Tuesday, February 20, 2018

A Defence of Fifty Shades of Gray

I spend a lot of time talking about romance and erotica. I have two podcasts of my own and appear regularly on a third podcast — and people in my daily life who know I write smut often ask questions about the industry.

And more often than not during these conversations, I’m put in the place of defending Fifty Shades of Gray.

Full disclosure: I have not actually read the books, but I’ve seen the first two movies. I’m aware of the books’ criticisms, particularly the lack of writing skill, the problematic portrayal of BDSM, and the fact that it started as Twilight fan fiction.

I see Fifty Shades of Gray as being the scapegoat for everything that outsiders perceive to be wrong about erotic fiction. And insiders to the genre view it as an outside imposter that’s doing a bad job of trying to fit in.

With specific regard to the three most common criticisms I see — the writing skill, portrayal of BDSM, and its fan fiction origins — I find the first and third criticisms to be annoying more than anything else.

Every author starts somewhere and every author develops their skills at their own pace. The fact that EL James’s writing is amateurish is a reflection of where she was at in her stage of writing skill at the time. It’s only because the book blew up that people even paid attention to it. If Fifty Shades of Gray had launched like most first time authors’ books do, it would have seen some minor success before quickly falling off the radar.

Yes, Fifty Shade of Gray dominated the sales charts despite the lack of writing skill. Why? Because EL James knows how to tell a story. If you strip away the awkwardness of the prose and look at just the structure of the story, it’s clear she knows how to hook readers by giving them what they want. Sure, she might’ve made some choices that a more seasoned writer might not have made, but that’s again a reflection of writing maturity. When I saw the first two movies, I was sucked into the plot and taken along for the ride, even though I could see some of the problems during that ride.

Its fan fiction origins are not problematic for me in the slightest. Dreamspinner Press, easily the biggest and most successful publisher of MM erotic romance, has fan fiction origins too. They used to, and perhaps still do, peruse fan fiction sites to look for authors and books to take on. (Weirdly enough, given the community I’m part of on Twitter, I’ve seen Dreamspinner authors complain about the fan fiction aspect, like it automatically makes Fifty Shades of Gray utter trash.) I’ve read more than one Dreamspinner book that was thinly-veiled fan fiction, including one that was very clearly about One Direction. I’ve never even heard a One Direction song, nor did I know the names of the singers, but I could clearly identify the origins of the novel. A quick text to a friend of mine confirmed all my suspicions.

Fan fiction origins aren’t even exclusive to romance. Any established genre has elements of it. I can think of a few Star Trek novels that I would consider to be fan fiction or to have fan fiction elements. I clearly remember one book having a rather pointless scene that had characters named Koothrapali, Cooper, and Wolowitz (three of the guys from Big Bang Theory) — while the book itself was not fan fiction, this scene clearly was. Some Star Trek books I consider to be fan fiction of Star Trek itself, as they do “fan service” rather than tell a unique story.

But the portrayal of BDSM is where everyone gets hung up the most. No, it’s not realistic. Yes, it’s problematic.

There are two rebuttals I commonly voice to this criticism:
- Fifty Shades of Gray is fantasy, not reality.
- The target audience of Fifty Shades of Gray is not those who are participants in the BDSM community.

Romance and erotica are genres of fiction. Further, the stories are fantasy. While, yes, there is an ethical appeal to a fully consensual and fully negotiated sexual encounter, the fact is that readers by and large want pure fantasy. They want to see Christian push the lines of what’s acceptable, they want to see Anastasia get punished, they want to see that dominating and domineering side of Christian come out, they want to see Anastasia submit to it and have sex with him. They don’t want reality. In reality, that would be a very problematic relationship, but in this fantasy, the characters don’t get caught up in the problems.

The target audience, though, is perhaps the most tricky thing for both authors and readers. Every book has a target audience. There is no book I can think of whose target audience is “everyone”.

Quite often I see this pop up in regard to MM erotic romance. Gay men will now and then criticize women for writing MM with complaints (primarily) about it not being a realistic portrayal of gay relationships. Sound familiar?

The reason it’s like this is because gay men are not the target readership of MM erotic romance.

Women are the target readership and, because of this, they get to dictate the rules of how MM relationships are portrayed. These authors clearly have their target audience in mind and are writing to that audience. Their target audience loves it and can’t get enough of it. The style between women and gay men writing MM erotic romance is so stark that I can nine times out of ten determine the gender of the author simply from how the story unfolds and the sex is portrayed.

Similarly with Fifty Shades of Gray, authors of more “ethical” erotic romance are not the target audience. No, the target audience is women who are looking for the type of story that EL James wants to tell. I believe its wrong to shame people for what they want to read. Romance and erotica suffers from that often enough from those outside the genre — so why do we do this within the genre itself?

There’s a negotiation between author and reader. The author offers something and the reader either accepts it or rejects it. In that negotiation, the author finds their target audience and the negotiation is a success. EL James has done that. And for that, I applaud EL James and hope for her continued success.

Cameron D. James is a writer of gay erotica and M/M erotic romance; his latest release is Schoolboy Secrets. He is publisher at and co-founder of Deep Desires Press, member of the Indie Erotica Collective, and hosts two podcasts, Deep Desires Podcast and Sex For Money. He lives in Canada, is always crushing on Starbucks baristas, and has two rescue cats. To learn more about Cameron, visit http://www.camerondjames.com.


  1. I bought the first one and got through about 50 pages then put it down. But then again, I do that with most of the books I start. Momma X says I'm a literary snob. :>)

  2. Life's too short to read badly written books. So since I only got about half-way through Twilight before I drop-kicked it across the room for being hackneyed, insipid, and unrealistic (not the vampires...though if I was eternally young, I sure wouldn't want to go back to high school! But because teenagers don't talk the way that the characters in the book talk!) So when FSOG exploded on the scene, I read some of the in-depth reviews that showed, with side-by-side screen shots, how similar it was to it's progenitor. That was enough for me to avoid it entirely.

    What distresses me, big time, is that I work so hard to craft well-written stories, and create realistic characters. I edit my stuff endlessly. Then if it gets accepted, it goes through at least 2 more edits before it gets published. But when the big pub house bought FSOG, they didn't even bother to have anyone edit it. And they all laughed all the way to the bank.

    But you're right about target audience. It was aimed at women who never read books. So they didn't notice all of the flaws, since they never read...they only read this one because of the buzz. But having read it, they come away convinced that all romance novels are sloppily-written, so they will go back to avoiding reading romance because, after all, they know what it's all like now, right? GRRR!

    But you never know what's going to capture the zeitgeist. Harry Potter did, but it's better-written cousin, Artemis Fowl, didn't. Who knows why? I wish I knew who you'd have to blow, to have luck like that. I'd grab my kneepads and get busy!

  3. This is a very articulate and well-argued defense, Cameron. I especially appreciate your pointing out that E.L. James *was* a novice who just happened to get lucky (and who also knew how to capitalize on her initial success -- in marketing she was apparently not a novice at all).

    And I suspect that like most of us writing our first opus, she was writing for *herself*, fundamentally telling a story that personally turned her on. That may be one of the factors in the book's appeal. Readers sense that sort of emotional authenticity.

    A lot of the criticisms of FSOG are based on sour grapes. Certainly I recognize that reaction in myself. My first novel was a BDSM romance a lot better written than FSOG. So why didn't it ever take off? (And so on.)

  4. I really agree with a lot of the points you make in defense of Fifty Shades, Cameron, especially the fanfic stuff. I mean, there are a metric ton of fantasy novels that are basically Lord of the Rings fanfic and no one's having an aneurysm about that.

    I have sympathy for what you say about how the story is fantasy and not expected to portray realistic BDSM. I really love certain authors who write stories that include elements that one would definitely not want to do in real life (Greta Christina comes to mind). At the same time, having been in an abusive BDSM relationship, I react badly to some of the tropes in FSOG. I'm not telling anyone else not to read it, but I do find that it bothers me, so there's that side of it as well... (I say that having tried to read it, but unable to get through it)

  5. At a certain point the book became an object rather than something to read, at least to some extent. It was a joke raffle prize at a bridal shower I went to, one where the family was fairly religious and conservative. It represented over-the-top sex to laugh at, like some knock-offs of Victoria's Secret undies. (Little did the rest of the family know that the bride, an employee and friend of mine, knew more about BDSM than what's-her-name.)


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