There are two things that everyone is saying about Fifty Shades of Gray:
It is not well written.
You can’t put it down.
To recap for anyone who’s just waking up from a refreshing six month nap: Fifty Shades of Gray by E.L. James, along with its sequels, Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed, has topped bestseller lists around the world for months. The trilogy has sold well over 20 million copies, and is the fastest selling paperback series of all time, leaping ahead of Harry Potter. There are well over 8,000 reviews on Amazon.
The one thing you hear over and over – often in an embarrassed whispered by your most highbrow friends — is that you can’t put it down.
The question is: why?
The answer is: Fifty Shades of Gray does exactly what a good story needs to do in order to captivate the reader’s brain. It catapults us into the protagonist’s skin and allows us to feel the emotional costs – and, um, benefits – of navigating the escalating problem she’s bound to struggle with. (Sorry, couldn’t resist. Ever notice that when talking about sex everything becomes a double entendre?)
By thrusting us into a risky situation that, let’s be honest, we’ve always been a wee bit curious about — you know, solely in the academic sense — James’ protagonist Anastasia Steele lets us experience what it would be like to take those risks – pretty much risk free. Except, of course, for the risk of being seen actually buying the book. Which might account for the sign seen recently in the window of a Malibu bookstore that simply says, “Shhh, we won’t tell” — and proves it by selling the book discretely wrapped in brown paper.
Which brings us to the real secret of the novel’s success – of any story’s success. There’s something that prose gives us that nothing else does – not real life, not movies, not plays. Prose provides direct access to the most alluring and otherwise inaccessible realm imaginable: someone else’s mind.
Prose let us experience what something really feels like, as opposed to what we’re willing to admit to on the surface. Story is about all those things that we brood on, fantasize over, and wonder about, but would never actually talk about for fear of making a fool of ourselves. Or worse, for fear of finding out that we are, indeed, the only one who feels it. Story shows us we’re not alone. That’s what the reader comes for.
And good writing? That’s gravy. Yes, the writing in Fifty Shades of Gray is clunky (I mean, “holy crap” 44 times? once was too much), but James more deft storyteller than it might seem at first blush.
For instance, writers often forget to let the reader know what the protagonist’s expectations are, so when those expectations aren’t met (and they almost never are – that’s kind of the point), the reader is clueless. James lets us know exactly what Anastasia expects, beginning with her first fateful meeting with the enigmatic Christian Gray. And so clunky writing be damned, a whole lot of us want to know what happens next.
Would Fifty Shades of Gray be “better” if it was well written? Absolutely. Does it matter that it’s not?
Well, it hasn’t stopped over twenty million people from reading it. That means one of two things. Either all those people are idiots, or “good writing” doesn’t mean nearly as much as we’ve been lead to believe when it comes to hooking readers.
Which would you put your money on?