Book: Fifty Shades of Grey

I thank the folks in my local LGBT group for introducing me to this trilogy about a love affair between a dominant man and vulnerable young woman, with lots of kinky sex throughout the book. It was a hot topic during one recent discussion on LGBT in media … more like a side conversation since it’s not an LGBT story (but it does have some BDSM). There were supporters of the book series and detractors and a lot of folks in between. The enthusiasm for the books inspired me to look into it more.

Wow! Having a #1 Best Seller as your FIRST NOVEL!

Before buying the Kindle edition of this book, I did some research on it. I was impressed. “Fifty Shades of Grey” was E L James‘ first published novel, and it hit #1 on the New York Times Best Seller list. Wow! I bow my head in respect and hope the literary gods would similarly bless my writing efforts. I wanted to learn how she was able to accomplish this literary feat on her first try, so I could hopefully be equally blessed.

Like most of us, E L (Erika Leonard) put her writing dreams on hold for work and family. She is a former TV executive, wife and mother of two living in West London. “Fifty Shades of Grey” is her first published novel, but it started out as a piece of fan fiction. (Hmmm… sounds familiar. My SOW series started out as Star Trek fan fiction.)

From “Twilight” to Spotlight

Initially written as “Twilight” fan fiction in 2009, she was asked to remove her story from the fan websites because it was thought to be too erotic …. eh, really? (Such light-weights!) I have only started reading it but I would not exactly call it erotica. I think that’s more hype than anything. Unless “Twilight” fans are sexually immature & sheltered, but I have a hard time believing that.

After getting the cold shoulder from fan sites, she reworked the story, changed the character names and posted it to her own website. It became a viral hit using mostly word of mouth and social media for publicity. HAH! Take that nay-sayers!

In May 2011 she published “Fifty Shades of Grey” for the first time as an e-book thru a small publisher (The Writers’ Coffee Shop) based in Australia. The 2nd and 3rd books soon followed in e-books and print-on-demand: “Fifty Shades Darker” in September 2011 and “Fifty Shades Freed” in January 2012.

The titles hit #1, #2 and #3 respectively, on the New York Times bestseller list despite it being sold mostly as an e-book! In March 2012, Universal Pictures won a bidding war for the film rights, paying $5 million for the trilogy. And as interest in the USA markets began to increase, Vintage Books picked up the license for the books and re-released a revised edition in April 2012.

Don’t we all wish our first novels could be this well received?!

But is it really that great a book series?

Eh… it depends on what you want out of it. Naturally. Some of my friends who are strong supporters of the trilogy, came right out and admitted that it wasn’t great writing. Most of the interest generated was due to the numerous and kinky sex scenes, depictions of BDSM and other unusual sexual tendencies on the part of the main characters. If that is all you are interested in, then buy the books!

However if you are looking for a literary masterpiece, then hold on to your money.

Critics have a lot to say as usual. Besides complaining about the poor writing quality, calling it anything from juvenile to atrocious, they also called it highly repetitive, using the same phrases over an over again. There were others that criticized the use of British English terms, even though the main characters were supposedly American. Some even went so far as to criticize the writer, calling her a “sexually deprived middle-aged woman“. Ouch!

Okay. From what I have read so far of “Fifty Shades of Grey“, these are valid points… except the name calling (so unprofessional). But I too (at one point) suffered from a lack of an extensive vocabulary to draw upon when writing. And while I think that I’ve improved a lot in that area over the years, I’m still self conscious about repeating words or not knowing more than one way to say something. The Thesaurus has become my best friend.

So what was E L’s excuse? No Thesaurus in England? And if she didn’t know how to write in American English then just make the characters British. There. Problem solved. I don’t think all these complaints, legitimate as they are, are all that terrible. Unless you are an English teacher, I don’t see the sub-standard writing in this book as a big hurdle toward enjoying it’s overall story.

Is it really erotica?

The trilogy is being marketed as romance & erotica. Hmmm… I don’t think I would agree with that. To me, erotica is an artsy mature portrayal of sex & sexuality, more high quality and a step up from pornography. But as with most things, its all subjective.

You might read “Fifty Shades of Grey” and be shocked by the sex scenes, or not. I wasn’t.
You might be stimulated by the main characters and their unusual situations, or not. I wasn’t.
You might be bored to tears, especially if your own real sex life is a lot more interesting that what’s mentioned in the book. I can see that. Maybe I would consider it erotica-lite.

So why is it a #1 New York Times Best Seller?

Well it’s obviously not the great writing 🙂

Some have suggested that it’s popular because of the taboo subject matter. The dominant/submissive relationship between the main characters is not something that is talked about everyday at the water cooler. And apparently the books are a huge hit with the middle-age (sexually deprived?) moms out there.

I’m still trying to figure this one out. Other than the obvious … sex sells … I don’t have an answer to this question.

So does this mean that anyone with mediocre writing skills can publish a #1 best seller?

Why am I busting my ass to improve the quality of my stories and writing technique if thousands of readers are willing to overlook those failings in favor of a good story? or semi-good story … mediocre story … maybe weak?

I don’t know the answer to that one either. I’m sure some books with mediocre writing and weak stories had become wildly popular and sold many many copies. I suppose it all depends on what is important to you.

Is hitting the Best Seller list your goal? Or selling thousands of copies?

For me just writing a great story that others can enjoy and relate to is my goal. But a $5 million movie deal would be great too! 🙂

– KRR

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