On April 11, publishing journalist Danuta Kean posted up an article ‘How to write a bestseller’ at which point I became involved in a conversation with her on twitter. But, having read the article, and even though encouraged to do so, I didn’t comment there at the time as I hadn’t read any of the books she cited. I felt some research was required. The most obvious one to start with was the current publishing phenomenon (and controversy) that is E. L. James’s Fifty Shades Trilogy, the first of which is Fifty Shades of Grey.
James started out with online fan fiction based on the Twilight series. This then led to the characters in the Fifty Shades Trilogy and a book deal from Australian publishing collective, The Writers’ Coffee Shop. Knopf then bought the publishing rights for the US and Random House for the UK. James has now topped the charts on both sides of the atlantic, with The Bookseller reporting on Friday that the Random House ebook achieved sales of 32,000 last week alone. Fifty Shades of Grey is a novel that polarises people. It’s been dubbed with the unfortunate moniker ‘mommy porn’ and in the US is credited with revitalising the sex lives of middle-aged women (mainly in the New York area, if we are to believe the media). In the UK, we are seeing a more vocal backlash criticising the quality of the novel.
Let’s go to the very beginning of my reading experience for Fifty Shades of Grey. First I downloaded the sample to Kindle for Android. My impression was that I’d downloaded the original self-published edition. With two chapters to read, I admit I found it an oddity. This felt young adult, written by a young adult, full of the teenage angst for first major sexual attraction. The quality of the writing was not impressive but the story was compelling enough for me to buy the full edition at the end. Armed with this, I eventually gave up at 48% of my way into the full novel. Why? The writing. The prose is unbelievably repetitive. Bear in mind I was reading on Kindle for Android so one page was not a full PB page; I found myself feeling I’d just read that very section/paragraph earlier. Highlighting phrases for future reference, here are some typical repetitions:
Christian Grey smiling ‘sardonically’; Christian Grey’s ‘unreadable’ or ‘unfathomable’ expression; chins and lips ‘quirking up’; lower lips being bitten; ‘shattering into a thousand pieces’ / ‘splinter into a million pieces’; the referencing of the medulla oblongata; flushing; blushing; cringing ‘inwardly’.
Where writers of fiction are encouraged to stick to nouns and verbs, treating adverbs like a deadly virus and adjectives like condiments and seasonings, the opposite is true here. Then we have dialogue tagging involving the impossible such as ‘breathing’ words. The impossible stretches into the narrative: how can someone feel a ‘salty’ liquid, for example? Writing in the first person, how does the narrator always know when she is blushing/flushing?
There is a hell of a lot of editing missing here.
The dichotomy is this: those traditional routes to publishing require, demand even, a certain quality to be considered. But if a self-published author achieves a massive following online due to word of mouth, a traditional publisher may come along and apply their brand and distribution channels but nothing else of note. There is downside here. Seasoned readers want the luxury of a good read on a plate. They don’t want to have to sift through thousands to find the gem. They also expect a certain standard of reliable quality from a publisher. That involves judicious editing. And as the digital impact takes hold on publishing, those ‘legacy’ publishers will have their own brand more at stake. Readers and publishers are getting closer, be they self-publishers or ‘legacy’ branded. The opportunities are great, if only those ‘legacy’ publishers could focus more on the end consumers: the readers.
As the publishing industry experiences a seismic shift due to digital developments, some commentators have criticised the ‘legacy’ publishing industry for staring at their feet as they ‘wait to see’ what happens. The reactions and actions of some with respect to Fifty Shades of Grey suggest shooting themselves in the foot too, for the sake of short term profit. I only hope that any such profit is invested in more worthwhile longer term developments in the industry.
And to end on a positive note, congratulations to E. L. James on her success. I may not have been impressed with the novel in hand but I was curious, did buy it, and there’s a royalty from me coming up on a statement sometime soon. Ms James, you’ve also opened up a huge debate.