Sunday, December 15, 2013

Why is “50 Shades of Gray” so successful?

The success is undeniable: I have seen the thick tomes of this trilogy piling up high in airport bookstores across the USA. In spite of that, many say that the books are poorly written, that the story and the characters are unrealistic, and that the sex scenes are repetitive and boring. As for the sadomasochists themselves, most find it outrageous the way the book depicts their lifestyle (for example, see https://fetlife.com/groups/50700 ).

I found out about the success of “50 Shades” in April, as I was giving the final touches to my own erotic novel in Spanish. The news made me happy because my novel has a lot in common with “50 Shades”: it is also a love story that revolves around the subject of sadomasochism, it is told from the point of view of a 20 year old woman who starts of as a virgin and its plot has lots of action and many unexpected twists. However, the two books differ radically in their worldview. Because of that, I have been asking myself if the success of “50 Shades” forecasts the success of my own work. I list below my own ideas about why “50 Shades” has been so successful.
  • The plot really moves, there is suspense and tension from beginning to end. In any work of fiction the key to success is to create a conflict the engages the reader emotionally. In “50 Shades” the conflict is based on two opposed characters, the innocent Anastasia and the perverted millionaire Christian Grey, who have very different goals. Grey wants to turn Anastasia into his submissive. Anastasia wants Christian’s love and has conflicting feelings about whether she wants to participate or not in his sadomasochistic games.
  • Sex is much more interesting in the context of a love story. This is the key to the success of the romance genre, so attractive for women. It’s a simple enough formula, so one has to wonder why it has been ignored systematically in erotic novels. In most of them the characters are passionate about some particular erotic activity but they don’t fall in love with each other, and when they do their love is doomed from the start. For example, in “Story of O” it is hard to believe that O is really in love with René, and Sir Stephen announces emphatically that he does not love her or expects her to love him. The same can be said of other erotic classics like “Emmanuelle”, in which love is always distant and superfluous to the plot. In fact, many erotic stories take a rather cynical view on love.
  • The tension between the two main characters carries itself well into the sex scenes. Anastasia wants to let herself be seduced by the Gray’s sadomasochistic fantasies, but she is too proud and too afraid of pain to submit to them. This way, when a sex scene finally occurs it takes place under so much tension that a simple spanking produces a great emotional impact on the reader. This way, it is possible to arouse most readers without hurting their sensibility, as it might happen if harder sadomasochistic scenes were used.
  • The reader is made to identify with the protagonist by the clever use of fiction writing techniques. This includes setting Anastasia as the only viewpoint: we experience the story from her subjective point of view. True, there is also a weird combination of the use of the first person and the present tense, which I find highly unrealistic - it is impossible for the protagonist to tell us what is happing to her at the same time it is happening. However, the same approach has been used in other highly successful novels, like the “Hunger Games” trilogy, so there must be something to it… Another important thing is that Anastasia is presented as a common girl - only well into the story we start to realize that she is uncommonly beautiful and smart -, so it is not hard for the reader to crawl into her skin, specially is the reader is female.
  • Good presentation of the internal conflicts of the protagonist. The external conflict between Anastasia and Christian Grey translates into an inner conflict inside Anastasia, which lends depth and credibility to the story while at the same time increasing its emotional impact. Anastasia is torn between her attraction to Christian and the clear signs that he may be dangerous. This internal conflict is narrated by creating two characters inside Anastasia’s mind: her “subconscious”, which in reality is a Freudian superego embodying social conventions and repressive education, and her “inner goddess”, a facet of her personality that wants to freely pursue pleasure, beauty and adventure.
  • The plot is unpredictable. In fact, I was convinced that Anastasia would sign Grey’s submission contract. It is surprising that she successfully resists, given the power unbalance between her and Grey. The fact that the story does not go where the reader expects it to go keeps the suspense to the end.
  • Fabulous wealth exert an almost pornographic attraction on many readers. This is something I don’t share - I find that ostentation of wealth is in bad taste - but I seem to be different from most people in this regard. It is true that being rich opens the door to many wonderful experiences, like flying a helicopter or a glider, but poor people can have nice adventures, too. Wealth also works to create the power imbalance between Grey and Anastasia. However, I find it disappointing how at the end she lets herself being seduced by money despite of all her protest to the contrary.
I wouldn’t want to finish this post without pointing out some of the most grievous shortcomings of this novel.
  • The second and third books of the trilogy are much worse than the first. In fact, many of the good qualities that I listed above vanish in the second book, where the plot becomes bland and predictable. I’ve read that the third book is even worse, but I was so disappointed by the time I finished the second that I didn’t think the third was worth expending my money.
  • The literary quality of the novel is low. There is too much repetition of some words, set phrases and metaphors. There are also some serious grammatical errors (my favorite: “cariña” is not a word in Spanish!). And, although some of the sex scenes in the first book are exciting, some other appear over and over again without variation and end up being boring.
  • Its view of sadomasochism is incorrect and negative. It is important to point this out because this book is so often presented as an introduction to sadomasochism for the general public. The opinion of the author on this matter seems to be the same as Anastasia’s: some mild games like spankings, blindfolds and light bondage are OK as foreplay - what she calls “kinky fuckery”. But authentic sadomasochism, the one that uses instruments like canes or paddles able to deliver intense pain, or uncomfortable bondage, not to speak of the psychological games of dominance-submission… those are only for sick people! In case we had any doubts about that in the first book, the second makes it abundantly clear that Christian Grey is mentally ill, and so are his trainer Elena and all the women that submitted to him before Anastasia showed up to save him. And so this book perpetuates the stereotype of the mentally damaged sadomasochist, the idea that he or she is a person who has been damaged by serious abuse and seeks to reenact it. Sadomasochists thought they had defeated this damaging and untrue stereotype when psychologists stopped classifying sadomasochism as a mental disease, but this books does it best to resurrect it and broadcast is widely.
  • In fact, the relationship between Grey and Anastahsia is clearly unhealthy and abusive, but for different reasons. Grey is pathologically jealous, possessive  and controlling. However, the book presents all this as good things, as asigns of love. The relationship he forges with her presents many of the telltales of psychological abuse, including secrecy, guilt-trips, isolating her from her friends, putting her in an environment that he absolutely controls and managing all the key essential aspects of her life (work, house, money, transportation, etc).
  • The book also presents an old-fashioned, sexist view of couple relationships. In this view jealousy and possessiveness  are mistaken for love, it is perfectly justifiable for a man to stalk a woman, to control her life and to deprive her of her friends. Moreover, the book shamelessly reinforces sexist stereotypes: the woman (Anastasia) is weaker, poorer, defenseless and more ignorant than the man (Christian Grey), and the best thing that can happen to her is to end up marrying him… in the church, of course!

1 comment:

  1. I admire your commitment to the craft.

    I once tried to read The DaVinci Code in an attempt to learn why the book is so popular, and maybe I could extract some key to success for my own writing.

    I got about three chapters in and decided I didn't care enough about success to finish reading that book. Life is too short!

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