In Defense of Fifty Shades of Grey and Twilight

I didn’t want to have to do this, but the literary snobs have backed me into a corner, and now I feel forced to defend two books I dislike: Twilight and Fifty Shades.

In case you weren’t sure, I’m about the last person on earth you would catch perusing the romance or erotic fiction sections of Barnes & Noble (at least with any intent to buy). I am also about the last person on earth you would catch writing in the genre. It’s just not for me, the way g-strings and high heels and country music and olives aren’t for me. If you like those things, though, that’s awesome, because it means someone who produces them is making a living, while you remain one happily fed and entertained motherfucker.

But there are a lot of people–writers in particular–who look down their noses at books like Fifty Shades and Twilight. I mean, who hasn’t taken a swipe at that low-hanging fruit? I know I have. I’m lazy and don’t have long arms. That’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it.

But why do we do it? Well, I guess it’s because these books offend our sensibilities. We ridicule the not-so great writing and the ridiculous characters and proclaim the end of literature at large if books such as these can get so popular. We shake our heads that such junk can make so much money. And, of course, we are always so damn certain we can do better, and many of us have set out to do just that.

Of course, I don’t think any agent or publisher is specifically looking for someone to improve upon two series that have collectively made them billions of dollars. No one will ever confuse E.L. James and Stephenie Meyer for Donna Tartt or Margaret Atwood, but I don’t think that was ever their intention.

But why are books that are so regularly decried as poorly written or trash so very successful? Well, as William Munny said in the wonderful Unforgiven, “deserve’s got nothin to do with it.” And I could leave it at that, but I figure I’ll dive a little deeper and provide some actual reasons.

1. That Fresh Car Smell (at the right time): Carp all you want about the BDSM “Mommy Porn” or the sparkly “vegetarian” vampires betwixt the pages of Fifty Shades and Twilight, but up until that point, there really wasn’t anything else like it on the mainstream market at the time. Oh, there were books with sex. There were books with vampires, but none quite like these. Like all successful products of either culture or commerce, they filled a gap in the market in a way that wasn’t being filled before. Yes, there were tablets on the market before the iPad, but Apple designed it in such a way that made us actually pay attention and want one.

These books made people talk, either in spite of or because of their less-than-stellar writing (and it’s TALK that sells). Even their covers were different for the time. Alluring, striking, different. No flowing hair or pouty faces. It was all pure symbolism and clean-lined simplicity. These books very likely appealed in many ways to people’s need for simple, unassuming comforts in a complicated and depressing post-9/11 world, and countless authors and publishers have copied that stark simplicity ever since (er, Hunger Games, anyone?)

Keep it simple (and sexy), stupid.

2. People Want Taboo-Based Escapism (but not too much): It isn’t enough to just make your characters have sex. They need to be having a different kind of sex, the kind most people don’t have. But it can’t be TOO different. I don’t imagine a story about furries would hold the same appeal. There was kinky sex in Fifty Shades. The kind with rules and rituals and an element of naughty danger that seems downright scandalous to your average housewife who regularly consumes magazines like Cosmo and Glamour, hoping to find more tips to spice up her bedroom. However, it wasn’t so extreme it frightened off that intended demographic. It merely gave them a curious and safe peek. Going into full-bore gimp-suited ball gag territory would have relegated it back to the underground world of literary porn from whence it came. By the same token, Twilight appealed to the inter-species romance taboo of a young girl falling in love with a creature long associated with blood-sucking gothy hissing fang-baring psychopathy. You might not like exactly what Meyer did with her vampires, but the point was she did something DIFFERENT at the time. Just as E.L. James (using the Twilight template) brought S&M to the mainstream. Not to say other authors weren’t attempting to do the same, but these lightly taboo works happened to find the right set of eyes at the right time, and them’s the shakes.

Kinky. Gentle Kinky.

3. Style Doesn’t Matter (much): Look, I love making and reading awesome, lyrical, inventive sentences brimming with voice as much as the next book nerd. Words are fun, and I think writers should try to have fun with them. If you have a stylistic gift, fantastic. But when it comes to the buying public at large, at least the segment of it that will make you ten of millions of dollars, that kind of flashy stuff just isn’t at the top of the priority list for many readers. They aren’t looking so much for panache as they are clarity among ideas, plot, and characters. Sometimes so much clarity they’re downright transparent. So transparent you can see all the gears and pulleys turning, and it fills you with a comforting sort of familiarity that doesn’t force you to strain your brain too much. You just settle in and enjoy after a long ass day. People reading for this sort of escapism in particular, they want the literary equivalent of a standard Chevrolet, something they can hop into, know where all the buttons and dials are, and just dash down the well-worn path to wish fulfillment. Writers like Meyer and James and the people who published them understand this and they very keenly understand their audience. Even if you don’t care for the characters in their stories, they are at least fully-formed and recognizable, and the stories follow an easy-to-read track. And within that template, they managed to make those characters do something just different enough to feel refreshing.

If you think your own version of an erotic or vampire story is more worthy simply because you can make your words sound prettier, then you’re kind of like the five-star chef cooking up foie gras and duck confit in an elementary school cafeteria. You’re not paying attention to what the audience actually wants. Sure, have your style cake, but if it’s making your story too impenetrable for everyday readers, then you might not be able to eat it too.

Yeah, it’s a little “meh,” but it’ll get you there.

4. It Looks Easy to Do (but trust me, it’s not): Storytelling using simple, non-flashy prose depicting tropey characters doing predictable and formulaic things looks easy because it reads easy, but I can guarantee you it isn’t easy at all. It’s deceptive that way, but it’s actually the hardest thing in the world for an author to get out of his/her own way and just tell the damn story. Some authors have a knack for it right out of the gate, while others develop it over time after enough editorial wrist-slappings (I’m still working on it). That isn’t to say their stories will always be something you particularly enjoy. Maybe it’s because their characters are saying things and making choices that just don’t sit right with you, but that’s separate from being able to actually objectively say “I can comprehend this story and see its characters and what they’re trying to do easily enough in my own head. Full stop.” Sooooooooooo many stories just do not pass this seemingly very simple sniff test. Some of them get published anyway, but most of them do not. Whether you like them or not, Twilight and Fifty Shades both accomplished this feat, and given the millions of people have read them, I would say they did it remarkably well.

It sounds like a backhanded compliment, but trust me, it’s not. I may snort at some of the lines of dialog and bristle at the ridiculous themes, but I bow down to those two ladies for doing what so many writers and aspiring writers struggle to do every time they sit down to write. Until you can accomplish that feat even a little bit, you might want to keep your snark somewhat in reserve (I said somewhat…).

It’s just that simple.

So there you have it. Reasons why Twilight and Fifty Shades made (and continue to make) billions of dollars. Is it sad the mainstream at large doesn’t appreciate more “literary” type work? I suppose. But then again, we all have a favorite niche, but we ALL need our popcorn, and it comes in a variety of flavors. Stephenie Meyer and E.L. James earned their paychecks, and not only that, their incredibly lucrative bodies of work have helped publishers and countless midlist authors earn theirs. I might not be into whatever they’re peddling, but as a writer, I’m glad they’re doing it.

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