50 Shades of Grey: To Read or Not to Read

Okay, I will not really talk about whether or not you should read one of the most controversial books published in 2011. If you want to participate in that discussion go here. I will say that I read the first third of the first book and skimmed the rest of the first book. I asked my husband if I could read it before I started, and I talked to him about what I read as I moved through the book. I say that because I want to provide a context—I have at least some experience with 50 Shades of Grey. I really want to discuss how Christians can produce books as compelling as 50. I think we might start doing that by trying the following, but I would love to hear your thoughts as well. I’ve included a lot of questions. Feel free to offer your thoughts in the comment section below.

  1. Writing Well. In the article I linked to above, Michelle mentions that she chose not to read the book because her friend did not like the writing. Honestly? The writing needs improvement. Sure, the plot moves forward, but language and fully developed characters don’t drive the book. Shouldn’t Christians produce books that compel readers to keep reading based on the beautifully written language? Shouldn’t the plot make readers want to stay up late reading under the covers with a flashlight? Shouldn’t the setting feel like home? Or if it’s an uncomfortable setting, shouldn’t it make the readers feel the tension within that particular place?  What about the main characters? Shouldn’t they feel like life-long friends?
  2. Incorporating Strong Male Characters. Christian Grey, the protagonist in 50, has a dominant personality that makes females swoon. God set up the marriage relationship with the male as the head of the wife. Obviously, that does not involve abuse, but God created the idea of headship as attractive. I love romance books (Christian or otherwise) because I swoon over a strapping male willing to make tough decisions and come to the rescue. How could you incorporate a strong, sexy male character into your novel while remaining tactful? What sort of tact is necessary in a Christian romance novel, specifically regarding the male protagonist?
  3. Incorporating Strong Female Characters. The female protagonist in 50, Anastasia Steele, doesn’t just accept what Christian has to offer in a relationship at face value (at least in the first book). She fights him on the particular details of their relationship with which she feels uncomfortable. How can you make your female characters strong in their character and conviction? Should a female character confront her husband in a novel if he makes a poor decision? What if the male that she is confronting is just a boyfriend? How do the relationship dynamics differ, and how can you keep both types of relationships interesting so that readers want to keep turning pages?
  4. Discussing Controversial Topics. Even the secular community startled a bit when they discovered 50 Shades of Grey. I doubt it would have been as popular without the controversy. Should Christians be writing about controversial issues in novels, as well?  If so, should those issues be resolved biblically, or is it okay to show that a bad decision was made and to then reveal appropriate consequences for that bad decision? As with anything, you need to pray about the decisions you make in your writing.
  5. Writing About The “S” Word. Who doesn’t like to hear about a spicy relationship between a man and a woman? How would you choose to write about a man and a woman who are in a courtship or dating relationship? How do you write about a man and a woman in a marriage relationship? How do you balance being tactful but also keeping the spice going? And, finally, should Christians only be able to include kissing scenes in their novels, or will characters ever be able to go beyond first base?

What other ideas can we glean from controversial books that sell well?

22 Replies to “50 Shades of Grey: To Read or Not to Read”

  1. These are good questions. I wouldn’t read “50” because it’s not my cup of chai (scifi/specfic/steampunk here, mostly). Still, my attitude toward writing and writers is: write well, write something worth reading, write as honestly as possible and don’t worry too much about controversy (either artificially creating it to draw attention or avoiding it to please your grandma if she reads it).

    I’m trying to picture a book in which nothing remotely unpleasant happens, no one is offended, and the characters are perfect in every way from page one to the last sentence of the epilogue. This sounds like a form of torture to me.

    From what I’ve heard, “50” sounds like a fad. If I’m to be completely honest, I don’t typically read authors who are heavily marketed as “Christian” authors (unless it is a book on theology or apologetics). I’m not typically interested in a lot of “Christian rock”, either. Too much of it strikes me as treacly at best and fake at worst. I will read good authors, who write strong stories, who also just happen to be Christian, though. 🙂

    Thanks for sharing the questions and the map. Seeing the way the readers cluster together in one region is interesting!

    1. Great comments! I agree that I don’t always read Christian writers (for fun–for work, I read a lot of work by Christian writers!). In either case, a good story is what I am looking for. I thought that map was interesting, too! 🙂

      1. I once got hired to ghost-write “Christian Horror Stories”. I wrote a few, but the buyer gave me the helpful tip that Christian “horror” shouldn’t be scary or involve anything remotely supernatural.

        The buyer was happy with the end product, but I’m just happy they were ghost written. 😀

  2. Meh, no I haven’t read 50 Shades and I don’t intend to. However, your points are spot on. Writers should write well and evoke some sort of response toward the characters. Even a bad response can be good – it’s an emotional trigger to a fictional character. I wrote one character that was so superficial and selfish that my readers hated her with a passion and emailed me to let me know about it as though she were a real person. *Win*

    I personally like a strong male character that makes mistakes. Big ones. And realizes later that he made a mistake. But, on the flip side, if it’s a terrible, heart-rending, you’ve-got-to-be-kidding-me-did-he-really-just-do-that mistake, I’ll put the book down and just hate him for the rest of my life. Yes, I’m that fickle. 😉 What people like best in books is highly subjective, but strong, dominant female leads are the ones that drive me nuts the most. Now, please don’t get me wrong. If someone’s standing there beating her boyfriend/husband to a bloody pulp, she *better* grab an equalizer and jump on the bad guy’s back and return the favor! I like a little bit of “saving the damsel in distress” but again, that can go overboard and drive me crazy as well. It’s a fine line.

    The ‘S’ Word. Can Christians write that way? Of course! I read one of DeeAnne Gist’s books and she does a fine job of painting an appropriate S picture without the act. I have no desire to read trash. But, a good intimate scene done appropriately without taking my hand and telling me *each* and *every* movement is what I’m looking for.

    When I read, I want to be lost in that book. I want to see nothing, hear nothing, feel nothing if it isn’t being held in my hand at that particular moment. Heart thumping, eyeball-popping and page flipping fiction is what I want. For non-fiction, I want the author to challenge me to become a better person; whether it’s finances, parenting, or being a better spouse, I want to be inspired to be better.

    Thanks for the interesting questions and your thoughts.

    1. Great answers, again! I always forget that we have such thoughtful readers and writers following our blog. I like your comments about the “s” word most. 🙂 I haven’t read any of DeeAnne Gist, but your comment makes me want to check out her stuff. Thanks for mentioning her.

  3. Although I’ve chosen not to read 50 Shades, I have read quite a few reviews, and listened in to many discussions over the book. I think as Christians, we need to figure out what we are comfortable with (as far as writing, reading, and discussing) but still have some idea of the controversial topic. I like your points, but at the end of the day, I’m not a big fan of our Christian subculture taking anything uber-popular in the world and providing our Christian version (Testamints, anyone?). I just think we can do better.

    Great thought provoking points, Sarah. Thanks!

    1. Gillian, good point! I definitely wasn’t thinking that we need to make a Christian version of 50 Shades of Grey. I guess the post does kind of sound like that, huh? Blech=NO. Again, definitely not, and now I am sad that I came off sounding like that. Honestly, I hate the idea of a Christian subculture (Christian bookstores in general kind of make me want to puke). I guess I was trying to think through, “What’s working here?” and “What’s not?” just like I would do with any story or novel that I like (or dislike). Christians need to write what works and there are certain conventions (that are neither Christian nor non-Christian) that work in certain genres. I guess that is more what I was aiming toward. At the end of the day: WRITE WELL!

      1. Oh, I actually really loved this post, Sarah. I applaud you for tackling it. That’s what I meant to say. In our line of work, (especially for you) we should know what’s written, by whom, and the good and the bad in it. Well done you for not just ignoring a huge new fad in reading, whether we like that it’s here or not. Keep being ballsy :). I like that about you :).

    2. Yes! I agree!!! Why do we need to compare anything we do to examples of worldly craft (John 15:19 …Yet because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.”) Although I am not an author and have actually little knowledge of literary academia, I am quite familiar with needlework. On a recent trip to a bridal shop my number 2 daughter admired the wedding dress with a particular designers name on the label. Because of this name, the price was $1500. The seams were sewn inside out! Raw fabric frayed on the along the seams and edges! However, the dress her grandmother lovingly hand stitched for her mother – unique, one-of-a-kind design, hours of hand sewn, not glued, beading – was considered unworthy for the upcoming event of her own. Worthiness and value even in the Christian subculture seems to center on what the masses deem. The conversation about this particular book whether deemed to be good writing or not reminds me of my oldest daughter’s reply to various issues when she was 10 or so. Simple words stated succinctly and exactly her opinion. Yet in her youthful innocence they were also profound: “That’s just wrong!.”

  4. I’m purposefully avoiding that one. I think if I don’t want my husband to look at porn, but then pick up the literary equivalent, that’s pretty hypocritical.
    You make some good points and have given me some stuff to think about. It makes sense that including controversial subjects would create a lot of buzz.

    1. Yes, and fellow agent Barbara Scott offered me a verse in relation to this post, Philippians 4:8 “Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things.” Whatever the Holy Spirit is convicting you with, you need to follow. God and I talked about what I was reading the entire time, and I never felt a “you need to put the book down” nudge. For me it was more, “there are more entertaining things that you can be reading.” Plus, God knows I am stubborn, so He probably put that latter thought into my head instead of the first because He knows I most likely would have rebelled against the first (not saying that is right, just that, especially with books, I get upset when someone tells me I can’t read something (even, you know, God.)

  5. As a survivor of abuse, I cannot read 50 – I glanced at a few pages when some of my friends raved about the book – but I was subject to so much pain and hurt as a child, I don’t want to go there.

    Regarding your question about why read a controversial book that sells well – as an aspiring author I want to sell well and am willing to learn techniques – but I don’t think it always has to be a controversial book. I read many books on writing and keep notes on books the authors use as examples of great sentence construction, good setting, plot twists, etc. I read these suggested books to see how the authors did the technique.

  6. Because I was abused by my father and tend to avoid books like 50 because it evokes memories. I picked up the book and glanced at it after some of my friends raved about the book. For me, I was underwhelmed. Some popular books are worth reading to see what it is that causes reader’s to purchase the books.

    I tend to read books about writing. When a book is brought up as an example of something like great plot structure, good characterization, well-constructed scenes, etc. I sometimes purchase the recommended book and read it to see how the author worked those qualities into their manuscript.

    Have a blessed day.

  7. I’ve only have a couple of friends who have read the book but their universal comment is how truly horrible the writing is. I wish that good writing made books compelling but frankly, I think people are only reading this book because it is trendy and scandalous -it makes them feel sexy and cosmopolitan. Sure, Christians should write good literature, but is a good book really what 50’s audience is looking for?

    1. Thanks for joining the discussion, Racie. 🙂 I agree that a lot of people are reading it is because it is trendy and scandalous. When I am 50, I want to be reading good books. 🙂 I guess that is the easy answer. I think all readers, at whatever point of life they are in, want to enjoy the fun reads, too. But it makes me sad that the fun read can’t also be literally appealing.

  8. Sarah, I appreciate your examining the reasons this book is making such quick sales (other than the controversy, the fact that sex sells, and the evidence that “spicy” sex seems to be especially hot—no pun intended). Good writing, strong male characters, strong female characters, controversial topics, and artful use of the “s” word make good stories. As Christians, we have to rely on the Lord’s guidance as we craft these stories (and on whether or not we should read stories that are out there, such as 50 Shades of Grey).

    The story arc in my novels (in all their various states of readiness) includes a courtship, sexual temptation during that time period—some handled well and some not, early marriage, and the birth of a first child. I feel this period in a human life is powerful and transformational. I am drawn to write about it. Needless to say, my married characters get past first base.

    As a follower of Christ, I am in constant communication with him as I write wedding nights, early marriage, and married love. God invented married sex. He made it beautiful. He is the author of the love story in Eden and of Song of Solomon, after all. I want to portray exquisite romantic love without crossing a line that is very personal, elusive, and hard to define. I want to capture the sacred intimacy.

    To help me do that carefully, I employ the “sex police.” If I’m in doubt at all, I have select first readers double-check scenes I’ve written. They are of various ages from retired to twenty- and thirty-somethings. They are people I trust—people who have good judgment, who have no problem criticizing me, and who can explain themselves precisely. They help me discern if a word or phrase might have crossed the line. I take their criticism very seriously. I ponder it and employ it. I pray. I submit the entire decision to the Lord as I make it. Then I make the call.

    I want my stories to be pleasing to God. Therefore, if even after all that I still feel the “nudge,” as you said, I change the scene, even if it passed the muster of the “sex police.” I take out that word or phrase that crossed a line, the one that feels like it said too much. In the same way, if the Lord nudges me the other direction, I follow that, too. Marriage and marital intimacy is a living illustration of Christ and the church. How can that be illustrated in a godly way? That is the challenge.

    1. Great comments, Melinda. We studied the Song of Solomon in church. My pastor included a few Sundays where he asked parents to pray about whether their kids would be included in the next week’s sermon. He handled it tactfully, but he was honest, too. It was great for my husband and I because it was right around the time when we got married. Such a blessing! Sounds like you have a good plan.

  9. I personally don’t read books with any real descriptions of sex, because I am not married and don’t believe (as most Christians used to believe/do) that you don’t have any sex with someone to whom you are not married. Since it’s not in my plans, there’s no reason for me personally to read about something in which I am currently not able to participate. I have a pretty good idea that it’s powerful, considering the number of people willing to die for it, even. So, I choose not to tempt myself into intimacy where it is inappropriate, nor do I want to get so disappointed that I’m not able to have a part in it right now that I go looking for someone to marry just so I don’t “miss out”. I don’t know how many Christians actually stick to the no sex outside of marriage thing, but I will be one of them. While I write about people in relationships (mildly) I let you know what has or hasn’t happened by the surrounding plot events, not by little glimpses into their bedrooms.

    1. Good points. It is definitely a fantasized version of sex, though. Seriously, if any real relationship involved that much fantasy, there would be no time for real life stuff. It’s not an accurate portrayal of a married sex life which is another reason the book kind of makes me sad. But I guess that’s any book or any romance movie.

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