Fifty Shades of Worried ~ meme or Zeitgeist?

Fifty shades of worried ~ meme or Zeitgiest?

You’d have to have been living under a rock or otherwise out of touch not to have noticed the phenomenon that is E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy. Selling roughly a copy a second and inspiring both adoration and vociferous loathing, the last total sales I saw was at over ten million sales. Ten million.


You read that right.

~interlude while people pick their jaws off floors and struggling writers like me attempt to paint our faces to cover the fifty shades of green they might have become~

Ten million and counting.


This is a Black Hole book, the sheer mass of which creates actual gravity to suck in incautious readers. The reviews on Amazon, both the 1 star and the 5 star ones are peppered with people saying, “I wanted to see what all the fuss was about.” It’s why I have chosen not to include any links whatsoever, because this book has sufficient gravity already.

No, I haven’t bought it. I made that particular mistake with Twilight. I was trapped in a French hotel room with only that book for entertainment, all because I felt I ought to see what the fuss was about.

But I have skim read it in Tesco’s, just to see for myself. Suffice it to say that I laughed out loud and put the book back on the shelf.

I’m not going to discuss the bad writing, because a dozen and more bloggers have already done that, better than I could. I’ve been amused by one who is devoting a series of reviews, pulling it apart in sequence. I’m up to part six. Bad writing or good writing, it makes extremely little difference to WHY this book is selling quite so amazingly. If you read through the reviews, you will find people on either side of that battle. It’s irrelevant. The Da Vinci Code was pretty badly written, but millions bought it and loved it.

I’m not going to discuss the sex. Sorry to disappoint you. It simply doesn’t interest me. I’ve heard enough people refer to it as BDSM-lite. Even if it were BDSM-heavy, it wouldn’t interest me. Other people’s bedroom choices simply don’t, whether in film, fiction or real life. I’m usually the one who gets bored by erotic scenes in films. Erotic writing has to be outstanding to make me read it rather than skipping it. Yeah, I know, I’m weird. Each to their own.

I’m not even discuss the implications of this tale starting life as a Twilight fan fiction.

What I do want to explore is quite why this book has become such a phenomenon and what the implications are.

Ignoring the fact that once a cascade effect takes place, in literary terms, it becomes impossible to differentiate why THIS book did and THAT book didn’t when they effectively contain exactly the same ingredients. A recent survey of self-published authors revealed that romance and erotica are the two genres where success is much more likely for a self-published author (did I mention that Fifty Shades started out self-published?) than other genres. Literary fiction comes pretty low on the list. But a rapid scan of the virtual shelves of Amazon reveal a mind-boggling proliferation of romance, erotica and erotic romance titles.

So why this one when there are so many others that cover the same ground, and probably with better writing?

I’ve been puzzling over it for weeks. Not because I want to try and emulate it. I couldn’t write erotica if you tickled me with a feather for a month. I couldn’t write romance however much someone wined and dined me. I just don’t have it in me. But I could write a detective novel of sorts or even a thriller if it came to me; and this conundrum has been niggling at me for a while.

So I’ve been wandering around, eavesdropping on various blogs and finally, a comment on a friend’s blog made me prick up my ears. I am not linking here, for various reasons, but the gist of the comment was that they had adored the book because it fed into every woman’s dream of finding a damaged but gorgeous man and fixing him with love.

I stopped dead in my tracks at that point, and if it had been a film, I’d have crumpled to the floor shaking. It was horrible, but it rang true. Other comments I read confirmed a similar feeling. Escapism was mentioned a lot, and when I’ve asked about why people like romantic fiction that’s often quoted as a reason.

Every woman’s dream to find a gorgeous but damaged man and fix him with love.

It’s been many women’s nightmare to try this and find that it doesn’t work. Given that gorgeous men are in relatively short supply, most settle for ordinary-looking men.

Oh, fairytale romances.

I love fairy tales. Bluebeard is quite a wonderful one. He even has a secret room of pain. He’s based on a real life socio-path, serial killer Gilles de Rais  (please don’t check this link if you are of a sensitive disposition)

I’m sure some of you are muttering, “Drama Queen!” right now and you may be right. We are talking about a mere book, after all, one that millions have enjoyed. I’ve read a number of comments about it spicing up many marriages; some hardware stores in the USA have seen a surge in purchases of a certain kind. I’m confidently expecting a rise in the UK of admissions to Casualty Departments coupled with a lot of entirely unconvincing stories about how people came about certain injuries….

Joking aside, it is a mere book and maybe it is itself harmless. Enjoyable if that’s what floats your boat. But if the concept of why it is massively successful is down to women wanting to fix damaged men, then it worries me.

Been there, got the scars. I KNOW it doesn’t work. Women wind up dead. I’m not going into personal details, but I know this is a dangerous path to follow. Lots of women do but many continue in the mistaken belief that they are the magical “ONE” who can heal this poor misunderstood chap. A shred of hope will be clung to like a holy relic. The more glamorous the exterior, the more lavish the occasional gifts of goods or affection, the greater the belief that somehow their love can transform the damaged soul within the object of their love. It’s seductive and powerful and very isolating. No-one understands him like I do.

I’m trying to figure out whether this is a meme or a Zeitgeist. Bear with me as this is important. The term meme  was coined by Richard Dawkins to cover how an idea or style can spread from person to person within a culture: A meme ( /ˈmm/; MEEM)[1]) is “an idea, behavior or style that spreads from person to person within a culture.”[2] A meme acts as a unit for carrying cultural ideas, symbols or practices, which can be transmitted from one mind to another through writing, speech, gestures, rituals or other imitable phenomena. Supporters of the concept regard memes as cultural analogues to genes in that they self-replicate, mutate and respond to selective pressures.[3]

It’s analogous to a kind of thought virus.

A Zeitgeist  is a little different. You can describe a Zeitgiest as simply being the spirit of the times; it’s fixed in its time and place, unlike a meme which replicates, spreads and mutates. A short explanation is thus: Zeitgeist (German pronunciation: [ˈtsaɪtɡaɪst] ( listen)) is “the spirit of the times” or “the spirit of the age.” [1] Zeitgeist is the general cultural, intellectual, ethical, spiritual, or political climate within a nation or even specific groups, along with the general ambiance, morals, sociocultural direction, and mood associated with an era.

Both memes and Zeitgiests are revealing of the societies in which they originate. In the West, where we have supposed (relative) freedom of speech, and far greater equality for women than even our mothers knew of, there is crisis at a very deep level. At almost every level of the psyche, both individual or collective, in fact.

I’m genuinely unsure which it falls into, meme or Zeitgeist because both possibilities are worrying. If it is a Zeitgeist then it says a lot for our lack of real progress as people and as society that this seductive myth is still inspiring people to believe in a nasty fairytale. If it is a meme, then how far will it spread and how much will it change?

Just as the pandemics happen in the world of viruses and bacteria, so too can pandemics of memes.

The only known memeicide is critical thinking. Time to get thinking.

9 thoughts on “Fifty Shades of Worried ~ meme or Zeitgeist?

  1. Terrific post, Viv, and well said. Never never never get into a relationship with a man intending to change him. I shake my head at the sorry souls who marry men still in prison for crimes like murder.


  2. I believe in hype . I believe in word and mouth. How many films have been hyped up and then when you go to see them you think what was all the fuss about?! But , here, the bottom line is, you’ve paid yer money kiddo’!
    This book got a little bit of hype, as you say, because there’s some sex (highest seller on the internet) content. Word gets around. Next thing, everybody is reading it.
    Quality of writing? As long as it is legible it doesn’t matter, in my opinion. The reader simply wants to get to the nitty-gritty. When you flipped through the book in Tesco – did you hunt a page with some nitty-gritty?


  3. You make a number of very powerful points in this post. I too believe that when a popular book takes off in terms of sales, often a meme or the zeitgeist is responsible. It works like a virus – for good or for bad. However, I was almost disturbed by your observation about a woman’s dream being that she can fix a damaged man with her love. I recognised that this trope (if you like to call it that) is present in my own current novel, which I am working on right now. It doesn’t operate in an extreme way in my plot, but nevertheless it is there. I am now wondering whether to be worried about it, or to reap the benefits of having read your post, and be glad that my awareness of this has been sharpened! Thank you!


  4. I asked Mrs C what she thought of “find a gorgeous but damaged man and fix him with love”

    She said
    – she understood the temptation to believe in that
    – she thought it would end up patronising the man, and nurturing him like a child rather than partnering with him as an adult
    – once he’s been ‘fixed with love’ will he go off and marry someone else?


  5. Thanks, Viv. Now I know what all the fuss is about. Like you, I have no interest in romance or erotica, and I too am troubled by fantasies that seem to endanger women or women’s hard-won independence. Good news, though, for self-pubbers: Indie mystery and thriller outsells indie romance and erotica last I saw. I have friends’ experience to underscore the stats. One friend with a very spicy title has sold decently on Amazon while promoting regularly, but another mutual friend put her kids through college (well, a big hunk of the expense) on the profits from a culinary mystery which she didn’t even promote.


  6. excellent post Viv. Seems you can fool most of the people all of the time after all and initially not even with a huge marketing budget behind you apparently. The book itself is a meme, but symptomatic of a zeitgeist of shrinking & shrivelled imaginations & emotions. Dr Goebbels will be dancing a jig in Kulturkamp hell…


  7. I don’t know why most women are stil deep in nurse-syndrome (Oh, I can so cure him!)… never understood that! 😦 You can’t change the world more than you can change somebody else. I think those women are delusional and still believe in fairy tales and prince charming. That’s how we were raised – but I got rid of that myth at some point.
    And when my Godmother asked me last week “do you have a boyfriend” I said “no” and she insisted “aren’t you ashamed?” my second “No!” was even more convinced. I’m not going to look for a “boyfriend” only because everybody does. If I’m meant to meet him, fine, if not, I’ll be all right. Prince Charming is dead (or is like in Shrek, i.e. not really what I’m looking for, LOL)! 🙂


  8. Pingback: My 50 Shades of Shameful Writing | Hannah Warren

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