Genres and “50 Shades of Grey”

By Pat Remick

Super agent Donald Maass told last weekend’s SinCNE workshop that the key to “Writing the Breakout Novel” is writing authentically instead of becoming trapped by “genre boxes” or crafting a novel solely because you think it will be commercially viable.

He went on to say that it’s necessary to put your characters through the wringer again, and again. But when he said it also may be necessary to “kill the kitten,” possibly after you make it do something heroic, I thought half of my fellow Sisters might faint at this suggestion that we violate one of the primary rules of cozy mysteries.

I’m not sure some of us have recovered yet.

Meanwhile, as we sat inside the Dedham Hilton’s cavernous ballroom, the book “50 Shades of Grey” continued to be a phenomenon in the fast-moving world of publishing, rising from a fan-fiction (“Twilight” with the names changed) e-book to a New York Times bestseller. If you haven’t heard about this erotic novel, which some label “mommy porn” because of its sensual content apparently appealing to female fans, it’s about a virgin who discovers her sexuality at the hands of a wealthy and handsome, but broken, CEO who’s into bondage, domination and sadism. Or so I hear, as I haven’t read it – yet.

Maass told us that when he asked his assistant about this runaway best-seller by British author EL James, she said it was terrible – and its two sequels were, too. That, said Maass, indicates the importance of studying best-selling books to learn why people are reading them – and keep reading them, as his assistant did despite her assessment that both the original and its follow-ups really were lousy books.

Can you recall a book – or two, or many more! – that you thought was truly awful but it became a best-seller anyway?

I’m thinking the quickest route to public popularity may be to cross genres or juxtapose unusual cultures and characters. After all, it works for reality TV and also for Jane Austen and zombies, for example.

As I suggested to some of my fellow Sisters in Crime during a workshop break last weekend, maybe it’s time for a cozy mystery with a “50 Shades of Grey” touch.

I suppose bondage might not be welcome reading material for cozy fans. But do you think they’d be more receptive to this sexual proclivity than the deaths of adorable pets?

“Erotic mysteries” might be an appealing addition to the list of mystery genres, too. Plus, think about how much fun they’d be to write – and research!

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8 Responses to Genres and “50 Shades of Grey”

  1. I think we are on to something, Pat. My hairdresser told me yesterday EVERYONE of her customers is talking about this book.

  2. barbaraross says:

    I think we are on to something, Pat. My hairdresser told me yesterday EVERYONE of her customers is talking about this book.

    • I may make a few people unhappy by saying I felt “The Bridges of Madison County” fell into this category. Countless women, who love their husbands/mates and wouldn’t think of leaving them, were swept away by this fantasy you could have a “harmless” love affair for a weekend and leave it to be discovered in your journal . I wonder if the secret isn’t how a book can let you escape from norms, even if for only 300 pages.

      • Rhonda Lane says:

        I think you’re onto something there, Michele. Fiction allows us a safe way to live vicariously. The pages – now “screens” of an ebook – grants us the privacy of our imaginations. Movies don’t fill this need as well, IMO, because seeing it is “too public.”

      • Mo Walsh says:

        I never read “Bridges,” but my comparable complaint is about the romantic hero (and very rarely, heroine) who has gone through more sexual partners than he (or she) can count, then becomes an ideal, faithful mate. All those others were part of the lover’s learning curve.

    • Rhonda Lane says:

      I saw a woman in the checkout line of the grocery store with a copy. Still, it’s got some enviable buzz from all sorts of mass media outlets.

  3. Rhonda Lane says:

    Ack! Just spotted some “sloppy” grammar in my above comment. I was in a hurry. 😦 I know better than to speed on the information superhighway. Mea culpa, me a dopa.

    Anyway, cool post, Pat. I agree we can learn from 50 SHADES and TWILIGHT and all those wildly popular books that zoom past us and make us say, “Whuuut??” I also agree that brussel sprouts are good for us, yet I just can’t get past the flavor. 😉

  4. Thanks for keeping us thinking, Pat — and for the challenge to ignore genre boundaries. I’m intrigued in particular by your “kill the kitten” quote; it reminds me of how startled I was to discover the new dark “pet mysteries” that Clea Simon’s created in her Pru Marlowe series (latest one: Cats Can’t Shoot). I love that mingled sense of surprise and satisfaction when someone cuts away from the expected and shows a fresh way of telling a story — best of all, a mystery.

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