There’s this Elvis record — a greatest hits album from 1959 — that pretty much encapsulates my personal pop culture credo:
“50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong.”
It’s the best album title ever — and it’s inarguably true.
When something sets our pop culture world on fire... When everyone is listening to the same song, or watching the same show, or reading the same book ...
You can’t immediately dismiss that something, no matter how terrible it looks.
You can’t just say, “Well, that song/show/book is worthless trash, and everyone but me is wrong about it.”
Fifty million Elvis fans can’t be wrong.
There must be something there that people are reacting to. Something worth thinking about.
More than 10 million people have now purchased books from E L James’ “Fifty Shades of Grey” trilogy.
As pop culture phenomena go, “Fifty Shades” is like something that accidentally flies into your mouth: You immediately start trying to spit it out. Then you scrub your tongue with your T-shirt. And for the next 24 hours, you feel like something died in your throat.
The series started out as “Twilight” fan fiction — which I’ll explain in a minute — and tells the story of a young woman who meets an incredibly handsome and wealthy man who almost immediately asks her to be his S&M sex slave.
(Sorry. There was no good way to warn you that I was about to say “S&M sex slave.” I was hoping you already knew that bit.)
The main characters’ names are Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey, and they’re horrible. They’re irritating, they don’t make sense.
Anastasia is a new college graduate who’s never wanted to kiss someone and has never used email. Christian is a sadist who reeks of fresh linen and stalks her with a helicopter.
And none of that badness is the worst part of “Fifty Shades.” The worst part is the writing.
If you took the “Twilight” series and simmered it over low heat until all the sentences started to denature, then replaced the vampire/werewolf stuff with violent, unrealistic sex scenes...
“Fifty Shades of Grey” is what you’d be left trying to scrape off the stove the next day.
Obviously, I hated it.
But that doesn’t mean I think the books are worthless or worth ignoring. Or that the people who love “Fifty Shades of Grey” are wrong about it.
There’s something about “Fifty Shades” that people, especially women, are responding to. Something big.
If you’re thinking, “Duh. Sex,” well ... you might be right. (Or you might be a pervert who goes around thinking, “Duh. Sex” all the time.)
I think it has more to do with the book’s format — with how it treats you as a reader.
Like “Twilight” before it, “Fifty Shades of Grey” tries to give you exactly what you want. And we’re not used to books doing that.
As readers — as consumers — of romance and love stories, we’re used to a formula. Every love story works the same way:
Boy meets girl. They start to fall in love. Complications ensue. (Confusion! Missed connections! Lonely nights!) They work it out. The boy and girl get a fade-to-black love scene or at least, on the last page, a kiss.
That’s how it always goes.
I’ve spent the last five years writing novels, and publishing types will straight-up tell you to save your big kiss for the last page, to resolve every other conflict before the romantic one. Television series flog this formula for years.
And it’s not a bad formula — it works. But as a reader and a writer, I’m tired of it.
When I first read “Twilight,” it was exciting to me that Stephenie Meyer ignored the formula. (Her pacing is wrong, her action never rises. Scenes pool out instead of moving the plot forward.) Meyer seemed to be writing “Twilight” for herself, the kind of love story that she wanted to read.
That’s what I find exciting about fan fiction, too.
Fan fiction authors write stories about their favorite characters and share them online — and they don’t care at all about what the rules are or what sells.
Reading fan fiction makes you realize how many different ways there are to tell a love story. And how satisfying those stories can be.
As someone who likes “Twilight” and fan fiction, I’d call “Fifty Shades of Grey” an insult to both ...
But I admire James for shaking it up, for throwing out the formula. She knows what her readers want (lots and lots of alarming sex scenes), and that’s just what she gives them.
It doesn’t matter that I hated it.
I’ve never liked Elvis much either.
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