Saturday, July 7, 2012

Fifty shades of the same old same old

One way to judge just how phenomenal a cultural phenomenon is, is to start typing the person/scandal/film etc into Google and see how many letters it takes to predict what you are looking for.

Right now typing "5" into Google brings up 'Fifty Shades of Grey' - an impressive one character score which handily beats 'Jesus' which requires three characters to predict.

This is the novel which, unless you have been living in a darkened room with a blindfold on (a bit like the heroine of the book probably), you will know is the fastest selling book of all time - excluding Harry Potter.  A remarkable achievement for a book which is aimed only at the female half of the population and which, unlike the Potter series, is not being bought by the vast young adult market.

I haven't read any of the trilogy but I am always fascinated by the phenomena of bestsellers and have read a few articles like this one: Why women love Fifty Shades of Grey.

The thing that interests me about the story of Fifty's success is not its adult content but rather the fact that it has been universally panned as a piece of writing, even by its readers who have then proceeded to rush out and buy the other two books in the trilogy.

We are not just talking about some highbrow (and probably jealous) literary reviewers slagging off the quality of the prose.  Dan Brown's 'Da Vinci Code' and JK Rowling came in for this kind of criticism but people were still captivated by the story and the fictional worlds the authors had created.  Most of us recognise that the popularity of a book has little to do with elegant writing of the kind that say Sebastian Faulks* is capable of.

* - great author but with a woeful Google test score of 10

But the criticism of EL James' novels is of a different order.  It's not just the prose style that gets a pasting.  I saw one article which estimated that 95% of online reviews were negative, criticising the plotting, characterisation and even the much-hyped sex scenes.

Just look at the parodies that are springing up such as "Fifty Sheds of Grey" on Twitter which is an inspired collection of snippets from the book as written by a gardener.  Sample: 'I lay back exhausted, gazing happily out of the shed window. Despite my concerns about my inexperience, my rhubarb had come up a treat . .'  or 'Lady Christina bit her lip as she eyed my dripping brush.  Somehow I knew it wouldn't be long before I was touching up her gazebo'.

The book is a joke, but  an amazingly successful one.  Obviously the press hooha about the adult content and the natural desire to see what all the fuss is about are now driving the sales to warp speed, but there must be some core appeal particularly to explain the success of books two and three.

Distilling all the explanations I have read about what this appeal might be, it seems that the romance rather than the eroticism is the key: how will the relationship between the two leads work out?  Will she?  Should she?  In other words the staple content of all romantic fiction since time immemorial.  The genius lies in the choice of a novel and daring device for creating the romantic tension: the hero's dubious sexual predilections.

Readers can read a very old and hackneyed fictional form and feel they are reading something fresh, original and controversial.  It's the same trick that works in every field of entertainment - put a new twist on an old favourite - but it's devilishly hard to do so hats off to EL James.  Now back to the parodies:

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