The Fifty Shades Phenom: Fab or Fluke?

It seems that every couple of years, the publishing industry is struck by a runaway bestselling series. This season, as I’m sure you’ve noticed, is no different. First Harry Potter, then Twilight, and now… the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy. This phenomenon, however, is a surprising change from young adult, supernatural love triangles. First of all, this series is clearly for adults. Second, it’s erotica. Originally Twilight inspired fan fiction, Fifty Shades of Grey gained online popularity and eventually hit the big time. What are we to make of this new trend?

Well, I’ve turned to Shelley Taylor from Venus Envy, a unique sex shop in the heart of downtown Ottawa, for her opinion. Here’s what she thinks about the runaway success of Fifty Shades:

When Fifty Shades of Grey first became popular, what was your initial reaction? Surprised by the hype, or intrigued by the subject matter?

I don’t think I was very surprised that a book like 50 Shades has attracted this kind of attention in the mainstream. Every so often, a book or movie comes along that pushes the boundaries around sex and gets a lot of attention doing it. And to be so popular, 50 Shades has had to stay within certain social parameters while seeming to be outside of them. For instance, the characters fit an easy to swallow cultural norm or fantasy; he’s older, wealthy and good looking; she’s younger, inexperienced and pretty. They’re straight and end up in a monogamous marriage with a baby, so it’s really just a twist on the usual romance that we’re all so familiar with.

Have you read the Fifty Shades series yourself? (If yes, what was your impression? If no, why have you chosen not to read it?)

I’ve read bits and pieces of the series. I started to actually read the first book and the writing was so bad that I put it down and never got back to it. Since then I’ve read lots of excerpts and tons of reviews and critiques because I’m fascinated by the response to these books, but I’ve never been tempted to go back and read the whole thing.

Why do you think women are drawn to the characters and plot? Was the author simply creating a product for which there was a hidden or unknown hunger?

I think people like to read about sex in general and beautiful people having sex. And busy and perhaps bored people like to imagine that there’s a kind of sex they can be having where someone tells them what to do and rewards them for doing what they’re told. The idea of giving up control makes for some pretty exciting fantasies, for many people. And since kink doesn’t make it’s way into many books, even those with sex scenes in them, it’s a fresh sexy thing for people to read about. When it comes to sex, whether having it or reading about it, I think many of us enjoy novelty, so anything different will pique our interest.

Do you think women choose to read erotica or erotic literature, as opposed to watching film, because there’s a certain level of privacy in which we can hide our curiosity?

I think there’s a few reasons that women read more erotica than watching porn. Clearly, lots of women watch and enjoy porn, but I think that porn has mostly been seen as something for men, so women have been shy to rent and buy porn in stores. Now that porn can be had easily and anonymously, it will be interesting to see if more women will end up watching porn and perhaps reading less erotic writing. So I think that privacy has something to do with it, but also just expectations around porn being ‘bad’ and written porn being ‘good’. Many women feel that the women in porn are being degraded so they can’t just watch and put those feelings aside, but with writing, it feels harmless and therefore likely easier to enjoy. Also, some people prefer to read and let their imagination do a lot of the work rather than seeing every single detail on a screen. At Venus Envy, it’s mostly women who buy erotica but we don’t see a division between men and women renting and buying porn, but I think we’re unusual in that regard.

In your opinion, do you think Fifty Shades has the longevity to really have an impact on the sexual identity of its future readers? In other words, is this series a fluke, a one-hit-wonder, or could this be the beginning of a new and legitimate trend in women’s fiction?

Good question. When something gains popularity the way that 50 Shades has, you’ll always have copycats who want to ride the wave. But I would hope that if kink becomes a more mainstream aspect in writing and movies that the writers will actually do the genre some justice and not vilify people who practice BDSM as damaged, or just people in need or a ‘normal’ relationship. It would be great to see some of the highly respected and talented kink authors such as Patrick Califia, Laura Antoniou, and Carol Queen become more popular due to this series, but their work is a lot more challenging and real, so perhaps most people who enjoyed 50 Shades wouldn’t even know who they are let alone be interested in their work. I would love to see a popular novel that incorporates aspects of kink in a respectful and realistic (and hot!) way!

I’ve read some authors comment that Fifty Shades is rather tame, compared to classics like Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying. Do you think Fifty Shades has earned its “erotica badge”, so to speak, or does it lack a certain je ne sais quoi?

Perhaps what people are referring to is that Fear of Flying is pretty well written with characters who are fleshed out and who seem more real? Both books have lots of sex in them but Jong really captured her characters. Also she was one of the first to publish a book with a lot of blatant sex in it, from a womens point of view, that became popular. So many years later and we have a sort of watered down version with 50 Shades, not that there’s not lots of blatant sex in it, but that the protagonist isn’t Isadora Duncan in pursuit of her own liberation. That could be the difference, Isadora comes off as far more in control of her life than Anastasia is and that part is exciting, on top of the sex scenes.

As for earning it’s erotica badge, I think it’s definitely erotica but it’s just not very well written, which is true of lots of erotic writing, but most don’t become so popular.

8 thoughts on “The Fifty Shades Phenom: Fab or Fluke?

  1. I love this!! I don’t plan to read the books because I know the writing would kill it for me, but I AM curious about the book itself and why it’s generating such a buzz. Nice interview.

    • Thanks! I’m glad you found it interesting. This topic is everywhere lately. My co-workers are reading it; my friends are curious about it; it’s in the news. Fifty Shades is everywhere. Although, I have no desire to read them because, like you, the writing might be a turn off (pun intended). That, and I have this thing about female sexual slavery… it’s problematic in so many ways.

  2. You have done this at JUST the right time. Not only do I love Venus Envy (and miss it! Oh Australia, why you gotta be so far?), but the airports are just FULL of this book and I was beginning to get curious. I hadn’t picked it up (other than to read the jacket blurb) because of a niggling suspicion it would be horrible and that I knew too much about kink to enjoy it, and it looks like I made the right call. So thank you.

    Also, now thinking about tracking down Fear of Flying.

    • Well, hey there stranger! Long time no see! How is life in Australia? (I suspect it’s absolutely fabulous.) Fear of Flying is fantastic! I think you’d love it. Erica Jong is a hardcore crusader.

      Glad I could help,
      Lydia

      • Doing pretty well. My life is fantastic, but adjustment to transition is always hard. plus, trying to write a novel and paint and everything … well, it takes time to set up a pattern, and then effort to stick to it. But things are starting to fall into place, so here’s hoping.

  3. Pingback: Books left behind at Travelodge, the culture of selfies, and other interesting links | The Literary Lollipop

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