‘50 Shades’ – the phantom menace?

grey stuff and grey stuff and grey stuff

I know, using ‘50 Shades’ in the header will pull in all sorts of innocents looking either for more clips of lascivious lustings or critiques of same. Sorry. I consider it payback for having searches on this book permanently in my internet history and available to David Cameron, should he feel moved to inspect my homework. Which is still better than having it in my library, and that was a close thing.

‘50 Shades of Grey’ (‘Gray’, if you have the US version. Lucky you) is selling by the forest-load and getting the film industry in a tizz so I went for a look. Well, you would, wouldn’t you? It took a couple of minutes to see that the poll was divided into five star and one star ratings, and only a little longer to determine which camp I was in. You can read some of the reviews here, and there is another here. I haven’t carried out an analysis, but my impression is that the more articulate the comment, the more likely it is to be negative. Positive comments seem to come largely from people who, in their on-line postings at least, seem to be as linguistically impoverished and unskilled as the other lot claim the ‘50 Shades’ author, E.L.James, to be. No surprise then, that it has wide appeal when literacy is such an issue in our education systems, time is at a premium, and appealing to the common denominator is the most effective way to optimise sales.

You can’t knock that; everybody is entitled to have something accessible to read and that keeps them entertained. At least they are reading and that’s good news. The question of standards, taste, quality is multi-layered. Some of it is subjective – what you like is your business and telling you your preferences are not high falutin’ enough gets no one anywhere. The scaffolding though, is technique, skill, grammar, punctuation, vocabulary – all those tools good writers use to make whatever they write, readable for its audience. Even trashy content can be well-written trashy content.

So, to put my own cards on the table, I have read samples of this book.  I found it to be conceptually naive, and soul-shatteringly badly crafted – a teenager’s idea of romance (with a lot of being slapped around) that must have Mills and Boon shuffling up the sofa to avoid association. Other reviewers talk about repetitiveness, coyness of language, the limited range of its vocabulary, and down-right laughable sex scenes.

So how did it nearly get in my library? Fact is, I don’t know and Amazon can’t explain, but my receipt for a kindle download listed the book I had purchased – plus ‘50 Shades’, for which I had also been charged. Did I miss-click? Doubtful – I had the title and the author of the book I wanted, went straight to that page, and made a one-click purchase. No clicking around, no other pages upon which to make an unwitting hit, and nothing on the subsequent notification either. Amazon gave me an immediate refund and sucked the item back up the tube. But for a few hours it was a purchase, it was on my Kindle, and it registered as a sale. I wonder how many more times that has happened.

So, has your kindle ever been possessed by a phantom purchase? I’ve had a word with mine about going shopping on its own and I suggest you do an audit of yours – who knows what it’s been up to!

26 thoughts on “‘50 Shades’ – the phantom menace?

  1. I do not own a Kindle, so cannot comment on the phantom purchase, but poor you. After all the talk of this ‘novel’ I looked it up when I was in a bookshop recently, read the first few paragraphs, laughed, shrugged my shoulders and put it back, feeling that the world has gone terribly wrong now that the general public appears to have lost ALL taste in book (as well as music, may I add)

    This rubbish is what is selling, that along with the Twishite novels…makes you weep for the future…


  2. Suzanne,
    Really interested in your view on this. I remember a dalds Christmas lunch where you and a.n.other were getting misty eyed for the freedoms of the 60’s, and I think I was extolling the virtures of the world wide web in vein. The www has bought us much closer to explicit worlds of xxx porn, however this doesn’t satiate all. The mind clearly is much or erotic than just the eye, even if the language used does not always live up to what happens in the minds eye!
    I noticed that the BBC branded 50 shades ‘mummy porn’ this week and I wonder whether this ‘literature’ is almost a femanist stance for this century in the same way that the spice girls were associated with girl power at the end of the last century.
    Lastly, am I right in thinking there is a bad sex in literature award each year, I seem to remember alastair cambell being wheeled out to comment on the prose in tony Blair’s biog. I seem to remember him with all his experience writing in this area suggesting that it is almost impossible to write with any credibility or power on the subject!
    As for amazon and kindle. I can’t comment, I don’t possess one, but I’ll ask my wife!

    1. It’s a tricky one, this. I listened on iPlayer to a FiveLive discussion about ‘Shades’ today and essentially the same themes were emerging. Erotic fiction has always been around but usually read covertly, and for some reason women are finding this book acceptable to read and discuss openly. Well good, if that’s liberating, if it leads to discussions about what it’s ok to put up with from your partner, if it makes you want to read something else. Whether it’s a 21st century feminist stance, I really don’t know. Unless it’s part of the whole ‘good to be girlie’ movement which, ironically, I guess is the logical conclusion of the drive towards female empowerment. For me though, this argument is less about the content – although there are issues raised by others about the message it sends to young women – more about the quality of the writing. The apparent confirmation that sleazy, titillating, not-very-erotic erotic material takes precedence over craft and so many readers don’t notice. Dear oh dear! Well, if there’s a ‘bad sex in literature’ award, I think we know where it’s going this year! Didn’t Alan Titchmarsh win it once too, for some particularly purple prose in a garden shed? Yes, I know there’s a joke here but I’m resisting.

      And the 60s – all those freedoms, all that innocence. Still couldn’t rent a telly without your dad’s signature if you were a woman, though. http://zouchmagazine.com/essay-a-tale-of-two-sixties/

      ’50 Sheds: the prequel’. Sorry. Really. Couldn’t hold it back.

  3. So that’s how your book gets to be an Amazon best seller!

    Curious about all the hype, I downloaded the preview, but deleted it after reading a few pages because of the quality of the writing. Having now read scathing—and well-written—reviews of the books, I fear I might have smashed my Kindle had I read any of the sex scenes.

    If this is the “21st century feminist stance”, count me out.

    1. I took mine into a darkened room for a while and gave it sweet tea and biscuits. I think it’s recovered.
      I honestly don’t know how this book came to be downloaded. I’ve been known to order more frozen Brussels sprouts than is strictly necessary when shopping late at night on two different devices, but a book I knew enough about not to want? No, I don’t think so. Which leaves spooky or fishy. Over to you, Amazon.

  4. I haven’t read the book yet, but I’m intrigues. I’m interested to find out what makes this particular book so popular, other than the obvious. If it has opened a door toward making erotica less taboo, then that’s a good thing. Shame if it’s not well written; I guess that’s a task left to those who carry on the mission!

  5. I was browsing in Waterstone’s last week and saw this book. I picked up, glanced at the blurb for a few seconds and totally non-plussed put it back. I had no idea that I’d been handling a book with so much hype and controversy.
    So when this came through from Suzanne I thought it was time to visit Amazon and see what this was all about. As you say, it’s certainly seems badly crafted – almost like something you might have written for a school essay (if it weren’t for the sex of course!).

    As to the story … well from what I’ve seen it’s about a virgin who is deflowered by a very wealthy, well-endowed, powerful, sadistic man who causes this woman to release her inner, masochistic goddess. Yawn, yawn. With a story line like that you’d have thought it would have only been deemed worthy of publication if it had been elevated by some extraordinarily skilled writing.

    Perhaps you could argue that there is something liberating in women being able to pluck something semi-pornographic of the shelves without embarrassment. But who is trying liberate us? The publishers? Mmm, I somehow doubt that if this is the quality of the erotic literature they’re going to market us with. In my opinion, such poor quality literature ain’t going to do much – for mind, soul or even body.

    1. It seems to be doing something for an awful lot of people, which really does mean writers have to ask themselves why they write – is it the fame, the money, or the delivering of producing a quality product? I’m not saying these are mutually exclusive but the cynical among us might see an avenue here that is worth their while to explore, while others despair of ever having an audience. I know where I am, but then I don’t need to earn a living with my efforts. It must be a real dilemma for many.

  6. I agree Suzanne and hadn’t realised what a phenomenal ‘success’ this book is. But does this author know that she isn’t giving a quality product do you think? A simple creative writing course would have pointed out better ways of creating dialogue, descriptions etc.

    I had to look her up and apparantly she’s a shy, British, tv executive who wrote it not expecting it to be a success – she says she wrote it for herself. It’s earning her £862,000 a week and she’s sold the film rights for 3.2 million (all of this according to interview in Scottish newspaper).

    The fact that it is a success may be down to genre pure and simple. Perhaps if there were other better stories out there they too would be successful. Or is this a case of people wanting the fast food variety of literature and both the subject and the writing satisfy those needs. Maybe there is a huge number of women out there who have never read any erotic literature and this is a complete eye-opener – who knows!

    I’d love to write a great work of literature but being realistic don’t think that’s going to happen. But there is a middle ground where money (maybe not big money) and a reasonable level of quality can co-exist.

    1. There are two more books of similar quality so I would think what the author has learned is that she’s onto a good thing – and who can blame her? She uses a pseudonym though, so I suspect she has a good idea of the actual quality and is maintaining a parallel life, unsullied (for now!) by the impact of her product. Those spectacular quids are going to leak out, though, aren’t they? Again the dilemma. Scottish newspaper, you say …

  7. she’s not exactly hiding behind anonymity though as she’s doing interviews including this one on newsnight: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-17768823
    She might have originally wanted a parallel life but now everyone knows!

    What’s interesting is that it seems that she started writing in response to the Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight books. I can’t help thinking though that she was thinking of that American market (where it’s been a phenomenal success) by setting the tale in Seattle.

    Also interesting is that it seems some think the success is it’s being to the fact it started out as an e-book ie can sneakily read in your home without having to physically pick it off a shelf where people would know you’re reading erotica.
    But now it would seem picking up a grey covered booked in Waterstones is seen as okay as picking up any other bestseller. I have to say that I’m astounded that such a book has led to a cultural shift in perception.

  8. You won’t believe but I’ve unwittingly had one of those books in my house all day!!! I took an Amazon package for my neighbour and it’s the second of the books. She loves them and says it’s done wonders for her sex life. So there we go, that’s the appeal!

  9. You see – it’s an invasion! That one was hoping you’d open the package, love it, and give it a home! Well, if these novels are steaming up a few windows where before there were just cobwebs, all well and good. Of course, some people just nip off to Second Life where they can actually engage in a bit of lively pixel action. I’m thinking ‘What Stardust did Next’ might be a worthwhile project …

  10. Yes, they seem to be trying to find ways to get themselves into our lives..if not through a Kindle then by more traditional means.

    No idea what Second Life is so that’s something I’ll have to take a look at. Sounds intriguing!

  11. Tried to reply and it disappeared so here goes again.

    They are trying to get into our lives if not by Kindle then via more traditional means. Women be warned!

    I’ve no idea what Second Life is so I’ll have to look at that. Sounds intriguing.

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