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Finally entering the fray about 50 Shades of Grey

June 28, 2012

In the past few months, our blogmeister Chris has written about various topics related to the incredible success of Fifty Shades of Grey, the latest book du jour to get the masses reading (and talking). His posts have been both thoughtful and thought-provoking, none more so for me than his post this past Monday. In fact, the post induced so many thoughts in my brain that instead of posting a lengthy comment, I decided to write a post of my own.

If you missed the Monday post, Chris suggests that perhaps we can all learn from the book’s success. He asked, “Would you rather be good or successful?” And “In our quest for literary perfection, are we sometimes focusing more on the perfection than the story?” These are good questions, and the answers will be different for every individual. He started his post, however, by quoting from a Facebook comment made by author MJ Rose, who was tired of the criticism being heaped upon the novel and its author. She said, “Sometimes you want to eat M&M’s and sometimes chocolate mousse” (the inference being, of course, that Fifty Shades of Grey is the M&M part of that equation). I see her point (although I think a better comparison might be between M&M’s and, say, broccoli.) If the millions upon millions of people reading Fifty Shades of Grey were also sometimes reading a broccoli equivalent, I’d agree with her wholeheartedly. But my gut tells me that many Fifty Shades readers don’t read too many “healthier” books. In fact, I suspect that a large number of them don’t read anything other than M&M’s books. Ever. And that worries me.

Who doesn’t enjoy M&M’s?

Recently, a Girl Scout leader invited me and three other women who had pursued creative careers to speak to her troop about our work. She hoped to show her scouts some examples of women who had pursued careers in the arts. I gladly agreed.

The troop held the meeting at the home of one of the Girl Scouts. When we arrived, the host mother had set out a lovely display of snacks and drinks, and we all stood around chatting a bit before the meeting started. This mother asked me about my writing and my books and stated that she “loved to read.” Then, to my utter shock (given her former proclamation), she said that the last thing she had read was Twilight, which was, she guessed, at least two years before.

What? How can that be? I thought to myself. Here was a mom, an obviously upper middle class mom (judging from the home we were in) who would have easy access to books, a mom who cared enough about her daughter’s well-rounded development to encourage her participation in Girl Scouts, and yet she hadn’t read a book in at least two years? This also meant that it had been at least two years since her daughter had seen her mother pick up a book. I was horrified, but even more, I was deeply saddened. I couldn’t help but think to myself, I wonder how many television shows you’ve watched in the same time period? A snarky thought, perhaps, but regardless, an honest and worthy question to consider.

The fact that the last book she read was Twilight only added to my concern. Had that particular title been one of among many she’d read, I wouldn’t have blinked. After all, as MJ said, we all like to have a few M&M’s every once in a while. But if all we eat are M&M’s, our bodies will start to suffer. We need something with more substance to sustain our health and well-being.

Food for the brain!

The same goes for our brains. If books are food for our brains, as they say, and all we feed it is the literary equivalent of M&M’s, our brains suffer just like our bodies.

So what? you might ask. Why do I care? I eat and read what I want; the Girl Scout mom eats and reads what she wants. Only our own bodies and brains will be affected by our choices, right? Well, I’m not so sure. Because underlying the many discussions (and yes, criticisms) of the wildly successful Fifty Shades of Grey is a much larger issue.

When the only books generating huge, huge sales are M&M books, publishers publish more of that type and don’t publish as much broccoli. As less broccoli is published, the variety of books available to readers is diminished. (The widespread opportunities for self-publishing counter this problem only slightly because of the algorithms that push certain titles to the top.) As the variety of books available to readers is diminished, readers overall – even those who like broccoli – start reading more M&M’s because they’re the books that are easily found and heavily promoted. After a while, M&M’s begin to seem like the norm. The broccoli readers forget what it tasted like, and before you know it, readers all over no longer recognize M&M’s for what they are. I like to call it the Olive Garden effect.

Unlike MJ, I don’t think critics of Fifty Shades of Grey, or Twilight a few years ago, are attacking the authors, per se. I think some of the folks who shake their head at the success of these novels don’t begrudge the authors their success so much as they are upset by what it means to the publishing industry, and more importantly, to our larger culture. A society that consumes only M&M’s on a regular basis and neglects more “healthy” alternatives is bound to eventually show the signs of so much junk food. And the signs won’t be ones I’ll want to read. (Ever see the movie Idiocracy? It’s my fears plastered on the big screen.)

Oh, and my particular answers to Chris’ questions? Yes, I’d rather be good than successful (to be discussed in a later post), and as for perfection, I personally don’t think I’m aiming for perfection when I sit down to write each day. I simply try to write books that, once published, I can be proud of.

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Julie Compton is the internationally published author of two novels, Tell No Lies and Rescuing Olivia, both from St. Martin’s Minotaur. She can be reached at julie@julie-compton.com.

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8 Comments
  1. L. Dean Murphy permalink
    June 28, 2012 8:23 am

    Excellent analysis, Julie. You should be a professional writer! Another thought in your vein: When eating/reading too many M&Ms, literary diabetes may develop. “Diabetic” readers then must inject insulin, usually in the form films, while munching more M&Ms.

  2. celticadlx permalink
    June 28, 2012 9:30 am

    Making the food analogy, you only have to look at the rates of obesity in our country for a great example of what you are saying, Julie. That said, we must have faith in readers in general because the classics are still being read, “broccoli” books and magazines are still being purchased and consumed. There are still those of us out here who maintain our “culture” of books and reading material, which may, from time to time, include “M&M” reading. I think being good AND successful must be our goal as writers. That’s the only way we can “fight” the stuffing of “junk food” books down our literary gullets!

  3. Chris Hamilton permalink
    June 29, 2012 6:17 am

    I like the Twinkie analogy because I’ve tried a few times to eat Twinkies and I just can’t. I went to B&N and found one of the “steamy” passages in 50 Shades on my Nook and I couldn’t read it. I just couldn’t.

    Also, I don’t think anyone is stuffing 50 Shades down anyone’s throat. Actually, it’s the opposite. This was rebranded fan fiction that hit a nerve and spread based on word of mouth. It only got published and distributed because a lot of people asked for it. This hasn’t been marketed to death. It’s be found and spread until it became a pop-culture phenomenon. The publication only happened because it was already making money for the smaller publisher, who grabbed it because it was insanely successful as fan fiction.

  4. Julie Compton permalink
    June 29, 2012 10:24 am

    Hey, thanks Dean! 😉
    Celticadlx, I tell myself that — to have faith in readers — but more and more I’m having trouble doing so.
    Chris, I’m not saying this book has been shoved down anyone’s throats (although once it took off, yes, it’s suddenly was all over the place; media outlets that had hardly ever discussed books at all gave precious space to it. Again, I wouldn’t care except for the fact that these same publications never even mention books during the other 11 months of the year). I know well the book’s history. The point I’m trying to make is that I fear for the future when “readers” flock to a book like this but neglect to ever pick up anything else. Based upon some of my own discussions with people who have read this book, I do believe there are many, many who fit that description. The success of a book like this does have an effect on what gets published going forward. Fewer “broccoli” books will get published, and it becomes a snowball effect. In my opinion, that’s not good in the long run.

  5. Chris Hamilton permalink
    June 29, 2012 5:30 pm

    I probably should have directed who I was talking to. The stuff down throats reference was more to Celticadlx. But the other possibility, because I am in a hopeful mood at the moment, is that it could be a gateway book. In other words, if you read this and someone tells you, “I read that, too, and Velvet Handcuffs was much better. I mean there were actual characters and, it was a better story,” maybe people will read Velvet Handcuffs.

  6. celticadlx permalink
    June 29, 2012 10:16 pm

    My “stuffing” comment came purely from the discussion about the fear of “junk food” books becoming the only thing we can get. I didn’t mean that that is what’s happening right now… I’m sorry my name comes up as is does! I didn’t really realize it didn’t use my name, which is Lisa! I like Chris’s thoughts on using books as gateways to other books. And then there is always the argument that at least these books get folks to read, which might in turn lead them to read more and maybe branch out to other types of books. I guess Julie’s point could also be applied to movies, and look what’s happening in the “Indie” market there! That is exciting! So, maybe all the “Indie” published authors are helping to fill in that particular gap and will create a whole new way of looking at books…

  7. Chris Hamilton permalink
    June 30, 2012 6:40 am

    The way we’re reading is changing, too. The Internet has gotten us–or me, at least–used to smaller snippets in reading and more integration of “shiny” things like embedded pictures and video. So in that regard, I think there will be new ways of looking at books. I have to admit, my attention span isn’t what it used to be.

  8. June 30, 2012 11:16 am

    Bring on the broccoli—visit your local library. So much “healthy reading” awaits among the rows of books. I just pulled Wallace Stegner’s THE SPECTATOR BIRD, copywrite 1976, from the library shelf. Reading his prose is like spending a few hours with a writing coach. But the question remains, how do we switch the public from the steady diet of sweets? Thanks for your thoughtful blog, Julie.

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