50 Shades of Nothing New

bow tie

I figured that since so many journalists and broadcasters keep interviewing me and asking me for quotes about the recent publishing phenomenon of 50 Shades of Grey, I thought it was time I put in my two pence’ worth right here at my blog.

Now I’m the last person to rain on anyone’s parade, especially another author’s. Those of us who toil in this usually thankless and poverty-stricken profession know all too well how difficult it is to make a living, let alone garner the kind of phenomenal success now being enjoyed by 50 Shades author E. L. James, who, up until this time, wasn’t even a professional author (and there are many who would argue that she still isn’t). However, as a writer and editor who does quite a bit of work in the area known as “erotic literature” or “erotic fiction” or “erotica,” I’m truly in the dark as to what all the fuss is about.

James’s novel (and their many continuations) focus on a BDSM relationship between a “submissive” young woman and a “dominant” man. The book evolved from her fan fiction site for Stephenie Meyer’s bestselling novel Twilight. Though unlike Twilight, 50 Shades of Grey has lots of sex in it.

Explicit sex. And some of it is considered kinky depending on what church you go to.

Err… okay. So what? Is this anything new? Has no one ever written these kinds of novels before? Has no one heard of the similarly themed classic The Story of O? Has no one seen the gazillion erotic novels that have been published over the last few decades detailing precisely the same plotline, replete with salacious details? Has no one noticed the amount of explicit sex to be found on the pages of what are considered to be “mainstream” as well as “literary” novels, not to mention “women’s fiction”?

The fact that 50 Shades appears to be geared toward women readers also seems to have raised eyebrows. I guess all those Black Lace erotic novels written by women for women never existed, not to mention the many similar publishing imprints that have been doing the exact same thing for years, all vying for the exact same audience – an audience which appears to be reading content that has now become commonly known as (*gags*) “Mommy Porn.”

What I’d like to know is, where have all these goggle-eyed readers and journalists been living – in a cave? Even if you’re sweet sixteen and have no literary history under your belt, a visit to the local bookshop or a perusal of the steamy books on offer at Amazon will be sufficient to educate you that these kinds of novels have been around for eons. Some are well written, some poorly written. But this phenomenon is nothing new. For the media and reading public to suddenly make out as if Ms James has invented the erotic novel is a slap in the face for the multitudinous authors both past and present who have been doing the same thing – and quite possibly doing it better!

Of course many of these authors are hoping that the huge success of 50 Shades will translate into greater success for their own books. And perhaps it will. Whether it does anything to improve the actual quality of material being written remains to be seen.

Frankly, I have my doubts.

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20 Responses to “50 Shades of Nothing New”

  1. Dana Says:

    Sad that it has taken fans of ‘Twilight’ (from what I gather ANOTHER poorly written novel) to bring an entire genre to the forefront. I’ve enjoyed reading since I discovered Rice’s semi-underground works several years ago.
    I do find it entertaining, however, that there is another book called ‘Shades of Grey’ about teenage suicide and the authors have been being booked for each others interviews.
    …wonder how a psychologist will respond when questioned about ball-gags and/or butt-plugs ;)

  2. mitzi Says:

    I suspect the mistaken identity author is enjoying the mistaken purchases of her book lol!

  3. Patrick Whitehurst Says:

    I wondered about headlines that proclaimed ‘women are reading erotica’ as if they weren’t. I was always under the impression women filled out a larger chunk of the demographic than male erotica readers in the first place. That particular spin on the success of Shades is boggling. The reality, in my opinion, is that no one can figure out what set these books on fire. And many would like to do so literally. I’m on chapter 3 and scratching my head. Having read the Twilight books, I have pegged the mirror characters, but not the buzz. I’m very happy for the author, however. She’s done something that set herself above the rest, though she might not even know how it happened.

  4. Pat MacEnulty Says:

    Great blog – starting with the title. I haven’t read the book and probably won’t. I did read Story of O though. And yeah, this story line is certainly not new. Will 50 Shades be remembered by people 30, 40 years later? Who knows?

  5. mitzi Says:

    I’m going to stick my neck out and say, no, Shades will NOT be remembered in 30-40 years time.

  6. Jody Says:

    Well said. It’s a sad state of affairs; I have yet to meet a neighborhood mom who took the time to go through her Anais Nin phase.

  7. Jeanne Ainslie Says:

    The uneducated mind is doomed to reinvent the wheel. The mob mind moves like a beast with no understanding of quality.

  8. Charlie Cornelius Says:

    The phenomenon is, of course, nothing new. There are still hundreds of thousands of people who are convinced that J K Rowling invented the fantasy genre, was the first author to write about a wizard school, etc etc. Why did those books take off like the proverbial rocket and outsell the likes of Diana Wynne Jones? Why has everyone suddenly gone so crazy about Steampunk when it originally appeared in the 1970s and was old hat by the 1980s. The reading public is a curious beast and they can, I suppose be forgiven for their ignorance, especially those who only pick up a book because they are told it is the latest trend. What is unforgiveable is the press. Journalists should know better. Nothing wrong with celebrating a success, but neither would there be anything wrong in pointing out, as Mitzi has done so ably here, that there is invariably a long and venerable history to any genre; that any given book ringing the bell at the top of the bestseller lists only got there on the back of often much better written books of a similar nature.

  9. Sheila Says:

    I’ve read the trilogy. It got me through a nightmare train journey as I giggled my way through the heroine’s inner goddessing (hm, must see if that works) and the hero’s priapism. I also counted the ‘jeez/oh my’s/biting lips/mentions of hero’s ever changing eyes.’ The writing style is execrable, but maybe the books have tapped into a zeitgeist triggered by today’s brutal realities. I’m not offended in the slightest by the sexual/BDSM themes. In the meantime, I’m back to my classic reading :)

  10. Zander Vyne Says:

    I’m in total agreement about the book series (but like everyone else, I’d love to find the key to creating a huge hit – though I’d pray my efforts produced something of better quality). I’m stuck on my dislike of the term “mommy porn. When women embraced books featuring strong, spunky women in adventurous stories, these books were labeled “chick lit”. When women started publically dating younger men, they were labeled “cougars”. Now, we’re stuck with this asinine term? Why does the media denigrate women, and things women enjoy? Why are all these terms belittling? Is there daddy porn? Why not? How about Dude lit? Anyhoo…bit of a rant there. Does this bug anyone else?

  11. mitzi Says:

    These terms bug the hell out of me too. They are offensive to women. But then, what else is new? Our entire society makes a living out of denigrating women in some way, shape or form.

  12. Sephera Giron Says:

    Well, as someone who has been toiling as an erotic author for years, this turn of events is indeed startling. I do hope some of us enjoy the spillover but I’m not holding my breath. I have a series of erotica based on the signs of the zodiac published professionally. I’ve had a couple of mass market books, some under my real name, others not that are erotic and some sm. This market has been around for eeons. I remember having one of my first short stories published by Blue Blood and Canadian customs wouldn’t even let my own work across the border. Times keep changing. I’m still writing. I would love to know what her secret was…

  13. Madeline Moore Says:

    Thanks for sticking your neck out, Mitzi. You said it all in a reasonably cool rant. I wouldn’t trust myself to do the same. I think the success of “50 Shades . . .” is the result of synergy + spin. Not many professional writers pen fanfic (who has the time?) or if they do, they don’t admit it. She isn’t the first author to evolve from fanfic to pro, but she’s certainly the first to do so in such a spectacular fashion. If it’s true that she attracted a huge fan base before publishing, she’s a lucky mother. ‘At home mother’ that is.

    Of course before she decided to stay home and raise her kids and jump on Stephanie Meyer’s back, she was a TV producer. As someone who’s written scripts for TV, I can tell you that NO-ONE knows spin like those folks.

    In 2009 I wrote a novel about a naive young woman who falls for a dominant older man. It’s one of those Black Lace novels you mentioned and of the three I wrote before BL was shelved, it’s by far my most successful. It’s called Sarah’s Education. The cover is so pretty Black Lace, now unshelved (thanks to the success of “50 Shades”) is using it as its temporary logo.

    Perhaps I should thank James for the resurrection of Black Lace but I don’t want to. I want to say that I, too, stayed home to raise my kids. I wrote “Sarah’s Education” as fanfic for “The Story of O.” Now, homemakers EVERYWHERE are talking about my book. I’m blown away by its success. There’s a bidding war on, as I write this, for the movie rights.

    I want to say that but it isn’t true. It’s an amateur attempt at spin. Except for the part where I stayed at home to raise my kids. “Sarah” wasn’t written as fanfic for “O” but, like the “gazillion erotic novels” you refer to in your post, it was most likely inspired by it.

    Otherwise, well, the movie rights to my book are available and somewhere, maybe, a couple of moms talked about it. But I can’t give you the names of the film companies vying to produce the movie version, nor can I give you the names of those moms. But – wait a minute – has the buzz that makes such claims about “50 Shades” provided that information? Not to my knowledge.

    Spin, baby.

  14. mitzi Says:

    We be spinning! As for sticking my neck out, I have noticed that many writers who work in “erotic fiction” seem to be fairly closed lipped on these kinds of things, probably for fear of either offending or upsetting someone. Me? Just call me the erotic Martin Amis. You won’t find my lipstick print on anyone’s backside. :-D

  15. Madeline Moore Says:

    You rock.
    Oh apparently that comment is too short to be acceptable. Hmm.
    You really rock, Mitzi.

  16. Jeanne Ainslie Says:

    Good for you, Mitzi! We erotic writers don’t kiss *** unless it’s all part of the game.

    Jeanne Ainslie

  17. Melody Lane Says:

    Great blog, Mitzi! I’ve been asked about the 50 Shades books because I’m an erotic romance author. I struggle with my answer. It’s hard not to sound jealous or mean-spirited over another author’s success. You brought out many points that I agree with. Cheers.

  18. Glori Says:

    Hello mitzi!

    I’m so glad I found your blog! I’m very new in writing erotic fiction, but I’ve been reading it for a loooooong time. Call me a very small-time writer (at the moment) ;)

    It’s only just recently that I learned about 50 Shades.

    After I finished reading it though, I can see why some (or lots) of erotic authors would feel the same way you do.

    I mean it doesn’t even come to par with what Emma Holly could cook up or what Lori Foster and Susan Johnson can do. But hey, that’s just my opinion.

    But I love the fact that someone who started just by simply writing fanfiction can get BIG. I mean, it gives a lot of hope for poor lil ‘ol me. :) When I found out that she started with a Twilight fanfiction, I went, “So it COULD happen!”

    FULL DISCLOSURE: I started writing fanfictions before getting hired to write bits of erotica for very measly prices. -__-

    I really enjoy your blog!

  19. Naima Says:

    I really do not understand the avid interest but hey, it’s reading. In my day, The Story of O by Pauline Reage (a pen name) was good, outstanding really. I can remember images and scenes from that book, and not only the explicit sexual scenes. Anais Nin wasn’t all that sexy to me; beautiful writing but… Anyway, from all the talk and scandal and the comments here, too, I doubt Shades of Gray will ‘stand up’ over time. I do think her books should be available in libraries.

  20. mitzi Says:

    The Story of O was very good, and it can be taken seriously as a literary work. I doubt anyone will say that about 50 Shades! :-D

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