Writer. Adventurer. Currently working on The Dreamless City, a series of steampunk novels and short stories.

Geek Week: Did Sherlock Holmes Pave the Way for Fifty Shades of Grey?

Fifty Shades of Grey, written by British author E.L. James is the fastest selling paperback, outstripping both Harry Potter and The Da Vinci Code with over 70 million copies sold worldwide.  Originally written as Twilight fanfiction titled Master of the Universe, it has gone on to international success with book rights sold in 37 countries.  For anyone not familiar with the content, Fifty Shades of Grey is a romance novel about Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey featuring explicitly erotic scenes containing elements of BDSM.

Bottles03Some Criticisms while I’m on the Topic

I have read all three books in the Fifty Shades trilogy, and I do have some criticisms, mostly regarding a lack of plot and pacing.  The real storyline centers around the relationship between Ana and Christian is some demented he-love-me, he-loves-me-not back and forth for three books.  There is an odd kind of storyline about Ana wanting to become a book editor, getting a job, and being harassed by her boss.  If this storyline had been more robust, it could do a lot to improve the spine of the story.   The books have a lot of interesting curves, but they still need to have a skeleton.  Pacing is my other criticism.  The, er, interesting scenes are all jammed up together, not spread out over the book in a tidy way.  I can forgive the first book being backend heavy; the plot takes some time to ramp up.  The second and third books though?  I thought James could have done more outlining to better organize the, er, content.  After a while you start to say “Yeah, right” in the back of your mind and wait for the relationship to implode… again.  There’s also some criticism that the books aren’t a good representation of BDSM culture.  I don’t know if that is true or not, but I don’t think Victorian England is really like a Harlequin romance novel either

And a Suprising Bit of Laudation

What the books have going for them is anticipation and suspense in spades.  You don’t know what is going to happen next, you have to find out, and it doesn’t matter that it is 3AM and you have to go to work in 4 hours.  There’s some kind of magic in the anticipation that makes you want to turn (or click) another page.  I wish I could bottle and sell it to other authors (after stocking up a lifetime supply for myself, of course).  Poor structure, poor writing, poor anything else aside, these books are an engaging read, and not just because of the, er, recreational activity highlights.

Success due to Sherlock Holmes

Okay, so what have I been setting all this up for?  When Sir Arthur Conan Doyle bumped off fictional detective Sherlock Holmes, fans took pens into their own fans and continued his beloved character’s adventures, sharing stories with other fans of Doyle’s work.  While there were 56 stories written by Doyle about Sherlock Holmes, there are hundreds of stories that exist about the characters of Holmes and Watson written by fans.  These stories are the precursors modern fan fiction and are still setting precedence even today.  On February 14, 2013, Holmes scholar Leslie S. Klinger filed a declaratory judgement suit against the Conan Doyle estate in the Northern District of Illinois, asking that the court acknowledge that the characters of Holmes and Watson are public domain , no longer protected by copyright in the US.  Fan fiction is currently treated as derivative work under US copyright law.

Success due to Fan FictionBowl01

I know nothing about fan fiction aside from what it is — stories about characters or settings written by fans of the original work, rather than by the original creator.  It is not meant to be a put down, but fan fiction has never interested me.  I am too involved in the worlds in my own head to have time to mess about in someone else’s sandbox.  My lack of interest aside, fan fiction is a pretty big deal and is estimated to comprise one-third of all books on the internet, despite criticisms of amatureness and indulgent attitudes.  Writers of fan fiction do it for the love of the characters and worlds, not for any expectation of financial gain.  Holy crap, if I put that much work into something, I want a chance to get a return on the time invested.  What fan fiction does have is a whole community of fans who are just as into something, oh, let’s say Twilight, so you can expect a certain amount of readership from the fanbase regardless of content and quality.

Success due to E-Readers

I’m not terribly prudish, but there are still places I would not take a paperback copy of Fifty Shades, such as to the office to read during lunch.  Btw, when I’m not writing at lunch, I’m usually reading.  But with my trusty e-reader, I can carry all of my books with me and no one knows if I’m reading The Hound of the Baskervilles or something a tad racier.  Sales for romance novels in general are at an all-time high thanks to the anonymity of buying online and reading without book covers.  I believe some of the success hinges on e-reader popularity too.

So what do you think?

Is Fifty Shades a good book that is popular on its own merit, and I’m being too harsh?  Or is it successful because of the explicit content?  Or are Twilight fans reading it and know who Ana and Christian really are?  I’d love to hear your thoughts on the books, fan fiction, e-readers, or life in general.  ;)

19 comments on “Geek Week: Did Sherlock Holmes Pave the Way for Fifty Shades of Grey?

  1. Christi
    April 11, 2013

    I haven’t read fifty shades, but one thing that both Stephen King and Nathan Bransford have written about is how writing and storytelling can be quite separate. Someone like Stephenie Meyer or EL James could be a great storyteller (hence the bestsellers) but still need to work on their craft ad a writer. It’s interesting to think about. Great post!

    • tracycembor
      April 11, 2013

      Ooo, such a good point that writing can be divorced from storytelling. There’s lots of stories I’ve enjoyed where the craft could use improvement.

      As for recommended reading, I’d spend your time somewhere else. I started reading it so I knew what my hairdresser, coworkers, and the internet was talking about.

  2. beautycalyptique
    April 11, 2013

    I see what you did here :)
    kudos, smart lady.

    and now for the content: I agree with you on the logical development. but I totally disagree about the page-turning quality. maybe it’s personal but the only thing that turned when I read were my guts.
    the very writing is so “quick internet pron story”-level it hurts.
    I think the success is partly due to the “easiness” of this kind of read. a no-brainer really. it’s like when you stop watching hitchcock and go for the blockbusters and FX rather than enjoy the mastercraft. it’s sad for writers, but the human being strives for the easiest way. it always has.

    • tracycembor
      April 11, 2013

      Shhh, don’t tell anyone. This will be our little secret. ;)

      I think there are many, many stumbling blocks that can make this books unreadable. The low reading level was a plus for me because I was speed-reading and didn’t have to edit through well-constructed and engaging prose.

      It is very much like the movies where you go from watching Inception to Resident Evil: Afterlife (both were released in 2010) although that isn’t a perfect comparison since they both have FX, but one of them uses it well, and the other one, well…

      • beautycalyptique
        April 11, 2013

        good for you, I gave up after three pages :D
        and agree on your comparison. FX can be stunners or unintentionally hilarious.

  3. Michael Allan Leonard
    April 11, 2013

    Haven’t read any of the Grey books, and I only got halfway through Twilight before I had to give that up, but I think it shows a valuable lesson that neither James or Meyer set out to live up to anyone’s standard: they just wrote a story they felt was interesting. They weren’t trying to do Literary Pet Tricks for anyone.

    As for fan fiction — I think to a certain degree most writing is fan fiction. Writers usually start out emulating someone else they admire, and eventually most do find a distinct voice of their own, but unless someone is writing a certain way solely as an exercise in craft (see Literary Pet Tricks), there’s still traces of their influences’ DNA in their work.

    • tracycembor
      April 11, 2013

      I like the phrase “Literary Pet Tricks.” Mind if I borrow it sometime?

      While I can respect wanting to write a story that a person feels is interesting, if they want to share it with anyone else, then they have a responsiblity to provide a certain level of quality to their intended readers. The content of Fifty Shades or Twilight isn’t for everyone (and I have more grievences with the content of Twilight), but making your work readable and organized is any author’s responsibility.

      Ooo, DNA really shows in my work from time to time. I can see it, especially in the rough drafts. Maybe I’ll grow up and find my voice one day too. :)

      And on that note, a well-established fantasy author spoke at a Dragon*Con panel last year, and I was floored when she said that there were no influences in her work. She influenced other people, she said. She was the trendsetter. Wow, I was surprised by the lack of modesty, or even sentementality for a childhood author. Anyway, I’m not trying to share bad behavior, but it always comes to mind when I hear writer-DNA.

      • Michael Allan Leonard
        April 11, 2013

        Feel free to borrow ‘Literary Pet Tricks’. Just walk it every other day, and keep an eye out, it is very aggressive toward other catchphrases.

        You certainly have a point on the writer’s responsibility to polish up their work. I got halfway through the first Twilight book before I finally had enough of the awkward writing (and I can count the number of books I have started and not finished over thirty-plus years of reading as a serious hobby on one hand). I later mused that it may indeed be sort of brilliant, as she *was* trying to write the book in a particular voice of a young character / inexperienced writer . . . or maybe it was just bad writing and that was the best she could do. Either way, it was a little TOO much.

        I loathe pretention in all its myriad forms. There’s enough people walking around the surface of the planet with a stick willingly up their posteriors to encourage that sort of behavior. I write and deal with comic books, so I’m well accustomed to the snooty look-down-the-nose pose.. “They’re trash!” Yes, yes, they are, for the most part. But they’re FUN trash.

      • tracycembor
        April 11, 2013

        I will ensure the proper care and feeding of my pet catchphrase. I wonder if it will do party tricks…

        How can comics books be trash? They combine graphic art with literary prose, creating a new medium of story expression that is greater than the sum of its parts.

  4. katemsparkes
    April 11, 2013

    I read one chapter of 50 Shades. That was all I could stomach– maybe I’m too picky (OK, I’m definitely too picky), but I couldn’t choke down the writing. The repeated ghost of a smile, the EVERY OTHER LINE being murmured… I had no interest in reading more. Also, the main character seemed like a total sap, a very predictable “I’m so pretty and I don’t know it, oops I’m clumsy when it suits the story, hey good golly, that feller’s attractive, he’d never want little old me, tee hee!” Also, people told me not to bother because almost every “interesting bit” was the same– my aunt found herself flipping back through the pages because she could have sworn she’d already read parts.

    If I want smut, I want well-written smut, dammit! :)

    That said, obviously I’m in the minority. The books are very popular. I’m trying to learn to keep my criticisms to myself. Obviously it’s not working…

    As for fan fiction, I feel exactly as you’ve said you do: I’d much rather create my own world and characters, have that complete freedom, and have a chance to get something back from it (unlikely as that may be). I’ve never wanted to write someone else’s characters or to read fanfic, but I understand why people do it. I’ve read worlds and met characters I never wanted to leave. Fanfic writers can and do extend the worlds they love so they and others can keep experiencing them. It’s writing purely for the joy of writing, for the love of what someone else has created. And yes, to a certain extent we all build on what’s come before, but I think there’s a big difference between influence and outright using someone else’s characters, even if you re-name them.

    I think I’d be flattered if anyone ever wrote fanfic based on my books. If they ever tried to pull an EL James and make money off of it, I’d be pissed, but that’s just me. I’m selfish. You want to make millions of dollars, create your own damned characters.

    • tracycembor
      April 11, 2013

      No, you aren’t being too picky, and I wouldn’t worry about criticizing a book with some obvious shortcomings. Don’t ever apologize for wanting to read high-quality literature. The Inner Goddess stuff got on my nerves pretty quickly.

      “If I want smut, I want well-written smut, dammit!” Well said!!

      Many of the people who are critical of the books read more than one a year, so their standards may be a little higher than the average Fifty Shades fan. I dunno, I could be wrong on this point.

      I understand fandom, but I don’t understand fanfiction. I’m not saying it’s wrong (except if someone makes money off my characters, then we gotta talk), but I feel like that much effort could be put to a better use. Maybe I’m selfish too. ;)

    • beautycalyptique
      April 11, 2013

      OMG my thoughts exactly. only I gave up after 3 pages.

      also, “scene” people told me the bdsm stuff was not even a sunday school version, they were, and I quote, “pre-wassershed orange juice ad” version.

      as for the minority thing: ok, so I read the pages from the amazon preview, but everybody else actually BOUGHT the book? :D

  5. mrschmoe
    April 11, 2013

    To quote one of my online friends. “Fifty shades of grey is porn for women.” She’s right about that.
    I don’t plan on reading fifty shades of grey. But I am not going to butt in another person’s choice of reading material. Quite surprisingly, cheesy romance novels are well written. Depending on who wrote the novel in question.

    • tracycembor
      April 11, 2013

      What? Romance novels are housewife porn? How could anyone jump to such an erronious conclusion? :P

      Of course Fifty Shades is porn for women; it is an erotic romance novel. I would be very hard pressed to make an argument for the literary merits of the book — There is a Steinbeck-like quality to the length of her sentences, and the protagonist is as refreshing as a Charles Dickens character. — Okay, so I could probably make something up.

      There are a lot of well-written romance novels; I’m not trying to slam the genre. I’m merely pointing out the shortcomings and dubious merits of one book, which has sadly become representative of the genre.

  6. mrschmoe
    April 11, 2013

    thanks for the link. I was afraid of that. People sure love fifty shades of grey

  7. John W. Howell
    April 11, 2013

    Wow what a place to visit (Your Blog). Thanks for the follow but I must say this is great stuff. I came in at the short story vote post (enjoyed it) and had to move to the latest. I need to return so yup I’m a follower. – John

  8. Pingback: Geek Week: Is Nostalgia the Reason Adventure Time Is Awesome? | tracycembor

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This entry was posted on April 10, 2013 by in Geek Week and tagged , , , , , , , , , , .

Posting Schedule for 2014-15

Monday through Friday I will be posting about writing as business and craft, the science of creativity, all things steampunk, and progress on The Dreamless City.

Weekends are reserved for my Music Playlist.

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About the Author

Tracy Cembor attempts to juggle a preschooler and a baby, a full-time job, random geekery, and the writing life. Currently working on The Dreamless City, a steampunk urban fantasy novel. Come join the adventure.
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