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Fifty Shades of Grey coverI have not read Fifty Shades of Grey. I know something of the story (submissive relationship) and something of the writing (poor), and I’ve no desire to read it. It’s no secret that the story and writing are widely mocked, which leaves me mystified as to why anyone thought a twitter Q & A with author E. L. James would be a good idea. The session led to many mocking and rude tweets.

James ignored the rude tweets, and ended the session by thanking folks for their interesting questions. In other words, she displayed a lot more class than those who mocked her. With an estimated worth in excess of $70 million, she can afford to ignore the haters, and any publicity is good publicity. Still, at some level the comments must hurt.

Whether or not you like her books, she has written books. That’s an accomplishment. And she’s sold those books. That’s an accomplishment too. And she’s made a lot of money writing. That’s a rare accomplishment. Her successes have enabled other writers to publish erotica, such as the Secret series. That’s a huge accomplishment.

It’s a mystery to me why her books have been so popular. As with videos that go viral, book popularity is a combination of skilled marketing and luck, but the book itself has to have something appealing. It could be the empowerment that the stories allow. The typical and simplistic assumption is that female readers identify with female characters, and therefore a book that portrays women in a submissive role is at best tapping into masochistic fantasies. However, identification is much more complicated than that.

Female readers might be identifying with the powerful male, and experiencing the pleasure of powers often denied them in real life. A real submissive relationship has very complicated power dynamics, as suggested in the contractual negotiations of the story, and a fictional one adds another layer of complexity, which makes assumptions about identification and pleasure very difficult. To further complicate things, representations of women’s sexuality are often subject to notions of appropriate pleasure, where (usually male) authorities, from book critics to judges, determine what women find enjoyable or distasteful. The latest book, telling the story from the male’s view, adds more possibilities for vicarious and completely safe fantasies of power and pleasure.

I suspect some of the mocking remarks to James are simply because she is a female writer, writing genre fiction, for women. I’ve been to a couple of writer’s workshops, and it’s clear that genre writers have a lower status than literary writers, and romance writers have a lower status than other genre writers. If other members of the writing community put down romance writers, it’s not surprising that the population at large can be downright abusive. Perhaps romance writers develop thick skins early in the game. Good for them.