Hard-Core Romance:

Hard-Core Romance: "Fifty Shades of Grey," Best-Sellers, and Society

by Eva Illouz

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From its beginnings in Twilight fan-fiction to its record-breaking sales as an e-book and paperback, the story of the erotic romance novel Fifty Shades of Grey and its two sequels is both unusual and fascinating. Having sold over seventy million copies worldwide since 2011, E. L. James’s lurid series about a sexual

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From its beginnings in Twilight fan-fiction to its record-breaking sales as an e-book and paperback, the story of the erotic romance novel Fifty Shades of Grey and its two sequels is both unusual and fascinating. Having sold over seventy million copies worldwide since 2011, E. L. James’s lurid series about a sexual ingénue and the powerful young entrepreneur who introduces her to BDSM sex has ingrained itself in our collective consciousness. But why have these particular novels—poorly written and formulaic as they are—become so popular, especially among women over thirty?
In this concise, engaging book, Eva Illouz subjects the Fifty Shades cultural phenomenon to the serious scrutiny it has been begging for. After placing the trilogy in the context of best-seller publishing, she delves into its remarkable appeal, seeking to understand the intense reading pleasure it provides and how that resonates with the structure of relationships between men and women today. Fifty Shades, Illouz argues, is a gothic romance adapted to modern times in which sexuality is both a source of division between men and women and a site to orchestrate their reconciliation. As for the novels’ notorious depictions of bondage, discipline, and sadomasochism, Illouz shows that these are as much a cultural fantasy as a sexual one, serving as a guide to a happier romantic life. The Fifty Shades trilogy merges romantic fantasy with self-help guide—two of the most popular genres for female readers.
  Offering a provocative explanation for the success and popularity of the Fifty Shades of Grey novels, Hard-Core Romance is an insightful look at modern relationships and contemporary women’s literature.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishing Research Quarterly

“A fantastic feminist reading of Fifty Shades of Grey offering publishing scholars and practitioners a profoundly troubling diagnosis for what truly makes a contemporary bestseller. Highly recommended.”
author of How to Become a Scandal Laura Kipnis

Hard-Core Romance is a wonderfully creative piece of cultural analysis. Writing from a feminist-sociological perspective, Eva Illouz tells us how Fifty Shades of Grey became an international bestseller by providing fantasy resolutions to real-life female dilemmas, and self-help for the douleurs of contemporary heterosexuality. A most timely intervention.”
Suzanne Leonard

“A provocative text in its own right, Hard-Core Romance inventively employs the much-maligned Fifty Shades of a Grey to stage a philosophical and sociological conversation about relationship between fantasy, romance, sexuality, and popular literature.  In a modern era where competing desires for autonomy and attachment in sexual relationships are lived realities but seldom theorized, Illouz bravely takes on the novel’s controversial sexual practices, finding in them a meditation on the anxieties and compromises that characterize heterosexual intimacy. This generous and original reading offers the tantalizing prospect that it will unveil the uncertainties and indeterminacies that inhere in the heterosexual compact—a promise that Hard-Core Romance masterfully delivers.”
Times Higher Education

“[C]ompellingly audacious.”
The Millions

“[T]he first serious, book-length academic analysis of the Fifty Shades of Grey.”
New Republic

“Illouz rightly tags the trilogy a species of self-help."
Los Angeles Review of Books - Jessa Crispin

“A reasoned, thoughtful examination of gender relations, women’s desires, and the role of passion in contemporary society. . . . Vital and interesting.”

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University of Chicago Press
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Hard-Core Romance

Fifty Shades of Grey, Best-Sellers, and Society

By Eva Illouz

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2014 Eva Illouz
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-15369-8


Best-Sellers and Our Social Unconscious

Those of us who think that modernity has marked significant progress in the human condition can take stock of the differences that separate "us" (moderns) from "them" (members of premodern societies) by invoking fast trains, frozen food, or vaccines; or better, the right to vote, to oppose political leaders, and to oust a serving president. But when we want to take stock of the vast changes in values, what gives people a sense of worth and membership, what people desire and fantasize about, what the role of morality is, or how clear to ourselves our identity is, things get muddled. It is difficult not only to know what to focus on in order to understand what has changed and how we have changed, but also to establish the criteria to evaluate what constitutes moral progress or decay.

There are many cultural artifacts we could assess to chart such changes across time. One intriguing line of inquiry is to think about literary best-sellers as barometers of value and to consider the differences that separate the best-sellers of different ages as markers of change. Two books published three centuries apart illustrate what I mean: Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, published in London in 1719 and reprinted six times in less than four months; and E. L. James's Fifty Shades of Grey, an erotic romance novel that topped the New York Times bestseller list in 2012 and has become an uncanny worldwide success. Not only three hundred years but also an abyss of cultural differences separates these two best-sellers, pointing at what separates "us" (moderns) from "them" (premoderns).

Robinson Crusoe is the eponymous novel of its single hero, a man who represents the solid values of the merchant class, oriented toward duty and work. The novel documents the religious and self-introspective awakening of a man shipwrecked on a desert island and extols the values of work and self-transformation. In no way does it focus on emotions or even social relationships; indeed, the only relationship in the novel is the friendship Robinson creates with the native Friday, a relation that is more colonial domination than a reciprocal and egalitarian bond. In fact, Robinson's relation to the world writ large is one of domination and control, over both the land and its natives (Watt [1957] 2001). The novel also contains some eighteenth-century reflections on the relationship between nature and society, and much of the book's pleasure derives from seeing Robinson take possession of nature through his prescientific understanding of the rules that govern tides, weather, and crops. The novel lacks erotic or sentimental content; or, rather, if it has any eros, it is to be found in monetary exchange, international commerce, agricultural work and production, and in a dawning self-awareness that Europe had developed as a region superior to others. It is in that sense a novel of a civilization becoming aware of itself as dominating the world, and a novel about the power of a scientific understanding of an individual still steeped in faith.

Fifty Shades of Grey takes us to far normative shores. The first volume of what became a trilogy is set on the West Coast of the New World, in Seattle, and is told from the point of view of a young adult woman, a college student named Anastasia Steele (Ana), who is still a virgin and who meets a very attractive, rich, and successful young man, Christian Grey. For the first time in her life, Ana experiences intense sexual desire, and she finds in Christian an unusual and exceptional sexual partner. Indeed, something sets Christian very far apart from other men: he will enter in a full relationship with Ana only if she signs a contract in which she willingly agrees to become his "submissive"—that is, if she agrees to be beaten, spanked, and tied, to lower her eyes in his presence, to sleep the number of hours he prescribes, and to eat only the foods and wear only the clothes he chooses for her. In addition to this contract, Ana is asked to sign a nondisclosure agreement that prevents her from divulging to anyone the nature of their relationship.

This book, then, takes us continents away from Robinson Crusoe. It focuses almost exclusively on love, intimacy, and sex. It is about the conquest not of land but of sentiments, the danger not of foreign and deserted landscapes but of intimate relationships, and not the self-awareness of Europe but the coming of age of a young college girl. This self-discovery is not of a spiritual nature; rather, it is of an entirely sexual and interpersonal kind. Far from endorsing conventional bourgeois morality, Fifty Shades of Grey presents the mainstreaming of underground sexual practices: bondage, discipline, sadism, masochism (BDSM). The relation of domination that is at the center of the book is endlessly reflected upon and negotiated, and ultimately is replaced by a relationship of love. Finally, while Robinson Crusoe was about learning to accept parental authority, Fifty Shades of Grey is about the real and symbolic scars left by bad parents, as Christian, the hero of the novel, turns out to have had a traumatized childhood, a secret the reader will only progressively discover. More generally, if Robinson Crusoe represents the triumph of a male-centered, Eurocentric view of morality based on values of work and self-reliance, Fifty Shades of Grey represents the ultimate triumph of a female point of view in culture, preoccupied with love and sexuality, with emotions, with the possibility (or impossibility) of forming enduring loving bonds with a man, and with the intertwining of pain and pleasure in romantic and sexual relationships.

To stress even further the differences in value that separate the two novels, we need only remember that one hundred years ago another novel, one that allegedly helped to spark a civil war and was full of compassion for the plight of African slaves, was dismissed at the time for being "sentimental." Today we would have no problem seeing Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852) as a politically and morally ambitious novel, despite its now jarring stereotypes of people of color. But in its day, many thought the novel belonged to that dangerously feminine side of culture that would tempt readers to lapse from strict adherence to religious and moral principles and to embrace a nascent mass culture oriented toward indulgence and self- absorption (Tompkins 1986). Critics of the sentimental novel were especially worried about its emotive force: "Its dramatic power will have no other effect upon the country than to excite the fanaticism of one portion and to arouse the indignation of the other" (Pringle 1853, 7). In other words, the use of sentiment even for high moral and political purposes was low and corrupting.

Or we could take an example closer to Fifty Shades, Kate Chopin's now classic and canonical 1899 book The Awakening, a story of a married woman who discovers sexual desire and passion for another man. At the time of publication the book was greeted with general moral disgust, with one reviewer going as far as to describe its moral core as the "ugly, cruel, loathsome monster Passion," which "like a tiger ... slowly stretches its graceful length ... and ... awakens." The New Orleans Times-Democrat (1899) saw "unhappy Edna's awakening" as "a passion which experience has taught her is, by its very nature, evanescent" and which is "confined entirely to the senses, while reason, judgment, and all the higher faculties and perceptions ... fell into slumber deep as that of the seven sleepers" (quoted in Corse and Westervelt 2002, 139–61). The book was so coldly received by critics and readers that the discouraged Chopin turned thereafter to short stories. One cannot fail to note the contrast with E. L. James, who was instantly signed up with sequels.

In short: that a soft pornographic novel dealing with the intense absorption of two individuals in sadomasochistic sexuality could become such a worldwide best-seller a mere one hundred years after The Awakening gives us a glimpse at the immense change in values that must have occurred in Western culture—as dramatic a change, one might say, as electricity and indoor plumbing. Despite the danger of tautology here, I would like to suggest that best-sellers are defined by their capacity to capture values and outlooks that are either dominant and widely institutionalized or widespread enough to become mainstreamed by a cultural medium.

Best-Seller: A Definition

The 2011 erotic novel Fifty Shades of Grey was written by a compatriot of J. K. Rowling under the pseudonym E. L. James. Like its famous children's literature counterpart, Fifty Shades topped best-seller lists around the world, including lists in the United Kingdom and even the New York Times in the United States. It is the first installment in a trilogy that overall has sold around forty million copies worldwide (Siegel 2012), with 32 million copies sold in the United States at the time of the writing of this essay (more than ten million copies were sold in the United States in a period of six weeks), putting the books among some of the best-selling series in all of modern publishing. Translation rights to the trilogy have been sold in thirty-seven countries, and the first volume set the record as the fastest-selling paperback of all time, surpassing even the Harry Potter series.

Best-sellers are a result of a process that started in Europe in the sixteenth century, which we may call the commodification of the book (Davis 1975). With the diminishing cost of books and rising levels of literacy, books started circulating in regional, national, and even Europe-wide markets (Eisenstein [1983] 2012). To circulate in a market means that books are bought as commodities by members of an anonymous public (as opposed to being produced for a patron, for subscribers, or for a well-known small audience of connoisseurs; or being borrowed from libraries; or being read out loud by one person for a group of listeners; etc.). The reader-consumer was thus situated at the meeting point between two overlapping but distinct spheres: he or she became a consumer located in a market, facing a range of cultural products competing with one another; and he or she (in fact, only he for a long time) was a citizen or member of civil society located in the sphere of public opinion.

Public opinion is the process by which ideas relevant to public and political matters are formed through interpersonal mechanisms—for example, in salons or coffee houses in the eighteenth century (Habermas 1991)—or through opinions that are more authoritative, institutionalized, public, and commodified than others (e.g., the London Times Literary Supplement or the New York Times Book Review). Some books were meant to be circulated in the private sphere (e.g., romance novels), others in the public sphere (e.g., political pamphlets), but a number of them were at the interface of the private and public divide. Pornographic or erotic literature, for example, was located at the interface of the two, as it circulated in the private sphere (and was read mostly by the upper classes) but had deep political implications in challenging the power of the church (Hunt 1991). Interestingly enough, as censorship and the church lost power, pornographic and erotic literature, while it remained highly controlled and regulated, lost its political power, becoming an object of private consumption. The advent of the Internet further commodified pornography for private consumption.

In the relatively short history of the commodification of the book, a crucial development occurred after World War II. With the consolidation of many large corporate publishing industries in the 1940s, the attempt to control the elements conducive to a best-seller grew (Schiffrin 2001). The war proved a benefit to the book business, with rapid sales of books relevant to the war leading to increased sales in other genres. This period marked the first time that publishers began operating as real businesses, as they took their first cues from the marketplace about how to tailor books to specific readers (ibid., 148). Especially after the end of the Cold War, a new ideology that emphasized belief in the market and its values took hold. This belief, that the market represented a consumer democracy, became the hallmark of publishing and led to the trend of smaller publishers increasingly merging into international conglomerates. The editors in these conglomerates encouraged a concentration on a handful of books that would allow them to meet the economic expectations of corporate owners (ibid., 150). And suburbanization further contributed to the commodification of the book in changing the nature of the bookstore: "The only way for suburban booksellers to thrive—as well as chain bookstores—was to reduce the shelf space dedicated to slow-moving inventory and devote more space to the best-sellers" (ibid., 151).

The importance of best-sellers was the natural outcome of the commodification of publishing and its emphasis on marketing. Indeed, although the literary world uses an antimarketing rhetoric (Brown 2011,76), the book trade was driven by marketing practices from the Renaissance through the twentieth century. Some examples include William Caxton's anticipation of straight-through processing principles between 1476 and 1492, Mason Locke Weems's Bible in the early nineteenth century, and the exploitation of Tarzan in the 1920s and 30s. In addition, many known writers worked in areas related to marketing, such as advertisement and business, before their success (ibid., 73–74). (By the way, E. L. James herself, the author of Fifty Shades of Grey, was a television executive, a position that would have made her familiar with the question of how to fit a cultural product to a public.)

Another example of a best-seller series that was created based on marketing practices can be seen in the case of the writer James L. Patterson. Patterson, a former advertiser by trade, made the first book in the Alex Cross series a best-seller by exploiting his experience. He created and published the book in a manner "that owes more to Dunkin Donuts than Doubleday, more to KFC than Knopf" (Brown 2011, 75). Unhappy with his publisher's poor marketing efforts, Patterson replaced the cover and funded a television advertisement campaign. The book quickly became a best-seller, and thereby Patterson established the fast-fiction formula. Between 1976 and 2011, Patterson published seventy-three thrills-and-spills-filled titles that sold approximately 200 million worldwide. His novels come in clearly defined ranges, and the production was outsourced to teams of coauthors, which allowed Patterson to produce five or six books per year (ibid., 75).

Best-seller lists are increasingly populated by authors produced in a system where the market and marketing techniques prevail (Verboord 2011, 290–315). Competition between book titles and authors has intensified considerably, but authors who write genre fiction and series or who have "star power" seem to thrive better (ibid., 308); authors who have established a large literary status appear less often in the lists and have shorter stays; and what is classified as a best-seller diverges more and more from what critics classify as aesthetically important work (ibid., 308–9). The divergence between the economic and cultural fields, in other words, is itself an effect of an intense commodification of the latter field.

When a book becomes a best-seller, it means very simply that it is in the category that sells most. BookScan US, a division of the famous ratings agency Nielsen, is perhaps the most aggressive attempt to produce a completely automatic and trusted set of best-seller lists. BookScan gathers data directly from sales to customers by Amazon and other Internet sellers and at more than forty-five hundred retail locations—including a variety of retailers: many independent bookstores, large chains such as Barnes & Noble, Powell's Books, (formerly) Borders, and the general retailer Costco (Gross 2006; Longhofer, Golden, and Baiocchi 2010, 18–25). The New York Times's way of compiling its own best-selling list is a notoriously well-kept secret, and one can only surmise that it similarly combines sales data at cash registers and in book orders.

While best-sellers feature a variety of topics, romance novels represent the prime commodification of the book, as they are produced by large worldwide corporations. The Harlequin series, for example, uses extensive marketing research to calibrate its formulas to the changing tastes of its readers (Regis 2011; Thurston 1987). Harlequin Corporation publishes romances and women's literature with few competitors worldwide: each month it publishes 110 titles that are translated and distributed in thirty-one countries. Romance novels are one of the most commodified sectors of the book industry, if not its most commodified, in the sense that books are produced according to very well researched and standardized formulas. Romances are also one of the most profitable sectors of the publishing industry, worth more than a billion dollars a year, according to the website of Romance Writers of America (RWA). Romance novels constitute 46 percent of all mass market paperbacks sold in the United States, and according to Harlequin, over half its customers buy an average of 30 novels a month" (Linden and Rees 1992, 70–75). The RWA's website indicates that "romance fiction revenue actually increased from $1.355 billion in 2010 to $1.368 billion in 2011, and it remains the largest share of the consumer market at 14.3 percent." And more than seventy-four million people claimed to have read at least one romance novel in 2008, according to an RWA study posted on its site. Nine percent of romance readers identified themselves as male, and the study reported that the majority of romance readers were married or living with a partner. According to Harlequin, in the "About Us" section on its site, the company sells more than four books per second, half of them internationally. In the UK, over 20 percent of all fiction books sold each year are romance novels.


Excerpted from Hard-Core Romance by Eva Illouz. Copyright © 2014 Eva Illouz. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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