Fifty shades of cliche on paper?

Ah, Valentine’s Day is upon us and with it the cunningly timed release of the new 50 Shades film. Of course it’s been ripped to shreds by reviewers (apart from, notably, The Telegraph) and of course it’s going to be one of the biggest grossing hits of the year. The intellectual and cinematic opinions of reviewers were never going to stop this love train from rolling.

The book itself came in for even more searing criticism, and I can understand why. The writing style is not of the finest quality. There are so many reviewers better qualified than I am to comment:

“The novel is very likely the worst-written international bestseller since the “Twilight” series…” Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune

“… a book that started out as Twilight fan-fiction, and whose prose style might charitably be described as unspeakable.” Tim Robey, The Telegraph

What’s interesting is that despite the fact that so much better written fiction is out there, including in the erotic genre, it is 50 Shades that has captured the market.

What do we learn from this? It’s not just that E.L. James picked a hot (forgive me) topic that there was apparently a latent demand for in the decade’s zeitgeist. I’d say it’s also to do with the writing style. It’s simple, undemanding, pacey and full of the kinds of words that press the buttons that readers want to have pressed. It’s not great literature, but it’s mostly grammatical and above all, easy to read fast and furiously, using language and imagery which, while the critics cry “cliché”, are readily recognisable to the target audience.

In writing, there’s a balance to strike between predictable banality and impenetrably challenging creativity. When we write for commercial purposes, we are trying to win over our audience and capture their interest so that they read on and are influenced by our messages. Yes, there can be a role for attention-grabbing headlines and disruptive metaphors, to pique initial interest. But part of the skill of a good copywriter is to pick the tone, style and vocabulary that the readership is instinctively comfortable with. Make it easy to read, make your brand feel like the kind of person it would be easy and pleasant to hold a conversation with confidently.

That means that there will be an element of predictability and cliché in most business, corporate and marketing writing. Readers, stakeholders and customers from all demographics need to find cues, whether in accurate business jargon or popular parlance, that show credibility and empathy.

I’d say that E.L. James has knowingly or accidentally done a pretty good job with 50 Shades, in a commercial rather than a literary sense. There might have been many more adventurous turns of phrase she could have used, but they would have proved a major turn-off to the bulk of her pleasure- and leisure-seeking readership.


There are many diverting infographics out there about 50 Shades. I particularly like the one in this blog entry, created by the agency Neomam Studios.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *