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.)