The 50 Shades Phenomenon

25th July 2012

You guys know that historically, romance isn’t my genre, but you also know I won’t go all Judgy McJudgerson no matter what you like to read. On the Picky Girl Facebook page, we recently had a great conversation about 50 Shades of Grey. Some chimed in saying they enjoyed the books. Others said they were curious but couldn’t get past the writing. Others were just baffled by the huge predominance in the media. I call it the 50 Shades Phenomenon because selling 10 million copies (and counting) of any book in 6 weeks is extremely rare. The fact that the novel in question is erotica makes it even more so.

I remember when 50 Shades first crossed my radar. Everyone on Twitter was up in arms because ABC News called it “mommy porn.” I was instantly reminded of this great scene from Friends where Joey finds Rachel’s “book,” shouting, “You’ve got porn!” In a television show that talked openly about porn, so much so that there is even an episode where the guys can’t turn off the TV because they have free porn, it’s telling that Joey is so shocked at Rachel’s erotic novel. Because women aren’t supposed to like that, right? Harlequin and other romance publishers are laughing at that misconception all the way to the bank.

50 Shades of Grey isn’t necessarily doing anything different, and I have to be up front and say that I haven’t read the novels. However, I know enough about romance novels and have heard from others that the novels aren’t anything new. So why the fuss?

The covers are an interesting place to start. They’re fairly innocuous, and Vintage Books states in this article that they thought the “discreet, tasteful covers” would reach new readers, particularly readers who may not typically buy romance novels because of their racy or ridiculous covers. The ebook promotions also de-stygmatized the novels, allowing even the novice romance readers to feel comfortable.

But to really be fair, the success of 50 Shades of Grey began with its fan fiction ancestor, Master of the Universe. The series started as Twilight fan fiction. This is so smart. With fan fiction, you have a pretty loyal base. Very often, the barriers between author/readers aren’t there, so E.L. James seemed to have a pretty loyal following. Fast forward to publishing, and these same followers not only know and love the story and quite possibly, the author, but they are also willing to shell out some dough for the real deal, particularly since post-publication, James had to remove the stories from the website and make slight changes. Plus, these people have online presence. They’re already online and likely already plugged into reading communities where they’ll spread the love.

But fan fiction admirers alone could hardly drive over 10 million sales. One Facebook poster asked why women who ordinarily wouldn’t read romance would pick up 50 Shades of Grey. For anyone who has ever worked in an office with other women, you know the answer to this one.

  • The office reader discovers 50 Shades on her ereader (which, by the way, has increased the amount she reads.
  • Reader devours the trilogy.
  • Reader feels a little shocked and a lot “naughty” for having read something with BDSM.
  • Reader suggests the trilogy to a couple close work friends.
  • Work friends express disinterest in reading.
  • Reader assures work friends they will want to make time. *wink wink*
  • Work friends who don’t traditionally read give books a try, reassured by innocuous covers.
  • The flames are fanned.
  • The media gets hold of the news.
  • Articles abound discussing the sex lives of women (“The Book That Made Women Want Sex Again!“) and the run on rope at hardware stores.
  • The curious delve in.
  • The scoffers read it and dismiss it.
  • and…
  • And…
  • AND…

The power of a non-reader recommending books is powerful. People know how much I read, so they tend to scoff or dismiss my recommendations because I read so much. A non-reader recommends a book? People listen. It happened at my gym last week. Two women were talking about the series and about how they never used to read until they got a Nook/Kindle. Then another woman came in, asked what they were talking about, and in hushed tones, they initiated her into the 50 Shades club. She threw up the argument that she doesn’t like to read, and they quickly corrected her idea. “But you have to!” “You’ve never read anything like this.” And she probably never had…

I also found this great infographic from PBS, “The Evolution of the Romance Novel.” I really really love seeing the evolution of the covers. It definitely speaks to the changes in society and in taste. What say you?

Click to view larger graphic
The Evolution of the Romance Novel from POV.

  • I don’t normally read romance either. I doubt I’ll read the 50 Shades series either — but your comment about the recommendation from a “non-reader” is right on the money. I heard a lot of this kind of comment a lot when Harry Potter broke big, from people who “normally don’t read kids’ books… but these are really good.”

    • I’m telling you, don’t underestimate that power. It’s crazy how quickly they can round up support. And they phrase it just as you mention. It’s really interesting to me.

  • Fantastic post! Loved your thoughts/commentary/analysis and I think you’re spot on. A real life friend msg’d me on Facebook to ask my opinion of this trilogy and I think I’ll link to this post in my response — it’s fascinating the way this trilogy has grabbed the media.

    • Thanks, Audra! And that’s exactly what I’m getting at. I’ve had SO many people ask me about the series because they know I read. I tell them what I know, but they’re so darn curious. How could you not be after all the buzz?!?

  • signalwatch

    In considering why the Joey’s have been pointing and laughing: even before the internet, people consumed porn in mass quantities. It drove the creation of the home video market, created the DVD market, and pushed the development for a bigger, better internet. Much of this innovation was to avoid the necessity of hitting “news” stands or theaters. The bottom line is that you can’t win an argument on the side of porn, except for that of the free market making the decision. So, yes, it’s smug self-satisfaction to know that the same demographic one associates with shame-blasting you since you were 13 for wanting to see a boob somewhere outside of National Geographic is now huddling in corners and passing around a book the way a pilfered issue of Penthouse made the rounds in middle-school. Also, of course, the knowledge that this same audience will feel they’ve broken all sorts of taboos when, seriously, there’s a range of similar better stuff out there that this audience will shirk away from in self-prescribed modesty. The popularity of the books isn’t liberating to the audience. Erotica and porn is already out there. The success of the book and the decision that the sheer popularity of the book indicates social acceptance of this one artifact is a sign of the hypocrisy in attitudes about what we decide is appropriate for other people to consume.

    • Agreed, particularly in terms of this one socially-acceptable instance.

      I would argue, though, that it’s rather socially acceptable for men to watch porn. I’d go back to pop culture references to it as something ordinary; whereas for women, it’s taboo or deviant. Take a look at some of the articles I linked. No, it’s not necessarily liberating in and of itself, but go to a grocery store and look at the women’s magazines. I guarantee, without looking, that at least three will have some title boasting “Make Him Happy” or “Give Him Pleasure” or some such nonsense. These books are touted as giving “her” pleasure, and I think that’s part of the draw. Women are tired of being told to give him pleasure, whether or not that’s happening in their own bedrooms or not.

      It’s titillating to be told this book is about a woman’s pleasure, and by all accounts, the BDSM is pretty light. The sex was described in one article as “tender.”

      As you mention, there’s already a ton of erotica and porn out there, but many many women aren’t there yet. Or if they are, it’s something that’s kept quiet.

      I would also say that yes, it isn’t liberating to the audience, but in a woman’s personal life, it may just be.

      • signalwatch

        I agree that it’s more socially acceptable for men to “use” porn – but that’s largely the implicit approval of other men who know better than to throw stones in glass houses. I’ve always read the covers of Cosmo promising sex tips to be a sign of the unsated libidos of readers who see the sex tips and the Agony Column as a safe release valve rather than getting over the societal hump of dealing in straight erotica or porn. Given that the magazines are largely run, edited by and consumed by women in an open market – it’s an easy target to pitch suggestions of an imagined patriarchy enforcing the rules – but it’s also a lot of scapegoating self-conscious and self-regulating behavior. I salute the internet for the anonymity it provides and the weird lemming-like migration to the occasional erotic novel for giving the audience a safe outlet. But I also think that once you recommend the book to your pals, you have to hand in your card that let’s you ever give someone grief ever again for perusing late night Cinemax.

        • Yes. That’s exactly what those magazines are doing. Skirting the main issue, so to speak.

          I think that porn, in general, has such a stigma attached that most people think reading it and viewing it is very different. And it is. In one, you’re reading about fictitious people. In the other, you’re watching real people.

          There are so many many spaces this could go, but I’ll frame it this way: in terms of someone reading it or watching it, I see no difference. For me, it’s problematic for exactly what I mentioned above, real v. not real. But that’s a different conversation.

  • Your analysis is fantastic. I did actually give the first of these a try and I was disappointed by how much it *didn’t* measure up to the standards of romance I normally go for. It is really the social acceptance driving it, but of the women I know who have gone crazy for it who don’t ordinarily read (there are 4), not a single one of them has actually picked up another book in the same genre. So I am hesitant to say it’s actually liberating.

    Also, the covers on that infographic amuse me, mainly because the 2000’s covers have at least one book that’s not romance, but a fantasy series that has some romance in it. They probably should have chosen actual paranormal romance instead. ๐Ÿ™‚

    • Hmm. I’ll have to go back and look at the infographic. I love the “nurse” covers. Guess that was a very sexy job to have with the white uniforms and little hats. Scrubs aren’t quite the same, I guess.

    • heidenkind

      From what I saw of the documentary, that’s not surprising.

  • My mom is one of those work women who started reading the series because her female coworkers were reading it. This is also what caused her to want to go see Magic Mike. Generally speaking, I think people want to connect with others in every way they can. For those who aren’t avid readers and book bloggers, people read what others are reading so they can relate and talk about it. When the Fifty Shades trilogy started getting attention because of James’ already large fanfiction following, everyone else wanted in because they knew there would be others around to discuss it. Of course that doesn’t make these good books, but I’m starting to lay off that part of the discussion. People like what they like. I’m rambling too much now so I’m going to stop, but in short, I agree with you. Brilliant post.

    • You’re definitely right that people want to connect to others around them. It just usually seems to be less common when it comes to books.

      As for how good they are, I don’t know. But recently, when I read an article by Michael Cunningham, he picked out several passages he loved from books. I was not at all a fan and found them wordy. Just goes to show, to each his (or her) own.

  • heidenkind

    “The power of a non-reader recommending books is powerful. People know how much I read, so they tend to scoff or dismiss my recommendations because I read so much.” Aha! So that’s why my brother never reads the books I recommend to him, even though I know they’re perfect for his personality. Blah.:(

    I consider myself a romance reader, and I don’t think 50 Shades is a romance novel. Or a BDSM erotica novel, for that matter. I’m a little dumbfounded by its popularity, honestly, but on the other hand I do have to say IT’S NOT BORING. And a lot of books ARE boring, or have boring parts. Even a dedicated reader like me is ready to admit that. Maybe if more books were less boring 50 Shades would have more competition.

    PS-Did you see my post on the Guilty Pleasures documentary?

    • How would you classify it, out of curiosity??

      And you’re so right about boring books. Even books I would say are good may have really boring sections.

      I didn’t see that post, but I’m going to go look in my reader to find it.

      • heidenkind

        Twilight fan fiction.

  • I was in the “scoff” camp until an author gave me a different perspective on the phenomenon. Her book has garnered some comparison to 50 Shades, even though it’s very different (it’s incredibly well-written, for one thing), but when I asked her what she thought, she said that she was glad that 50 Shades was leading people to her book. So, like you said, regardless of how good 50 Shades is, it’s getting non-readers to pick up a book, and hopefully that will encourage them to continue reading and recommending new books to friends, and the whole thing will snowball in the best possible way.

    • Exactly. We saw the same argument for the Twilight books, and people still argue that there’s something “less” about those readers because they’ll *only* read that type of book.

      But frankly, I don’t pretend to be all lit fic all the time. I read what I want, so why should I care if others read what they want? Who’s keeping score??

  • Ti

    Love that timeline. I remember reading Johanna Lindsey when I was only ten or so and it seemed so naughty! I learned so much! LOL. However, now I know it all and I know I’d find it all ridiculous so I don’t plan on reading any of the 50 Shades books.

    I think for the most part, women like to be a part of something and if it means reading these books and then finding time to talk about ’em then I’ve no issues with that.

    • Haha! You were quite the kid.

      I think you make a great point that someone else touched on – we like being part of something. We like to be “in” on it. Nothing wrong with that. it’s human nature.

  • I am one of those readers who picked this up ONLY because I could get to read it on an e-reader. The first book was okay, the second was meh till about middle of the way through when the plot starts to pick up, pretty much nothing is happening so far in the third book so far.

    And that’s my problem with these books. To me it just reads like a string of sex scenes (some well written, some absurd), with very little going on otherwise. This is my first experience with “erotica” and so I don’t know if this is per norm or not. But by the mid of the 3rd book, I am really just skimming through the pages, and may not even finish it.

    • Interesting to hear what the progression is like. So no major arc? That would likely bother me too.

      As for the “first experience,” I think that just means you need to figure out what erotica really is & post about it! ๐Ÿ™‚

    • And crap, I did not intend to put the words “first” and “experience” in quotes but “erotica.” I assure you I’m not being a smart ass. Instead, a dumb one. ๐Ÿ™‚

  • I love all the points you make — especially the power of non-reader recommendations. Maybe I should pretend like I never read if it’ll get people to actually listen to me when I push a book on them!

    I’ve heard that 50 Shades is in talks to become a movie, and I’m really curious how that will pan out. I haven’t read the books, but I’ve read enough articles and excerpts to think the relationship won’t translate well to the screen — but then, I found the main romance in Twilight to be more creepy/controlling than romantic, too.

    • Ha! Now that’s a plan for sure.

      Yeah, Sony bought the rights, but like you, I have no idea what that movie would look like…

  • Ryan Stonge

    I know! What is it about non-readers that makes their recommendations turn to gold?

    • Because non-readers tend to have lots of non-reading friends. When they do something out of the ordinary, like read, others tend to sit up and take note.

  • Fantastic post Jenn. I’ve been holding off on commenting because I’ve actually been reading this one and just finished with it last night. I wasn’t going to post a review but after finishing I feel I must. I am SO incredibly fascinated by this phenomenon and just can’t wrap my head around it. But you make some really great points here and one that had me nodding my head the most is the one about non-readers sharing with other non-readers. YES. I do believe that has so much to do with it. For me it was also the hype of it all. I gave it and HAD to know what the fuss was all about. And frankly–I was a little bored with the book and won’t continue on with the series (or at least don’t plan to right now). I’ll continue to watch this phenom with curiosity–I don’t think we’ve seen the end of it for a long long time.