Why 50 Shades of Grey Might be Offensive (It’s not why you think)
In case you aren’t familiar with it, 50 Shades of Grey is the newest, hottest thing in the book market. It’s effectively Twilight with whips and chains–almost literally. The series started out as online fan fiction about the Twilight characters, moving them to Seattle and adding some…umm…accessories to the torrid love affair between Edward and Bella. It grew wings on the Interwebs fan fiction sights and got the attention of a lot of people via word of mouth.
Through a series of developments, the author, EL James, withdrew the fan fiction and reworked it, changing the characters into a young college graduate named Anastasia Steele and billionaire Christian Grey. To get a job with Mr. Grey, Anastasia signs a contract that gives him complete control over her life, including the parts we don’t typically write about on this fine, high-quality, PG-13 rated blog.
The resulting books have been wildly successful and have even developed a new subgenre–mommyporn. Being, you know, a guy, I have a strong aversion to all things Twilight-related. I haven’t read the series. But agent Kristin Nelson is familiar with them, and has concerns about their content. Not the handcuffs and riding crops and the spatula (oh, wait, that was Stripes). She’s more concerned about the lack of quality in the stories and how it sets unrealistic expectations from writers and makes everyone else’s jobs harder. Among the descriptions for the writing in the her blog post and comments: campy, hot, so bad it’s good, and horrific. One commenter attributed their popularity with the general failure of the American educational system.
But they’re selling for a reason. And without reading them, that reason probably has something to do with solid storytelling and being at the right place at the right time. No doubt EL James put a lot of work into her novels. But they are what they are. If she eventually improved her craft and wrote a literary masterpiece, it would probably crash and burn.
One of the comments to Nelson’s blog post about the issue sums up the issue quite nicely with one word: Twinkies. Twinkies sell like crazy, but they aren’t good food and no one mistakes them for good food. They’re Twinkies. The 50 Shades books are literary Twinkies. For lots of people Twinkies have a time and a place, and that’s usually not for dinner.
But the success of the series means other people will imitate it. And there will be fan fiction copies of this series–which was a fan fiction copy of another series that no one will ever confuse with high literature. With each copy, the quality slides a little.
That won’t stop a deluge of poorly executed, ham-fisted attempts to capture the lightning in a bottle (and transfer it to various sensitive body parts via the toys in Mr. Grey’s red room of pain). But it will help your work stand out, if it can get noticed above the sea of copycat Twinkies.