Why is this rubbish successful?

15 November 2012

With Fifty Shades of Grey nominated for a National Book of the Year award, Rinna Keefe laments the state of paranormal romance…

One night recently I was awake too late and looking for a book. Searching the dusty shelves, I spotted an old favourite.

Like a vampire sidling along an alley, when Twilight was first released its advance was swift and its intentions unclear. Adults argued about whether it was significant, dangerous, or even any good; I was hooked. Twilight made a dodgy genre cool. The vampires are tastefully dressed. No one important dies. The heroine’s afraid of blood and the hero’s a Jonas brother noir, so there are no body fluids involved. It’s a vacuum-packed romance: no mess, no fuss and eternal life.

Seven years on, I’ve decided I want more from life than a broken Chevy, suicidal impulses and a teenage pregnancy. However, when I felt like glittery romance, I turned straight to Chapter Nineteen of Breaking Dawn. Who wouldn’t, right?

It was unbelievably disappointing. I’d remembered a much more steamy honeymoon than Meyer wrote. Nowadays I expect better than ‘then he pulled me into the deeper water’; there could at least have been an adrenaline-pumping shark or two.

I flipped through the pages, looking for the relationship I’d idolised. It wasn’t there. I wasn’t just upset about the lack of excitement – the story isn’t romantic or even fun. In the cold and experienced light of day, Bella’s perfect husband is nothing more than an emotionally manipulative stalker.

I know, I know: Twilight’s old news. The problem is that it’s been imitated and – through the hallowed channels of fanfic – escalated.

Like Twilight, Fifty Shades is about a vulnerable virgin meeting an older man. There’s BDSM in both series: submerged in Twilight beneath undead legends, explicit in Fifty Shades. Both extend the dominance to everyday life, the man controlling what the woman eats, wears, and chooses to do.

There’s one vital difference, though. Twilight is an obvious fantasy; the silliest person, if held down with thumbscrews, will confess that Edward Cullen is not real. By contrast, 50 Shades is very realistic and incredibly easy to use in abuse. What’s fantastical about two people meeting, having sex and moving in together? Sadly, there’s nothing incredible about relationships going bad; and 50 Shades is definitely bad.

So far, so clear. Here’s what I don’t get: why is this rubbish successful? Isn’t anyone disappointed by such poor fantasies?

I enjoyed Twilight once. Now I know better. There’s a million things I’d rather do on a first date than play baseball with cannibals. Here’s what I want from my paranormal escapism:

CHARLES DE CAHEDRoN is a tall, bestubbled rake with the eyes of a puppy on opium. Born to a flamenco dancer in Scunthorpe, Charles dropped out of university suffering from a broken heart. He joined the army; led a revolution; won a Nobel prize. He is also a werewolf.

Moodily wandering the streets of London, Charles meets ARTEMIS DOE. Artemis works in a dreary office and hates it. She’s allergic to waxing, shops on the high street and has never been to France. For their first date, they go to the latest Ryan Gosling movie and both pay for their own popcorn. Charles walks Artemis home, pausing only to logically refute (and eat) a catcaller.

Soon they are married. Artemis goes to dog-handling classes. In a small concession to the genre, she becomes pregnant, but with Charles’ support, Artemis changes job. They move to Austria, for the stunning views and plentiful prey. Artemis holds human rights rallies; Charles writes poetry; both care for the baby.

Of course it is all a success. Their child, Araminta Doe de Cahedrón, speaks only in iambic pentameter; she is furry and glows in the dark for easy nappy changing. Human rights are globally recognised. Also, the sex is really good.