messages a successful work of fiction offers.

    I agree that Ana's "cure" of Christian's perverse tendencies may tend to make readers feel safer, more moral and less dirty. Nevertheless, I'll bet that a vanilla sequel would flop, because what *really* excites readers is the D/s dynamic.

  24. Your comment about the hamfistedness of the writing being a positive quality that helps to sell the basic concept and engage the reader is interesting, and probably correct - much to my own annoyance as someone who tries to write polished prose. Oh well.

    I also think you're right about mainstream audiences being ready to engage with more explicit material - and in firm terms that would be true of everything from Pulp Fiction (Bruce Willis tied and gagged in a dungeon) to True Blood, with its depictions of bdsm vampire sex.

    So, yes, FSOG was probably the right product placed into the right market at the right time. But personally I'm still hoping that in time the audience will move more towards the sex-positive attitude you describe.

  25. Well, look, Lisabet. You're a hell of a lot more published than I am. And so I guess you'd know better.

    I find it hard to believe that large publishing houses would not close read a book that sold 40 million copies to really get a grasp on what made it appealing to readers.

    And if my post sounded like I thought a vanilla version of FSOG would work, then I clearly haven't expressed myself very well.

    The BDSM is central to its success, but so is its implicit condemnation. Just as the masses found the detailed evidences of 'congress with the devil' titillating in witch trials. But the cherry on top is when it ends in a burning.

  26. Hi, RG,

    I think you have a higher opinion of the perspicacity of publishers than I do! And you're far more experienced than they are (imho) in delving beneath the surface of a literary work.


  27. A compelling post, as usual, RG, and some great comments as well.

    With the success of FSoG, I'm reminded of the success of "Deep Throat" and how it extended into the mainstream. There was a ripple effect from it, certainly making a long term impact on pornography. And now, porn does sell well, but the middle ground between it and polite society remains a no-man's land. People who buy porn usually keep it in the safety of the basement or garage.

    I hold out hope that FSoG will ultimately usher a larger impact, and will open some minds to sexual exploration as a central theme to the story. And perhaps this will lead to a greater acceptance of stories which are well written and have good character development and plot.

    Yes, at the core I'm a realist, but, I can dream, right?

  28. Brilliant, RG. This kind of hypocrisy has fuelled the tabloid newspaper biz for many years.


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