So you can read my books

Sunday, April 28, 2013

B is for BESTSELLER as in Mark Twain Critiques 50 SHADES OF GREY!

I was trying to put the finishing touches to the last post of the A-Z Challenge that I had been tricked into doing backwards.

It was hard to get any writing done with the ghost of Mark Twain, gasping between peals of laughter and holding his chest with tears in his eyes.

"Oh, kill me, Roland. Kill me!"

"I would," I growl, "but you're already dead."

He shakes his head, muttering,

"I never thought my ghost would be around to see the day when gals get sunburned in places I only dreamed about."

Mark Twain flips another page of 50 SHADES OF GREY and reads aloud,

"My inner goddess is doing the merengue with some salsa moves."

I pause.  "You're making that up."

Mark puts a pipe-holding hand high in the air.  "I swear upon the prose of James Fennimore Cooper I am not!"

He looks down and reads out loud again, punctuating every few words with sputtering, "Anastasia, you are going to unman me."

Mark guffaws as he strangles out,

"Listen to this -  Why is anyone the way they are? That’s kind of hard to answer.

Why do some people like cheese and other people hate it? Do you like cheese?”

He bends double as he gasps, "Oh, son, this line is wonderfully, gleefully bad - 'I can tell from his accent that he’s British.'"

Mark turns a page and sputters,

"No, Roland.  I was wrong.  This here line beats them all -

'My inner goddess is doing the dance of the seven veils.'"

Wiping tears from his eyes, he turns to me and chuckles, "How much did E. L. James make from this travesty?"

"Don't remind me," I mutter.

Mark grins,

"Of course, Ms James is not the first author to strike it lucky in a market where unpublished rivals are told to sweat over every word,

then write a perfect cover letter and synopsis so that they stand out from the pile of slush washing through agents’ doors.

 But, oh, no, she's successfully bypassed that route by piggybacking onto the fan base of Twilight.   Now, how Mormon Stephanie Meyers feels about this remains to be seen."

"What does Miss Meyers being Morman have to do with this?" I frown.

Mark Twain holds up the book. 
"Son, this sure ain't gonna be quoted from behind any Mormon pulpit!"

All laughter dies in his eyes as he turns to me and sighs,

"Why, Roland.  Why?  Why does prose-ette like this make tons of money?"

I knew what he meant.  At the start of his literary life, he had been mocked and almost starved a few times writing books that now are considered classics.  I pushed back from my laptop.

"I think 50 Shades hints at why certain books catch on whatever the quality of the writing.

The explanation is thematic."

Mark grinned,
"You actually think in words like thematic?"

I happily ignored him and went on, "They tap into modern anxieties about our lives in a way publishers fail to predict."

Mark Twain scowled, "If they could predict them, they'd write them."

I nodded,
"The Da Vinci Code hit the spot as distrust of global organisations and big government reached new levels of paranoia.  Twilight tapped into teen angst about sex."

I made a face. "On some level 50 Shades taps into their discomfort about the role of women and their relationship to power."

Mark Twain dropped his "Just Folks" manner and switched to the keen thinking revealed in his essays,  

"As an early advocate of women's rights, Roland,

I find the popularity of books like 50 Shades deeply disturbing as they represent a resurrection of the whole Madonna/ Whore archetypes of Freud."

He lit his pipe.  "Archetypes, which the overwhelmingly female fan base indicates, many women buy into."

I said,
"What unites these and far better written global phenomena, such as Bridget Jones’s Diary and the Harry Potter series, is they hark back to traditional worlds.

Whether sorted according to ability and class (Harry Potter in his boarding school) or gender – the idea that a woman’s ultimate role is wife or girlfriend (Bridget was doing this one long before 50 Shades’ Ana) – they inhabit a traditional universe."

Mark sighed,
"What is behind these phenomena may not be deliberately misogynistic, Roland, but I do believe they offer a disturbing insight into wider attitudes towards women.

They seem to say,

‘Try as hard as you like, sister, you’ll still be either a Madonna or a whore.’

That they are predominantly bought by women concerns me as much as it perplexes me.

Maybe conscious or otherwise, the fantasy of readers is that they will be thought Madonnas, even if they act like ‘whores’?"

As his ghost slowly faded, Mark Twain said, "Whatever the answer to that question, Roland, 

what they definitely tell me is that if you want to write a bestseller: 

forget the writing, remember tradition. That is what you need to tap into."

"Right," I said into the darkness.  "And after that, I'll start on world peace."

What do you think?


  1. ...positively fabulous interview, my friend! Oh, to have an opportunity at a conversation with Twain. Just imagine the possibilities ;)

    One could very well pen an entire novel based on what you've started right for thought.


  2. It would concern me more if men were the ones buying them!
    Strange the things some authors can tap into.

  3. Elliot:
    My talks with the ghosts of Twain, Hemingway, Faulkner, Wilde, and Frost are some of the most fun I have here on my blog. It taps into what you revealed here: my wish to actually speak with those wits!

    That was what made my writing of GHOST OF A CHANCE so much fun for me! Thanks for picking up on that, Elliot. :-)

    It is odd what millions find so popular. But I wonder how many men do read 50 SHADES OF GREY?

  4. Madonna or the other one. ..That's not enough choices.

  5. I would much rather tap into brilliant writing and read brilliant writing than a book that just 'got lucky' and hit big by piggybacking on a popular trend.

  6. D.G.:
    That was exactly what the ghost of Mark Twain was saying. He was an early advocate of women's rights. He meant that the skewed view of women from erotica insulted women in all their varied aspects. :-)

    J Keith:
    Yes, as would I. But look at the Twitter feed and see how many are trying to jump on the 50 SHADES bandwagon! Thanks for visiting and commenting. :-)

  7. i actually chuckled out loud at this one. what's eerie is that earlier i was thinking along the same lines, but from a different angle. maybe i'll post about it. but you bring up valid and worrying points-about women buying into these concepts/mindsets. i'm proud to say i don't own a copy, and never will.

    you hang out with the best people :)

  8. I've still not been able to get through 50 Shades. Even just skimming for the slutty parts, the cliche just turned me off.

    Loved this discussion, it made me smile.


  9. Brilliant interview, gentlemen (gentleman and ghost?).

    I own a copy of FIFTY SHADES. I've tried to read it half a dozen times. I want to get through the book, so when I respond to posts like this one, I can be fair. But the writing is abysmal, the sex boring and farcical, and I haven't been able to make it beyond the first eight chapters.

    Frankly, my dear Roland, I think you may be over-analyzing this. In my heart of hearts, I believe FIFTY SHADES is a fad, somewhere along the lines of a pet rock that titillates. If the book spawns copycats—AWESOME! People are reading. But please God, let the hacks be able to write.

    Time to offend my gender.

    Don't buy into feminine hype. I get so weary of women blaming "male dominated society" for the whole Madonna/Whore cliché. Women talk a good game, all high-minded righteousness and strength, but they inevitably undermine themselves and their "sisters" at every opportunity, promptly circling wagons and blaming it on chauvinism and misogyny. Say one thing, do another, THAT is the true feminine mystique.

    FIFTY SHADES is a book written by a woman, inspired by a woman, embraced by women, who admit they enjoyed the read. *shudder* If FIFTY SHADES is perpetuating misogynistic stereotypes that demean women, then women have no one to blame but themselves. The desire to act like a whore and be thought of as a Madonna? That's not societal, that's inherent, something women were born with. Time we all suck it up, quit blaming men and face the reality.

    VR Barkowski

  10. WordsCrafter:
    The ghost of Mark Twain agrees that I hang out with the best "people" -- at least when he's around!

    Mark and I would be highly interested in your linked thoughts about this topic. He sends a wink your way! :-)

    I shake my head at millions buying this cliche-ridden prose and saying they like it! It reminds me of the tale of the Emperor's Clothes! I'm happy you found laughter in this "lively" conversation! :-)

    Mark says he is both a gentleman and a ghost -- he can't swear exactly what I am! The scoundrel!!

    I am somewhat dismayed at the explosion of bondage novels -- if the writings of Marquis de Sade took off, spawning copycats, I would be feeling similarly.

    I always try to look beneath the surface -- it keeps me alert late nights on blood runs. :-)

    If women defend reading novels which demean them as human beings it says something disturbing about those particular women. I like to think there are many free-minded women like yourself that see more clearly and demand to be seen as whole human beings.

    I agree with you: fixing the blame never fixed the problem -- especially when often we find ourselves at the hub of the mess!

    As always, a fascinating reply and comment. Mark enjoyed it immensely. Me, too. :-)

  11. @VR - you don't offend your gender, but you've shown that perhaps more education is needed for the women who 'like' this book.

    What are they thinking (the trenders, and avid readers)? Probably very little. When we judge our wants and needs by someone's else estimation, we sacrifice ourselves.

  12. Mark is a wise one for sure. The popularity of this book disturbs me to no end, and for all the reasons you listed and more! It is frustrating that we toil so hard for perfection and then tripe (and I don't mean erotica, I like good erotica. I mean badly written books.) reaches the bestseller list. *sigh*

  13. It is indeed odd what books become popular. Though I think Harry Potter deserved it, so do many others that never receive recognition!

    Allison (Geek Banter)

  14. Roland, this is one of the most intelligent and thoughtful posts I have read in a long time. Thank you.

  15. D.G.:
    No thinking woman should be angered at VR's words ... "thinking" being the operative word.

    But like those women cruelly commenting on the body weight of that cheerleader recently -- many women are cruel to their own. Mankind is anything but kind it seems these days!

    It saddens me, too. I like romance in a novel. The romance between Spenser and Susan in Robert B. Parker's was often steamy -- but the love and wit were there as well!

    Lightning just strikes where it will. But I am trying to find a lightning rod for my prose! :-)

    Your words make a very weary blood courier very happy. Thank you. Mark, of course, takes all the credit!! :-)

  16. I adore Mark Twain and what a clever idea you had here, loved it. It must be like a dagger to the heart when dross like 50 shades does so well, but it was popular with people that don't really read books. Not much consolation, true, sorry.
    Like the backwards idea, also clever.Like your blog, a lot.
    maggie at expat brazil