Every morning, I thank my lucky stars for E.L. James.
I wake up, greet the sun, do a modified downward facing dog, and whisper, "Thank you. Thank you, Imaginary Sky Man, for each and every shade of grey."
You would think, in the wake of the release of GREY, and the rather ill-advised #AskELJames debacle, that the Ayatollah of Publishing had declared a fatwah against her. That Don Pinguino, representing the Big 5 Families, had ordered a vendetta. The vitriol! My God, the vitriol!
Is this level of contempt strictly necessary, especially from the authorial community? I often hear authors, especially from marginalized genres like horror, science fiction, and erotica, complain that we need to be supporting each other, not tearing one another down. Why is E.L. James the exception? Because she had the audacity to be successful?
Hell, I'm not going to front. I've poked fun at her work right here on this blog from time to time. But I'm also well aware I wouldn't exist as an independent artist if it wasn't for her. Any author published in the last five years - especially any author first published in the last five years - owes her a great debt.
So let me say a couple of things up front:
1.) I've never read a word, beyond a few excerpts on a Buzzfeed article making fun of it, of Ms. James's work.
2.) Based on what little I've read - and on the opinions of people I trust who have read her work - James's prose is terrible, possibly even laughable.
I'm being 100% up front about both of these issues so you don't think I'm missing some important point when I move on here. So let's move on, and then we'll circle back around to these points.
Setting aside the fact that authors ought to support authors as a general rule, because we're all in this boat together, let's look at this from a purely selfish perspective. The publishing industry is a bit arcane, but you're probably familiar with the way profit margins work at, say, an Italian bistro.
Things like steak and seafood don't have much profit margin because they're expensive, and there's a limit to how much you can mark it up without driving away your customers. Pasta has a great profit margin because it's cheap, and people will pay quite a bit for it. And soda has an astronomical profit margin because it costs a few cents a gallon and you can charge a few dollars a glass for it.
The whole reason a restaurant can sell prime cuts of meat for $20 is because customers are willing to buy sugar water for $3.99. One thing underwrites the other. And let me make this metaphor crystal-fucking-clear: E.L. James is underwriting hundreds, if not thousands of lesser-known authors.
You could say the same thing about Stephen King, or James Patterson, or J.K. Rowling, or, hell, James Frey or Dan Brown. It's pretty simple when you think about it. A superstar author has a mega-smash hit and exceeds all expectations, and brings in millions of dollars on a single book. Now the publishing company has millions of dollars in its reserve. It can afford to take chances on those weird, artsy little projects which the editors may have been on the fence about.
Every author published by Penguin Random House was directly underwritten by E.L. James. I might equivocate and say that a few authors who were going to pay out their advances anyway might not owe her quite so much, but the solvency of the entire company still rests on just a few superstar authors, including James.
And that's not the end of the story. Publishing is a complicated ecosystem. A pebble tossed in one bay has ripples through the whole ocean. So consider the fact that several millions of people who were not normally part of the book-buying public logged onto Amazon (or their favorite online book retailer) or walked into their favorite bookstore and grabbed a copy of one of the GREY books.
A change like that has affected the publishing industry as a whole. Entire new audiences have been opened up to the idea of buying books. Why shit on E.L. James for that? Authors who write erotica or romance have probably benefited most from the new customers which E.L. James brought into the fold, but honestly, getting more people to buy books is a good thing for the whole industry.
And, yes, again, the same could be said for King or Rowling or Myers or whoever. I'm not saying E.L. James is unique, but I feel hypocritical singing the praises of superstars I respect, without at least acknowledging the impact of one I don't.
One major impact James has had is in making self-publishing a legitimate career move. Sure, Amanda Hocking and Hugh Howey helped to pioneer that market, but E.L. James was the first superstar smash breakout success that made the publishers start coming down from their howdahs and start offering deals to self-pubbed authors. And even the ones who rejected the deals from the big boys still aspire to James-level success. Self-pubbing is a path in large part thanks to E.L. James's work in dynamiting her way through that labyrinth.
So one last point. I haven't been published by Penguin Random and I don't write love stories (that you know of, anyway) and I've never self-published. But I still owe a debt of gratitude to E.L. James, along with Stephanie Myers, Dan Brown, and all those other awful superstar writers.
There's a reason agents and publishers even still unsolicited queries. It's because HARRY POTTER came from the slush. TWILIGHT came from the slush. DIVERGENT came from the slush. FIFTY SHADES OF GREY didn't even come from the slush, it came from the fan-fic world, which was supposed to be the slush of the slush of the slush, and into the self-pubbing world, which was supposed to be the slush of the slush.
(If I just disappeared up my own asshole with that last sentence, just think of farm teams and AAA in baseball. One feeds the other feeds the other feeds the pros.)
Every huge, record-shattering literary phenomenon of the last twenty years or so has come over the transom from a relative unknown. I don't doubt that agents and publishers are ripping their hair out daily about that fact, but it doesn't change the way only literary outsiders seem capable of blowing up. And that's the whole reason every once in a blue moon they'll take a gamble on someone like me.
Now back to those two original points:
1.) I have no room to judge because I've never read E.L. James. Well, truth be told, that's probably not going to change. But you know what? There are a lot of people who think I'm terrible. I had a reader tell me to my face in public - I'm not making this up - that zombies are stupid garbage and nobody should like them. Horror authors get disrespected for their craft sight unseen all the time. I can't speak to whether James's content is dangerous, insulting, encouraging abuse, or any of the other charges that have been leveled at it. I also know I don't care. I don't believe in censorship. Have you read PORTNOY'S COMPLAINT or TROPIC OF CANCER? Once the bans on their pornographic content were lifted they started being considered classics. As long as I can go to a library and pick up a copy of MEIN KAMPF and children can see a book by Rush Limbaugh in the kiddie section of the bookstore, I'm pretty sure we're just going to have to table the whole moral panic of books having dangerous content. People will just have to be responsible about exposing themselves to the unmitigated terror of new (and quite possibly bad) ideas.
2.) E.L. James's prose is objectively terrible. Yes, and I'm about 99 44/100% certain that the prose isn't the big selling points on these books. I'm pretty sure they tap into some element of the zeitgeist, some hidden vein of desire which is near-universal and had never quite been tapped before. There are different kinds of genius, and even if you don't respect E.L. James for the aesthetic quality of her work, you'd damn well better step back and recognize her ability to write something popular, and her marketing savvy in getting people to read it. If you think The Beatles blew up because of their lyrics, go back and listen to "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" sometime.
What do you think? Let me know in the comments.
"Manuscripts don't burn"
- Mikhail Bulgakov
Hi, I'm horror and science fiction author Steve Kozeniewski (pronounced: "causin' ooze key.") Welcome to my blog! You can also find me on Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads, and Amazon. You can e-mail me here, join my mailing list here, or request an e-autograph here. Free on this site you can listen to me recite one of my own short works, "The Thing Under the Bed."
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