Wednesday, November 14, 2012

In Defense of Vanilla Sex & Fiction That's Not So Edgy

By Marilyn Brant

The incredibly popular E.L. James novel
that sparked so much controversy and
interest around the world.
There's been A LOT of talk online and off when it comes to the novel Fifty Shades of Grey. Very strong opinions abound -- and frequently conflicting ones -- about the series/the plot/the characters, which was why I finally decided I had to read at least the first novel myself and draw my own conclusions.

Well, I just finished Book One this week and, I'll readily admit, I had some conflicting personal reactions. While it had its entertaining moments, I doubt the primary appeal of this story was the prose itself. Nevertheless, it's become a runaway international bestseller, and I think I can pinpoint at least a few good reasons why.

To me, the allure seems to stem from a combination of factors: The well-documented "Twilight" fan-fiction connection. The peek inside the world of BDSM (I couldn't tell you if it's accurately portrayed, though). The familiarity we have for character archetypes like Anastasia and Christian, where an innocent but beautiful/clever heroine meets a controlling/damaged but very wealthy hero and they inevitably, and somewhat inexplicably, fall in love. In this case, they also have lots of sex on lots of surfaces.

There's that fear of missing something, too. Most of us -- writers in particular -- don't want to be left out of the loop if millions of people are talking about a book. The curiosity alone can be quite a compelling inducement to read it. It was for me. ;)

Regardless, reading this got me thinking about the attraction we seem to have for stories that are labeled "edgy" and for characters who are described as "dark." Many of us are familiar with Tolstoy's famous first line from Anna Karenina: "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." And, so, there's an ever-present expectation that novelists should write about the state of unhappiness in some form or other. I get that. But that doesn't mean grittiness and dysfunction are the only ways to touch upon it. Unhappiness doesn't require great extremes in behavior to feel genuine -- just well-expressed motivations.

So, I began to wonder to what degree the dark/edgy thing was all about shock value or voyeurism. Do we need our stories to keep pushing the envelope because we're increasingly desensitized to graphic images -- even those we create mentally? Are we collectively becoming a society of world-weary sophisticates, who are bored with vanilla sex, traditional types of conflicts and average, everyday people fighting to rise above their not-very-unusual challenges? Can a book be "fresh and original" without celebrity-ish characters, kinkiness, violence or a hefty dose of emotional instability? (By the way, these aren't rhetorical questions. I'm really asking you. What do you think?)

For my part, I'll say this: I'm fascinated by the portrayal of extraordinarily damaged characters. I'm curious about fictional lives and experiences that aren't my own. I'm interested in being introduced to new worlds and varying ways of processing information, and I consider myself to have a pretty rich imagination. I love to explore characters in my stories whose perspectives may be wildly different from mine.

Sometimes.

My latest digital release, Holiday Man,
is a contemporary romance that shares
two distinct similarities with Fifty
Shades -- the hero is a wealthy
businessman & there's this one steamy
scene with a blindfold...LOL.
But, sometimes, equally as much, I love seeing snippets of my real, often humdrum suburban life reflected in the fiction I read and write. Sometimes I want the traits that make these characters unique to be their emotional courage, their honesty, their strength of spirit. I want their passion, humor, hard-earned ethics, persistence and clarity of thought to be what elevates them and makes them memorable characters...not just their "dark enigmatic past" or their "edgy intensity."

So, I guess, what I'm saying is this: In my opinion, familiar situations and commonplace problems in a story are valuable to readers, too. And, if you're writing one of those kinds of novels for NaNoWriMo or otherwise, please don't change your course just because of the popularity of any particular genre trend.

After I'd been married a few years and became a new mother, I read novels by authors who explored everyday experiences with a wisdom and truth that I didn't merely want at the time...I needed them. I had to know I wasn't alone in having (very normal, it turned out) fears and insecurities about being a wife and mom. I needed to read about characters who weren't larger than life, but who were a lot like me, and they let me in on their perceptions of the world, the mistakes they made, the struggles they had and, best of all, the way they eventually rose above them.

I'm still incredibly grateful to the authors who created these characters and plotlines -- among them, Sue Miller, Elizabeth Berg, Anne Tyler -- for bravely writing about domestic dramas, even though some might consider those tales mundane. (After all, there were no red rooms of pain or 27-year-old billionaires in them...) But, for me, those stories were lifesavers.

Maybe you've felt that way about some authors, too. Someone whose work strikes an authentic, recognizable chord in your own life. If so, please share. And to all of you in the midst of NaNo, keep at it!
~~~

Marilyn writes award-winning women's fiction and romantic comedy. Her latest trade paperback release was A Summer in Europe (Kensington, Dec. 2011), which was a Rhapsody Book Club Top 20 Bestseller in Fiction and Literature. Her newest contemporary romance is Holiday Man (ebook, Nov. 2012), a story that takes place over a year of holidays at a quaint Wisconsin inn. Hot scenes? Sure. But she admits there are no vampire-inspired characters in this book.

41 comments:

  1. Love this post, Marilyn! And I love that cover on HOLIDAY MAN!!

    As for writers who reel me in, I'm obsessed with Elinor Lipman, Emily Giffin, Jennifer Weiner, and Julie Buxbaum. I can never put their books down.

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    1. Brenda, thank you!! I'm so glad you liked the post and the book cover. I thought the cover designer did a wonderful job with it ;).

      I've read a number of books by both Emily and Jennifer, but I've had Elinor and Julie on my TBR list, too. I need to get to those!!

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  2. Wow Marilyn, a lot to think about. I haven't succumb to the "50 shades" under my belt list. I don't enjoy erom and even though even my daughter (she's 32 by the way) told me to read it, and her boyfriend enjoyed the shall we say excess energy (I know TMI, right) I just won't give in. I haven't read the twilight series, or Harry Potter books, even thought Casual Vacancy is waiting on my TBR shelf. Now don't get me wrong I see nothing wrong with lovers of erom and those of you who're just dipping your toes for curiosity. I'm not, never have been or ever will be a book snob. (I review series romance for heaven sakes and some of them get Top Picks)
    But you've posed an interesting question and here's my answer to you. First let me say I'm by no means a prude and LOVE a great sex scene in a book, doesn't have to be pilgrim position either.
    But I do love to read "edgy" novels, to me that means out of my realm of understanding and reality. So to me to really get away in a novel I read fantasy, dystopian, steampunk and urban. I love to see how an author end the world as we know it. Some end it in a terrible bang and others use more quiet methods.
    And in today's "too much" everything we all need that release of stress and tension and even though reading is more expensive than cheap wine, it's better for me too :)
    But then there are times when it's all about reality and that's when I turn to my go to's like you when I know I can rely on a great tale that could actually happen. I also enjoy the fiction of Lisa Verge Higgins, Emilie Richards, Erica Burmeister and I know I'm leaving tons out. So I hope they don't visit here :)
    Love reading your thoughts as always Marilyn, stay cool as ever and Happy Thanksgiving next Thursday.
    deb

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    1. Deb, I love reading your thoughts!! Thank you so much for sharing them and for including me on your go-to author list! xoxo And LOL about your daughter's boyfriend's reaction to 50 Shades ;).

      Aside from The Help, I've never been especially quick to read huge bestsellers. It took me 5 years of hearing about Twilight before I finally gave in and read it...and I *just* read the first book in The Hunger Games trilogy last month. I could see why these were compelling stories. But all the talk and conflict over 50 Shades was starting to get to me, and I didn't want to rely on anyone else to deconstruct the novel for me. There were parts of it that were more insightful than I'd expected, and others that still have me shaking my head...

      Your definition of an edgy novel as something out of your realm of understanding and reality really resonated for me, too. It's fascinating to get that insight into worlds/people so different from what I'm used to.

      p.s. Happy Thanksgiving early to you as well!!

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  3. Congrats on your holiday book! I do tend to stick with women's fiction for the familiarity aspect of my own life, though I do switch things up with some YA and mystery/suspense and non-fiction. I just downloaded Jess Riley's new book I'm excited to read and I'm about a 1/4 the way into Jane Porter's new book. I tend to pick authors based on voice and then I'll just go with whatever they write.

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    1. Malena, thank you!!
      I've enjoyed a fair bit of YA and mystery, in addition to WF and romance, too :). I know that publishers are always so keen to try to categorize novels into one genre, but what I really love is when an author with a great voice will cross genres and tell a really unique story -- like Diane Setterfield's The Thirteenth Tale. And I'm looking forward to reading Jess's book, too!

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  4. Love the disclaimer: "I couldn't tell you if it's accurately portrayed, though."

    Congratulations on the new book!

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    1. Thanks for the congrats, Lauren!!
      And LOL -- yeah, I heard someone complain once about the "lack of authenticity" in the 50 Shades BDSM scenes, but I'm so not the person to correct any misperceptions :).

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  5. You read Fifty Shades of Grey so I don't have to! Thanks, Marilyn!!

    I really appreciate your insight here. This is a great post for writers.

    Good luck with Holiday Man. It's looks terrific.

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    1. Ha, Ellen!! Glad to help!
      And thank you. With writing and publishing, good luck is always so welcome :). xo
      p.s. I just gave my aunt a copy of The Other Life as a gift. She's very excited to read it!

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  6. A quaint Wisconsin inn? Hey, I'm from Wisconsin! Sold. :)


    (Malena, thank you SO MUCH for downloading ATLP!)

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    1. Jess, thank you!
      I'm originally from Wisconsin, too, althought I've been living in the Chicago suburbs for 20 years... ;) I set the story in Door County, which is one of my favorite places to visit in WI!

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  7. I love Anne Tyler, Curtis Sittenfeld, Melissa Bank and Elizabeth Strout. To name a very few.

    This was an insightful post. Did you see Nathan Brandford's analysis? Now I'm tempted to read the first one at least.

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    1. Thanks, Karin!
      And, no, I haven't read Nathan's analysis -- is it recent? I'll have to check his blog. I've enjoyed his posts many times.
      I've had Strout's Olive Kitteridge on my TBR list forever. Glad you reminded me of her!

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  8. I read 50 Shades too, and I think its popularity all comes down to simple curiosity. He did what with the tampon? Ewww! That kind of thing.

    I'm going to download Holiday Man!

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    1. Oh, Jennifer, thank you! I really hope you'll like Holiday Man :).

      Yeah, I agree with you on the curiosity. That particular scene really made me cringe. And then there was the way the book ended... Did you read the rest of the trilogy?

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  9. I haven't read it either. But I should, because I have a book in my mind...

    I just don't get those books, and they're kind of icky to me. I'd much rather read your books! Another excellent author I don't think anyone mentioned yet is Barbara O'Neal.

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    1. Edie, thanks so much for always being so supportive of my stories...xox You know I love yours! And Barbara's books are so consistently wonderful. I've read a lot of her WF and have a couple of her early romances that I'm looking forward to reading as well :).

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  10. Great post, Marilyn! Regarding Fifty, I honestly believe it's popularity is due to it becoming permissable erotica. I won't deny I had to read all three to find out how it ended, but I did question how publishers are willing to support anything that sells...proving what we all know, they're in this to make a buck.

    And I believe you're right; edgy, non-perfect characters have to have layers. In a way, that's real life. That's why I love to read Jodi Piccoult and Jennifer Weiner. They bring you to real places and show life isn't about perfect.
    Thanks for a great post!
    Sharon Struth

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    1. Sharon, thank you for sharing your thoughts on this! I really appreciate it :). "Permissable erotica" is a very apt term here, and you're right. The support and hype the publisher was willing to give this trilogy was just as fascinating as the discussions the narrative and premise inspired.

      I have to admit, I'm completely mystified by the editor's reluctance to strike out some of the overused phrases and descriptions in the story. I don't know anyone (whether they loved the book or not) who wasn't distracted by the incredible number of times Ana "flushed" or "clambered" or "bit her lip" or said "Holy crap." That was driving me crazy, LOL.

      I love reading Jodi and Jennifer, too!

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    2. On the overused words in the book, may I add murmur and the number of times I had to read about how he looked in those sexy gray slacks. I wanted to scream "I'VE GOT IT. HE LOOKS FABULOUS!" It's like the editor took a snooze. Hope you had a nice thanksgiving!
      Sharon

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    3. LOL, Sharon!! So true about all those references to Christian's hotness...
      And thank you! We had a very nice Thanksgiving. Hope you did, too :).

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  11. Wonderful post, Marilyn! And even better thought-provoking questions. I think just as all things are ever-changing, life, what's trending and acceptable, and so on, readers needs and/or interests change too. Sometimes we want edgy, high angst, very dynamic characters who are polar opposites of us, and other times we may want the sappy story or true to life story with everyday characters & struggles. For me, it all depends on what type of mood I am in and what I am needing. Anyway, now I will e thinking about this the rest of the day. ;)
    BTW, this blind-folded scene in Holiday Man, is there any food involved as well? :)

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    1. Oh, Jakki, thank you!
      You're right -- our reading tastes can change with the day and with our moods. Sometimes, I need a very realistic story to help me process something and, others, all I want is a fantasy...
      And LOL about the new book! There's no food in the *blindfold* scene...but there sure is in another one!! :)

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    2. Well, I look forward to seeing how this food scene compares to the food scenes between Gwen & Emerson! Those are still my favorites! *sigh* :)

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    3. Ahhhh, to be in Italy right now, eating linguini and gelato... *grin*
      xox

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  12. Excellent post Marilyn. Gosh you're smart! That's such an erudite and thought-provoking analysis of the phenomenon that is 50 Shades. I haven't read the book yet but can relate to all the points you bring up about character archetypes and curiosity about all things other.

    Also, I don't have an answer to your wonderful and probing questions but appreciate you posing them. It's always good to have some perspective when a topic subject has caused so much discussion and going in with an open mind becomes a tenuous business.

    As far as authors, I too, love Anne Tyler as well as Alice Hoffman, Pearl Cleage and Tom Franklin.

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    1. Pamala, you're always so wonderful -- thank you. xox

      I'm glad you enjoyed the post and the questions. I have to say, this novel made me ask a lot of them. When I first heard that people where choosing 50 Shades for book clubs, I was surprised, but now I can see that the members who'd read it first must have wanted to be able to discuss it with their friends!

      I haven't read either Cleage or Franklin (thanks for the recs!), but you reminded me of Alice Hoffman -- I'm a fan of hers, too ;).

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  13. Love this! Want to add Patti Callahan Henry to the list. Gorgeous writing, feel-good reads…perfect for a little holiday escapism.

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    1. Thanks, Barbara!!
      I've heard of the author you mentioned but haven't read her work yet -- sounds like the kinds of stories I'd love :). I'll add her to my (towering!) TBR list!

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  14. I read Fifty Shades and I loved the dark hero. That being said, the kinky sex was a little much. I love a good story without vampires, kinky sex or even kick-but heroines. I like to see ordinary people take on extrodinary challenges and win. I do think our world is becoming desensitized to violence and we expect extraordinary people in books and movies. So when I see a movie or read a book about a normal person with an ordinary life facing and overcoming a challenge, I love it. I'm more the It's a Wonderful Life kind of story than a Fifty Shades story.

    That being said, I read all three books to see what the fascination was. I did enjoy the strong hero and heroine in the story, but could have done without the kinky stuff. And the writing got better with each book.

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    1. Sylvia, I really enjoyed reading your comments -- thank you for taking the time to post them!

      I hadn't thought about "It's a Wonderful Life" in that context before, but you're right. Jimmy Stewart's character did have a very ordinary life and, oh, the frustrations and challenges he had to overcome... Great example!

      I'm glad to hear that you thought the writing improved with each of the 50 Shades books! A couple of other people mentioned that to me, too, which makes me even more curious about them ;).

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  15. I couldn't get past the first page without reaching for my red pen and editing on my laptop screen. But I do agree that the novel has captured something that women obviously want. And I also believe that Nooks, Kindles, and etc. will mean more of these being bought by more women who can now download them discreetly, read, and delete if necessary!

    Congrats on your novel.

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    1. Christa,
      Thanks for the congrats, and you've got me laughing with you editing comment! Yeah, there were passages in desperate need of my superhero, Copy-Edit Girl, flying in (long cape, red pen, Post-It notes and all :) and correcting some things...like those redundant phrases and all of that "smirking" and "frowning."

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  16. Hi, Marilyn. I got through 50% of Fifty Shades, it still waits on my Kindle. I wanted to see what all the fuss was about, but to me it was not well-written and soon became boring. I had to comment here, because you mentioned two of my favorite authors, Anne Tyler and Elizabeth Berg. This is the way I want to write, deep characters, great dialogue, a bit of humor but no, if you want action, it won't be there. I can't seem to get many people interested in that, so I am happy to hear that others like it too. Twilight was so tedious, and whenever I succumb to a best seller, I am usually disappointed (unless it is Franzen). One of my favorite authors is Scott Spencer, a beautiful writer. I read everything of his I can get my hands on.

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    1. Lynn, I'm so glad you love Anne Tyler and Elizabeth Berg, too!

      I live in the Chicago area, and so does Berg, so I've had the pleasure of going to a few readings/book signings that featured her, and I've always enjoyed them. Her writing was what really sold me, though. She does an amazing job balancing drama, insight and humor in her work. Every time I reread NEVER CHANGE I'm awed at how she pulled that off... It was something I'd hoped to do a little more with my last two women's fiction stories.

      And thank you for recommending Scott Spencer -- I'll look forward to reading him now as well!

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  17. Hey Marilyn,

    A well designed post on what, besides kinky sex, 50 Shades brings to the table... or on the table. I too read out of curiosity, eventually glad for the many email passages that made pages skim by. It is a curious book-buying public!! Thanks for your fabulous thoughts!

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    1. "what...50 Shades brings to the table...or on the table" *snort*
      Thanks, Laura!!
      You know, it's funny you mentioned the email passages -- not only did they speed up the pacing, but reading the "subject" lines of Ana and Christian's email exchanges turned out to be one of my favorite parts. I think E.L. James spent a lot of time coming up with humorous ones ;).

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  18. Great post, M.! I haven't read 50 SHADES and honestly, probably won't--it doesn't really appeal to me. I'm not much of a 'bandwagon' girl. I tend to stay with authors I know and love--Patterson, Cornwell, Rowling (although I haven't read CAUSAL VACANCY yet), Brant ;), etc. In fact, I have been known to go back and re-read a favorite while my TBR pile is growing so rapidly it risks taking over my office. I have found in the winter months, I long for my 'comfort books', ones I have read over and over. I am anxiously awaiting HOLIDAY MAN!! (Of course, I'm also waiting for the Hallmark Channel to make ON ANY GIVEN SUNDAE into a movie!!) xoxo

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    1. Jill,
      XOXO!! (That's just for including me in the same sentence as Patterson, Cornwell and Rowling. ;) Thank you, my dear. And, believe me, you'll be the first to know when the Hallmark Channel calls, LOL.
      I've been wanting to read The Casual Vacancy, too. A friend of mine said she *loved* it! And, yeah, I want comfort books during winter, too. No matter how many times I read or watch P&P, it's never enough...

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  19. I loved this post. And a lot of the names mentioned. I read for entertainment and not to live vicariously through the writer's words, so I like vanilla, thank you very much. Onward, Kristan Higgins.

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