I’m currently sitting in seat 12D on a Delta jet en route from Atlanta to Baltimore to a booksigning with Nora (no last name needed—like Madonna or Cher) at her husband’s wonderful Turn the Page Bookstore in Boonsboro, Maryland.
While at the Atlanta airport I had to, of course, check out all the bookstores to see what was on the limited bookshelf space and was more than gratified to find my latest book,SEA CHANGE, featured prominently. I wasn’t altogether surprised to find it nestled next to the ubiquitous FIFTY SHADES OF GREY trilogy (including the boxed set) since the series of books had been neatly perched in the first four spots of the New York Times trade bestseller list since SEA CHANGEdebuted at #12.
Call them what you want: mommy porn, literature, erotica, trash, romantic fiction—there’s no denying that they are a multi-million selling copy phenomena. Not willing to listen to the hype and the naysayers and choosing instead to make up my own mind, I decided to read them for myself.
What did I think? Well, there’s a lot to like! I’m not an erotica reader (and maybe it’s my age, but even in the FIFTY books I found myself skimming “certain parts” as I rolled my eyes and thought, “again??”) but you know what? The characters are fascinating! They’re even likeable (yes, even the S&M bondage guy). The author, EL James, does an excellent job, IMHO, of giving us characters we can root for and cheer on. She’s even given us a plot (yes, there’s a plot) of a tortured childhood, of all-consuming love, of success against incredible odds, and even a touch of thriller. Best of all, she’s set the story against a backdrop of enormous wealth and privilege which is pure escapism (Harold Robbins or Jackie Collins, anyone?). What’s not to like?
Am I thinking that SEA CHANGE would have made the top ten of the NYT if the top four slots weren’t being taken up by this series? Maybe a teeny weeny bit. Am I jealous of the author’s success? I’m envious, sure, but more than that I want to know who runs her PR machine! How have these books become more popular than the Harry Potter and Twilight series combined?? (I don’t know if that’s true, but it sure appears that way!)
It seems to me that the author sat down one day to write her own personal fantasy story (and isn’t that what all of us authors do, too?) and she ended up creating likeable, fascinating, troubled and conflicted characters then stuck them in a classic good vs. evil plot, placed a large dollop of kinky sex on top of that and voila! International bestsellerdom.
She didn’t set out to write books that would be banned in libraries, or snickered at, derided for “poor writing”, or looked down at by long literary noses. She wrote the books she felt inclined to write, and then found her audience. A rather large audience. She must be crying all the way to the bank at all those snubs. Kudos to you, Ms. James!
So, what lessons have I learned? That it’s still about the story, dummy. Give readers great characters and a wonderful story, and they will read. How many people said they loved reading about wizards and vampires prior to Harry Potter and Twilight? Those same readers would probably say the same thing today, that they only read those books because of the great story. Well, duh.
As for myself, well, I’m currently working on my next “grit lit” book set in Edisto Island, South Carolina and after that will be the fourth book in my Charleston-set “Tradd Street” mystery series. After that, I think I’m going to try something new; something that’s a cross between Gone With the Wind and Outlander (Diana Gabaldon); something set in Scotland, perhaps. And I think I’m going to call it Sixty Shades of Plaid.