The author of Fifty Shades of Grey debuted at the top of Forbes 2012 top-earning authors list, this week.
E.L. James’ has made US$95 million on her S&M series, which started as fan fiction for another wildly popular (and wildly bad) series, the Twilight saga. Coming in second place on the list is James Patterson – a man who employs a team of writers to crank out his 5+ books a year. He only made US$91 million in 2012.
It takes a certain kind of writer and a certain kind of book to make this kind of money. Forbes’ reporter Jeff Bercovici explains:
“If you’re not writing in a genre with mass commercial appeal, you can pretty much forget about making the list…Writing thrillers or romances for adults is good; even better is writing fantasy fiction for young adults that spills over into the adult market.”
Get Hollywood interested in a film adaptation and you are set.
These authors’ books may be formulaic drivel, but the writers are making ridiculous large sums on their writing. I read one Danielle Steels book as an impressionable 12-year-old and have never picked up either Nora Roberts or Patterson. But I can swallow the veteran heaving breasts of Steels and Roberts as well as the first two and a half books of the phenomenon known as Twilight*. For some reason Fifty Shades of Grey is a step too far.
I have read approximately a page and a half of Fifty Shades and dozens of reviews, all of which make it clear that the writing is bad and the plot flawed. All this reading has also made it clear I am a snob when it comes right down to it.
The other week, a coworker and I argued over society’s preference for mainstream movies over quality movies. He suggested that if there were no shitty, formulaic blockbusters available, everyone would be forced to watch art films or documentaries or something else with the Palm d’Or stamp of approval. And perhaps by extension, they would learn to enjoy it.
I vehemently defended the shitty blockbuster, a type of film I don’t even enjoy most of the time. I argued that you can’t force people to have taste, because at the end of the day you are then forcing them to have your taste. And that is fundamentally undemocratic.
Rights and freedoms seem pretty central to the whole creative process. (Then again, doesn’t art - like grit, gumption and many other oatmeal-like words - also thrive during times of crisis? The protest song, the banned novel, the graffiti down back lanes.
Basically what my coworker was talking about was censorship. And I realize that I feel toward beach reads, chic lit and what the old timers call dime novels, as he does toward blockbuster movies. And that too is censorship.
Who am I to judge anyone for the crap they choose to put in their brains? Especially when I haven’t even taken the time to read that crap cover to cover so I can scorn it properly, legitimately?
Sometimes you just want to watch buildings blow up while muscled, half-naked men shout clichés at each other. And sometimes you just want to read a piece of badly written fan fiction that has become a multi-million dollar literary-soft porn series**.
Here’s the other thing: there are some great authors on the Forbes list. Coming third, with US$55 million to her name, is Suzanne Collins, author of the Hunger Games, and my favourite YA novelist. There is Stephen King. J.K. Rowling. George R.R. Martin. And more.
In fact, James did something kind of nifty. Something even Collins didn’t do: She beat the formula.
Most of the authors on the list have large catalogues of work behind them, and continue to write new titles at a furious pace, as Bercovici points out. James just sold a lot of books in a short period of time.
*Half way through the third book I suddenly became disgusted with myself, the increasingly absurd plot and poorly phrased dialogue, shouted “Argh!” and whipped the book across my apartment.
**Well, some people do. Not me. But some people.