Social Mood Conference | Socionomics Foundation

By Robert Folsom | August 3, 2012

It’s been four months since we discussed the kinky-sex trilogy Fifty Shades of Grey.

We observed that the not-so-well-written novel series breaks no new thematic or other ground, but that obviously doesn’t matter to a lot of people — since then it has eclipsed Harry Potter to become the fastest-selling paperback of all time. The series stood at the top of the best-seller list when we wrote about it in March and is still there today. In fact, the three books hold four of the 10 positions in The New York Times list: The three individual novels are at 1, 2 and 3, and the “Fifty Shades Trilogy” is listed at 9.

Yet even as Fifty Shades sells more, most people appear less able to shed light on why. This includes several leading lights of the New York literary world, who recently discussed Fifty Shades at a well-attended forum at a popular Manhattan bookstore. Panelists included feminist icon Erica Jong, whose 1973 erotic novel Fear of Flying was also a controversial bestseller.

The short version is that panelists and audience alike pronounced “thumbs down.” When one audience member loudly declared that “We need different kinds of fantasies,” Ms. Jong concurred and called on aspiring writers “to come up with new fantasies that don’t hew to the ancient paradigms of dominance and submission.”

I’ll be the first to say that high-minded opinions have a place in public discourse. But they do nothing to shed light on what the heck is up with the current taste in books amongst millions of mostly female readers.

In brief, our answer to the “how” question is that in a time of negative social mood, the desire for love gives way to the desire for sex. We also point out that Grey reflects relevant mood trends like fear, the search for pleasure, and the desire for power over people—all itches that the trilogy scratches.

Above all, socionomics offers this insight: When social mood is negative, some people desire to assert control while others want to be controlled. This explains the popular appeal of dark fantasies in a time of negative mood.

The just-published issue of the current Socionomist provides our latest insight into where that mood is now, and where it will be tomorrow. As a subscriber you have full access to our archive, including Alan Hall’s studies on authoritarianism/anti-authoritarianism. Follow this link to learn more.

Andrea Dibben contributed research.