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McWilliams: We like strong women and relationships, according to our literature



If you’ve ever taken a literature class, you know that it often consists of analyzing a text and discussing it as a direct reflection of the time period in which it was created. For example, if you read Mark Twain’s 1884 novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, your teacher probably talked about racism and slavery in 19th century America and how the book directly reflected that culture.

So, what if we take that method and apply it to today’s popular literature? What do today’s prominent novels say about our generation and our culture?

Take a look at The New York Times current best sellers list of fiction books, which is updated every week. The first thing you can’t help but notice is that all of the books in the Fifty Shades trilogy are in the top ten and have been on the list more than 50 times.

This may seem like the first time that S&M (sadism and masochism), as we know it, has made its way into mainstream literature. However, Kenneth Calhoon, professor and head of the comparative literature department at the University of Oregon, says that the theme of S&M in literature is not so new.

“Submission, domination, sadism and masochism are themes that we can identify as being prominent in much of Western literature,” said Calhoon, “and not in the explicit form of ritualized sexual practices involving bondage and whips.”

Calhoon would argue that elements of masochism, punishment and self-denial can be seen in literature as far back as Dante Alighieri’s Inferno. Authors and readers today, like those in the 14th century, seem to be intrigued by these topics.

Four of the top ten books are clearly about heterosexual relationships; three of these are the Fifty Shades trilogy by E.L. James, and the other is Falling For My Best Friend’s Brother by Helen Cooper and J.S. Cooper.

Notably, eight of these titles have females as their main characters. Three of those seven female characters play roles that are not defined by their romantic relationship and act more as autonomous heroines in the novels. Among these are Still Alice (written by Lisa Geneva), about a female professor with early-onset Alzheimer’s, and The Girl on the Train (written by Paula Hawkins), a psychological thriller that has drawn comparisons to the popular novel Gone Girl. 

This prominence of female leads in popular literature could mean two things: (a) the general public is simply interested in the female perspective, or (b) that women make up a majority of the readership and authorship today and, therefore, relate more easily to a female perspective. Indeed, eight of the authors on this list identify as female.

Another theme that stood out to Calhoon was ambiguity.

“The title, Fifty Shades of Grey, suggests that already — the blurring of boundaries between good and evil,” said Calhoon.

What does this all mean about American society? If this list is any reflection of who we are, it would suggest that we’re into relationships (especially ones with sadomasochistic power dynamics), females and obscuring the lines between good and bad.

However, as Calhoon pointed out, it’s important to see that many pressing societal concerns are not making their way into popular literature.

“No movie is being made about Ferguson, for example.”


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Lindsay McWilliams

Lindsay McWilliams