As Jane and I have been discussing, and as she noted at DA, 50 Shades of Grey has been collecting the type of media exposure that publicists have fever dreams about. From HuffPo to the Today Show website and television broadcast, to the NY Post and various Fox affiliates in New York and San Diego, the story boils down to: women are reading this book, it's become exceedingly popular, it's a sexually-focused romance, and the women featured share a few things in common, most notably that it's a wonderfully arousing book for them.
I didn't like the book myself, but if you liked it, and it turned your engine, more power to you. Go on with your happy reading self. Since women's sexuality and reproductive health are under political attack here in the US of WTF, anything that supports a woman's right to satisfy her own sexual curiosity is all good with me.
Moreover, I am certainly not trying to imply by asking why this book is popular that, if you liked this book, there's something wrong with you. There's not. And I wish there wasn't so much implication in the coverage that there is something bizarrely alien about the popularity of a novel (particularly a novel popular with female readers).
Yet the fact remains, one of the questions I've seen (and been) asked is, “Why is this book, 50 Shades of Grey, so popular?”
Well, if anyone can answer that, there's a few dozen publishers who would likely pay a lot of money for that information on What Makes a Viral Bestseller (With Accompanying Huge Media Exposure). It's mostly impossible to really define why one book is popular, particularly one surrounded by ethical concerns and one which even the fans who adore it openly state is not well written or edited. The media coverage doesn't really help with that, either, since it focuses on the fact that women are spreading the word about it because they find it so tantalizing and, frankly, arousing.
I have a few theories as to why this book is popular. It has a secrecy element, for example, similar to some paranormal romances and their avid fanbases. It's also not at all surprising that 50 Shades and Twilight share a few plot themes, specifically that secrecy and the temptation inherent in the world of both narratives, and the alpha male who is opulently, ridiculously wealthy, Volvos optional. Plus, Edward, as I wrote a few years ago, and in many similar ways (again, surprise surprise) Christian are both very much old-skool-style romance heroes. 50 Shades (and Twilight, obviously) are also told from the heroine's POV, a very deep, first person, detail-heavy point of view, and the narrative is also akin to reading a diary, adding to that sense of illicit secrecy.
But the point of divergence between them is that secret — and this is not to say that at this point 50 Shades become a wholly original piece of fiction. It is not, considering how much of the character types are based on Stephenie Meyer's work.
In Twilight, the secret world and the key to entry is the knowledge that Edward is a vampire, knowledge only Bella, and by extension the readers, initially share. In 50 Shades, the secret world focuses on sex, specifically Christian's secret room and his sexual expression through BDSM. Sex, in many senses, is the initial conflict of 50 Shades book, and is the obstacle between the characters initially as well, and thus becomes a focus. So the secrecy is layered and complex.
Also, and this is more difficult to define, some writers just write books that have crack embedded in them. They are compulsively readable for many, many people. JR Ward's Black Dagger series has been described as “cracktastic.” The Hunger Games trilogy was equally difficult for some to put down, as was the Harry Potter series. For me, sometimes it's particular authors: Johanna Lindsey has terribly compulsive crack in the writing. And for many, Stephenie Meyer had that same addictive prose that grabbed readers. So perhaps it is also somewhat logical that James' writing, which is so heavily founded in Meyer's work, assembles those same elements to much the same effect — with the added element of sex, and what is perceived as kinky sex at that.
The thing is, and this has been discussed in many places, 50 Shades isn't really that kinky. There are BDSM romances that not only portray the BDSM elements in a more accurate and explicit manner, but also portray it as something that doesn't need to be “cured.” Moreover, the sexual play that is present in this book barely scratches the surface of what's explored in other BDSM romances.
Yet the sexuality of 50 Shades, and reader arousal, is the part being focused on by the current reporting. Women are turned on by this book – and are talking about it because of that fact, and because they couldn't put it down.
The danger is discussing the arousal of readers, and the women in the articles thus far have not been shy about that (more power to them), is that it so easily leads to the, 'Oh! So romance IS porn!' presumption. Romance isn't pornography. Romance novels can sometimes be arousing physically or emotionally, but they are not pornography. Moreover, 50 Shades is like a romance in that it focuses on courtship and attraction, but I don't think many other romance novels would appeal to the same audience currently devouring 50 Shades. Readers suffering book rebound from 50 Shades are probably more likely to pick up the sequels or reread the books than search for something similar – though there is always Twilight.
And even though I don't necessarily want to engage in more of the “did this book turn you on” discussion, at the same time, I'm quite tired of female sexuality and arousal as subjects to be controlled as tightly and legislatively as possible, or something to be pointed at, laughed at, and shamed. Rush Limbaugh can publicly call someone a slut for using birth control, and that's the topic of news coverage. Women openly discuss that a book that has aroused them, and it's reported from a mocking perspective — I wish the media coverage about the book would focus on something slightly wider in scope than, 'Oh, look, wealthy women are turned on, isn't that cute.' (I also wish Dr. Drew had decided not to categorize BDSM as “disturbing” and state that the scenes in this book equate to “violence against women.” Geez, dude, think or at least read something about it before you talk out your ass). About as difficult to answer as the question why this book is so compellingly popular is the question why female arousal can't be treated with some frank curiosity, and not mocking fear.
Ultimately, I think 50 Shades is popular because of the combination of elements and the foundation it “borrows” from Twilight, among them the very mysterious and barely glimpsed alpha-male point of view, and the presence of a very innocent heroine being inducted into a secret, sexually charged environment. Moreover, the scarcity of paper copies and the absorbing qualities some readers find in the story, as well as their own reactions and desire to share the recommendation with others in an exclusive environment, contribute to the increasing coverage. But all that leads back to the question of why Twilight was and is so popular – and whether that formula can be repeated with any additional success for anyone else. In other words, it looks like Twilight is still popular.
Why do you think 50 Shades is increasing its viral word-of-mouth, and with it the media exposure? If you read it, what is it that you think is compelling, or perhaps even arousing about it, or Twilight– or any other book you couldn't put down?