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.