The Open Window Behind Fifty Shades

This is a short essay, and on a subject that’s been done a thousand and one times already, but I wanted to share a second-hand review of Fifty Shades of Grey.

Due notice, I havent read the book and don’t plan to. All the excellent, almost uniformly negative words written about it make it something I’m just not interested in, even as a “what not to do” guide for my own writing. However, a book-devouring friend of mine who reads virtually no erotica picked it up recently, and enjoyed it at least somewhat.

I asked why, and over the conversation got basically 3 core answers.

First, the sex was pretty hot. Scenes she didn’t care for were easily skimmed or skipped. The non-realities of a virgin who could deep throat in a trice, or of BDSM setups/attitudes that were awful misrepresentations of kink were just not concerns. If you don’t care about that stuff, how well or how badly it’s done doesn’t matter as much if the scene is engaging. This reader didn’t care about BDSM being done ‘right’, because that wasn’t a reason the book was being read. For someone who doesn’t read much erotica, the bar might be set pretty low, but in this case, FSoG delivered.

Second, when she said ‘no’, he listened. Not having read it, I can’t say how accurate this is. From what I understand, a lot of pressure was applied in the relationship. But if No meant No, even when you are a nothing and your partner is a domineering asshole, then it is, in what appears a slight ironic twist, a pretty affirming and empowering message. Above all, consent matters. And for someone with tastes that _don’t_ run to kink, and certainly not to questionable or non-consent, that was a deal-maker for the book.

The third was a bit meta. FSoG has, in its own way a Harry Potter effect. My friend talked to a many others in her circles, some of whom just don’t read much at all, some of whom inhabit circles were reading is almost looked down on as a waste of time. These people were reading FSoG, and it made them interested in finding other things to read. Chances are they’re not going to move on to Hemmingway or Twain or Foucault any time soon, but new readers? Returned readers? Even if they are only looking for the next 50 Shades, some of them will find new and better worlds of words, because of bad BDSM.

All that said, the oft repeated criticisms on the writing and shallowness all still applied. But that just made it a candy book instead of literary, and FSoG never pretended to be literary, and she told me that something better written would be nice to read.

In this way, the opportunity FSoG presents to the writers of both candy/porn and literary erotica is huge. Certainly the former is already being capitalized on by the bigger publishing houses that smell a profitable fad. But there is actually a window for the latter. It’s open now – we don’t have to push it open. We just have to throw some good books through it.


Categories: Discussion, Erotica, MonocleTags: , , ,


I am the little devil on your shoulder, stroking your neck with my tail, whispering obscenities into your ear, and looking down your blouse. One third of The Erotic Writer blog.


  1. paul1510

    a friend recommended it, it left a bad taste on my mental tongue.
    My sister said about J K Rowling, which in my opinion isn’t much better than Shades of Grey, “that it got children reading”.
    Which I suppose is the silver lining with bad or tasteless writing.

    • Monocle

      And one could make the argument that “inspiration to read more” shifts a book one column over from “bad”.

  2. You know, Raz, I’ve been having exactly the same thought. The series obviously does something right. I haven’t read it either. One can find online PDFs of the stories. I just reread parts of book one to refresh my memory. Here’s what the author does right: She can tell a story and is able to delineate character with efficient dispatch. Other than that, her writing is 2nd grade stuff. It’s unimaginative, generic, trivial and bland. The writing serves the narrative (moves the story forward) and does nothing else. At least half the people reading this (to judge by Amazon reviews) don’t care about stylistic matters. They’re reading it for the story and for the characters. The portrayal of the characters, like the story telling, is at the stick-figure level, but because she’s a decent story teller, the combination makes for easy and light reading. (It’s almost like reading the condensed version of a richer and longer novel.) Her books are erotic Cotton Candy — or Candy Floss as they say in Paul’s corner of the world. All of us can stand to learn from this. At the end of the day, it’s all about telling a good story, even if with the simplest of stock characters and motives. If anything, I doubt that all of my Daydreams & Distractions will ever amount to much. People like stories, not a hundred different erotic vignettes. The window may be open, but we would be wise to pay attention to what field the wind is blowing in.

    • Monocle

      I haven’t read _none_ of it. It’s been excerpted ad nauseum to show just how awful certain aspects are, and some context is sometimes presented. That said, I think I need to read it for the experience of having done so. I haven’t read a whole book I didn’t _want_ to read since 11th grade.

      If the story worked – then maybe it’ll even carry me without making me want to pull out the rest of my hair.

  3. mzcue

    It unsettles me when someone thrashes work unseen or unread.

    It smacks of an unhealthy orthodoxy, like a Puritan condemning racy literature without ever having encountered it. On the order of, “I know I don’t like it because my opinion leaders tell me so.” This is not to indicate that I’m a fan of Fifties-anything, but that proffering a stance in the absence of personal acquaintance strikes me as effete.

    Fortunately others’ opinions didn’t block me from erotica. And taking it a step forward, that entities like Amazon and PayPal have not succumbed to pressure from those who disapprove without firsthand knowledge.

    • mzcue

      No, I haven’t. I tried not to defend the books themselves. I’ve read enough troubled-dom-initiates-shy-virgin stories that the premise no longer appeals.

      Be that as it may, the outpouring by authors of erotica against the Fifty Shades series constitutes an awkward bandwagon…hinting, perhaps, at fifty shades of green?

    • //Be that as it may, the outpouring by authors of erotica against the Fifty Shades series constitutes an awkward bandwagon…hinting, perhaps, at fifty shades of green?//

      Couldn’t agree more. Had the same thought. If she had written the novel on the ERA website, every last author would probably be behind her. She certainly hasn’t sinned against the gods of erotica any more so than the rest of us at any given time. I’m actually happy for her. Her success benefits all of us.

    • Monocle

      I agree with you, mzcue. I don’t like reviews by people who haven’t read a book. My little essay is more reportage and commentary on that. At least I think it is.

      Other’s opinions should never block you from anything. For my part, the reviews I’ve read from people I know and trust convince me I will not enjoy the book, and I have so many other books I’d like to give the chance. That said, I’ll probably knuckle under and read it anyway, out of semi-pro obligation to see with my own eyes.

      As for the “the critics doth protest too much”, I say meh. I think there is a certain amount of deserved cynicism when people who really do write well, and hot, struggle for reader’s eyes and small change royalty, and FSoG is what blows the lid off. It can be disheartening.

  4. mzcue

    //If she had written the novel on the ERA website, every last author would probably be behind her.//

    Intriguing analogy. Authors’ efforts to distance themselves from Fifty Shades remind me of women who enjoy the fruits of feminism but preface statements with “Now, I’m not a feminist, but…” as if there’s something inherently distasteful about it.

    If it hadn’t been Fifty Shades, it would have been another book. The moment was inevitable. Fanny Hill paved the way for Lady Chatterley. Tropic of Cancer gouged a foothold for Fear of Flying, which led to O’s Story and Sleeping Beauty. Fifty Shades may not have the literary weight of its predecessors, but it’s playing a role in breaking through lingering repression. I hope it will accord today’s erotic authors the readership, rewards and productivity that benefit rapacious readers like me.

    • The thing is this: That market has been there and that window has been open for many years.

      I noticed that one reader at Amazon compared her work to Anne Rice’s Princess stories — a comparison that few erotic writers could withstand. However, did you know that Anne Rice’s Beauty Trilogy, according to what I’ve read, has outsold her Vampire novels? To me, that’s astonishing. Here’s the thing: the sex in 50 Shades pales in comparison to the sex in the Beauty Trilogy. In the Beauty Trilogy, the entirety of the novel is concerned with underage sex slaves. Wikipedia labels it ephebophilia though, like the writer of the wiki article, I side with critics who question the validity of the term. The sex is non-consensual. There is BDSM. There is bisexuality.

      I would not judge or measure the reading population’s interests based on 50 Shades.

  5. I couldn’t agree more. And I am attempting to find a way to stand on the other side of that open window and catch the books. I think given that it is so hugely popular, we need to stop ripping on it, and start using it. As you say, the bigger publishers are already doing it on the candy-porn side; we need to grab this ASAP.

    (As a side note, on the topic of him being a domineering asshole: I wonder if this is a very female-gendered interpretation, because the more I read of it – and I’m reading it as someone who wants to use it and who wants to know her enemy – the more he just seems deeply insecure, whilst she seems like a PATHETIC LITTLE PUSHOVER. I’m keenly looking for less Ana-sympathetic readers.)

  6. April

    I am not a writer myself (yet), however I read many books of all subjects. I did read Fifty Shades out of curiosity. I usually read a book of that length in a day or two. FSoG took me over a week. I was constantly bored with the story, characters, plot, and yes even the sex scenes. I had to put it down often because I was bored. I was in a similar relationship myself at one time. Being a virgin introduced to anything but strictly vanilla is scary. She didn’t seem to get that. Also Ana was simply dumb, and Christian too controlling.
    Having said that, I do appreciate that it brought Erotica for women into the
    mainstream. Hopefully it will allow more authors ( better authors) of Erotica to be published and distributed as widely as FSoG was/is.

  7. Window box

    Having read many of the books mentioned, Fanny Hill, Lady Chatterly, The Beauty Trilogy and the 50 Shades series I can say the decline in literary standards has been breathtaking. One can only hope that the popularity of FSoG will encourage better authors to get published.

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