Why You Cannot Write Better Than E.L. James

Like it or not, the phenomenal sales of the Fifty Shades of Grey series will forever change our perception of literary success. Although the series have sold over 100 million copies world wide, not a single book critic I can find could see any merit in the writing. Numerous reviewers have trashed the story and most did not see how this series could sexually arouse someone.

But if the series is so bad, how did it sell so much? If it is so poor, what distinguishes it from numerous other poorly written erotica?

The only logical conclusion is that it is not poorly written at all but is written in a language conventional writers do not understand. If you type in the words “fifty shades of grey” and “prose” you will immediately find excerpts of terrible lines and articles like “What writers can un-learn from ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’” by actual writing instructors. But these articles will not help you become the next E.L. James. They will  intentionally obstruct you from becoming another E.L. James. They want to teach you about Nabokov’s Lolita and John Fowles’s The Collector, or about Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston.

Nobody seems to be focusing on what E.L. James got right (other than her marketing tactics, which were either brilliant or accidental). Here is the thing. Readers are not stupid. They know what they want to read. If there is any cynicism in the writer they will detect it. “Pandering to the masses” is not as easy as it sounds. Readers can tell when they are being cheated. So what exactly did E.L. James get right?

Anyone writing in unreadable prose cannot succeed as a writer. Evidently, James wrote in a way that was readable to a lot of people. In spite of the corny writing, numerous readers were immersed in the story. Her stalling, faltering, truncated writing style must have fit the reading style of many people. Her writing reads like texting. That is what many current readers are familiar with and can get into without resistance. James herself admitted in an interview that she wrote parts of the book on her Blackberry.

Texting has been vilified as a scourge on the English language.  Purists have repeatedly warned that texting and instant messaging is infusing written English with unconventional idiosyncrasies indigenous to electronic communication modes. Defenders have argued that through texting and instant messaging, people are writing more and revising more. But few people seemed to have realized that texting has created a new dialect of English quite divorced from conventional written prose. What James has is a keen ear for the dialect of texting. Her writing is tailored for reading on the smartphone.

She did take advantage of the pre-existing readership of Twilight by starting her novel as fan fiction. She wrote her book for the erotica market which is quite huge. But her distinguishing feature is that she wrote in the dialect of texting. She spoke this new language fluently.

Otherwise, if her writing was just poor English, why is it that nobody is replicating her success?

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10 thoughts on “Why You Cannot Write Better Than E.L. James

  1. Editors also understand what the reading market wants. They might reject my work but they will probably go for crayon drawn notes from someone without “formal education.” Editors are not helpless, just honest about what they are doing: Selling books that readers want to buy. x

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  2. The book did well for one of the reasons that Twilight (the parent of the fan-fic that became FSoG) did – The main character is a blank mannekin that the mostly female readership can readily project their own face on to. As poor as these novels are, they’ve sold massively well because 1) reader identification (see above) and 2) other people wondering what the fuss is about. I’m sure that copies of all of these books abound by the hundreds in 50 cent boxes outside used bookstores worldwide.

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    1. Thanks for posting.
      I’m sure you are right. So, the tally of all the elements that were right now includes, faceless protagonist, started as a fanfic of already popular series, erotica, and utilized the texting dialect instead of conventional prose. I’m afraid “other people wondering what the fuss is about” cannot be intentionally replicated, so we will have to leave that out.

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