WETA (or PBS for some of you) came out with a list of America’s 100 favorite books. You can access The Great American Read here and vote for your favorites. Being the bookish type, I pounced on it, happily noting how many of them are also my favorites. To Kill a Mockingbird. The Giver. Harry Potter. Heart of Darkness. All acceptable titles for a list of the most loved books in America. But then, I came across a book that stopped me in my tracks.
“It can’t be,” I thought, doing a double-take. “How is THIS book on the same list as The Book Thief, Charlotte’s Web and Crime and Punishment?”
But there it was. Have you guessed it? It’s Fifty Shades of Grey.
This novel started as fan fiction. Eventually, it caught on and became a book everyone knew about. In case you’ve impossibly never heard of it, here’s a two-line synopsis: A shy, mousy girl catches the eye of a dominant billionaire who's into S&M and becomes his “sub”(ordinate). She is both repulsed and oddly turned-on by his domineering personality (in and out of the bedroom) and falls in love with him, only to discover she draws the line at spanking.
Seeing it on this list, however, got me thinking. Do Americans really love this book that much? And if so, why?
One of my students dubbed Fifty Shades of Grey as a “naughty book for middle-aged moms.” When I told him even teenagers have read it, he insisted they still weren’t the target audience. “Moms get bored,” he said. “I haven’t read it, but I’m guessing it’s not boring to the average married woman.”
He’s right. Yes, I’ve read it. And even though I found the writing lacking in many ways, I was compelled enough to finish it. Writing skills aside, it gives the audience what they want: mystery, romance, rebellion, and a hot billionaire to fantasize about.
While I’m not suggesting you go out and write a new version of the dominant/submissive narrative, it’s important to keep in mind that having a select, target audience and giving them what they want is the key. E.L. James knows her audience and gives them a taste of the unknown mixed with romance and drama. As a result, she’s been wildly successful.
Think about your current work in progress. Are you giving them something new, but still meeting their needs? Are they after information? Romance? Intrigue? Humor? Will they identify with and like your characters? I beg you not to sacrifice strong writing for plot, but it’s still important to give the reader the perfect recipe - for their happiness and for your own.
Bethany Masone Harar is an author, teacher, and blogger, who does her best to turn reluctant readers into voracious, book-reading nerds. Check out her blog here and her website here.