So when a book hits big, I take a look at it. Because I want to understand why. Why it’s struck such a chord with readers. Why everyone is talking about it. Then, I want to know what I think about the story. It’s a way for me to engage with culture, tap into a cultural understanding, and respond. In some way, I enter into the dialogue. I’m part of the conversation. And I like that aspect.
Every one of those books expanded my thinking in ways I’d never dreamed possible. I could see what it was that drew the reader in and gripped them, creating the buzz that sold that book and probably the next and the next, because I felt it. I experienced it for myself. Plus, I’ve now become a die-hard fan of many of these writers.
The story may not have been one I’d have chosen naturally. It might not be my preferred reader fantasy, however, because I was willing to take the ride, I learned something new, something I would have been closed to otherwise. And I like that. As a writer, I want to understand the appeal--what makes this book a bestseller. And why readers love it so much. But more importantly, I want to understand why I like it and what about it moves me.
I’ve heard writers tell me again and again, “I’m too busy to read.” It makes me sad to hear this statement. Because when we’re too busy to read, we’re too busy to understand culture and to engage in what’s moving the people who stand next to us at the train station and who live next door to us. We’re too busy to stay connected and relevant with our own society. And when that happens, I think we become ineffective writers.
Even last night when I visited the used book store, I was standing in the science fiction section looking for a China Miéville book when I heard three women who were searching for Ann Bishop books talking about Fifty Shades of Grey. Who would have thought it could happen? Science fiction-fantasy readers talking about an erotic romance? The cross genre appeal of this book (trilogy) has been staggering.
And now, because I've read it, I know why.
First, let me say that at its heart, Fifty Shades (the book and the trilogy) is a romance. The story is boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back. Period. In that respect, it’s romance. Yes, the sex gets hot and has crossed the line into erotica. It’s dark at times. And it’s not my preference in a fantasy. That being said, one of the main points the characters (and thus the author) make is that this book allows readers to safely explore their sensual limits. Bingo! That’s a huge appeal for readers.
Isn’t that what the whole reader experience is all about? We safely explore situations and worlds to find and possibly push our own limits--even our sensual limits, if we extrapolate the definition of sensual to include our five senses. It’s why we read. To feel. To sense. To understand what makes us human.
In romance, the journey is often about love--what makes us love that one particular person. In Fifty Shades, Christian Grey is a compelling character. I’d say his woundedness drives the book. We want to understand why he’s become the man he is and how Ana’s love is going to heal him. For me, that’s what drove the whole book and made me buy book two (and three).
One thing I’ve learned over the years is that a reader’s response is complicated because as humans we’re complicated--we bring all of our life experiences to that story, whether it’s a book or movie. And, often, our life experience and preferences shape whether that particular story works for us, if it taps into our fantasy--the fantasy we want to explore in a safe way.
So, a few questions to ask yourself:
1.) Are you engaging in the culture by reading or going to the movies or watching television? Yes, it all counts! What medium other than books captures more attention? Movies/television.
2.) What kind of fantasy are you providing your readers?
3.) Do you know what fantasies a reader of your genre wants?
4.) What makes your story/writing compelling? Is it the character? The plot? The world?
5.) Do you give your reader the satisfying off-limits experience they want?
If you’ve read Fifty Shades of Grey, I’d love to hear about what you found compelling. Or, just comment on reader response--yours or what you find from those who read your stories. Let’s start the discussion.