Monday, April 09, 2012

Shades of Grey Academic Opinion

Both Sarah and Eric are quoted today in The Vancouver Sun:

Public domain shades of grey
amid the din of dissent, readers of the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy seem to converge on two points: that the books are sexy as hell, and that the terms "inner goddess" and "mommy porn" need to be forever dispatched.

The latter label, which has appeared everywhere from Entertainment Weekly to CNN, has academics and fans alike cringing, thanks to its dual implication that E.L. James' trilogy is the holy grail for prudish housewives and that we should be surprised women enjoy sex.

Experts say the flywheel in Fifty's success is neither that backward nor that simple.

"The relationship described in the book is a lot like the relationship readers have with the book itself: secret, transgressive, and all the more alluring because of that," says Eric Selinger, co-editor of the Journal of Popular Romance Studies. "But even without getting all fancy, I'd say that this book had a lot of things going for it that weren't in the story itself." [...]

Selinger, a professor of English at DePaul University, credits a confluence of factors.
"News of the book spread by word of mouth, of course, but once there was press coverage in places like Salon and the New York Times, that gave even more readers cover to buy it. After all, they were just reading to find out what the buzz was about, right?" says Selinger.

"And unlike most works of erotica, it has a non-sexual cover: no hot, half-naked man or woman, which attracts some readers but puts others off." [...]

Sarah Frantz, president of the International Association for the Study of Popular Romance, says the answer may actually lie in Fifty's non-literary audience.

"She's hitting the people who read, you know, three books a year - the people who read books because they're on Good Morning America or in USA Today," says Frantz. "As much as the power-buyers who purchase a book a week are important, the books that sell hundreds of thousands of copies are the ones that take that specific track."
For more academic analysis of the Fifty Shades phenomenon, see Anne Jamison's Fifty Shades of Pop Culture Theory blog (particularly this post). Anne is
Associate Professor of English at the University of Utah. In summer 2010, she taught a course on Pop Culture Theory focusing on genre: Western, Science Fiction, Noir, and Twilight Fanfiction. After one of the course texts for the fanfiction unit became a bestseller, the professor finally got around to putting up the blog she promised her students.


  1. I was just telling a friend that the book's success is due to the press, which is possibly owed, along with the factors you mentioned, to the fact that the author's a TV producer, presumably with press contacts.

  2. Press contacts would certainly have been very useful, and perhaps it also helped that the "mommy porn" angle made for a good story. It seems to be a lot more difficult to get serious, respectful coverage of popular romance fiction.