Now you may be wondering what the first part has to do with a blog centered around writing. Well, I happen to believe that it’s important to understand why books panned for their quality and content among fellow aspiring and accomplished authors have become so popular. I think it’s less a stroke of pure luck, the right place at the right time, or catching the time of the rise in e-readers (perhaps bundle that in with right time), as it is connecting with the emotions, concerns, and desires of society.
Erica hopped on the bandwagon of an already popular series and injected into it a way to get what most of us physiologically want in a way that is mentally without guilt. Adding in wealth, sexual skill, and physical attractiveness doesn’t hurt, but other novels with just those three things haven’t resulted in blockbusters. The trilogy removing perceived fault from the woman. This connected with the desire for sex, which already makes many women feel emotionally vulnerable, in such a way that cut out the guilt, and in a way that removed fantastical concern over judgement.
Coming to this conclusion was difficult. The tendency is to stick to the surface of the matter and move on. I think if we look at The Hunger Games or even Lord of the Rings, we’ll find some connection to societal emotions, concerns, and desires.
Twilight tapped the desire for love and wealth, and tackled the concern of growing older, looking older, and nearing death, with the desire of freedom from expectation in the sexual realm. This isn’t to say it wasn’t wanted, but that the pressure to perform was removed. In our hypocritical society, we are expected to perform while being bad for enjoying it. Lovely, eh? Twilight got rid of expectation. Despite the abusive elements, and yes, they are there plain as day if you take a critical look, the desperation so many women and teens feel on a deep level to be free of certain worries outweighs the concern over Edward’s controlling nature since the chance of finding a vampire to marry is nil anyway. Between the typical hero character who oozes sexuality and expectation but who is a human gentleman, or one without expectation who is a stalkeriffic jerk, the one easier to handle is the one who doesn’t want anything, the one who couldn’t possibly exist anyway, so why worry about the bad stuff. Concern, desire, and emotions are otherwise handled.
The Hunger Games is a reflection of a recession-frightened society, where worries over having enough to get by in a country where one in six lives in poverty and over a quarter live in relative poverty and an estimate third can’t afford to get medical care (welcome to America), and so so many of us can understand. We desire an ability to fight back against corruption that makes obtaining the basics difficult or impossible. We are scared about our futures, and the fantasy of having some control soothes us.
Lord of the Rings is a surprisingly accurate mirror of WWII that has gone on to become a classic with such a vast world that history and philosophy buffs today enjoy peeling the layers in different ways. Right there it emotionally connected with people still recovering from war trying to make sense of it all. The desire to be rid of an evil so great it had the potential to take over the world is similar to Hitler’s threat of world domination. This book (yes, it was meant to be one book, but paper was too valuable at the time to print as one, and so it was split into three to lower costs, allow recuperation of one part, and then to print the next) allowed people to be apart enough from the reality many still faced clear into later decades with shell-shocked memories, to start healing, and to have the happy ending where the world because peaceful again in a real world where no such thing can ever happen.
To summarize 50 Shades, the nurturing emotion many women have to want to heal is established in Ana’s desire to help Christian, the desire for sex is there, of course, and the concern over judgement, even on one’s own subconscious level (and good grief, being below consciousness, Ana couldn’t have been away of hers enough to personify it), has been lifted by removing Ana’s choice in the matter the majority of the time.
Pick just about any other book that has achieved not only best-seller status, but blockbuster success, and you’ll find these three ways they’ve connected on a deeper psychological level rather than superficially. Confessions of a Shoppaholic and The Devil Wears Prada are fun fluff that flared up and went poof. Bridget Jones has lasted a good bit longer by tapping into the concerns, desires, and emotions of its intended audience.
On the one hand, I feel posting all of this is risky. I don’t want to seem like I’m criticizing authors or their work, something you’re not supposed to do “if you want a job in this town.” But on the other, I’ve had quite a few people encourage me to post this, and I think it will help writers to start delving deeper into WHY something is popular or why readers aren’t connecting. This month’s Writer’s Digest features an article by Donald Maass from the agency bearing his name on why some published books don’t sell. He gives reasons such as timid voices and untested characters, and the advice can help make a better-written story. He even mentions 50 Shade in an off-handed, almost snarky way.
We need to go further than just technical skill and really try to understand the psychology behind why readers are willing to overlook bad writing and otherwise unacceptable situations to embrace certain books. We need to look at what society is so desperate for at any given moment, and start listening to readers instead of refusing to scratch the shiny surface with a wave of the hand and a nonchalant remark about just hoping to write the right thing at the right time.
But what do I know? I’m just some aspiring author with a manuscript I hope to get agented and sold who decided at the beginning to take the novel approach (ha ha ha…) to appeal to what I am seeing readers say they want rather than to appeal to agents. Yes, agents are readers too, but between agent-readers with more refined tastes and mainstream readers, I’m going to appeal to the mainstream, and this means doing my best to understand my intended audience.
Without consciously realizing it, I set out to address these three areas. Well, I did consciously address the desire I’ve observed for heroines who don’t wait around to be rescued. But I inadvertently tackled the concern of abusive situations being portrayed as normal and desirable, while also handling the emotions many survivors have about feeling out of control and having a need to take it back, something many who haven’t lived it can understand in other areas. I then set it in such a way that Juliette reclaiming control of her life from her ex won’t legally bloody her hands, so to speak. I suppose time will tell if I’m correct in my presumptions. Until then, I will continue to study blockbusters and listening to what readers want. Starting Friday I will begin featuring interviews with non-author readers, those without aspirations of publication to prevent bias in favor of their own work.