The James Effect

Sorry, I’ve had Ludlum on the brain since reading this Slate column about “Ludlumizing” titles of other books, movies or whatever else. I’ve also read a number of reviews, articles and opinions on the 50 Shades trilogy.

I can’t review 50 Shades of Grey or either of the sequels because I have not read them. However, reviews abound, both on Amazon and blogs (warning: this contains a lot of gifs and language that is NSFW) and everywhere else. If you follow writing and/or erotica blogs, you probably can’t get away from it. But I don’t blame you for trying.

Most of what I know about the books comes from reading about them, so let me be honest — I have not read the “Twilight” novels, the inspiration for 50 Shades; I have not read any of the 50 Shades novels aside from the Amazon sample and skimming the first quarter or so of book one; I have nothing against E.L. James. My issues with what I have read are not necessarily that it is poorly written (as many reviewers have claimed), but that the characters are not well-formed or -presented — they come across as idiots and it’s hard to read about idiots when Monty Python isn’t involved.

I am not interested in reading the books, as I said earlier. I have skimmed the first quarter or so of book one and I just want to slap them all. Really– Ana, Christian, Kate the roommate, etc. But I am intrigued by the effects, and alleged effects — The James Effect, to Ludlumize — the books are having.

Why do women read them?

This is probably the most frequently asked question I see. Well, why? Because they want to. Because women like to read about sex, believe it or not, whether they’re moms or not (can we dispense with “mommy porn”? Because that just sounds stupid), and that’s really all the answer you need.

Isn’t there better stuff out there?

Why, yes, there is. Much is online, and much is available as e-books, and you have to go look for it.

Why don’t they read the better stuff?

I’d ask those of you who read erotic stuff online: who else knows you read it? And do they know what you read if you read “harder” genres like incest or BDSM? I’m betting a lot of us (I include myself) do not share this information with a lot of people. I remember receiving a private yet still anonymous email from a reader who told me she enjoyed a story yet did not want anyone to know, hence the anonymous email. She was, as I recall, from a conservative and religious family, and she was afraid of what they’d think.

I think that stigma is still there. Many people see erotica and porn as the same thing under different names. Others don’t. The debate rages on. But a lot of people are not going to access porn at work (good, they shouldn’t) or at home, for fear of the kids seeing or their partner seeing or anything else.

Are they really this shocked by the content?

Yes, they are. At my son’s baseball games this past spring, I heard a couple of other moms discussing 50 Shades, and they seemed genuinely blown away and titillated by the whole thing. A few steps up from finding your dad’s Playboy, or your mom’s Playgirl I suppose. I don’t think they’d read anything remotely like it, as vanilla as it might actually be in terms of the sex and the pseudo-BDSM.

I think that those of us who read and write erotic stories are a little more jaded. Or if not jaded, simply not shocked. We’ve read better, we’ve read worse, we’ve read stuff that made us click on the mouse as fast as possible to get to something else. Or we’ve written any of the above. It may be hard for us to remember that a lot of people don’t do this on any kind of regular basis and so this is indeed their first foray into something beyond Nora Roberts or Sherilyn Kenyon or whomever they do read. This doesn’t make them naive or stupid, it just makes them people exposed to new ideas.

The sex sucks; the BDSM is wrong.

I think there are some legit complaints here. Perhaps not about the sex itself, but about the domination/submission (D/s) aspects. I mean, what people find erotic differs from person to person — one person’s hot fantasy is another’s WTF? However, I’ve read from some who are regular, careful practitioners of BDSM that what James puts in these books is not just wrong, but potentially dangerous. One fellow writer on Lit specified the plastic zip ties that Grey purchases (and I gather he uses); he pointed out that no true Dom would use it, because they are not meant for such things and could hurt someone.

So, I urge you, if you have read these and/or are interested in exploring the B/D or D/s aspects of a sexual relationship: GET INFORMED, and do not let these books be your guides. BDSM relationships are consensual, they involve trust on both sides; if you do not have that, then do not do this.

Personally, I doubt James intended anything like that. I don’t think she was intentionally ignorant. I think she wrote a piece of fan fiction and included what she imagined a BDSM relationship would be like without researching what it was like. The fact that herpublisher did not edit for that kind of comment shows ignorance on their part, but you don’t have to be.


What does this phenomenon tell us about sex, at least in the US? Probably that we still have our general schizo reactions to it. No, sex is not something to be ashamed of, but for god’s sake, you don’t read that, do you? Some of it is generational, and some of it is cultural, and it likely won’t go away any time soon. But if everyone can keep a more open mind (bwa hahaha, I’m such an optimist), it might go away after a while.

I don’t think anyone should be ashamed to read an erotic novel, and I think those that question it should sit back and wonder why? What does it matter if I read a BDSM novel, or one about a threesome, while you read a Tony Hillerman mystery? Heck, I like Tony Hillerman.


5 responses to this post.

  1. Most of the people spinning their wheels about FSoG are writers. Readers don’t think nearly so much about the whats and whys. They just want something different, something that catches their interest, something that puts a little juice into their lives. There are lots of reasons why FSoG is a huge success. James knew the right people, landed a great contract, and received great buzz from her publisher. Good for her. 🙂 Readers who read and enjoyed her book will be looking out for new books to read. Good for writers. 😀

    These kinds of flareups aren’t new, either. Fantasy writers went ballistic a bit back over the many failings of a writer named JK Rowling. I can’t tell you how many hours I spent at science fiction conventions listening to writers grouse about her and her lousy books. 😀


    • I can’t argue about the writers, although many reviews on Amazon are presumably from readers who don’t write, and they weren’t crazy over it either. I do think writers are more likely to jump on mechanical errors like the repetition. I also know that some are mad that a “hack” writer in erotica, whose story started out as fan fiction, has made it big over those who work harder (or they perceive to work harder). No question that James hit at the right time — sometimes luck is better than skill. 🙂

      However, I do think this is another example of publishers not caring much about the quality of romance. I’ve blogged before about reading books involving hockey players and they say things that are flat out wrong about hockey. And I don’t mean misspelling a name or something small — I’m talking about misstating rules. I’ll never forget the “three-minute penalty.” Circumstances could result in a team having three minutes of penalty time, but a ref does not dole out three-minute penalties.

      So here, in James’ books, you have this whole (sub?)culture of BDSM discussed and I gather no one at Random House thought or cared to look into to see if she had any errors there. For example, the zip-ties. I don’t think anyone who reads these and then gets hurt should sue the publisher or anything. Because it isn’t their fault if you’re stupid. However, if Mr. Grey is a long-time practicioner of this stuff, he would know that’s not right, and act accordingly.

      Sorry. Realism or lack thereof tends to get to me.

      And ha, good for Rowling. 😉


  2. Posted by blue on August 23, 2012 at 9:50 pm

    i guess it’s just a matter of taste, number of books read, and desire to be “in”…james was very lucky indeed, as was stephanie meyers, when they landed a good publisher because it catapulted them to fame…i haven’t read FSoG and have no desire to buy it as i’ve read more negative reviews than positive but if a friend will lend me one, i will read it for the sake of finding out what all the hype was about…as for the twilight books, i’m so glad i didn’t buy them.when i borrowed all books from a co-worker i found it to be redundant and boring and i wanted to slap bella for being such a whiny and ungrateful beatch, and i just found it plain icky when jacob “imprinted” on reneesmee…i know it was the mating bond, etc but thinking of jacob who’s what? 19? and the girl to be like a toddler was just…it just turned me off more…

    as for my reading erotica, yeah i’m with the others on that – i hide it from friends and family and my link to Lit and other erotic sites are hidden and i don’t let my SO use my laptop if i can help it…even with paperbacks having covers of a half-naked man or a woman swooning on it i avoid reading during commute as it usually raises eyebrows from seatmates on the bus (it’s a cultural and religious thing where i live, and the view that women aren’t supposed to know or like sex, at least in public).


    • I was unaware of Twilight as a book, let alone a series or phenomenon, until the first movie came out. I have had no desire to read this because I generally do not care for romances involving teenagers, even if vampires are involved. I read a little of one while at the library one day and it did nothing to grab my attention. Now, I did read The Hunger Games after becoming aware of it (because of the movies again) and I thought it was great. So it’s not that I can’t read or enjoy “YA” books.

      Like you, I will likely read 50 Shades at some point, and my reasoning will be that it was a big phenomenon (like Titanic, another big hit that I disliked) and I want to see for myself what the hubbub was about. I don’t think anyone is wrong in wanting to read this book, nor are they wrong for liking it.


      • Posted by blue on August 26, 2012 at 8:25 am

        i have to disagree with you on the titanic movie LOL…i liked it – guess i’m just sappy sometimes lol…haven’t read hunger games but i really liked the movie though not liam hemsworth (maybe it was just he had such a short screen time…maybe i’ll change my mind in the next 2 films)…i’m waiting for my bro to lend me his books…he gave me the girl with the dragoon tattoo series…first time read, it was great…have no idea abt investigative reporting so i dunno if there were mistakes on that score but overall i liked the way the characters interacted with one another…not seen the movie…

        another series i’m wanting to read is the “a song of ice and fire”…i was able to see the first half of the first season of game of thrones and i was enthralled by the whole thing! the sets, the costumes, the locations, even the intro part where they list the actors and crew – LOVED it! unfortunately, the time slot it has where i live (midnight) is not conducive for me to be able to follow it faithfully so i guess i’ll just have to buy the dvd set…again, waiting for my bro to buy the books and borrow it from him to see if they are worth buying…so far the book i’ve loved as well as the movie was LOTR…i bought the other books – the book of lost tales 1 and the silmarillion but couldn’t get into it like i did with LOTR so i stopped buying the other books in the series…and now i’ve digressed so far! LOL sorry bout that…am gonna stop now 🙂

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