Bambi in Bondage: Smith’s Look at the Readers of 50 Shades

When is bad literature considered good? When it’s a best-seller.

You’ll be lucky to find someone who hasn’t heard of 50 Shades of Grey. In August 2012, there were over 1000 related stories in the British press, and this week it became the fastest selling book of the year. The 50 Shades trilogy has dominated the best-selling lists, and has been subject to countless parodies, criticism and general mockery.

So this past Monday, I went to a talk at the University of Sunderland, hosted by Dr Clarissa Smith, the Professor of Sexual Cultures. In it, she talked about a survey she and her associate composed, asking a series question to 86 readers, across a large geographical pool.

Here is what she found:

  • 69% read the books out of curiosity
  • 41% saw the books being discussed on Facebook
  • 24% saw the books being discussed on Twitter
  • 5% saw the books being discussed on blogs
  • 55% read the books in paperback
  • 42% read the books in e-book format
  • 58% went on to read 50 Shades Darker
  • 51% went on to read 50 Shades Freed

The book was met with a lot of controversy. It has been described as “an instruction manual for an abusive individual” by women’s help groups, and as an insult to literature through its origins as a Twilight fanfiction and its poor narrative style.

And yet it is the fastest-selling paperback of all time.

Dr Smith argues it plays in to the cult of the anti-fan. There is a sense of inclusion in mocking, and it is an accessible way to enjoy a trend. Nearly all readers picked up the book with the preconceived notion that the book was going to be terrible.

So why did they stay around to finish the trilogy?

In simplest terms, 50 Shades is a love story. It fails to move beyond its own creative boundaries as a romance, and when measured against the participant’s notions of what made a romance novel, 50 Shades stood out as nothing spectacular. As Janice Radway put it in 1994:

Romance reading supplements the avenues traditionally open to women for emotional gratification.

50 Shades made women’s sexuality a norm in the mainstream. It validated it and made it acceptable to discuss. And sexually, the book did provide for the surveyed:

  • 67% described the book as a turn-on
  • 87% had previously heard of BDSM
  • 38% had previously engaged in BDSM
  • 22% had been encouraged to try BDSM
  • 24% had used to books as masturbatory aids.

The book managed to reconcile the everyday and the erotic, and managers to defy common thoughts on sexuality. It plays in to the trend mind-set; even those who hadn’t read the book were expected to have an opinion.

At no point did Smith express condemnation for the writing or to the fans who enjoyed it, though she does agree that Christian Grey is psychotic. Her study aims to look at the readers, not to validate 50 Shades as a piece of literature, erotic or otherwise.

If you are interested in her work, Dr Smith is the co-editor of a new journal of sexual culture, set to be published after Christmas. I am hoping to investigate. Dr Smith was illuminating, professional, and a delight to watch work.

And so, dear readers, we reach yet another blog post’s end. So allow me to ask you some questions.

Have you read the trilogy?

Do you agree with Dr Smith’s findings?

What is it about 50 Shades that you enjoy or detest?

Do let me know. And as always, thank you for your time.

Advertisements

About Stephanie Gallon

I'm 22 years old with first class honours in BA (Hons) English and Creative Writing. I'm currently studying MA English Studies. I'm an author, a blogger, and a zealot of all things written. I write on everything from comics, to feminism, to advice on university life.
This entry was posted in Lectures and Seminars and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Bambi in Bondage: Smith’s Look at the Readers of 50 Shades

  1. Pingback: Aspiration and Might: An Anniversary Special | Aspiration and Might

What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s