In looking at some of the most popular books in the past few years, most have clearly not been NGANs (“next great American novels”). In fact, some of them were so far off the “literary” mark that they barely had any discernible qualities that made them obviously worthwhile (let’s just say that a particular example rhymes with “Flylight”). These guilty-pleasure books—mostly targeted to female audiences—have plenty of qualities that, on paper, make them decidedly NOT worthwhile: they often portray flat, archetype characters; they have repetitive asinine phrases and clichés that clutter the dialogue; the characters are barely likeable, and if you “like” a character, you aren’t even sure why; the plots are predictable; they reflect a negative, regressive societal role for women; etc. Before going further into this exploration, I would like to admit that I did, indeed, read Stephenie Meyer’s literary atrocity, and today I’m still too embarrassed to fess up on how obsessed I really was while I was reading it—or how long my addiction actually lasted.
So how do we readers choose what will be successful? Is there a special formula, or is it just dumb luck? Or is it a combination of both? Because clearly—in the wake of the Twilight saga, The Hunger Games trilogy (less low-brow than others, but still not Canterbury Tales), and more recently, the smuttiest, ever-addicting Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy—readers are NOT choosing quality over quantity. In examining this genre of guilty-pleasure books, we may have pinpointed a few qualities that hint at the reasons for their success:
The balanced recipe
As my insightful coworker described, these books are “like fast food or Cheetos.” They have the right balance of salt, sugar, and fat to keep readers smacking their lips and going back for more of that cheesy, powdery, sugary, MSG-doused goodness. Readers know the book isn’t good for them, but it JUST. TASTES. SO. GOOD. There’s nothing obviously nourishing about the smut—or puffed rice batter coated in fake neon-orange powdered cheese, for that matter. But the recipe—the salt (sexual tension), sugar (romance), and fat (solid plot)—is perfectly balanced with the right chemistry to keep readers on the edge of their seats, waiting for the next bite. Cotton candy for the brain!
Knowing the audience
Stephenie Meyer famously said, “I just wrote exactly what I wanted to read.” These authors know their audience, and they know that their audience must have enough emotional pull to be satiated. These books are meant to titillate the female population, and it’s a proven fact that female consumers are charged by what makes them respond emotionally. It’s also a fact that women make on average 80% of buying decisions in the household, which is why we see so many commercials sympathizing with the female gender’s interest. For women across the board to fully enjoy the “smut,” there needs to be the right amount of emotional connection.
Capitalizing on the fantasy
We live in a post-feminist world where women are meant to do it all, have it all, and be it all. They are still supposed to be domestic goddesses, but they also have to bring home the bacon. This is all fine and good, but in these novels, there is an attractive quality in the security that these female protagonists experience with their male counterparts. The male is always a dominant, controlling, protective, moody, brooding man who wants nothing more than to watch (and did I mention control?) every move made by the object of his affection. This doesn’t mean that she always lets him—1.5% of the time, he doesn’t get his way. He is also rich and can provide everything her little heart might desire, and insists on doing so. He is also emotionally damaged and needs saving! On top of this, isn’t his creepy obsession just so romantic? Women can explore this dangerous, dramatic, and, yes, romantic curiosity in the safe zone of books, and go back to saving the world (a.k.a. attending that Girl Scouts meeting and running to Target) when they’re done reading.
Ebooks have allowed people to read certain low-brow titles without the rest of the world knowing about it. This is important both to writers for women as well as for men. Guilty-pleasure genres were made for the world of ebooks. Unlike every other genre, specific guilty-pleasure books often do WORSE in print than they do in ebook form. Ebooks also provide the most affordable publishing option that has ever been available, and represent a realm where traditional publishing doesn’t necessarily improve success rates. The most growth in a genre in the past few years has been in erotica. Is it any coincidence that, during the same time, ebooks have also had a booming effect in the book world? Enough said.
So how should authors interpret this information? Does this mean that women are wishing to regress back to the eighteenth-century mentality of domesticity and submissiveness, and that all fiction going forward should reflect that? No, of course not. What is significant, though, is that these authors are tapping into their readers’ guilty pleasures and delivering them in a way that readers are comfortable with. When it all comes down to it, there’s no perfect formula for guilty-pleasure books—just a perfect balance of knowing the audience, delivering the book through the most effective medium, and good old-fashioned dumb luck.