My reservations about 50 Shades of Grey aside, I think it’s far too easy to dismiss something this popular and (let’s face it) absurd. As a writer myself, I marvel at the substandard writing within the book and at a story that (at best) is little more than a kinky romance or (at worst) an unintentional exploration of a dysfunctional, broken relationship. 50 Shades is certainly not a story aimed at me. Its lack of ninjas and dinosaurs makes that apparent. And yet, the book is successful. More successful than I’ll ever be. While I have no doubt it’s more of a fad than a cultural touchstone, even as a fad, there’s something worth exploring there. It’s easy to say “This sucks and therefore, I have nothing to learn from it”, but that’s simplistic. As an artist, I want to speak to people. I want people to be excited and enthralled by what I write. I want the passion and obsessiveness of 50 Shades while writing something with more artistic oomph and, yes, a lot less of an ick factor.
There’s little doubt that 50 Shades is popular simply because of the cultural zeitgeist. Things that are popular tend to become more popular. Things that are obscure tend to stay obscure. Call it the Conservation of Cultural Attention, but people tend to be attracted to things that their friends like, that their culture is talking about. Even hipsters and trend avoiders are part of this because by avoiding popular things, they are playing the same game on the other side of the coin. This is just the way it is, and it’s okay to admit. Harry Potter is popular because Harry Potter is popular. People love Batman because other people love Batman. As much as we might like to believe ourselves beyond this herd mentality, that’s how it works. That’s not to say that these characters and stories are popular only because of the herd, but it’s a factor and a more important one than most people are willing to acknowledge.
50 Shades benefits from this popularity snowball, but I don’t believe that’s the only reason it’s doing so well. There’s another reason, and as a storyteller, I think it’s probably the most important element of storytelling.
Yes, for all its turgid prose and ridiculous characters, 50 Shades succeeds for exactly the same reason Harry Potter and The Grapes of Wrath succeed. It taps into that most powerful element of storytelling and art: The Emotional Core. Freud (who was mostly a wacko who really got most things wrong) would’ve labeled it the Id. And the Id is nearly everything. Tap into that, and you can get away with practically anything.
We like to think of ourselves as rational beings, but we will gladly forgive the most glaring plot hole and goofiest bit of dialogue or characterization if it manages to reach our emotional hot buttons. In the end, it is our passions that drive and compel us. Everything else is just window dressing.
We need look no further than the blockbuster movies of the last few years. People complain about the endless tide of reboots and remakes, and yet, they see them. Even when given a choice, they seek them out. We might all remark on how silly and mindless Bay’s Transformers films are, but it doesn’t stop us from seeing them. When the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are rebooted into an almost unrecognizable mess, we still see them. When given a choice between the intellectual (stories that make sense) versus the emotional (stories that emotionally manipulate us), we seek out the latter, not the former.
I’ve written often about the absurd non-stories at the heart of Star Trek: Into Darkness, Skyfall, and Godzilla. And, yes, from a purely logical perspective, all these films (and more) are utter failures. Characters run around for no clear purpose, do things that don’t make sense, and encounter inane obstacles. Man of Steel juggles so many themes, dropping every one of them in the end, that you’d be hard-pressed to really summarize what the story is about other than “Sad Superman punches a bunch of bad guys and then isn’t sad anymore.” And, yet, it doesn’t matter.
That’s the truth. That’s what we writers must accept.
50 Shades might be a by-the-numbers romance with some half-assed domination and bondage thrown in. Its characters are so broad as to be ridiculous. A rich, handsome, distant man who doesn’t know how to love. A child-like woman who, though being attractive and pleasant, has somehow gone her whole life without experiencing sexuality in much of any form. Even their names: Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele are so absurd as to make one roll one’s eyes. And this is coming from a guy who has had protagonists named Mack Megaton and Emperor Mollusk.
Those who criticize the story on that basis are entirely right. There’s even a solid argument to be made about how it crosses from a traditional harmless romance story to a tale of abuse and a cliched exploration of why someone would be into BDSM in the first place. I can certainly see both arguments, and I agree with them. It’s frustrating to see such an abusive relationship romanticized, and I can imagine that anyone into BDSM would probably be sick to death of the assumption that being into that sort of thing is a sign they’re mentally damaged. (I sure as hell hate when people think I must be an arrested adolescent because I like cartoons and kaiju, so it’s sort of the same thing.)
And yet, most people reading the story don’t care. They don’t care about the writing. They don’t care about the story. They don’t think about it much, and when they do, they tend to focus on it in only the most superficial, emotionally satisfying ways. Reading, more than most mediums, is a deeply personal experience, filtered through one’s own perceptions, experiences, and biases. And so, let’s get down to it:
Most people don’t give a damn about good or bad prose. Even people who read regularly. Yes, I know that’s absurd, but it’s true. For most people, as long as the prose doesn’t get in the way, they’re happy. The other end of that are people who love prose so much that they don’t care about much else, but let’s put those people aside for now. For most readers, prose is meant to be functional, unobtrusive. That’s unsurprising. Most people have not spent much time thinking about prose. They view writing the same way they view plumbing. It gets the job done. They don’t really care how. If you’re a plumber, you can see a series of pipes and understand its complexity and how it keeps everything working. If you’re not, you just know there are pipes, and as long as they aren’t leaking, they don’t draw much of your attention. That’s how most people view prose. As a writer, I might work for five minutes on a paragraph upon which everything hinges, and a reader just might as easily skim through it without much concern.
Most people don’t care aboutcharacters except in the broadest possible terms. They find a character to relate to and care about, latch onto them, and just go forward. Subtle relationships are a waste of time. The romance genre thrives because it is so broad and simple, but so did Westerns and cop movies from the 80’s where a maverick cop had to take on a sinister villain who is motivated by his desire for money and power. Sometimes, if a writer wants to pretend to be subtle, they’ll throw in some extraneous motivation. Batman is relatable because his parents died tragically, but there could just as easily be a dozen other motivations for this billionaire who dresses up like a bat to fight criminal scum. And that’s okay. Complicated people are (in truth) rare in this world, difficult to write, and more frustrating than interesting in the end. Nobody is really there to watch Batman cry over his parents chalk outlines. They’re there to watch him punch weirdos in the name of justice. So it is with 50 Shades. The BDSM isn’t important. The abusive elements just skim across the reader. But the “passion”, the simplistic interaction between these two characters is all that really matters.
Most people don’t care about plot. They’re perfectly happy with a series of events, one after another, that have some loose connection to one another. For most people, a simulated plot (see: Godzilla and Into Darkness) is just as satisfying and pretty much indistinguishable from an actual story. Godzilla, in particular, is a great example of a plotless story where characters wander from point A to point Z with nary a clear motivation or purpose and where our protagonist is our protagonist because . . . well, someone hast to be so it might as well be this cardboard puppet as anyone else.
And, yes, you have no idea how frustrating it is to have said all the above. As a writer, I work hard on all those elements, and more and more, I’ve come to realize how unimportant they are. Perhaps that’s why so many writers are frustrated by 50 Shades. It’s not that it’s a bad book. It’s a bad book that reminds us that most everything we try to do as artists just might be a colossal waste of time. It’s like making Oscar bait. You could try to come up with a really subtle and interesting story. Or you could just write something about an English guy involving WW2 and call it a day.
The lesson (painful as it might be) to be gleaned from 50 Shades is that the Id is king. You can screw up nearly everything else, and you can still get by. Hell, you might even be wildly successful. Hollywood has figured out that it’s far more sensible (from a capitalist perspective) to simply remake something people have fond memories for or to brand yourself so successfully that the audience is already on your side. Star Wars will make a billion dollars, and it’s pointless to even wonder if quality is important. It simply isn’t. All that matters is that it’s Star Wars. Not that this means it will be bad. It just means it doesn’t matter from a pure commercial perspective.
None of the above is meant to excuse the flaws of bad storytelling, nor to shield them from criticism. 50 Shades does have bad prose, flat characters, and some really unpleasant aspects of abuse and dysfunctional relationships. Godzilla is terrible. Man of Steel is pretentious nonsense. Into Darkness has the depth of a Superfriends episode. We can and should discuss these works, how they affect us, how they fail. And, yes, how they succeed to. Art, like everything else, is a complicated business, and it’s good to acknowledge that.
So feel free to call 50 Shades out on its absurd failures, but just remember:
It’s all about the Id.
Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,