Fifty Shades of Blushing: Twilight meets BDSM

There’s been a lot of buzz about Fifty Shades of Grey, and the 2 following books in the series, by E.L. James recently. These books have been numbers in the top 3 spots on the NYT Bestseller e-book list, and in the top 4 spots for overall fiction for the last few weeks. Many dismissed them as “mommy porn.” But let’s face it, there is a reason people, even mommies, like porn. And it is one of the reasons, even non-mommies, are buying this book in record numbers.

The media’s latched on the success of this series, and I can see why. The books are selling at approximately one book a second. What I don’t understand is why the focus has been on women asserting themselves as an economic force and women exploring “darker” forms of overt sexuality. Neither of these things seem particularly newsworthy to me.

Women have long dominated the publishing market as consumers. From its invention as a genre, the novel was considered primarily for women. The latest figures show women buying 64% of books in the USA, out buying men in almost every category including suspense and thrillers. BSDM and erotic/romantic books aren’t anything new either. Romance novels comprised 55% of all paperbacks sold in 2004 and BDSM dates back to 9th century B.C. Sparta. Thank you wikipedia.

What I think is more worthy of note, is that these hugely successful books were self-published. E. L. James, a working mother of teenagers with a self proclaimed “vanilla” sex life, through ebooks and a print-on-demand press. The publicity of the books relied on word of mouth and blogs. This, along with the hype, was the reason I picked up the first book. They were not, however, the only reasons I couldn’t put them down.

While the steamy sex scenes certainly didn’t hurt, my reading experience or the books popularity, I think there are other aspects that contribute to its success. There were fantasies that went beyond the bedroom … or the red room of pleasure/pain. When incredibly wealthy, indescribably handsome Christian Grey pursues recent college graduate, he doesn’t just offer an alternative sex life. He wants to provide for/control her in every way: buy her the safest car, buy her publishing house so she can be a book editor, buy her car, makes sure she doesn’t drink to much, holds her hair when she doesn’t listen. Although this is kind of scary, for working mothers trying to “do it all” (and recent college graduates who haven’t figured their lives out yet) this functions as an even more powerful fantasy then being tied up and … ect.

Then there’s the Twilight factor. While I was reading, I kept thinking this is just like Twilight. It turns out the book was originally written as Twilight fan fiction, and then rewritten with original characters. While some Stephanie Meyers fan think this is not fair, I found it delightful. Who wouldn’t want to trade vampires for kinky sex? The similarities range from the superficial (Oregon setting, clumsy heroine, lip biting) to the deeper. I think the idea of overpowering love is hard not to root for. I thought this series handled character development and complexity better, if not plot. I’m pretty sure all the Twilight moms out there agree with me. And if some of them want to go on 20/20 and talk about how their sex life is spicier, complete with photos of themselves in costumes made from synthetic fabrics Christian would never let Ana wear, then I guess more power to them.

Mockingjay: A Review with Spoilers

Mockingjay, the third and final book in Suzanne CollinsHunger Games trilogy, in my experience is the most controversial in the series.  People that I’ve talked to feel no indifference, they love it or hate it. I loved it. I’m embarrassed to actually say this, but reading the book felt very deep to me.  And although I usually try to keep spoilers out of these reviews, I didn’t know how to analyze the book with out giving some of the major plot points away.

The political commentary that is hinted at in Hunger Games, and brought to light in Catching Fire is on steroids in this book. As Katniss learns to take her place in the rebel District 13, the reader learns that just because the Capitol is bad doesn’t mean that the rebels are good.

In a series where control is a looming theme, District 13 with their stringent rules, tattooed schedules, and strict regulation of food intake is almost more controlling than the capital. The role of celebrity culture and propaganda comes center stage, as Katniss reluctantly embraces her place as the face of the rebellion. There is also a strong theme of ends justifying means. In district 2 should they eliminate the population hiding in the mountain? Does the victory against the capital justify the purposeful loss of Prim?

What is strange, and I think effective, about the books is that while these serious themes are on steroids so are the traditional YA elements. The love triangle is more present in this book than the other two. Katniss is shown as more selfish than ever. Leading to the next question, does what she’s been through justify her selfish behavior.

I read in the NYT review that the book, like the capital, uses the things we are attached to against us. This seemed pretty spot on for me. Peeta remained by largest connection to the book. Although his torture and its aftereffects broke my heart, it made their love story more interesting, equal, and further invested me in it. “Real or not real?” was definitely my favorite narrative device used.

The end of the book left me with a lot of questions. Namely, why did Katniss and Haymitch vote yes at the end and did Katniss plan to assassinate Coin? I also felt like the epilogue could have been a little longer. After 3 books of nonstop tragedy, a few more pages of happy were definitely in order.

For further reading and reviews:

3 Books for Aspiring Writers

On Writing – Stephen King I’ve never been a fan, or even read, Stephen King but this was full of interesting autobiography, details of his process, advice and encouragement. He starts the book talking about how it is not a biography, but then proceeds to detail his childhood, meeting his wife, becoming a father, his struggles with addiction and eventual success in writing. He puts great emphasis on the strength of his relationships (especially his wife and first reader Tabby) and health as essential. He also stressed the importance of actually liking to write. The advice was in some ways very common: write every day, do at least 2 drafts, don’t use adjectives, never use adverbs, ect. Some of this distanced me, especially the write every day part, which is not how I write. He also had some really interesting idea about how a story is born. He compares a story to an artifact buried underground, that you have to dig up and identify like an archeologist would. He also includes notes on how authors he knows or has studied practice the craft in ways completely different from himself. Although I enjoyed all the book, my favorite parts are where he details the process by which he came up with and wrote his biggest successes. They are probably way too scary for me, but he is kind of genius.

Bird by Bird – Anne Lamott One of my very best friends gave me this book. Anne’s advice for writing is pretty simple. She basically is arguing that you have to do the work to get the pay off. You have to walk before you can run. What stands out about her suggested process is that she doesn’t just focus on practices of craft, she suggests that beginning writers spend a great deal of time writing about their childhood. That seems in line with the recent buzz about people using creative writing and writing classes in lieu of therapy. I really enjoyed this book, but what didn’t sit right with me were her continued and almost bitter assertions that writing won’t make you $$$ or famous. This book has made Anne Lamont both. So, I don’t know exactly what to make of that. As a writer and a writing teacher I put a lot of stock in her advice and the writing exercises she includes in the book. She illustrates the editing process very well, something that has changed the way I write.

The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers – John Gardner This is pretty much a bible for me when it comes to the do’s and don’ts of writing. Three of my best (and most successful) writing teachers assigned this and lauded it as the best book a beginning writer could read and try to absorb. In the first pages Gardner asserts that every person he’s met who knew what it meant to be a writer and still wanted to be one accomplished this goal. I think about this quote a lot. It seems to be encouraging and taunting at the same time. He believes in learning primarily from myth and the classics. Which is funny because his examples are mostly contemporary. His chapter on “Common Errors” is probably the one I’ve read the most. I also suggest the chapters “Interest and Truth” which gets to the heart of what fiction really would be and “Technique” which detail the importance of pacing, word choice and rhythm. Gardner can be a huge literary snob, but his advice is so spot on.

Catching Fire: A Sequel with Less Sizzle

A lot of people I’ve met and a lot of opinions I’ve read on the Internet state that both sequels to The Hunger Games are complete misses and not worth reading. I do not agree with these statements, but I do think both books lack the brilliance of their predecessor. I also don’t know anyone, and can’t even bring myself to imagine someone, with the willpower to get to the end of The Hunger Games and not keep reading.

This is not to say that I didn’t enjoy reading Catching Fire, by Suzanne Collins. Many people rate this as their favorite in the series. However, the fact that I liked the book had more to do with the continued connection I felt with the characters.  The character development carried on throughout the book. I learned more, and therefore cared more, about most of the characters. My favorite parts of the book (don’t worry, no spoilers) are learning about Haymitch’s Hunger Games, the newly introduced past victors, especially Finnick, and Peeta.

Even more than in the first book, Peeta begins to represent everything good. Peace. Love. Compassion. The Arts. Maybe that is simplistic of me, but he seems at most junctures to stand of for what is right and what is good. Of all the characters, he seems very sure of himself. I know there are people out there that like Gale more, but if I found someone that meant I didn’t have nightmares anymore I would marry them on the spot.

The heightened political aspects of the book also stand out as a strong point in the sequel. You will learn more about the Capital and the other districts. Katniss and Peeta, as victors, take on a new role in the political landscape of Panem.

Katniss is, perhaps, my biggest disappointment in the novel.  While she is a very active person in the Hunger Games, in Catching Fire everything seems to happen to her. She makes few decisions, and mostly goes with the flow. And flow isn’t going anywhere good.

The Prim storyline also seems to disappear. Her relationship with her sister is overshadowed with the love triangle, in a way that rings untrue to me. I think I wrote in my last review that Katniss has a need to be needed. But no need except an economic need is established between the sisters. Once she has money and Prim has enough to eat the need evaporates. As a sister, I don’t’ believe there is no emotional need exists between them. This makes me question the entire arc of the first book and the series.

The question that sticks in my mind is whether these aspects of the book are intentional or not. As a reader it doesn’t really matter to me, but as a writer I am curious. I can’t help wondering if Collins didn’t know how to follow-up her hit novel or if she is making a comment on the reality of being a hero. I probably will never find out.

For further reading and reviews:

The Casual Vacancy: New Information on JK Rowling’s New Book

When JK Rowling announced in February that she was writing a new book for adults, I was pretty much the last person on the planet to find out. Seriously check our twitter account, I found out like maybe two weeks ago. Why didn’t anyone tell me? I guess they thought it was such big news that there was no way I hadn’t heard about it. Well when I saw that JK Rowling was a trending topic on WordPress yesterday I decided to employ the good old fool me once fool me twice rule and make sure I didn’t miss the news this time.

So, you probably didn’t hear it here first, but in case you were unaware lots of new information was released yesterday about the new book. The title is “The Casual Vacancy” a 480-page novel aimed towards adult readers.

Here’s what Little Brown Book Group posted about the book on their website: “When Barry Fairweather dies unexpectedly in his early forties, the little town of Pagford is left in shock. Pagford is, seemingly, an English idyll, with a cobbled market square and an ancient abbey, but what lies behind the pretty facade is a town at war. Rich at war with poor, teenagers at war with their parents, wives at war with their husbands, teachers at war with their pupils…Pagford is not what it first seems. And the empty seat left by Barry on the parish council soon becomes the catalyst for the biggest war the town has yet seen. Who will triumph in an election fraught with passion, duplicity and unexpected revelations?”

Although it is a far cry from the wizarding world of Harry Potter, it sounds pretty intriguing to me (a politically-minded Anglophile). I don’t know if I would have been more excited by something more similar to her previous books. Harry Potter was a very important character and series in my life and the part of me is longing for more of the same, even if it doesn’t stand up to the original. I think this is behind my adoption of The Hunger Games and Twilight series. Another part of me is glad that this book won’t have to compete with the crazy popularity and magic of HP. Either way I will be excited to pick up a copy on September 27th. Is anyone else up for a midnight book release?

What do you think – do you wish the book was like Harry Potter or are you happy with this description?

Also do you think she should be publishing under a different name? I’ve heard people say this, but I don’t get it.