Why You Won’t Find Fifty Shades in ‘Dichotomy’

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.

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20 thoughts on “Why You Won’t Find Fifty Shades in ‘Dichotomy’

  1. Janet O'Kane

    Very even-handed, Rhian, as usual. I too have downloaded the first 2 chapters onto my Kindle, out of curiosity. If the writing is as poor as most of the reviews I’ve read suggest, that’s as far as I’ll go. Two comments:
    - while sales of book 1 are doing exceptionally well, I wonder how successful the follow-ups will be, given the adverse reactions to and mockery of book 1?
    - it amuses me to imagine all those middleaged men out there quaking in their boots at the prospect of their wives reading the book and getting ideas from it.

    1. crimeficreader Post author

      No idea on 2 & 3, but the US leads, so I will investigate. I wonder if the Brits, tending more to the cynical, will fall off for 2 & 3…

  2. Kath

    I’m impressed that you read the book – or attempted to! – before joining the debate. It’s interesting to hear what you thought of it. (I’d also be interested to know how many people who read this first volume then bought the rest of the trilogy.)

    I haven’t read it, downloaded a sample nor do I intend to for the time being. I’ve heard enough from people whose opinions I trust not to be swayed by all the hype and get it. I’ve fallen for that before and read to regret it.

      1. Kath

        I do my best to try and avoid it but easier said than done, especially being connected with so many authors, readers & publishing peeps through social networking.

  3. Maxine

    re your comment about editing, I find it very sad that editing does not seem to be considered essential or even optional these days, whether or not a book is self-published, published via a publisher, or a mix such as this book. A similar book that I read because it was self-pubilshed then picked up by a proper publisher and re-edited (or just edited) – the author wrote about how much the editing process had improved the book – was so poorly written I could barely finish it. Similarly to your post here, there was a “young adult/teenage” level to the prose, oversimplified phrases, poor grammar, the full gamut. In addition to this I was predicting every plot twist and turn (& cliche) before it happened, adding to the general leaden sense. I had a similar sense flicking through She’s Never Coming Back by Hans Koppel in the library, that was so bad I did not even borrow the book for free!

    50 Shades of Grey is not my sort of book – I have no objection to the subject matter in general, but I do have of this teenage angstly/romanticised wish-fulfilment, lazy prose type of thing…..I prefer books written for grown-ups by grown-ups.

      1. Maxine

        Yes, unfortunately major and minor publishers alike seem not to bother with editing on many occasions, or outsource it to those who don’t know how to do it, or rely on “auto editing” programmes – this is quite common in the scientific publishing arena, in which specialist publications have a souped-up version of Word to “automatically edit” articles & structure them in journal style. All very well for an article reporting a piece of science, possibly, but it does not work for fiction.

  4. Yvonne Johnston (@Whyjay99)

    Months ago when this trilogy was first mentioned in the Sunday Times I downloaded the samples for all three novels and took a look at them. They are all much the same as each other.
    What amazes me is the way all the media hype keeps going on about how reading ‘erotica’ like this is a new discovery for these ‘mommies’. Erotica written by women and for women has been around a long long time. It’s also been a lot better written. If you want to read well written erotica, read Anais Nin.

  5. iainspaton

    I’m interested by the reader reviews on Amazon. The paperback version has 61 one-star reviews versus 108 five-star reviews. You – literally – either love it or hate it. The people who love it are likely to be deranged thirty-fortysomethings with cats and fluffy handbags. The new paperback version is being sold for £3 on Amazon UK, which is pretty much giving it away.

    I read the first chapter as a preview. It was rubbish. No sense of character or place, just words thrown together to get to the dirty bits.

    1. crimeficreader Post author

      There’s a similar pattern on Amazon.com for the US, Iain.
      I think the readership might be younger than we think. There’s not much new around for curious teenagers apart from this one at the mo.

  6. Maxine

    Re: the comment about longstanding nature of women’s erotica, yes indeed. The “Black Lace” imprint has been going for years (15?) and Mills & Boon has an “erotic” imprint I believe. I also have this idea that the “History of a Vampire” series taps into this, and all the other Vampire wannabe books (turning full circle to Twilight, which was the “model” for the 50 shades trilogy as the author has said)…..Charlene Harris (top-seller) and so on…..they are “women’s erotica” in a similar/parallel vein. Not that I’ve read any of it ;-)

  7. peterjearle

    It is stunning, and disappointing, how many typos slip through even in the most respected of tree-publishers, knowing how much editing must have got it that far. Having thought myself as careful about editing as anybody to avoid this embarressment, I have still found a couple of (now) glaring mistakes in the Amazon Direct Publishing Kindle edition of my thriller, Hunter’s Venom. If anyone also finds any other patheticnesses, please let me know!

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