Should We Be Making the Popularity Contest More Personal?


All this shortlisting has got me thinking about “likes,” how we dish them out, how we take them.

To like or not to like. That is the question.

We live in a public age, defining ourselves daily by how we “share” and how we “like.” When we read fiction we engage in a popularity contest. It’s one way the field is leveled between traditionally published and self-published work; both methods depend on the reader eventually for their visibility and success. What would E.L. James be without the popularity contest?

E.L.James represents the extreme end of the popularity spectrum; her work has become so famous via gossip and social media sharing that often people don’t even think of the text when they think about Fifty Shades of Grey. They think of the movie characters, they think of genre, they think of bondage, of the glorification of abusive relationships; the text is very far away a lot of the time.

This week, James was drumming up the publicity for her new novel Grey, and hosted a Q & A on Twitter. Probably expecting fans to appear in their droves, James was shocked into silence when the hashtag became a vehicle for the reading community’s frustrations instead, with repeated questions posed like these:




The anger directed at James was largely to do with the themes she used to tell her story and the way she presents abusive relationships as sexy. While many lesser known works have similar themes, James’ series has come to represent them all, and is discussed more in principle than as fiction; Twitter happened to capture this perfectly by asking users to connect with E.L. in its brief, freeing form. James was basically booed off stage, having no retorts ready for her critics.

Though I agree with many of the criticisms of E.L.James’ work, I also wonder how close these insults come to striking the woman behind the brand where it hurts. I agree too with the few tweets that aimed to remind critics that E.L. James is actually a real person, with a family and feelings. Is it the characters or the writing we are offended by? Is it what E.L.James has narrated or is it that she’s wringing it out for all the profit it’s worth or is it that she remains silent in the face of her accusers?

Sometimes the separation of popularity and the work itself can be a positive thing, a sign of the work’s quality and readers’ connection with it. The Harry Potter series has moved beyond the text in a wonderful way; fans feel like they’re part of the same world that Harry inhabits, by visiting Warner Bros, by joining a Hogwarts house, etc. Maybe the best way to handle something like Fifty Shades of Grey is to remove it from its author’s hands, and I’m sure for E.L.James, the whole thing must feel very out of her hands, very removed from her original intentions back when she was an anonymous wannabe writer.

eljamesAt any rate, the whole debacle should make us reconsider how we select our champions and our battles on social media. Clicking the “Like” icon is so easy we hardly think about it, but put all our social media impulses together and you create a powerful collective impact, like the #AskE.L.James outpouring this week; we need to use our likes, our retweets, our complicity wisely.

Georgina Parfitt

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