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 it 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?
Julie Musil says
Why is it popular? Because it's entertaining! I read the whole series, and I have to say, I was entertained. Sure, the writing had some issues, but it was still a fun read.
By the way, I'm totally impressed that you read it!
Shelley Souza says
Fifty Shades has not outsold the Harry Potter SERIES: it has outsold Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows *in the U.K.*
From the Daily Telegraph:
"Global sales of the trilogy are said to be over 40 million – still a long way from the 450 million achieved by JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series."
I am wondering if you read the whole series or just the first book? Because if you have just read the first one then you are truly missing out 😉
I read the first book because I swear every girl in my office was reading it and telling me how great it was. Although, at first I did try to resist and be the conservative southern girl I was raised to be, but curiosity got the better of me and I gave in and read the first book. I read the second two because I had to know what happened and to be honest it was kind of fun to read something a little sexy.
It should not be shocking that I purchased them on my kindle, since I already admitted to being conservative. However, I think if there was no such thing as e-readers I would have still purchased the book. I just might have resisted for a little longer.
Needless to say I overlooked the perceptual lip biting, and enjoyed the books for what they were – Beauty and the Beast plus sex @Seeley.
@Two Flights Down – I am glad you are letting Nathan post your first comment. I read it earlier and really enjoyed your point-of-view. I also felt like I learned a lot from it. I was actually looking back to re-read it!
Haven't read it, although I tried to but couldn't get past the first page. I'm not sure why, perhaps it was because I knew something explicit and sexual was around the corner. Not a big fan of reading about it. I wonder if it is actually the dominant male women yearn for or is it the charming, understanding and fun-to-be-with, boyish male who has confidence in himself and isn't intimidated by the woman-as-goddess type of thing. Women love men who love and admire them and are, you know, interesting. But dominant, no, I think that would get wearing after awhile and result in tension, but not of the sexual kind. I think most women appreciate a male who is smarter than that.
Nathan, I work in an independent bookstore, and I've been looking forward to this post ever since you announced that you were reading "that book." As a bookseller, I witnessed firsthand how this book went from an e-book that a lot of women asked about to the most popular book of the spring and summer, with a record 98 copies sold the day before Mother's Day. Practically everyone from ages 20 on up were asking about the book. I was surprised at how many of our longtime customers in their sixties and seventies were reading it. Sales have slacked off for the time being, but we're still selling at least three copies a week.
I tried to read it, but I couldn't get past chapter two. It killed me to even devote that much time to the book as there were so many other books I wanted to read. But as a bookseller, I felt like I had to find out what all the hype was about. In the end, I went to the customers and they said that "Fifty Shades of Grey" was a compelling story with fun characters, but the writing was mediocre. They also said books two and three were better than one. Most of them said that at first the books were about the sex parts, but then those parts got old, and they sped through the sex parts to get to the action parts.
I know it would have made less money for Random, but I wish they had combined all three books and edited the crap out of them to make one well-written book.
Today, we received the book, "Fifty Shades of Chicken." It's a cookbook with a humorous story about an inexperienced chicken being dominated by a chef. I'm not joking. We've already sold three copies. And we've sold a lot of other Fifty Shades parodies, too. But the best writing based on Fifty Shades has to be the Amazon reviews of the books. Those are hilarious.
Anne R. Allen says
@Mira–I did NOT say women want to be dominated. I said women are drawn to power. Look at that woman who got mixed up with David Petraeus. You think she'd have gone for it if he'd been a grocery clerk? Or that she fell for that cute receding hairline? She wasn't attracted to his power over HER–but his power in the world. She wanted that power to rub off on her. It's the primal appeal of the tribal chieftan.
Anne, I'm sorry! I got confused. The comment I was responding to was Nancy Thompson's. Sorry.
I agree with you, in that I think people are often attracted to someone who has what we don't have and want. I don't know about women in general being attracted to power, although, since they have been denied power for many centuries, that makes sense.
I have met men who are attracted to powerful women, though.
K L Romo says
The romance and sex. And sex, and sex. And more sex.
It's a fantasy. No one really wants to be dominated or hurt in real life but it is fun to read about it and imagine what you would do in the same situation, especially given that Christian, (and Edward) is so beautiful, dreamy, athletic, not to mention rich. Plus, he is vulnerable at heart so she can fix him. We all want to fix people.
I thoroughly enjoyed all three books and am prepared to forgo beautiful writing in favor of the occasional ripping yarn. I think excessive editing and tailoring a story to suit a publisher's idea of what's fun to read sometimes spoils the fun. Just saying . . .
Crystal Parney says
I haven't read 50 yet, but I think it's about fantasy, like other posts have said. I think often fantasy is much better than the real thing.
Cecelia Dowdy says
I read 50 Shades because I enjoyed a few of the Twilight books, plus, as a writer, whenever hoards of people are reading a book and telling how great it is, I have to see what the fuss is.
I think it's popular for a number of reasons:
1. The author is building off of her Twilight Fan Fiction base (as a few people have already mentioned.)
2. Far as I can tell, she's bringing something out into the open, mainstream life, that people rarely talk about. To tell you the truth, I'd never heard of a Dominant until I'd read this book! Of course, I knew about BDSM, but…I think she's bringing a "somewhat secret" lifestyle out into the open, almost saying it's "okay" to do this.
The writing was horrific, but, I was compelled to finish the first story, and then I felt compelled to read the second story.
Things started going flat for me after about the third or fourth chapter of the second story. I felt the second book had a VERY SAGGING MIDDLE! I was bored with 2nd book, almost did not finish it.
The 3rd book was not as entertaining as the first, but, not as SLOW as the second one.
Anne R. Allen says
@Mira Oh, good. I didn't want people to think I was into that sub stuff. I have a recurring character in my books who's a dominatrix, though. 🙂
The lure of power does work both ways. The scullery maid who ends up with the prince is one archetype (Those Regency romances are always about the girl who falls for Rakish Duke, not the Rakish Stable Boy With Great Abs.) But another archetype is La Belle Dame Sans Merci–the unattainable high-born Lady of the troubadour poets. Both archetypes live on in our fantasies.
50 Shades works because it has tapped into an archetypal fantasy. It's the fantasy, not the prose that people are attracted to.
Mo Akoth says
I think Fifty Shades, aside from the 'billionaire guy' fantasy many women have, hit precisely because it was raw and 'flawed' on so many levels.
It was simple. Something the average person…alright in parts… can relate it. It didn't pretend to be intellectual, or a writing masterpiece. It was just a story about a girl. Believable or not in some places was irrelevant.
Think 'Gangnam Style' which if I'm not mistaken, has taken the slot for most viewed Youtube Video ever. What makes this song great? It doesn't follow convention or rules… it's just an odd dude, doing odd things and not giving a toot what anything thinks.
I think most of us are pretty basic creatures. And for reasons we can't fathom, we relate to basic things. Primal things.
I think Fifty Shades gave that to many people. That's why, even people who don't read… could relate to it. E.L just told her story exactly how she envisioned it.
Does this always work? Who knows. It did for her.
It's sexy. Point, blank and period. I read it and I was not impressed from a prose standpoint. But I have a slew of girlfriends who for months could not do anything but quote the book lines and wonder about who is going to play Christian in the movie. And I have to admit I will go see the movie. In the age of reality tv where someone named Snookie is rich and famous, are we really surprised that this book has been so popular?
@Anne, so it's more that you're into dom stuff, right? 😉
Just kidding. 🙂
I totally agree. The writing needs to be good enough so it doesn't distract the reader. But after that, it's the fantasy that will sell a book.
Krystal Miller says
Absolutely HATED the whole twilight series but LOVE the fifty shades series! Weird, right lol
Amy Saia says
Here's what I find weird: I have never heard an actual plot mentioned in relation to this book. I mean, is there a journey? A pivotal moment? What's at stake for the main character? I keep hearing about sex, sex, sex, but nothing ever happens.
Logline: Girl meets hot businessman; they go on a sexual journey.
Okay, I guess I can buy that. But still, I'm feeling mental pain over this. *hits head with Fifty Shades*
Amy Saia says
Adding: Maybe I just don't like the idea of my mom reading this thing. If she does, I'm moving to Pluto.
When I read your comment that FSOG 'gave an urbane veneer to a romance genre that very often skews rural/suburban' I thought 'YES!'. For years now I've been a disenfranchised chicklit reader. From once being cool stories about smart, metropolis dwelling singletons meeting & falling in love, chicklit has descended into a twee genre about second time rounders, empty nesters & heroines knitting their own houses. They don't even focus on a relationship anymore – they're all to do with setting up a business, saving a shop or a building (insert as appropriate). Yawn.
It's why I dumped chicklit, serendipitously found fanfic & never looked back.
I'd hoped the publication of FSOG would give chicklit/romance the kick up the pants it needed, would make it flirtier, sexier, funnier and more relationship centred but alas, the sniffy, superior response of most chicklit authors suggest it'll be another twenty years of heroines baking cupcakes & knitting tea cosies.
Russ Linton says
No, you don't have to even write well to sell porn. Seen any porn flicks up for screenwriting at the Oscars lately?
Book opens with a mirror scene, terrible dialogue, an entriely unbelievable setup and then proceeds to write about bondage type relationships making it dreadfully plain not only the protagonsit is clueless, but the author didn't do a bit of research to lend any sort of believability to the scenario.
How is this "not bad?" Have literary standards REALLY sunk that low?
Porn, written by a woman, coattailing Twilight. If a man had written it, he'd be labeled a mysoginistic a$$hole, and it might still sell millions, cause it's porn.
I should point out, I don't have a problem with porn. I'll read/watch it like the next guy and get some thrills, but I won't sit back and try to rationalize it by saying it is well acted/written/directed. I'll openly admit I was looking to get stimulated by it, end of story. 🙂
What I read (no, I didn't finish) was AFTER the big publisher got a hold of it and presumably sent it to their editorial department. It was still atrocious.
Yes, it was poorly written.
The book was so entertaining for some. However, the dominant and submissive aspects were on and off and interchangeable between the two main characters.
A non-fiction book about this dynamic is "Leading and Supportive Love: The Truth About Dominant and Submissive Relationships".
But why are people acting like this is the first romantic novel with a BDSM theme/sub theme (ha, get it, 'sub'). I just done get it??? There are so many other books out there like this, pretty much this book is exactly the same concept as so so so many before it. So why is this causing discussions about women's rights and sexism and all these other discussions,(and i am woman). I get ppl love to rehash topics that have been beaten into the ground a million times over but come on, this is the book ppl are gonna do it on???!!
Pat Powers says
Liked your review, found it refreshingly honest even though yu kind of danced around the kinky content. Blogged it. So there!
jane jan says
I am almost done reading it; but would not have bought it – it is a library book. The subject matter is interesting but I was stunned at how poorly written it was; this girl has such low self esteem – all she cares about is jerk CG who I would have told to take a hike from the beginning. I had just read "The Siren" Tiffany Reisz (sp) which is so much better, and can't wait to read "The Angel". She is a much better writer.
stupid girls. try to watch porn sometimes.
This book's premise sounds no different than a hundred different movies I've seen. Boy and girl love, nothing new there. And quite a popular concept as far as I know.
Funny some get so hepped up by the female character. We're so used to reading boy-based novels where the character in question is talking with his guy friends about what he'd like to do to THAT hot babe that just walked by. This kind of talk is so accepted, it's unreal. This kind of talk is so accepted it leads to date rape, but that's another subject.
We are so lopsided as a society. It's amazing.
I recently read a post of a woman genre writer who was miffed at being dismissed by 'real' writers. (Read: old white males in an old style genre.)
I also read that romance is one of the most popular genres right now in ebooks.
The fact that, like Madonna in the new age of MTV videos, ebooks are there to offer any kind of story a guy or girl wants to read, no worries about subway riders seeing their book covers.
Add to that an internet process that's come to fruition, that being fanfic fans growing a bestseller book, I'm not really surprised this book did so well.
It PROVES you don't need a publisher for discoverability. Something to think about. And time to start looking more closely at what the people on the internet are tinkering with.
The customer has ALWAYS been right, because it's the customer that buys things. NOT the writer. NOT the reviewer. NOT the publisher. NOT the marketer or vanity press.
The READER is the one who runs things. But so many of these entrenched and overpriced and overhyped and overself-important entities forget that.
The ebook readership, I imagine, was always there. You just weren't OFFERING them the flavors they wanted. You know? *grin*
It's the same with people's view of Stephen King. He wrote horror. And in the early days, people poo-pooed HIM. And he laughed, all the way to the bank.
Why do we keep believing a bestseller is ONLY some kind of high-fallutin' literary fiction?–which I believe someone suggested is not as big a reader base as some other kinds of books.
BestSELLER means just that.
Slurpies from 7/11 are a popular bestseller. You don't hear people comparing it to MILK now, do you?
I haven't seen much of this book, but now I make the connection as to why greedy-as-business Amazon has started this fanfic subsect.
The WORLD I live in.
I’m coming into this discussion way, way late, after doing a search online about why “Shades” is so popular. There are a number of factors, I think, contributing to its success.
(a) I think women run their households and hold down jobs and at times, dominate their husbands, (reference divas on reality TV). Oprah featured a sex therapist way back in 2008 or 2009, who said something like: “When you’re telling your husband what to do, he becomes another child, and you can’t become aroused by that.” A super-domineering fantasy hero like Christian Grey, uber-rich, handsome and obsessed with the heroine, who feeds a Cinderella wish in some women – plus, his “deep dark secret” and his equally dark past, make for a page-turner.
(b) Declining literacy is another factor. This is not a demanding book to read. Think of how graphic / comic books are flourishing, the “Nerd” books with the stick figure sketches. There is little text and more of an emphasis on pictures. Magazines are becoming coloring books – large photos, not a lot of text. Many magazines resemble web sites. High school teachers have told me that they can’t assign sophisticated, lengthy books, because their students don’t have the attention span for it.
(c) I think women are lonely, because of factor (a). They re taking on a lot and feel overwhelmed and have a fantasy of a male lover from a fairy tale. They want to feel helpless at some level, for someone to “take over” and take care of them. Having a corporate career, raising children, feeling (often) overwhelmed, has not turned out to be this glamorous lifestyle that it seemed to be.
(d) we’re living in a hook-up culture where sex is no longer romanticized. Girls are told they can have sex and be “empowered,” and it’s still very difficult for some women to do this – we tend to want to romanticize a sexual relationship. Women still crave some romance.
(e) we’re living in the post “Sex & The City” culture, where women were told their sexuality and careers were paramount, and this has contributed to a cultural narcissism, (that was already in place 30 or so years ago).
eve lindblad says
I just finished this book. I friend talked me into to reading it. It give it a C at best. Must be the something I missed but it was not a book I could with good conscience even recommend. I've read Harlequin books that were juicier. lol I found Ana were annoying with the "I don't want your money" but because you're "hot" I want you "dirty sex". Give me a break. For a Virgin she sure got into his world fast and with little reserve. Contact aside-everyone know you never write a letter and/or you never destroy one. Sure recipe for Blackmail. Don't bother with hate mail. This is just my humble opinion. I got it from the library.
eve lindblad says
Sorry for the mistakes in my previous review. I'm at work & did not edit before pushing the send button. *contract , my friend recommended it, etc.
I just finished the first book (yes I'm trailing the pack) I can't understand all the accolades about it. My coworkers devoired it, although they are much younger than I am.
First of all; a beautiful, intelligent, post college virgin—-seriously??
Secondly; a super rich gorgeous unattached bachelor? Talk about pure fiction! I agree that the writing is mediocre. How many times can you say 'inner goddess' and refer to 'lip biting'. Also the way too numerous e-mails. Not to mention 'my sex' –who has ever called it that? Don't know if I'll read the other 2 books.
I'm not sure why it is popular. It is yawn of a story and the writing is of high school quality. I didn't get through the first half of the first book. Fiction like this, except much better, has been around for a long time. This one wasn't the first. It's not new. I'd rather read Kitty Thomas any day. She can write beautiful stories with all the kink you could want and they are worth every cent. How 50 Shades made a fortune I'll never know.
Sex, drugs, and as they used to say rock and roll but for this generation its better put as sex, power, i'm more beautiful than you, and repeat over and over. Just how people get these things or use them doesn't matter as long as you can be ignorant enough to feed off your animal instincts and buy it.
the book has the right amount of romance and smut. That is why women bought it but the men are not fans. Too much romance and not enough smut.
I wonder if the first versions were less "commercial" than the final version?