50 Shades of Shock Value: how much is too much for your novel?

When it comes to shock value,  that is nothing new.   Remember Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind?   The year was 1931.   This book was banned from many stores.   Why?  All because of its last line.   Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.   Spoken with aloof, rancor by none other than Rhett Butler.   Famously played by Clark Gable in the movie version.   We were heart broken for Scarlett and wanted to scream out at Rhett,  ‘you scoundrel.’   But it hooked the readers of the world.   The sheer audacity of using a curse word in print!   Thousands of copies with damn in black and white.   And would the producers dare to put in the movie?  Hell ya!   Are you kidding?    Just the controversy over that one word drove thousands to the theater.

What has transpired, however, is an escalation in that shock value.    In the 1950s it was rock and roll and Elvis‘s shaking pelvis.   The 60s?  Twiggy and her miniskirts.   The 70s, an entire new generation was revolting against the establishment, conventionalism, and the Vietnam war.   In the 80s, can you say Madonna?  Come on.  You know you had those leg warmers, permed hair and lace tops with jean jackets.    Her latest tour is mimicking the  overtones of 50 Shades.  She is an absolute master in shock value!   In the 90s we saw the introduction of gay characters on TV.   In the millenium, we saw them kissing.    The trend to shock has been embedded within our culture for decades.

Madonna carressed in the MDNA tour

Madonna still sells salciousness at its best.

The question becomes where do you draw the line?   Sadistic sex is nothing new.  It has been around since Egyptian times.   Its participants, just discreetly hidden in the dark recesses of culture.   Is 50 Shades that great of a book?   Is it well written?  There are those that would argue ‘No.’   Then you might be asking how?  How then did it reach the NY Times best sellers list and stay there for months, selling over 500,000 copies to date?The answer is simple.  Shock value.  For the first time, the lunching ladies of middle America were reading a salcious story about sadistic sex.    From one of their own.    Tabu was taken mainstream.   It was so shocking, they found themselves embarrassed while reading.  Yet, unable to stop.  How naughty would it get?   What was the outcome?    Not to pay the book more undue homage; but from a marketing standpoint, a writer salivates with envy.

The concern?  How far must one go?   How dark, and twisted must the shock value be to capture the attention of today’s society?   Remember, it isn’t all about shock value.  It is about a good story.    Nicholas Sparks is hugely successful.    His first book, The Notebook has now sold close to a million copies.   It is rated G.    Your grandmother could read and probably has read this story.    A good book is based on a great story, tightly written with well developed characters that generate emotion by what happens to them.

The message here?   Sure, shock value sells.  But don’t sell out the quality of your story just to outdo.  Quality is job one!