Tuesday, 28 August 2012

50 Shades of Butterflies in the Amazon (remixing something you don't agree with)

First a little context.

While having a beautiful and relaxing holiday in the South of France, we noticed an odd phenomenon: most of the British women at our camp site had a copy of 50 Shades of Grey, or one of its sequels.
One afternoon, I was lying on a sunbed, listening to to wonderful noise from the pool when two women walked slowly passed, one was holding the third book from the trilogy. As they passed, the women not holding the book said: "So is it good?" and the woman holding the book said: "Nah, it's crap, but you kind of want to know what's going to happen next. I think you'd like it."

Chalk up three more sales.

So I started talking with Alison (she had read books 1 and 2, but couldn't be arsed to buy book 3) and, in the process, came up with the idea of rewriting 50 Shades and making it 'better.' Of course, this relies upon me being a better writer than EL James and my ethics would never permit me to say such a thing. No, scratch that. I am. Much better.

Anyway, I made the decision to rewrite the first couple of chapters when I had the time and see how it went. If it was OK, I'd continue. If not, I'd drop the project and go back to thinking about aliens in strange Victorian dress and an apocalypse that happened very slowly. The idea was given added impetus by China Mieville's recent talk about fostering remix culture in literature (I think what I'm doing is a cover version, rather than a remix, but the principle is similar enough for it not to matter).

But. I have just finished chapter 2, and I've hit a major stumbling block. It's this.

I am enjoying the writing. Reading through someone else's work and thinking about how to make it better (which is something I do everyday, though with a much lighter hand, in my day job), and then writing out an improved line of text is very satisfying. It's like someone came in and took care of the broad brush strokes of a painting, allowing me to concentrate on the detail - to try to take lumpen dialogue and romance novel cliche, and turn it all into something sparkling without betraying the central ideas of the text.

And therein lies the problem. I think the central ideas in the text are deeply problematic and, this is the kicker, the central character in the story is refusing to go along with them. I've tried to make her into a simpering simpleton searching out validation and the love she never really got from her parents, but she is resisting. In each encounter with Mr Grey (I renamed him Mr Severin in honour of Severin von Kusiemski), she pushes back - occasionally embarrassed by her complicity in his attempts at control. This does interesting things to the characters, but in terms of romance novels, may not provide the desperate escapism that is so often regarded as the core demand of the reader.

So that's problem one. I have changed one aspect of the character and it's started rippling through the plot. And this leads to problem two.

Every novel has a line, paragraph or section upon which the entire structure pivots. It is an anchor holding the whole thing steady. In my other book, it was nine words and a piece of punctuation.

In 50 Shades..., it's the moment when Christian reveals his 'dungeon' to Ana - and thus reveals who he truly is - though of course, deep down that isn't his true self, cos that would be bad.

I haven't got to that part yet (I'm writing as I read), but hearing other people talk about it, the only thing I could think of was the bloke from The Lovely Bones taking the girl into his hole in the ground (genuinely revealing his true self) and trying to convince her that everything was OK. The girl in that story understands far more than her captor. She knows who he is, and what he wants, while he maintains the pretence that he is a cool old man and is in control. We know that in life he envies power but has none. And so he exercises what little power he can attain (though even this is false and fleeting, and always in need of topping up) over children.

You have to imagine how creepy it would be to have a new lover take you into a room and say: "Basically, the thing I'd like to do is hurt you. You can trust me though. Yes, I know you don't really know me, but you can trust me. Cross my heart and hope to die!"

This scenario is no good for either party in 50 Shades... or for the audience.

Ana is an innocent. I've made her less innocent, but nonetheless, EL James has made her pure and even a little hesitant about her own sexuality. I'm pretty sure her reaction would be: "Fuck off! Creep." And rightly so. She's not an idiot.

But Christian is supposed to be about control, about measured exposure. He is the kind of person that would never blurt out a secret to someone he barely knows, especially if he is investing his emotions in that person, and the revelation might fuel his own self-loathing. James paints him this way, and then splurges her efforts on this one moment. He would need to know he was going to get what he wanted.

A more realistic scenario involves the pair flirting, becoming close, learning to trust one another, discussing fantasy, experimentation, etc. Even if one character is driving these conversions and moments towards a particular goal - or confession - it would only make sense to do it within the confines (and I use that word in a positive way) of a trusting relationship.

I'm going to continue writing this (I quite like the notion of the romance/erotic novel, though in the examples I've read, I get bored quite quickly) for another two chapters and see how it goes. My theory is that the butterfly flaps that have just happened in the hardware store where Emma Wainwright (Anastasia Steele was the first cliche to go) will be amplified through a short (much shorter, in fact) photographic session, into a flirtatious but chaste car journey and into arrangements for a first date.

The interesting thing is. If we understand that Christian Severin has unusual tastes, and is working towards revealing this to his new love, there is the prospect of a story that has loads of sex, but also loads of sexual tension. It's not the love or consummation that is delayed, as in traditional romance, but the understanding. We know. He knows. She (sort of) knows. But who tells first.

The other interesting thing is that, shorn of its rape fantasy pillar - and the joy of relinquishing control within the confines of a book - does this kind of story still work for the target audience? For any audience?

First draft (straight to page, no edits) of Chapter 1 is here.

* Standard disclaimer: should something brighter or shinier bash into my brain, I may not finish this. The value of trousers may go down as well as up. You home may be at risk if you do not keep up repayments on it. *

* Second disclaimer: If you think I'm nicking the beginning of EL James' novel for my own moneymaking purposes (and especially if you're a lawyer working for the suddenly loaded Ms James), it might be worthwhile searching out one of my university projects in which almost exactly the same thing happens. It's even conducted mostly through emails and texts. *

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