Sunday, June 17, 2012

Reader Response: 50 Shades of Complicated

So the latest buzz on everyone’s lips for weeks has been Fifty Shades of Grey by E. L. James. A few weeks ago, I decided to read it to figure out what all the hype was about even though it’s slightly beyond my usual reading preference. These days, I predominately read and write romance. So Fifty Shades, I thought, would be a stretch for me, since it’s erotica.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not a purist. I’m an academic at heart. I love to read. And for a romance reader/writer, I read more broadly than most. I was a reader before I was a writer. I’m curious. I do read outside my genre. Heck, I’m a recovering literature major, so I had to read a wide variety of literature during my undergrad days. I’m used to expanding my horizons.

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.

I read Stieg Larsson’s Girl with the Dragon Tattoo when it rocked the book charts and Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins when it blasted the book and movie charts. But, for me, it all started with Harry Potter and The Sourcer’s Stone and then the  Twilight series. I’ve read authors who are outside my genre just because I’m interested in what makes them work. I’ve read Jonathan Maberry who writes horror/thrillers, Tana French who writes mystery, John Scalzi who writes science fiction and Scott Lynch and Neil Gaiman who writes fantasy. And I’ve loved something about each one of them.

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.

The beauty of popular fiction (which you are writing if you write romance, women’s fiction, mystery, thrillers, horror, science fiction, fantasy, YA) is that it taps into popular culture. We can move the masses. We can enter into the discussion and become a voice for Everyman, we can connect people, and teach them. How very cool! All from writing novels and staying engaged.

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).

So, whatever you’re writing--mystery, suspense, fantasy--find what it is that makes your book compelling. Is it the character like in Fifty Shades and Girl with the Dragon Tattoo? Or is it the world as in Scott Lynch's books? Or the mystery the reader and the main character need to solve as in Tana French's books? Or is it watching the fear of the unknown or the known develop in front of you as in suspense and horror novels like Maberry's Joe Ledger series? Whatever it is in your writing, find your compelling areas and ramp them up. Give us more. Your readers will love it.

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.

What compels me to read a book may be different than what compels Joe Q. Public. But when you find the common (or uncommon) experience, put it out there. See how your readers respond. You may find your book strikes a chord and lands at the top of the bestseller list to sit there week after week. Yeehaw! But if you never engage, if you never know what’s gone before you or what your peers are writing, you’ll never get there.

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.


  1. Candy - Great post! I, too, always want to know what all the buzz is around something that becomes very popular. I'm about a third of the way through 50 Shades so I can't get as deep into this conversation as i would like to. But from what I've read, I agree that it is finding out what happened to Christian to make him the way he is that keeps me reading. To me, he is a fresher iteration of a vampire character - scary, sexy, compelling, irresistible - who is possibly leading the heroine to her doom.

    But, also, what happened to Anastasia to make her want to become involved with him keeps me reading as well. She seems to have some abandonment issues with her mother as well as with her biological father. The only stable family member seems to be her stepfather. Is this what makes her go along with Christian, who is scary at times?

    Also, the dialogue is very good. There is something deeper between them than just sex. And that makes it a complex, multilayered story.

  2. Yes, very insightful, Lisa. "[H]e is a fresher iteration of a vampire character--scary, sexy, compelling, irresistible--who is possibly leading the heroine to her doom." You are so right. I love your observation, because, Christian Grey is all of that as written in these books. He is dangerous to Ana and yet he takes care of her can really sees her. And we love it!

    And the funny thing about the abandonment issues you pick up on with Ana, they do exist, but not quite the way you'd think. When she and her mom are together, we see a loving mom who understands her daughter. The abandonment comes because mom has been married and remarried and remarried. At one point during her teen years, Ana lives away from her mom with her step father Ray. I'm wondering if the author didn't do this because Shades of Grey was initially fan fiction based on Twilight. In Twilight, which is a YA novel, the mom is removed and distant, in part, because if mom were nearby Bella wouldn't be able to exercise her independence quite as much. Not sure.

    I think Ana isolates herself because of her own choices and agreeing to the arrangement and the NDA. Because of the particulars of their relationship, she cannot discuss it with anyone. But, you're right, what about her makes her accept this arrangement? Not everyone would. In book one, she's pretty low on self-esteem (in my opinion) and puts herself down a lot. I'm hoping that she arcs in that across the three books--growing to be more self-confident.

    Excellent insights and comments. Thanks!

  3. I just commented to a friend who said she was starting the books that it's just a romance novel with explicit sex scenes. It's nothing new in romance writing.

    It occurred to me that the novel is a reiteration of the old style romance. When a young virgin left her father's house to have a sexual awakening by an older, powerful male. I've been running around commenting this so don't mind me.

    Christian Grey seems very creepy to me though. too controlling of Ana, too pushy. In short order he buys her a phone, a car and a computer so he can know where she is at all times. And despite her saying she doesn't want this, he keeps pulling her into the relationship.

  4. comingalive ~ Absolutely. He is creepy at times. And at other times he's sweet and endearing. The author uses the full spectrum. I told someone the other day that Christan Grey was the romance Alpha taken to the extreme.

    I love your comment about this being a reiteration of an old-style romance. I'd agree. I hadn't totally put those dots together.

    Great comments! Thanks.

  5. Great post, Candy. I agree, reading is fundamental.

    I read books AND listen to books in the car or while I'm working around the house. Just finished listening to the first 50 shades book. I read it for the same reason, to find out why the hype. And I did, and as you and others have said, it was all about the mystery of the man and the basic, old school romance at the core of it. Not just the kinkified sex. LOL. Though there was that . . .

  6. Hey Candy - I haven't dipped my toe into the Grey water yet, but b/c of its hype, I have been zipping through a bunch of erotica. For me, you hit the truth when you said 50 Shades and books like it allow for a safe space to explore pushing one's boundaries (in this case, sensual/sexual).

    A lot of romance deals with power issues - we've seen that play out as romance has evolved, esp from the 70s with the virginal heorine through the 80s with the working woman heroine, the 90s with the kick butt heroine, and now, where a heroine can embody all those aspects. BDSM, so far in my reading, puts issues of power on the front burner. The protagonists must talk through what their comfort levels and deal breakers are or the whole thing falls apart. I find it all fascinating. Fantasical, but fascinating!

  7. Great point, Evie . . . listening to audio books counts, too. I adore audio books. I buy a book in several formats. I'm an author's dream consumer. LOL. paper/kindle/audio . . . Go big or go home! But I never know what format I might need to continue that story in.

    Talk about 50 Shades of Complicated. ;0)

  8. Keely ~ You are so right. There needs to be a level of trust and understanding. It's not my fantasy--and I really hate, can I say that again, I really hate controlling men. Gee, I wonder why? Hmmmm. So there were things about Christian Grey's control freak side that drove me nuts and things I totally found fantastical for me because I would never in a million years take that from anyone. However, you are right. It is all about power. And I'm thinking there will be a huge power shift and an arc where they come to be equals (a girl can hope) by the end of the trilogy. I'll let you know!

  9. Hi, Candy. I too am fascinated by those certain somethings that make readers love certain books. That fascination spurred me on to study the possibilities and get my MA. Love it!

    When it comes to Grey, it's the reaction of writers and industry pros I find so interesting. Many blogs seem to proclaim that erotica has arrived at last. But so many folks point out Grey, in their opinion, is just part of a typical trend cycle.

    Folks called vampire novels passé after Anne Rice. Then there came Twilight to stir things up. So some industry pros are pointing to THE STORY OF O when the conversation turns to Grey. Grey is just the latest book of its kind to stir things up, they say, so that's why we hear about it.

    Maybe for us as writers--and as readers--the key is to be aware of the bigger picture of the past. And still stir things up! ;-)

  10. Candy, this post makes so much sense, about how important it is for us as writers to keep up with/stay informed about popular culture. I can be a laggard when it comes to that--Evie posted something a couple of weeks ago about Christian Grey and I had to google the reference because I didn't get it. :-) Thank goodness for gatherings around the "water cooler" at the office, where I can hear firsthand what people are watching and reading and why. One thing I find interesting is that more than one person has expressed the intention to "boycott" popular movies and books because they look upon the popularity as a "lemming" phenomenon, and don't want to become part of the Kool-Aid crowd. I understand the desire to be independent, but is it worth the risk of missing out on something exceptional? Thank you for the thought-provoking post!