Mar 13

50 Shades of Oh My God! Rich Yankee Chicks Are Reading a Durty Book! What Does It All Mean?

I wasn’t going to post anything about the newest romance phenom because 1) I don’t normally write critical reviews of other peoples’ books – I’m just not comfortable, as an author, doing it; and 2) the whole 50 Shades of Gray craze is just pissing me off so much I keep hoping the whole thing will go away. (Kind of like the whole Rush Limbaugh Outrageously Outraged Moral Kabuki  which, if you don’t follow me on Twitter, count yourself lucky.)

But then my sister-in-law-in-law-in-law*, who blogs over at An American Housewife (occasionally) in London, asked me if the book had created any buzz in Romancelandia; AAHOIL is a conservative politics/culture blog and my SILILIL, a hyperintelligent attorney and stay-at-home mommy, doesn’t read much romance. So I sent her a long email with my thoughts.  She asked me to post a comment on her blog, and the comment I ended up sending her was long enough to be a post in itself; she suggested that I post it on my own site, since I (obviously) don’t post enough as it is.

So here are my thoughts on 50 Shades of Gray, if you’re interested. Also, if you’re interested, this review by lazaraspaste over at Dear Author is thoughtful and hilarious and explains perfectly why so many of us hate this book so passionately. (Disclosure: I haven’t read the book. That’s right – I loathe a book I have not read and have no intention of reading. I can do this because I Am A Professional.) (Apologies in advance to those of you who’ve read 50 Shades and loved it–there is  nothing more personal or less objective than reading tastes, so of course everything in this post is my opinion and mine alone. If you’re thinking 50 Shades sounds intriguing and you’re kinda interested but you don’t know much about erotic romance, or romance in general, Jane’s primer might be handy.)

I’ve always believed that people should be allowed to write and share fanfic. If anyone ever wanted to write fanfic based on my books I’d be freaking thrilled– Cade and Michael slash fic, whatever. I’d take it as the huge compliment it is, as long as they didn’t publish it for profit.  Once you do that–once you appropriate another writer’s world and characters, you’re not doing fanfic any more. It’s not plagiarism per se, but it feels darned close. I have no patience for Diana Gabaldon’s hysterical rant against fanfic (she compared it to rape) (!!) or for other authors who think fanfic somehow weakens or dilutes their brand. People write and read fanfic because they love a book’s world and want to spend more time with its characters. I totally get that. But when E. L. James, the pseudonymous British author who first published 50 Shades of Grey and its two sequels as Twilight fanfic (the story was called Master of the Universe and it starred Edward Cullen and Bella Swan), slapped new names on the characters and put the book up for sale, IMO, she crossed a line.

Fanfic isn’t new, but the Internet has given it a level of exposure it never had before. Authors have written cease and desist letters to fanfic writers and sites, but I don’t know if anyone’s ever actually gone to court over it. I don’t know if Stephanie Meyer is going to sue, or if she even has a cause of action.***

The semi-plagiarism is not the only thing that bugs me about 50 Shades. I’m also annoyed that the media is treating it with a seriousness that romance literature rarely receives.

Look, here’s the thing. The romance genre gets a bad rap from mainstream readers and almost all the media, even though it accounts for by far the largest chunk of the fiction market, and as such it is absolutely essential to the fortunes of both traditional publishing and e-publishing. It gets even less respect than science fiction/fantasy. The people who write it are derided as purple prose pushing hacks, and the people who read it are pitied, condescended to, lectured on the differences between fantasy and reality, assumed to have no taste, and caricatured as fat, bored housewives. People who would not otherwise dare to criticize your tastes in fashion or music or home decor (at least not to your face) will, if they see you with a romance book or you come right out and confess to reading it, give you the “oh, I don’t read romance. I mean, there’s nothing wrong with it, I guess, it’s just so silly, you know? I like more serious fiction…” treatment. Though I hate myself for doing it, because it betrays an insecurity I’m way too old to still have, I always manage to work into such a conversation that I have a B.A. in English, in addition to my master’s in Library Sci.

It does no good to talk about how romance readers come from all ethnic and racial groups, all socioeconomic classes, all cultures and all faiths (and no faiths); how many romance authors hold JDs and almost as many hold literature degrees; how no one raises an eyebrow at a university symposium on Buffy the Vampire Slayer but God forbid a doctoral or master’s candidate wants to do a review of romance literature.

Then along comes 50 Shades — flat characters, hackneyed prose, irresponsible depictions of BDSM, etc. etc. etc. — and suddenly everyone in the country is giving it Serious Attention because a bunch of skinny Park Slope mommies are reading it and declaring themselves happy in their pants. What??? You mean some women like to read romance novels for sexual thrills?  Why, this must be Something New! What Does it All Mean?   (There is no professional jealousy underlying my contempt. No, seriously. None at all. Nope).

I’m all for more women being turned on to the joys of romance literature–I just wish it were a good book (and an original one) that had suddenly captured the nation’s attention. If only these mommies and all the people interviewing them knew that there’s a lot of well-written erotic romance out there, with complex characters and interesting plots, books that don’t paint  a libelous picture of BDSM which, contra Dr. Drew, has NOTHING to do with child abuse or domestic violence. 50 Shades treats the hero’s sexual needs and preferences as a sickness, a symptom of brokenness, which they are not–but then, the hero is a jerk who takes unconscionable advantage of an inexperienced young woman’s total ignorance of BDSM and the mental and emotional issues involved. And the heroine is dumb as a rock or, as we say in Romancelandia, TSTL (Too Stupid To Live.)

The subgenre of BDSM, and its wider genre of erotic romance, is a constant source of debate within the romance community, which includes a lot of feminists. Is it “okay” that some women have rape fantasies? Is it a sign of pathology that some women like to read about being tied up and whipped? What about women who aren’t content to read about it, but actually participate to a greater or lesser degree in the BDSM lifestyle? Is Dr. Drew correct that BDSM is abusive and the women who participate in it need help? (Hint: No, he’s not. Also, his wife is a lot smarter than he is.)

I, and many other romance writers/readers, feel that you, and you, and you and you and I have a right to read whatever the hell we want to, without judgment or condemnation from anyone else. That most of know very well the difference between fantasy and reality and that, if someone doesn’t, what books she chooses to read is the least of her problems. YKINMK – Your Kink Is Not My Kink – and if you have no kinks, well, fine, there are plenty of vanilla romance novels. (Two of the smartest, funniest, most thought-provoking romance blogs out there are Dear Author and Smart Bitches Trashy Books.)

Also, if you ever see me reading a romance novel, and you don’t know me so you give me the aforementioned “oh, I don’t read romance. I mean, there’s nothing wrong with it, I guess, it’s just so silly, you know? I like more serious fiction…” treatment, be prepared for me to quiz you on your fiction habits and the contents of your current TBR pile. If it includes more than one title from Oprah’s book club, more than two titles recently made into Major Hollywood Films, or anything by Jonathan Franzen, I’m a gonna be rolling my eyes. At you. At you.



*She’s my sister’s sister-in-law**’s sister-in-law.

**That would be Vickie the Blunt.

***And who knows, maybe copyright doesn’t matter anymore. St. Martin’s has just contracted for a Regency series based on the Brady Bunch (swear. to. God.)


Skip to comment form

  1. AHLondon

    You really must post more often.
    One quibble: I don’t read much romance, true, but in context makes it sound like I might be one of the nose in the air types. I want to be clear that I’m more worried about being labeled one of those book snobs than admitting that I read anime fan fiction. I won’t throw stones. The story over the prose is writing’s function over form. Updike wrote beautiful prose no one wants to read. Meyer wrote simplistic prose that masses devoured. Skillful prose is powerful, but won’t save mere poses.
    Calvin has covered art snobbery more than once, but this is my favorite:
    So I share your peeve. I am also fascinated by the types of women that are reading 50 Shades–the twisted logic of feminists who claim the virtue of feminized men but then want dominance in the bedroom. I found a clip compilation of Mad Men on women. At the end Draper quips to the guys, “At a certain point, seduction is over and force is actually being requested.” So it is. But I could have sworn that feminists hated the Don Drapers of the past. I figure that they just want dominance as an act, a pose. But they’ve beaten men into submission on such things. As for those who still resist–well this is a dangerous game to play with someone bigger and stronger than you. Like I said, the whole thing fascinates me.

  2. KinseyHolley

    As to the anime fan fiction – I completely understand. That’s why I compared our plight to SF and Buffy fans. Romance is not the only genre that gets the Dangerfield treatment.

    As to the feminists who thrill to tales of female submission…yeah, that could take up a thread or a hundred. I think it’s been discussed at Smart Bitches a few times. I wouldn’t mind getting a discussion going over here but I don’t know if anyone who frequents my blog would want to venture into those waters.

    Just to be provocative, I could point out Sandra Tsing Loh’s article on her divorce, and her friends’ reactions to it:

    that said, it’s clear that females are dissatisfied—more and more, divorce seems to be initiated by women. If marriage is the Old World and what lies beyond is the New World, it’s the apparently stable men (comfortable alone in their postfeminist den with their Cook’s Illustrated and their porn) who are Old Worlders, and the Girls’ Night Out, questionnaire-completing women who are the questing New Worlders. They most embody what Tocqueville described as America’s “restless temper,” or l’inquiétude du caractère. (Interestingly, according to EnlightenNext magazine, some northern European women are reportedly eschewing their progressive northern European male counterparts and dating Muslims, who are more like “real men.”)

    I could also point to the Pickup Artist Community phenomenon, and Vox Day’s recent article aimed at Peggy Noonan’s tsk tsking of today’s young people.

    But, as I said, that would be provocative.

    Glad I have the big, hairy, handy, sensitive-yet-gruff-and-manly Hub, and that I’m not 26. Wish my legs were 26, but not the rest of me.

  3. AHLondon

    I want to have that discussion! Links please. If you don’t want to have it here, I’ll host at my place. And by the way, you write werewolf erotica–and you don’t want to be provocative? Isn’t exploring the root causes of erotic thought an important thing for erotica writers to understand? Or is the industry like anesthesia, we know what works but not why?

  4. claire

    I’ve seen all the hoopla surrounding these books and have been pretty perplexed by the whole thing!

    I also havent read the books and wont be doing so as I feel very uncomfortable about the fanfiction/plageurism element – I think its theft, plain and simple – and there are enough problems in the book industry with illegal downloads etc without authors borrowing other people’s characters & sticking them in new situations.

    Plus Bella really annoyed the crap out of me in Twilight proper – I really don’t want to read about an ‘echo’ of Bella flouncing around in a new story.

    There are plenty of more interesting books out there that are original and fun to read & don’t nick someone else’s characters and I would much rather support them with my hard earned pennies (there would be one more if you’d finish Seth’s story – hint, hint!)

  5. Leslie C. Ferdinand

    So I must be the only one on the planet who just heard about 50 Shades of Gray. I mean, seriously, I didn’t know what it was until I was invited to participate in an ad campaign centered around the phenomenon of 50 Shades for my erotic romance that I self published. Without reading it, I have been searching for clues on WHAT about the book had the ‘it’ factor. I would love to see/participate in a discussion about why feminists like tales of female submission. I kept in mind what a strong, independent women would go for as I wrote the story. But then I had to remain true to my characters. I wondered if feminists and independent and self-sufficient women are so used to taking charge and standing up for themselves, that, behind closed doors, it is easier to give up control. In private, with just their man, no one can judge them or accuse them of allowing a man to control them

    1. AHLondon

      I’m terrible about following threads. I just saw Leslie’s comment. Did you find a discussion? I’ve been musing that it has to do with permission sex, i.e. modern thought on rape turns on express verbal consent so along with other modern metrosexual man behaviors, they always ask for permission, which is sometimes appropriate but boring in repetition. Women can get deferred to so often that they have no sense that a man really desires them, so they need to spice things up a bit.

      Kinsey, I’m finishing up my fan fic post for Ricochet. I hope it goes well. I’m linking here for your copyright point.

  6. Flirt mastery Ebook

    Love it!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

* Copy This Password *

* Type Or Paste Password Here *