When a new book series emerges from the swill of online fan fiction to sell 250,000 copies, dominate the New York Times e-book bestseller list, and earn lucrative ratification from a mainstream publisher, the humble reviewer’s task is inverted. Instead of asking whether the series has qualities that could make it successful, the question is why it has already succeeded, and what this might tell us about changes underway in the world of books and readers.
To the context-innocent reader, the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy, by the English television producer Erika Leonard, aka EL James, is a piece of fairly undistinguished erotica from the darker end of the Harlequin spectrum. Its narrator, 21-year-old Portland student Anastasia (Ana) Steele, falls for “a man who’s beyond beautiful, richer than Croesus, and has a Red Room of Pain waiting for me”. The sexual tension between Ana and the mysterious young millionaire Christian Grey runs for five chapters, followed by a first kiss in chapter six, sexual initiation in chapter eight, then 17 chapters taking Ana through a roster of sex acts in increasing order of sadomasochistic extremes. The enigma of Christian’s deeper motivation is gradually ratcheted up but left, by the end of book one, for books two and three.
Fifty Shades is neither well nor badly written. What it does tell us about its 250,000 readers is that they have a high tolerance for repetition. Christian does not move his head, but “cocks” it. He doesn’t smile, but “quirks his lips”. When emotions are strong, mouths “harden into a thin line”. Always. Ana’s muscles “deep, deep down” are repeatedly “clenching deliciously”, and when they’ve done that “desire, thick and hot” is “pooling in [her] belly”. When she climaxes for the first time, she “shatters into a thousand pieces”. Two pages later, she “splinters into a million pieces”. When she’s utterly lost for words, she doesn’t detonate into a zillion pieces, fortunately, but is left with a simple “Oh my”, an italicised formulation that appears more than 200 times in my 360-page e-book version.
I don’t mean to mock writing that has no pretentions. EL makes no claim to be Henry. My point is that, for a book that has reportedly changed the world of publishing, Fifty Shades is overwhelmingly old-fashioned. It’s writing for people who like what they’ve already read, even one page back. The sex scenes contain nothing that couldn’t have appeared in Penthouse Forum 30 years ago. The power relationship between Ana and Christian is a disturbing throwback to times that are misnamed ‘innocent’. Twenty-one is the age James has given Ana, but only to make her legal. She has never been kissed, never had sex, never been drunk, never had a computer, never known her father, and is attracted by Christian’s looks, his money, the impossible hope that he might fancy her, and the growing suspicion that her love can save him from his childhood nightmares. For this she will contemplate becoming his sex slave. His own sexual initiation came as a boy, from a friend of his mother’s. In other words, Fifty Shades is a story of paedophilia, and sort of knows it, but isn’t above using its supposedly erotic potential. It’s as if American Psycho never existed and a gullible minor who met Bret Easton Ellis’ predatory Patrick Bateman saw his fantasies as a cry for help. What this says about the 250,000 readers freaks me out a little, but transporting readers to a child’s sensibility, even unwittingly, is a proven formula, and points to Fifty Shades’ origins as fan fiction for the Twilight series.
Pace is another requirement of the bestseller. James Patterson and Matthew Reilly are two bestsellers who engineer a kind of mechanical acceleration to the act of reading. Created with dialogue, short action paragraphs, short chapters and lots of white space, these books fly through the reader’s hands. Patterson’s novels are a hybrid of book and one-hour crime drama script; Reilly’s are video game, action thriller and comic book. With similar tools James achieves this skidding effect, which can be compulsive for a reader who has any kind of trouble stopping what they are doing. It’s not so much reading as a mind-experiment on people with OCD tendencies. On an e-book version, the reader can even enhance this ‘unputdownable’ effect by enlarging the type and reducing the margins. (Although, as an inexperienced e-book reader with an internet-supporting device, I was continually going to my browser to look up something about Twilight, James, Audi A8s or corded whips, or to check my email. The daydreaming undertow of a good book is easily lost when distraction is only a click away. It slowed me right down.)
In explaining its significance, Fifty Shades’ mode of production and other extrinsic factors say more than the books themselves. For all the hectic change-readiness of the digital publishing world, we live in profoundly conservative times, and it’s the archaic rather than the inventive qualities of Fifty Shades that give it such appeal.
Fifty Shades is a derivative of a derivative of a derivative. Initially, James wrote a novel called Master of the Universe, a retelling of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight with hardcore sex scenes, bringing Meyer’s characters out of childhood. (Hence the icky paedophile stuff – Ana Steele is just Bella Swan with a fake ID.) Master of the Universe appeared on fan fiction websites, collecting readers from the Twilight fan base, who snowballed when James re-tweaked it into Fifty Shades of Grey, published by the Sydney-based online publisher the Writer’s Coffee Shop.
Fan fiction, meaning unauthorised adaptations and extensions of published work, has found fertile ground online for it is, by nature, immediate. A citizen-author does not spend ten years crafting her Twilight spin-off, and no reader will wait that long. At the site www.fanfiction.net alone, there are nearly 2 million stories, including 465,000 Harry Potter, 130,000 Twilight and 45,000 Lord of the Rings fan fictions. All are free, and all instantly gratify the desire of millions of readers for more.
What’s now called ‘fan fiction’ and ‘user-generated content’ has long filled the publishing lists of romance and erotica. The genre is a blue whale of publishing, enormous but somewhat out of sight, successful in part because it lets the fans into the creative process. Every Harlequin reader is enticed to be a Harlequin writer. For mainstream publishers, fans who self-publish online may not be the future (as the 129,999 unloved Twilight fan fictions can attest), but it can rationalise inefficient practice. Two of the riskier practices of traditional publishing – slush-pile tasting and market testing – can be taken out of the equation, because they have already been done in the online self-publishing arena. So there’s an attractive cost saving for mainstream publishers wanting to jump on the bandwagon. The fans have voted! All a big publisher need do is reward the victor.
Random House, which this month is releasing the trilogy of e-books (Fifty Shades of Grey, Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed) as paperbacks and re-edited e-books, is clearly banking on finding yet more fans. The growing conservatism of consumers suggests they will. Sales figures show that risk-averse consumers herd towards the already successful. Readers who read a few books a year don’t want to take chances, and the best indication that a book is worth trying is that other people are already reading it. Even if they don’t like it, they won’t feel left out of the conversation. Consequently, a bestseller, whether ‘commercial’ or ‘literary’, now does not have three or five times the sales of the next echelon, but 30 or 50. As in the music industry, where downloads bulge hydrocephalically at the top end, the book trade has seen a clustering around the most popular titles. Perhaps Monty Python got readers in a nutshell: “We’re all individuals.” Consumption patterns are not fragmenting, but solidifying around the bestsellers. Armed with their Bookscan figures, big retailers and publishers follow this positive-feedback loop and re-order more copies of fewer books, these being the ones that entail the least risk. That’s why your choices are narrowing in a bookstore; that’s what drives you to Amazon and the Book Depository.
Risk is also embodied in monetary value, and here too conservatism is winning. Egged on by the lower cost base of digital production and the loss-leading power of Amazon and the Book Depository, consumers have broken the shackles of the recommended retail price and turned books into a commodity, bidding them down until they are all but free. This turns bookselling into a volume business, in which the winners are the leviathans that can achieve massive sales on tiny margins. So publishing turns into a game of picking that one big winner. In roulette terms, publishers who used to spread their chips prudently across the numbers will now put a massive pile on the red or black – hence Random House’s investment in Fifty Shades.
These terms of engagement would seem to have more in common with fashion than art. When reading and writing is increasingly about following – or, in the world of Fifty Shades, following followers of followers – it’s worth noting that James’ ultimate template is Tess of the D’Urbervilles. There the family tree takes root. That book, after being refused publication, appeared serialised in an illustrated paper, the London Graphic. Alternative publishing models have been around for a while. But Thomas Hardy was a risk-taker, not an imitator, and here he is, inspiring authors 120 years after his initial cold reception. Fifty Shades of Grey might be the future of publishing, for the next 15 minutes anyway. What then?
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