Fifty Shades of Cliché

Everyone has something to say about Fifty Shades of Grey, be they misinformed, delusional, ironic, horrified or ecstatic. I didn’t think of creating a response until I noticed this apparent “new” wave of erotic fiction and its “new” wave of dark and sleek covers, that look oh so like a certain book upon which Fifty Shades was based, and—oh my God it’s just one bloody vicious cycle!

Enough said.

Handcuffs and high-heels and ties, oh my!

As much as I rant on about the big murky soup that is the supposed Fifty Shades-inspired collection of erotica flooding the market, and the panting publishers clamouring to reissue old erotic works in said Fifty Shades style, I totally appreciate the appeal of these covers. I really do. They’re atmospheric, they’re suggestive, they’re restrained, they’re not (quite) terribly embarrassing to read on the train, relatively speaking. No lurid colour schemes or spilling cleavage and mantitty here, no indeed.

Yesss! This is what a book cover should be! Never has a romance cover been so minimalist! My snobbish designer soul sings!

Only, wait—er, which one is which?

Some covers play it a bit more subtle, while the rest are simply shameless.



(These covers are listed purely for reference. If you object to my displaying a cover here, please contact me immediately.)

MANY readers will agree that these covers are a great improvement from the typical clinch cover of old, and I’d be completely with them on that.

But therein lies the problem: this is now a trope so prevalent it essentially is the image of the genre. Yet each one of these listed stories, while under the same genre, is vastly different. Moreover, applying the same look and even the same label undervalues each book’s distinctive voice. How many times have we seen the patronising tagline “if you loved Fifty Shades, you’ll love this … !” or the even more pretentious “written in the manner of Fifty Shades …”, as if Fifty Shades is the definitive measure and style for all erotic fiction, both new and old?

Kat from Book Thingo discusses the appeal of Fifty Shades of Grey and the lack of understanding around it (emphases are my own):

There’s room in the market for both literary and popular erotica, but there is definitely a difference. Those who don’t understand the appeal and constraints of erotic romance will never understand the popularity of the Fifty Shades trilogy, and it’s useless pretending to recommend books to these readers, when you’re actually recommending books to readers who are not them.

Let’s look at a recent example—some of the old English classics were revitalised to appeal to young adults (read: by looking like Twilight). Such works as Wuthering Heights, Romeo and Juliet, Jane Eyre, Emma and Pride and Prejudice all had considerably dark makeovers. Yes, Jane Austen’s in there. Sharp-witted, light and funny Jane Austen. Make sense?

Yeah, me neither.

My point is: publishers, please understand the books you publish, and understand your audience (read: what do they really want?). Don’t lead your trusting readers down unfamiliar avenues by way of visual or literary subterfuge. If you don’t quite understand a phenomenon, don’t jump on the bandwagon and just hope you’ll wing it. You are, in a way, cultural gatekeepers—you set the foundations for a book’s success by selecting a book for publication and getting it out there in stores and libraries; you encourage readers to pick it up; you drive the book industry’s progress and evolution. This is ultimately a great responsibility!

All things considered, there are worse directions erotica and erotic romance could go visually (and indeed they have, given its colourful history in e-publishing), so I am very curious to see where we are headed from here …

Design process

This was a lot of fun for me to set-up and design. Go figure. Much in the essence of the original design, I aimed for a realistic and dramatic feel, through use of props and lighting.

Ribbon didn’t work for lettering. Total fail. But it did teach me about playing with shadow and shape. I then found unused necklace chains from my jewellery making days, and fashioned lettering out of that. The hardness and weight (heh) of the chain was perfect for controlling the legibility of each character. It alludes to bondage paraphernalia but also isn’t so glaringly “kinky”. I kept the ribbon for colour contrast. I pressed and shifted the fabric to look folded and shimmery enough that it looked like a rumpled, luxurious bedsheet. In reality the fabric was just sprawled on the carpet of my study– how’s that for ruining the romance?

Attaining a likeness to the original cover was essential, but legibility was still an issue. I took about a hundred photos trying to gauge the best lit angle and composition. I decided to include the accent above the e. Because a bit of pretention is in order, no?


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  1. Gorgeous. I’m a little wary about the tendency to go to monotones for this type of book. Now it’s everywhere it seems to be losing any effectiveness. I loved the red ribbon.

    • Jen

      Thanks Fiona! I couldn’t agree with you more. It’s just like how the Mona Lisa lost its aura because it’s been reproduced so much so often, not to mention countless other artforms.

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