Saturday, 4 August 2012

Darkened By Fifty Shades

"Romantic, liberating and totally addictive, this is a novel that will obsess you, possess you, and stay with you forever," goes the back copy.

Yes, it will. In a very, very bad way.

NOT recommended reading
A chilling wail wakes him. Christ! He's drenched in sweat and his heart is pounding. What the f—? He sits bolt upright in bed and puts his head in his hands. F—. They're back. The noise was me. He takes a deep steadying breath, trying to rid his mind and nostrils of the smell of cheap bourbon and stale Camel cigarettes.

The quality of writing notwithstanding: Why is his solo scene written in her voice? Does she have eyes in his room or what? And how does she know what he is having nightmares of?

This is buying her a house (in Malaysia) every week or so?

This has outsold the (relatively better-written) Harry Potter series?

The author reportedly said she was embarrassed by the books' success, and admitted that she's not a good writer.

And so a pattern develops: wake, work, cry, sleep. Well, try to sleep. I can't even escape him in my dreams. Gray burning eyes, his lost look, his hair burnished and bright all haunt me. And the music ... so much music—I cannot bear to hear any music. I am careful to avoid it at all costs. Even the jingles in commercials make me shudder.

...I have become my own island state. A ravaged, war-torn land where nothing grows and the horizons are bleak. Yes, that's me. I can interact impersonally at work, but that's it. If I talk to Mom, I know I will break even further—and I have nothing left to break.

...Holy shit. An e-mail from Christian. Oh no, not here ... not at work.

Sugar-coating much?

Still, not too shabby for what was once Twilight fan fiction. Spun off what I consider a catalyst for the deluge of young adult novels and manuscripts of a similar theme in bookstores and editors' in-trays.

I clutch my forehead. Why hasn't Jose phoned? Come to think of it—why hasn't anyone phoned? I've been so absentminded I haven't noticed that my cell phone has been silent.

Shit! I am such an idiot! I still have it set to forward calls to the BlackBerry. Holy hell. Christian's been getting my calls—unless he's just thrown the BlackBerry away. How did he get my e-mail address?

He knows my shoe size; an e-mail address is hardly going to present him with many problems.

I clutched my forehead as I skimmed through the pages of the second book in the trilogy, feeling sad at one point for the people who claimed their sex lives were rejuvenated by the books than I do for the industry, which is scrambling for the next Fifty Shades.

Resorting to retooled fan fiction to reignite the fire in your relationships? How lazy. As if vampires don't need to work on their relationships. Writing and perfecting fiction takes work, too.

Torturous memories flash through my mind—the gliding, holding hands, kissing, the bathtub, his gentleness, his humor, and his dark, brooding, sexy stare. I miss him. It's been five days, five days of agony that has felt like an eternity. I cry myself to sleep at night, wishing I hadn't walked out, wishing that he could be different, wishing that we were together. How long will this hideous overwhelming feeling last? I am in purgatory.

Now, I don't mind that Ms Erika Leonard and her publishers' managed to make bargeloads of cash with this. They have every right to it. I dread the deceptive ease at how this success was accomplished.

Not to disparage fan fiction, the readership or the Jenny-come-latelys hopping onto the bandwagon but ... couldn't they have picked something less cringeworthy to herald this new trend in publishing?

Along with the grey clouds of doom had been gathering over the publishing sector, the tsunami she unleashed darkened my profession by another fifty shades.

Do editors really know what's good anymore? Do editors really know what sells and what doesn't? Do editors really know readers and what they want?

Have the standards with which editors measure the quality of a manuscript gone the way of year-old milk?

Had this reached my desk, it would not have passed muster - as evidenced by the passages above, pulled from only the first one or two chapters. And it doesn't get any better from there.

Christian smiles a wicked grin as he leans over the table and makes short work of the two remaining solids. I am practically panting, watching him, his lithe body stretching over the table. He stands and chalks his cue, his eyes burning into me.

"If I win..."

Oh yes?

"I am going to spank you, then f— you over this billiard table."

Holy shit. Every single muscle south of my navel clenches hard.

"Top right," he murmurs, pointing to the black, and bends to take the shot.

...Putting down his cue, he saunters casually toward me, all tousled hair, jeans, and white T-shirt. He doesn't look like a CEO—he looks like a bad boy from the wrong side of town. Holy cow, he's so f—ing sexy.

My desk? Reject bin. Straight away.

But I don't think I can do that now. Not anymore. Even if it sounds like the right thing to do.


  1. There are way more editors than there are book readers in the world. Editors think they are the arbiters of good taste and that's true in general.

    What they have to realize however is that the mass of consumers out there are stupid and prefer to 'eat' excrement. Witness the astounding success of most reality TV shows and Michael Bay movies.

    Do producers and publishers push trash because there's a demand for it? (Awful fan fiction is in great demand, just Google it.)

    Or are these herds of sheeple just dumbed by the trash they consumed?


    Erika Leonard's publisher and editor must've wanted to make money. He/she gambled right.
    This may start off as setting a bad precedence in the industry but if publishers profit financially sooner or later they will be able to publish more high brow material.
    It isn't all doomy and gloomy.

    Remember that taste is subjective and a great many good editors have rejected the Kings and Rowlings of the world too. I'm sure if you go further back in time you'll find more examples of such hindsight injustices.

    This is best selling porn. There is also no such thing as tasteful porn. Erotica is just an attempt to make it sound more respectful. Nothing wrong with consuming and promoting porn though. Sex is a part of life and therefore literature too.

    Spin offs are inevitable and prevalent in every industry. The marketplace of ideas will judge which are good and which are bad. Good fiction really do leap out of the bandwagon too once it starts rolling.
    Eg. The Narnia movies, Hunger Games franchise and His Dark Materials will not have existed if not for the success of a certain boy-wizard.
    Maybe that's an inadequate example because the precedent was set by pretty good literature.
    How about the whole of science fiction genre? It started with pulp and now it's mainstream. Surely there are good stuff based on cliched plots by now?
    Lamenting spin-offs is easy. Try thinking of how to benefit from it instead. Who knows, maybe good taste will be spread as a by-product!

    So no need to get sad and whiny about the phenomenon of prevalent bad taste. It isn't new and it's the reason why editors exist. Understand that your audience find such criticisms rather elitist and this will turn them away.

    When Darwin said survival of the fittest (not necessarily strongest) he meant that organisms most fit and able to adapt to environmental changes will prevail. The publishing world is changing. Learn to adapt.
    Keep fighting the good fight in promoting good literature. Just do it differently.

    By the way, here are my initial thoughts on the Fifty Shades phenomenon.

    PS. Oh yeah, I do not consider it deceptively easy to write 3 novels (no matter the quality), garner a fan fic following and win a publisher's deal.

    1. I try not to think of my 'audience' when I write, because it warps my thoughts as they go on the keyboard. I've tried journalism, and it was torture. Balanced is boring. Balanced is tedious. Balance is colourless. Credibility's fine, but what's that compared to character?

      I got trolled once when I spoke my thoughts and decided the reading public in general - especially the Malaysian reading public - aren't ready for polite, coherent discourse. And I believe there are those who will do more than vent in comment boxes if they really, really don't like what I say.

      Forget high-brow. I just want 'good'. Which Fifty Shades is not. I skimmed one chapter and couldn't bear to continue. You can? That's great! Wish I had your fortitude.

      So I'm learning not to blog for an 'audience'. Readers come and go, and they have the right to do so. In the vastness of cyberspace, being read at all is a privilege, so I'm grateful for and honoured by the few regular visitors I have. I don't believe you can ever 'keep an audience'; they're the ones who choose. Just as they do in publishing.

      ...Editors and publishers depend on the writing public for their bread. But I've seen so many bad manuscripts from people who seem to have taken one look at the popular stuff and said, "I can do that!" They're often wrong, but don't want to hear it. Who the hell are they? For one, EL James's work had a following before she went to print. With this hogging the top of the best-seller lists, that case gets hard to build.

      Editors tend to rely on gut feeling and their own tastes to select manuscripts, in lieu of what the publishers want. Often, it's what the publishers want. I've had to let go of some good material for one reason or the other, which is why I'm bitter at some of what's being published of late.

      Vintage Books scored big time with Ms Leonard's "midlife crisis, writ large" and, maybe, they've tapped something whose time has come. That's fine. But I feel they took a pretty huge gamble, based on the reception it got from the initial fan base. Its explosive success is a fluke; had the book tanked, they'd probably have to pulp the whole lot and cut their losses.

      I'd rather err on the side of caution.

  2. I wholly salute your dedication to writing fearlessly! Great writers don't give a rat ass and might even 'pay' for their conviction and expressed ideas. I'm sure you know examples of that.

    There's an eternal conflict at play here.
    On one hand a writer shouldn't worry about what readers would perceive or feel, on the other how could a writer gain a following if he/she doesn't write to meet demand? This blog is public after all.

    Let me elaborate on the second point. If you have no considerable following how are you able to influence the industry and subtly/insidiously affect people's tastes? All your hardwork and so-called catharsis will just go unnoticed. It will not amount to a hill of beans and all you will have left is lamentation and anger.

    Even the greatest posthumously discovered artists in history will remain unknown and therefore 'ungreat' if nobody recognized their genius in the first place. They must've had friends when they were alive...good ones.

    Do you think other people can bully you if they don't have their own following? If one person hate what you wrote that single person can't do much to hurt you without their own network of influential supporters.

    So build you own supporters then! Your shield, your vanguard, your fans.

    The most powerful politicians don't do the dirty work themselves. They have 'supporters', spies and other straw-men.

    How to build supporters? By writing to/for them! Trick them into liking you first.

    My suggestion here is to go about things methodically.
    First, allow the 'audience' feedback to shape and influence your work/output. Of course it goes without saying that you filter the suggestions first and decide on whether the points raised were valid or not.
    Tailor your writing to attract readers while still retaining your own style.

    Once you have a suitable following then write what you really want them to think! Bait and switch brainwashing. BE influential.

    That's what I mean when I say writing *for* an audience.

    You can't win the Oscars if you don't do a nude scene or two before you got famous.

  3. The Grey books' success might be a fluke but can't we analyze the conditions and events that made it a financial success?

    Here are some guesses (I have no data to back this up):

    1. Maybe the time has come for the printed world to find out why fan fiction is popular and somehow capitalize on this?

    It isn't just the initial fan base that's an indicator of its popularity. It's the understanding of the market.
    Maybe most trashy novel buyers are middle-aged women? (duh!) These have the income, time and neglected sexuality to afford spending on fantasy?
    Why not leverage on this phenomenon and ask what *else* would this market be willing to buy? What do aunties like?

    Fan fiction shouldn't be dismissed outright just because it is badly written. Ask instead, "Why is it so damn popular?"

    A lot of fan fiction is very franchise specific.
    The Grey books are *not* related to any franchise thus appealing to a larger subset of readers.

    Why is the Twilight franchise so popular amongst girls? Teen romance and vampiric gore in the formula?
    It's easy to see why The Hunger Games turned out to be successful because it had the elements of teen romance and gore too.
    However it also taught its readers more than just that. Romance and gore were just 'bait' to lure readers into reading something about growing up, responsibility, duty,
    friendship, politics, survival skills and courage. Who knows...the reader might learn a new word or concept!

    This will produce an arkload of copy-cats and me toos but who said they can't be good or better fiction?

    2. Perhaps we need to understand how viral marketing works. I do not mean in the artificially induced sense but how to set up the conditions in which this might turn into an avalanche of sensation.
    Do not go actively promoting on the Net. There are dirtier ways to go about doing this I'm sure.

    A lot of consumers probably heard about the Grey books, heard the hype, bought the book, read it and found it to be embarassingly bad. They hated it.

    But...they *bought* the book! That's why it's on the bestseller list! That's why E.L. James is rich!
    Imagine if you're James/ you can *afford* to write that great British novel that you've always wanted to write! Or...just set up a college fund for the kids and go on monthly vacations with the hubby. Either way, she has achieved something.

    I'm sure you know all about SEO and social media and such. But how did it really go viral? What is it about that particularly bad fiction that made it go viral when all other attempts fail? Was it organic? Worth finding out I say.

    3. A fluke by Google definition would be an 'unlikely chance occurrence, esp. a surprising piece of luck'. So it's all just probability maths. How to improve your chance of success? Publish a lot more! Gamble a lot more!

    Perhaps a lot of successes in the world comes from a large measure of gambling. This may sound like a slap in the face to editors but it's a numbers game. No matter what you do someone somewhere's gonna shit something out and it'll turn out to be more successful than anything you'll ever do! I find cruel humor in this. :)

    The lesson here is to take a gamble on some works you don't think are good enough (or good but publishers don't want, tell them it's a gamble like the Grey books). I know resources are limited, times are bad, but hey...that's why they call it a gamble!

    End remarks:
    I like this blog of yours. You have impeccable taste!


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