Fifty Shades Success Explained by Nabokov

In 1956, the great Vladimir Nabokov wrote a short piece he called ON A BOOK ENTITLED LOLITA.
Apart from being a beautiful piece of writing in itself, he explains the seemingly unexplainable success of Fifty Shades of Grey.
You see, when he tried to find a U.S publisher for Lolita, all four he submitted the manuscript to completely misunderstood the work, some not even finishing reading it, and labelled it “pornography”, not mummy porn, but nevertheless, it’s certainly strange to hear Nabokov’s work labelled as anything like the pedestrian work of E.L James.

So here’s the relevant parts of Nabokov’s words.

‘… the term “pornography” connotes mediocrity, commercialism, and certain strict rules of narration. Obscenity must be mated with banality because every kind of aesthetic enjoyment has to be entirely replaced by simple sexual stimulation which demands the traditional word for direct action upon the patient.’


‘Thus, in pornographic novels, action has to be limited to the copulation of clichés. Style, structure, imagery should never distract the reader from his tepid lust. The novel must consist of an alternation of sexual scenes. The passages in between must be reduced to sutures of sense, logical bridges of the simplest design, brief expositions and explanations, which the reader will probably skip but must know they exist in order not to feel cheated ( a mentality stemming from the routine of “true” fairytales in childhood). Moreover, the sexual scenes in the book must follow a crescendo line, with new variations, new combinations, new sexes, and a steady increase in the number of participants (in a Sade play they call the gardener in), and therefore the end of the book must be more replete with lewd lore than the first chapters.’

So, casting my eyes through the above, I see the words mediocrity, commercialism, banality, and copulation of clichés. Fifty Shades certainly hasn’t much bothered us with style, structure or imagery, and to apply the words sutures of sense to James’s plot would be more than flattering.
The only difference between these Shades tragedies of literature and Nabokov’s suggestion of what constitutes a basic commercial pornographic novel is that in the Shades books the protagonists are faithful to each other. Which the TrendyPornMummies love. The simple twist that made it right for our times, and ok for every mindless mummy to love.

Comment as nicely or nastily as you like below, then please never speak of the above-mentioned books here ever again. Except for Lolita, which you should feel free to mention here and anywhere else you please, every day, forever and ever and ever. And we’ll live happily ever after.

Wanna argue about it?
Or better still, tell me which other great writer has advice for us on how to write the next MegaBestSellingPieceOfCrap???

9 thoughts on “Fifty Shades Success Explained by Nabokov

  1. It’s been interesting to hear the way my manuscript is perceived by the people who’ve read it. “It’s not erotica, it’s a psycho thriller with a lot of erotic content.” I’ve heard some version of that statement again and again. I think the thriller label is intended to elevate the work, make it clear that there is more than connective tissue between the sex scenes.

    It’s strange that graphic sexuality in literature is still taboo, even and especially among the literati, even in service to the story. But sex as character study is fascinating to me. I could give a shit what anyone calls it, as long as they don’t call it a 50 Shades knockoff. Which they probably will. Anything to sell a book.

    • I haven’t read your book yet, but I do know you were never going to produce a book without substance.
      In a way, it’s a pity your book will be marketed as some sort of 50 Shades knockoff, but still, a lot more people will find it than otherwise would have, and many of them will be smart enough to realise that the book with substance is better than the one without it.
      Is graphic sexuality in literature taboo? I didn’t think it was. I thought it was just really difficult to write it in a way that doesn’t make it seem silly. In 2012, I don’t think much is taboo. If we can write it in a way that works for some, they can read it and get something from it.
      P.S In Australia, the expression you used would be said as “I couldn’t give a shit”, or occasionally, “I couldn’t give two shits”.
      Perhaps we’re less giving here…
      For us, when we hear “I could give a shit”, we think you mean you actually care. Then we realise you’re Yanks, and get lots of stuff arse up.
      Hmmm… Arse up… sounds like a POV from somebody’s story.

      • Yeah, I think it’s still taboo, if you hope to include an actual story with the sex scenes.

        Arse up? The word is ‘ass’, silly Aussie. And you know it’s my favorite POV.

  2. I didnt like lolita though i felt it was very well written. I read a novel called Tampa last summer, not as well written as lolita but it had its lines and i didnt like it either. I liked parts of henry miller. I thought delta of venus was gross though im not otherwise familiar w the catalog of anais nin and I bear in mind this was translated. I liked 50 shades of grey as comedy, like mystery science theater.

    • Hello Vera.
      What an intriguing way of looking at it. Comedy, like mystery science theatre. I love it.
      Having recently read (for research, honest!) a book that attempted (and succeeded to a great extent) to cash in on the 50 Shades phenomena, I came to understand that the 50 Shades books could have been much worse — this other book is so badly written it defies logic that anyone is reading it, let alone thousands every week. It was the first time I ever wanted to return a book for a refund.
      And no, it wouldn’t have passed as comedy, or mystery science theatre by any definition.
      But thank you, I will in future at least try that way of looking at books I’m struggling to enjoy.

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