Thursday, 23 May 2013

Fifty Shades of Fifty Shades (Or The E.L. James Effect)

Has there been a book in modern times that's caused quite the furore of the Fifty Shades trilogy?

It caused controversy for obvious reasons - mostly for being full of the sort of sexual shenanigans that would make Samantha Whatserface from Sex & The City come over all Sandra Dee. On the one hand, it gave legions of frustrated suburban women all over the world a kick in the mojo so powerful that their husbands and boyfriends wore either permanent grins or expressions of cross-eyed terror. On the other, it was denounced by many women's' groups (and even BDSM groups) as being degrading and reinforcing dangerous sexist stereotypes.

But the phenomenon of particular interest to writerly types like me was that it divided the world into two distinct camps regarding the quality of the prose. I'm paraphrasing here of course, but the general gist was that it was either a) spectacularly horny in a way no other book could ever make the reader horny, or b) atrociously written, woefully unrealistic and read like the work of a Emo Teen With Issues.

Now let me make my position clear here. I have no beef whatsoever with Ms. E.L. James; regardless of how much of any of the above is true or not, the plain fact is she gave a gazillion trillion people exactly what they wanted from a novel. She got something very, very right, and that's one, solid-gold fact you can't argue with.

What DID wind me up, however, was the angle the media chose to take with the story behind the books - and in particular the way Ms. James and her meteoric success was portrayed. She was touted as the 'shy housewife and mum,' who'd written what was essentially a piece of fanfiction that 'borrowed' heavily from Stephanie Meyer's Twilight novels. It was the very first novel she'd ever written in her life, so - being such a 'shy and prudish housewife' who just happened to have a taste for writing porn - she thought "Hey, what the heck, I'll self-publish it." And then - boom! Instant fame and fortune.

Except of course it's not entirely true, is it? When you picture a 'shy housewife and mum' do you picture someone in an executive position in a television production company? Nope, me neither. But that's what E.L. James was before she stormed into a novelist career. Obviously she would still have been a housewife and mum at the same time - so technically the media weren't lying there. The 'shy' part is pretty much open to interpretation as well. Does someone who's worked their way up to an executive position in a television company and then gone about self-publishing their debut novel - which is, incidentally, all about a BDSM relationship - strike you as the 'shy and prudish' type? Perhaps she said she didn't like dancing in nightclubs in some interview somewhere; that's one kind of 'shy' - albeit not that relevant to the image the media shoved down our throats..

It's all about dressing up the fairytale though, isn't it? Changing the slant on the mundane facts just a teeny bit makes the whole story a little more heart-warming; after all, the public are suckers for a good old-fashioned rags-to-riches story.

All well and good; I like a bit of the old Horatio Alger-ism as much as the next person. But turning someone who is clearly a very astute and business-savvy woman into some sort of literary Cinderella bothers me. I mean, what message does that send out? That writing a novel is easy-peasy, something that anyone who's ever loved a sci-fi or fantasy series can knock out on a fanfiction website and become the biggest-selling author on the planet. All you have to do is take something that's already been done, tweak it here and there, change the names and - voila! Jump on that bandwagon and count the money, baby!

The proof that this message was heard can be seen in any bookstore in the western world. Entire bookshelves are now needed to stock what could quite justifiably be called 'the Fifty Shades Rip-Off' genre. Some pay only the 'subtlest' of homages to the novel that spawned them (Sylvia Day's 'Bared To You' - which proudly screams "If you liked Fifty Shades of Grey' you'll love this!" on the front cover) while others were far less... um, 'covert.' (Seriously - 'Fifty Shades of Green?' That's not even trying!)

All of which just reinforces the idea that becoming a successful novelist is a simple as picking a winning formula and then banging out your own, slightly-adulterated version of it - crank 'em out like strings of sausages from that money-making sausage template. Sure, the chances are pretty high that most of the imitations are cataclysmically rubbish. But they're still sitting on the shelves in bookshops; some publishing company somewhere believed in them enough to take on the people that penned them. Rather than, say, novelists who've been writing for years and honed their skills accordingly... but, unfortunately for them, in genres that aren't the current flavour-of-the-moment...

No, this isn't a sour-grapes rant. It can't be; for starters, Whilst I've had some minor successes in other writing fields, The Renegades is the first novel I've ever got to Completed Draft One stage, so I can't even legitimately call myself a novelist yet. It's just worry, that's all. This is a virus that originated from outside the world of writing, but is now threatening to cross-breed and infect us too.

You've only got to look at programmes like Britain's Got Talent, when some excruciatingly un-talented individual does something godawful in an attempt to 'entertain' and looks utterly shocked and outraged when they're told they're terrible. And then marches offstage, snorting that the judges are idiots and they'll prove them wrong in the end, when they finally get the recognition they deserve and become the superstar they're just born to be..! And they believe it - they believe every word of their own hype. Why? Because they saw Susan Boyle do it. And Paul Potts do it. They saw them step onto that stage, with their bad hairdos and wonky teeth, and blow the world away, in the space of a three-minute audition. Because that's all it took - three minutes...

Except it didn't, of course. Both Paul Potts and Susan Boyle sung for years before their auditions. But telly doesn't show that part - only the three minutes that launched them to superstardom. And now, with this insistence of the media of applying the same, rose-tinted wash to the likes of E.L. James, there's a danger of the same thing happening in the writing world. The quality of published works will suffer for it (while the vanity publishers will make a killing.) Writers with genuine talent but without the abundance of self-confidence required to 'self-publish and be damned' may become disheartened and simply give up on the idea of ever being published altogether.

Veterans of the Performing Arts may laugh bitterly and say 'that's life, kiddo - welcome to the real world.' And I suppose no-one knows that better than them. But that doesn't make it any less sad to me.

If I never get anywhere with my novel-writing, I'd rather it was because I'm simply not quite good enough to make it, or the things I need to write about aren't interesting to anyone but me. Not because I just can't bring myself to sell my soul and crank out touch-up-and-tweak copies of whatever's selling at the time.

No comments:

Post a Comment