Another Fifty Shades Of Grey Post

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I’ve had a go at understanding the appeal of Fifty Shades Of Grey before, and, for some reason, I’m back for more.

There seems to be a lot of debate over why these books have such a breakout appeal when other books don’t. A lot of it is just the bog-standard unpleasant, sniggery condemnation of women writers and women readers, which has been around since people were making nasty remarks about George Sand’s personal life and hasn’t really slowed down since. We can file that under ‘misogyny’ and move on.

A lot of the more thoughtful commentary has come from the romance-writing and reading community, which is struggling to make sense of why a book whose plotline is basically ‘will this intense sexual relationship lead to long-term commitment?’ has been so hugely successful when other books go unnoticed despite being less repetitive, having fewer plot holes and not driving their American readers to complain bitterly that the British author didn’t do her research.

I think some of the problem here is that, like every other genre, the romance genre has a lot of weird legacy nuggets that afficionados step round with the ease of frequent visitors avoiding their Aunt Irene’s overladen trinket table, but that newcomers tend to stumble over and be discombobulated by. Harlequin / Mills and Boons, in particular, tend to specialise in ‘isn’t it romantic that the heroine is pregnant with multiples after one encounter with the hero?’ and ‘isn’t it romantic that she’s been forced into marriage as part of a complicated business deal?’ and ‘isn’t it romantic that amnesia?’ which may, very reasonably, cause readers to balk.

I don’t think it’s the whole deal, because Mills and Boon’s weird obsession with innocent virgins and tycoon heroes, for example, is right there front and centre in Fifty Shades as well. But I would not be in any way surprised if part of Fifty Shades’ appeal is that it doesn’t come out of that particular set of assumptions, and that therefore it feels fresh.

My best guess is that it’s popular because BDSM is one of those things, like finding oneself on the run from enemy agents or solving ancient mysteries, that has a much broader base of ‘people who like to read about this, even if they wouldn’t like it to happen to them in real life’ than of people who are interested both in reading and in practice. I remember when Anne Rice’s Sleeping Beauty books went round my university circle like an outbreak of flu, is all I’m saying. I also kind of suspect that for anyone who feels overworked and unappreciated, the fantasy of the kind of sex where you just lie there and are ministered to is immensely appealing.

In other news, another one of Team Beta has got back to me with helpful comments on Firebrand, and Heavy Ice is still moving along. I have a reasonably clear idea of how it ends: the trick now is to get there.

About Ankaret Wells

Writing, self-publishing and the strange search strings that lead people to my site.
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11 Responses to Another Fifty Shades Of Grey Post

  1. Ros says:

    “I also kind of suspect that for anyone who feels overworked and unappreciated, the fantasy of the kind of sex where you just lie there and are ministered to is immensely appealing.”

    I agree. And also the idea of someone else taking over responsibility for some of your decision making.

    • I do wonder if the grandfatherly omnicompetence of heroes like Christian and Edward is a sort of blowback against the deeply unappealing man-children who keep showing up as heroes in romantic comedies. Though that’s generally a film phenomenon, so I don’t know. It’s the same kind of thing as Lord Charlbury being the kind of man who can find a sedan chair in the rain when Augustus Fawnhope just stands there looking poetic and wet.

  2. Nineveh_uk says:

    My best guess is that it’s popular because BDSM is one of those things, like finding oneself on the run from enemy agents or solving ancient mysteries, that has a much broader base of ‘people who like to read about this, even if they wouldn’t like it to happen to them in real life’ than of people who are interested both in reading and in practice.

    When I was on holiday in July, one bold woman asked if any of her fellow hikers had read FSOG – we hadn’t. She said that she’d really enjoyed it, and that though it was repetitive, and after page 300 the sex just got tedious, it was immensely readable because you wanted to find out what was going to happen to the characters. Which doesn’t surprise me in the least. In the “oh, isn’t Dan Brown awful” and so on that surrounds these mega-sellers it is very seldom mentioned that while on some fronts they may be poorly written, the thing that they do do, they do brilliantly. McDonalds hamburgers may be poor quality, but it sells them brilliantly. It really isn’t a surprise that a real page-turner about a slightly glamorous/mysterious subject, with sex and/or mystery thorwn in, sells well. And yet the papers are surprised every time.

    • Yes: it’s like those YA novels where the characters spend all their time coming up with sarcastic retorts on the spur of the moment. (I know the OMT is ‘snarky’, but if I ever use the word ‘snarky’ in cold blood, come round at once and bring reinforcements to deal with the pods in the garden shed) It’s dull if you’re expecting a story and weirdly mannered if you’re expecting naturalistic dialogue, but saying ‘if you want plotless and weirdly mannered, why aren’t you reading Mapp And Lucia instead?’ is missing the point.

  3. “A lot of the more thoughtful commentary has come from the romance-writing and reading community, which is struggling to make sense of why a book whose plotline is basically ‘will this intense sexual relationship lead to long-term commitment?’ has been so hugely successful when other books go unnoticed despite being less repetitive, having fewer plot holes and not driving their American readers to complain bitterly that the British author didn’t do her research.

    “I think some of the problem here is that, like every other genre, the romance genre has a lot of weird legacy nuggets that afficionados step round with the ease of frequent visitors avoiding their Aunt Irene’s overladen trinket table, but that newcomers tend to stumble over and be discombobulated by. Harlequin / Mills and Boons, in particular, tend to specialise in ‘isn’t it romantic that the heroine is pregnant with multiples after one encounter with the hero?’ and ‘isn’t it romantic that she’s been forced into marriage as part of a complicated business deal?’ and ‘isn’t it romantic that amnesia?’ which may, very reasonably, cause readers to balk.”

    THIS.

    I’ve touched on this myself. However, what I’m noticing is that James used tropes that we often see in classic mysteries and sensation novels and even the gothic romances some women read today. I’m only on the second book and I could pick out what tropes she was using (my B.A. is in English, so that explains a lot) and which stories they came from.

    My problem with them is that they are simply horribly used. She obviously did no research into Tess of the d’Urbervilles and the themes in it, and here her main character is supposed to be this super awesome lit major, but who thinks Tess is a love story. Tess is not a love story; it’s about a young woman who is victimized time and again by those who are supposed to have her best interests at heart and how much it sucked to be a young woman of limited means and choices in Victorian times .The allusions to what happened to Tess at the hands of Alec d’Urberville were what really made me stabby because of the comparisons to the relationship between Christian and Ana when really Tess NEVER consented to sex with Alec; she was raped. This is even on Wikipedia.

    Also, there is a scene in the first book when Ana is experimenting with make up and wonders if her literary heroines ever had to mess with it. Um, yeah, they would have: Catherine and Isabella were wealthy women during the 18th century in Wuthering Heights and would have at least used powder and rouge, Catherine in particular since she was married. Also, don’t think the Bennett girls wouldn’t have used rouge at least when going to a ball, particularly since the mother was so eager that they attract suitors.

    The research was just so sloppy. Come on: all James would have had to do was ask Sir Google for help.

    And don’t even get me started on how blatant the allusions are in the second book, which I’m about a third of the way through right now.

    • I hadn’t made the connection about sensation novels until you mentioned it, but I’m now thinking why did I not see that all along? I’d even tentatively add silver fork novels, what with all the loving descriptions of Christian’s rich lifestyle and the central ‘what are this rich man’s secrets?’ mystery. (Also, I now have intermittent visions of Heathcliff kicking over the Thrushcross Grange kitchen table and announcing ‘The woman who gave birth to me was a crack whore!’ which I think may haunt me to my grave) And the mystery and gothic angles, yes! In a lot of ways Christian Grey is the heir of all those heroes brooding around in a Cornish fastness that you get in Victoria Holt.

      The Tess allusions are totally puzzling. I actually spent a while during the early part of the first book wondering whether it was all part of some kind of debate about consent that was going to be carried on throughout the book, or whether there was going to be a plotline about how Ana, who is trying to conceal her inability to cope with computers, bonds with Christian, who is trying to conceal his illiteracy.

      • First, Victoria Holt lover here, too!

        Second, there is a lot of dubious consent throughout the book. Ana wants to be with Christian so much that she’s willing to let him do whatever to her, and the contract very clearly states that while they are in the playroom, he can do whatever he wishes to her. As the dominant, he holds Ana in his complete thrall, since he is the “master of her universe” and per the contract, he makes all of her major life decisions for her (what to wear, when to sleep, when to work, what she should eat) and demands that she act as a submissive–or a servant would.

        Translate this to Tess. Since Tess is a servant in Alec’s house, she has to put up with his sexual harassment and forced attentions if she wants to keep the job, or else submit to him. Of course Tess, wanting to be a virtuous woman as society at the time dictated, is going to resist and not submit to him, which culminates in Alec raping her. Keep in mind she is quite naive and has no clue of what her parents had in mind in sending her to the d’Urberville house. As a sub, Ana must capitulate to Christian’s whims and desires in the playroom, even if she’s not up for what he wants. This is what makes consent in this book problematic and dubious at least (but you see a lot of dubious consent in poorly written fanfic).

        Also, I found the choice comparing Ana’s decision to commit to Christian and his choice of lifestyle with the strawberry scene in Tess to be quite crass. The strawberry scene has to do with force and coercion and degradation and foreshadows what Alec does to Tess. It bears no relation whatesoever to Ana’s choice to be Christian’s sex doll when Ana knows exactly what this entails.

        If you’d like to read the recaps, here is the link:
        http://persephonemagazine.com/?s=linotte+reads++fifty+shades.

  4. I hope you like them!

    I also apologize if I got into analyzing this too heavily, but if James wants to makes parallels between her work and certain classics, she needs to understand what these classics are about and the literary movements that drove them. And the comparisons between Christian and Alec d’Urberville made me hate Christian, because Alec was one sick bastard.

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