Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Why So Much Fear of Fifty Shades of Grey?

I’m not an easily shamed person. I’m one of those idiots who appreciates the attention from shock value. As a teenager, I would deliberately say my favorite stories were things like Gulliver’s Travels, 1984, and Twilight, just because I liked people’s surprise at the disharmony. Sure, I wasn’t lying—I did like them. But the reason why I said they were my favorites—a bit of a stretch—was to force people not to pigeonhole me.

So, I see humor in the image of a girl decked out in black and eyeliner reading Fabio and His Wand of Light, or whatever. Picking up Fifty Shades of Grey was never an issue of keeping up impressions.

Mind you, I haven’t actually read the book. I eventually bought it—a funny story for another time—but it sits there, unread, because I have other things to read first, and contemporary settings are always hard for me to get into.

But, as with many writers in my life, I enjoy reading about authors, especially controversial ones, and so every time a blog with Fifty Shades in the title came up, I read it. And what I’ve found over the past few years? People are really afraid of that book.

I’m not talking about people with intimacy issues. If you don’t know what Fifty Shades is, simplified, it’s a romance story with graphic sex scenes about an S and M relationship. Many people don’t like it because they think that’s in poor taste. I understand that mentality, and I don’t criticize them (or don’t mean to be) for not wanting sex to become a mainstream discussion. I don’t either because I like the forbidden aspect of it and keeping some of the mystery. Pretending it doesn’t exist makes it more fun. So do whips, apparently.

There's also the issue of romanticizing abuse and the misrepresentation of BDSM, mostly confusing it with abuse. But I'm actually not referring to the subject matter in this.

What I’m talking about is other writers and their fear of the book's existence. Last year I attended a class on writing sex scenes—because I actually do have intimacy issues—and it degenerated into a rant about Fifty Shades of Grey. The teacher was not a very strong person; she had the skill set, but not the teaching ability, so it was easily hijacked by the white man who thought it was cool to speak in Spanish for twenty minutes before the class started. And just now I read an article by a fearful erotica writer. For a while I’ve seen a great deal of the same mentality, with a great number of people wondering, “If this is successful, what does that mean for me?”

And this is scary. For a long time now, I’ve decided there is no actual thing as quality of writing, not in terms of a concrete, universal definition. What there is, I believe, is a subconscious cultural connection in which the way we interpret things, the desires we have, and the way we are influenced tends to be similar within a current time and place. Those similarities is what the author has to look for when he’s trying to write “well.”

But most people disagree with me, believing there is such a thing as a good book or bad book (though they would rarely say it like that), and I think this is where the terror about Fifty Shades of Grey comes into play. For someone who has spent his life seeking out success as an author, trying to write the “best possible book,” and then turns around to find something he considers poorly written smut to be doing so well, what is he to think? Either his definition of quality is off—not good news for him—or success is not based on quality at all. What is it based on then? Luck? Marketing? Touching on base emotions? Inciting one reaction really well?

The success of Fifty Shades bothers people, many considering it an affront on their own work. “What’s that to say for the rest of us who don’t want to write that way?” a class-mate said to me. Well, in my opinion, either you’re telling the truth, in which case there will be people who agree with you—people who don’t want to read that way either, and that’s your audience—or you’re lying on some level, in which case maybe you should stop with the self-loathing and actually accept your own desires instead of being humiliated by them.

People often ask me if I liked my earlier books. (No, none of my novels have been published, thanks for asking. But read a short story) I started writing novels when I was 12, and have done at least one a year for the past decade. The question on many’s mind when they hear that is the difference between the later works and the earlier, if I hate everything I’ve done, and if I liked the amateur garbage I produced in practice. No, I don’t hate everything, yes, I like the amateur garbage, and the main difference is two-fold: Nuance and self-pandering.

As a beginning writer, I was fairly upfront about everything—This is what happened. This is what it looked like. This is people’s opinions on it—It lacked subtly. BUT, it was clear. Now I have a great deal of nuance and subconscious connection, which makes it not so obvious as to what I might be telling you, making the story much more atmospheric and a hell of a lot denser. There’s consequences and benefits to both, but I prefer the latter.

But that’s not why I bring it up. It’s the self-pandering that ties in. In my beginning books, I censored myself less. I tended to make more appealing decisions over intellectually viable ones. I wrote what I wanted to read about, and what came of that was much more appealing fluff. The stories, I would say, have humbler execution, but are actually far better escapism. Today, I hold back from having events that appeal to me. I try to keep up the integrity of the work by not making the villain try to force the protagonist into marriage. “That’s stupid,” I tell myself. A childish fantasy. And so, I keep out elements of my books that would make them far more interesting to people like me. Because what? What I like is stupid? Is that really something I’m going to admit?

I’ve only recently consciously come to this conclusion, and as soon as I realized it, I tried to find a balance. I’m not wrong in thinking that pandering to unthought-out fantasizes makes for a bad read, but considering I want to be an escapist author, fantasizes are what it’s all about.

Authors fear our own desires, for good reason. Having a perfect, beautiful, talented, super powerful, and kind hero is the mark of an unrestrained amateur. But having an average, mediocre, weak, boring, Everyman is the mark of reality. Why would I read about that? That’s not really the book I want to write, but I’m embarrassed to include the details that I deem too dreamlike to be taken seriously.

I don’t believe the people concerned with Fifty Shades of Grey are those fighting back their sexuality, afraid of their own desires. What I mean to suggest is that this pressure to retain literary merit is so strong, that writers are afraid to include a little smut—some raw, pure emotion unrestrained by keeping up intellectual appearances—that when someone doesn’t, and succeeds, it scares the shit out of us. Everything we’ve been trying to do better, every area we’ve been preventing ourselves from delving into, maybe that’s exactly the area we should be in. Maybe that’s what we’ve been doing wrong. While I feel the reasons behind the Fifty Shades hatred is complex, I do think a big part of it is the issue of why. Why is this book so popular? Is it because no one cares about the things I was told we were supposed to care about? Should I do what she does? Am I doing it wrong?

Good news, I say. The success of the erotica book is a good thing to those who wish to do something different. Fifty Shades already exists. We don’t need another one. And while it is probably setting way for a new trend, like how we consider Hunger Games the latest in the Twilight/Harry Potter line, that trend isn't as straightforward as we'd assume. And there’s many who want something more than that. So there’s a good chance that instead of Fifty Shades ruining readers, it will open them up now that they’ve got their naughty satisfaction.

Remember, the only thing to fear is dumb luck, and we can't control that.