By Robert Folsom | March 21, 2012
In the past two weeks or so, a novel from an obscure Australian publisher has rocketed to the top of the best-seller list. This followed months of word-of-mouth and social media buzz, which in turn led to a front-page article on The New York Times, broadcast coverage from the BBC and NPR, plus commentary in all the right places on the Internet.
If you know the book I’m describing, don’t even try to hide that sly grin. If you don’t know it… well, we’ll get to its content presently.
Fifty Shades of Grey is the title, and it’s actually the first novel of a trilogy. Success has come so quickly that even though all three books have now reached the Top 10 on the Amazon and New York Times bestseller lists, neither the books nor their author (Ms. E.L. James) so far have a Wikipedia entry.
So what’s behind this head-spinning intersection of electronic publishing, women in power, and sex?
The book originated as Internet fan fiction, wherein aspiring writers seek readers from a vast audience with an insatiable appetite for fantasy tales, both dark and light. That’s where E.L. James earned a large and loyal following by writing a vampire story with an X-rated twist; in turn she sought to duplicate her success with an even larger readership. Thus she changed the book’s title and eliminated the supernatural — if not the forbidden — element of the story.
In other words: She defanged the vampire and put a whip in his hand.
So what happens when a woman writes a kinky novel that (mostly) female readers turn into a bestseller? A predictable blend of social commentary and psychoanalysis will surely follow…
…To wit, a female columnist on Time posed the rhetorical question, “Why Is It News That Women Like Sex?”, and sarcastically lamented that “we still act shocked that women have grown-up desires.”
Yet the simple truth is, the author’s gender, the subject matter and the readership of Fifty Shades of Grey broke zero new ground. Novels such as The Story of O and Carrie’s Story have been there, done that, and by all indications were better written by far.
What is different about Fifty Shades has to do with the timing and scale of its success — and this is where socionomics sheds a unique light.
In today’s environment, we know that the desire for love has given way to the desire for sex that accompanies negative social mood. This pair of opposite traits is among the many Bob Prechter identified in chapter 14 of Human Social Behavior — and here are a few more which are relevant to the content and appeal of Fifty Shades:
Positive mood – Negative mood
Confidence – Fear
Desiring power over nature – Desiring power over people
Search for joy – Search for pleasure
Interest in love – Interest in sex
Practical thinking – Magical thinking
Now, if you know your socionomics, perhaps you recall comments like this:
Women benefit from the general call for change that attends bear market periods. Since men are traditionally both the source and the symbols of power during booms, their authority is frequently stripped in the creative destruction that inevitably follows.
—Elliott Wave Theorist, April 2007
So how does a novel whose author is a woman and whose narrator is a submissive woman become wildly popular with female readers in 2012?
Perhaps it’s a result of the bear market desire among some to assert control, and among others to be controlled; perhaps it speaks to the popularity of dark fantasies in a time of negative mood.
I wondered this question aloud to a female colleague, who right away came back with this reply: “It’s because so many women do have more authority, and are having to do so much at home and at work. The fantasy in that book offers a certain sort of… appeal.”
There you have it. In another time there would have been talk (or more) about banning Fifty Shades. But for now, the only difficulty in finding the novel has to do with booksellers who can’t keep up with the demand, and that in some interesting places (e.g., Salt Lake City). The second and third novels of the series actually aren’t even available yet; their appearance on the bestseller lists is due to the sheer volume of preorders.
Other writers, publishers, movie makers (etc.) have duly taken note. Need I say, “Stay Tuned”?
Andrea Dibben contributed ideas and research.