"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 he's reading in preparation to see the movie 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.
"Of course, Ms James is not the first author to strike it lucky in a market where unpublished rivals are told to sweat over every word,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 do prose-ettes 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."
"The Da Vinci Code hit the spot as distrust of global organizations 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 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."
"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."
"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?