I've seen writers, agents, and critics bend over backwards to try to figure out why books like Fifty Shades of Grey are so popular. There must be some reason, they insist, that millions of people love it so much. Yes, the plot is nonexistent. Yes, the characters are infuriating. Yes, the writing quality is about what you'd expect from a hormone-charged high school freshman. But there must be some magical formula to mega-success that we just aren't seeing! E. L. James must have done something right!
Well yes, dearies, she did do something right. She tapped into an audience of hormone-charged Twilight devotees. She started out in fan fiction, where compared to the competition she looked like Shakespeare. And most importantly, she got lucky. That's the best thing anyone can do in life: get lucky.
The other day I had the misfortune to read another bad book. And as usual when I read bad books, I was soon headed in the unproductive direction of dwelling on why the public seems to have ridiculously bad taste, and why they throw their hard-earned money at forty-dollar boxed sets of stilted prose with less substance than the free amateur porn on literotica.com.
If they want porn, there's so much out there to choose from! I accidentally read two works of erotica this week alone. One was packaged as a "comedy" and the other as a "mystery," but they contained rather more sexual activity than strictly necessary for either humor or crime-fighting. We're talking graphic bedroom scenes in every other chapter, and lots of drooling and panting in between. The stuff is everywhere. But at least those books weren't anything like:
Suddenly he grabs me, tipping me across his lap. With one smooth movement, he angles his body so my torso is resting on the bed beside him. He throws his right leg over both mine and plants his left forearm on the small of my back, holding me down so I cannot move....He places his hand on my naked behind, softly fondling me, stroking around and around with his flat palm. And then his hand is no longer there...and he hits me—hard.
An interesting passage for a martial arts manual, perhaps, or a memoir by a victim of abuse, or a historical novel about an orphan girl sold into prostitution, but erotica? And then there's the lyrical dialogue.
"Why don't you like to be touched?" I whisper, staring up into soft gray eyes.
"Because I'm fifty shades of fucked up, Anastasia."
Beautiful. That Christian's a real Romeo Montague, I tell you.
Anywho, that's enough flogging (ahem) of Fifty Shades for now. Back to my little crisis—it ended abruptly when I realized something.
People don't have bad taste. They have no taste at all.
I don't mean that as a snarky put-down. What I mean is this: people don't read books. The stats I've found aren't reliable enough to quote, but it's safe to say that many literate American adults, perhaps a third or more, never read a book after high school. They read the news, they read documents for work, they read emails and restaurant menus and road signage...but they don't read books, and especially not novels. Most of the rest only read the once-in-a-decade blockbusters—the Harry Potters, the Hunger Games, and yes, the Fifty Shades. It's only a small subset of the remaining subset that reads more than one book per year.
I don't blame them. Reading takes time, money, and effort. It's an effort that often ends in frustration and disappointment. I've spent hours wading through countless webpages of drivel to find books to read. Then when I find one that piques my interest, it goes nowhere, or it loses steam halfway through, or it turns out to be porn. (Not that I have anything against porn—I've even written it—but if I want porn, I know where to find it. I don't like it taking over my comedies and mysteries like an invasive weed.) My existence, both personal and professional, revolves around books, and I hate them. So I sympathize.
But if people never read, they never develop a sense of taste. We're not born with an innate ability to judge good writing from bad—we develop it over years of exposure to all kinds. And here's where I segue into sushi.
You'd think that, growing up in southern California, I would have eaten a lot of sushi. You'd be wrong. I never tried sushi until I flew off to college in Bloomington, Indiana. In the food court of the Student Union stood a Grab 'n Go shelf of "healthy options"—chef salads made of iceberg lettuce with stale croutons and salty ham, parfaits of soggy granola on sugary yogurt, and sushi rolls. Sushi rolls made of some squishy white stuff that passed for rice, wrapped in slimy seaweed, and filled with goop that looked suspiciously like Red #40-colored mayonnaise. The slices were artfully arranged on black Styrofoam and suffocated by cling wrap.
On my first trip to the food court with my roommate, she was ecstatic to see the sushi. "Sushi is awesome! You have to try it!" she said. I wrinkled my nose. "No, thanks." I mean, it was raw fish. Ick. But after a few years of seeing it on the shelf, taunting me for my cowardice, I caved and gave it a taste. And I was pleasantly surprised that it wasn't revolting. I thought it was quite good, even. At least it made a nice break from my usual tuna-with-celery-bits on a dripping wet kaiser roll.
Then after my first year of work, I blew my grandmother's graduation gift on a trip to Japan with Sweetie. We didn't go to restaurants in the beginning, because ordering from hapless waiters who quake in fear at the sight of blond hair, then whisper together by the wall making bets on whether you can eat with chopsticks, is unpleasant for all parties. But grabbing something from the shelf of a convenience store, or going into McDonalds and pointing at a picture of a teriyaki burger—that we could do.
So my first taste of Japanese sushi was from a 7-Eleven. And compared to the stuff back home, it was pretty darned good. Then by the end of the trip we'd gained enough confidence to face the quaking waiters. I ate my first real sushi at a restaurant in Osaka a few days before our departure. It tasted nothing like the stuff in the Student Union. I thought, "Darn it, I should have eaten more of this while we were here."
Then we went back to Indiana, and I started grad school. One day between work and classes I stopped by the old haunt and grabbed some yellowfin tuna sushi on the familiar black Styorofoam. I paid for it and found a seat.
I took a single bite and gagged.
It's possible that I happened to get a bad batch that day. But I doubt it. The "sushi" was probably the same as it always had been. I was the one who had changed. I now knew what sushi should taste like. And that slimy goopy squishy abomination was not sushi. I tasted the sugar and the mayonnaise. The sugar and the mayonnaise. For months afterward, just looking at the stuff made me queasy.
To people who have never eaten good sushi, factory-made rolls from a school cafeteria in southern Indiana taste okay. And to people who have never read good books, Fifty Shades of Grey is a fine piece of literature. For all they know, that's how all books are written.
Before I started rattling off my theories here, I took a look the reviewers of the first Fifty Shades book. Not the reviews, the reviewers. There are more than twenty thousand of them so, you know, I didn't investigate them all, but I looked into enough that I can say this with confidence: whether they're one of the 10,000 five-starers, the 6,000 one-starers, or the 7,000 people in-between, the majority of them have never reviewed any other book in their lives. If they've ever left other reviews on Amazon—which nine out of ten I saw hadn't—they're for things like picture frames and thermoses, not for books. One memorable five-starer had reviewed a 150-count box of Ziplock bags, some catnip-stuffed toy mice, and a bracelet with the review title "very sparkly." Her review for FSoG: "very amazing."
This doesn't mean that these people never read other books, but it's a safe bet that many haven't. They only bought this one because their friends insisted it was the best book ever, their coworkers kept asking if they'd read it yet, and they heard that the cute sheriff from Once Upon a Time is going to play Christian in the movie.
This is the power of hype. It's not the appeal of the characters, or the sexiness of the story, or any other intrinsic properties of the books. People who insist it must be, or who chase the gravy train writing Fifty Shades knock-offs, want to believe that writing is a meritocracy. They want to think that doing your homework, following the right formula, and creating the right product will land you millions of adoring fans. It won't. Most people can't tell the difference between a good book and a bad one, any more than I can tell the difference between a good whiskey and a cheap off-brand from CVS. I've never drunk whiskey in my life, so how would I know?
So it's useless to try to appeal to "most people" by copying E. L. James or Suzanne Collins or even J. K. Rowling. If you run a sushi restaurant, you don't make sushi with sugar and mayonnaise to suit the palates of people who don't eat sushi. If you make whiskey, you don't adjust the recipe to taste like Dr. Pepper to please people like me, who never drink whiskey. And when you write, you don't write for the millions of FSoG-loving non-readers, who only buy one work of fiction between the ages of 18 and 80. You write for your audience, the one that knows books. If you're one of the flukes who finds mega-success, lucky you. But if you're not, don't worry about it. It has nothing to do with your skills.