Andrew Shaffer recently hit the headlines when his erotic parody Fifty-One Shades was picked up by Da Capo Press; the book will be published later this year with the new title Fifty Shames of Earl Grey. His other books include Great Philosophers Who Failed at Love as well as contributions to The Hunger Games and Philosophy and The Atheist’s Guide to Christmas. Here, he talks about the success of Fifty-One Shades, his thoughts on publishing and his plans for the future.
Now that Fifty-One Shades has been picked up by a publisher and you’ve suspended the excerpts on your site, what’s next for Chris Gray and Anna Steal? Any idea when the next part of their story will be released?
Da Capo Press will be publishing “Fifty Shames of Earl Grey” this summer in ebook and trade paperback formats. The novel continues the story of Chris Gray (now “Earl Grey”) and Anna Steal from the “Fifty-One Shades” serial. I wrote the first draft in ten days, and am busy editing and polishing it with input from my editor and agent. The book diverges significantly from “Fifty Shades” after the first three chapters, and includes were-ponies, dinosaurs, and, of course, lots of mind-blowing sex.
Fifty Shades of Grey has become a phenomenon. The most common explanation is that women have longed to read porn and are finally free to do so, now that nobody can see what they’re downloading. Do you buy that explanation?
There’s no doubt that erotic fiction has been a particularly robust performer in the ebook economy; “Fifty Shades of Grey” is just the tip of that iceberg. It’s easy to speculate as to why that is. Is there a stigma attached to buying a “dirty book” in a bookstore or reading it in public? Yes. Remove those barriers, and it’s not surprising that erotica and erotic romance has taken off. I don’t know if this “explains” the “Fifty Shades of Grey” phenomenon, though, since women are openly discussing the book, asking for it at libraries and bookstores, etc. This particular series has crossed into the mainstream.
I read an interview where you said that your writing in college was dry and boring, and that it took off when you dropped the pretension and added humor. What was the catalyst for that change? Was it abrupt or gradual?
I wrote deathly serious short stories and novels for most of my twenties. “Literary fiction.” It was dreadful stuff. The catalyst for change was very abrupt: I pretty much gave up writing for a time, and focused instead on my greeting card company, Order of St Nick. I got a great response from customers and from the press. I thought, Why hasn’t my fiction ever “popped” like this? The answer was painfully obvious. I was trying to write like Philip Roth or Raymond Carver, instead of as myself.
What’s the very first story you remember ever writing?
In second grade, I wrote and illustrated a childrens book called “Pee-Wee Penguin’s Igloo.” It was a parody of Pee-Wee Herman, starring a penguin. So I started parodying at an early age.
Great Philosophers Who Failed at Love looks at 37 philosophers whose love lives hit the skids. Do you think they failed at love despite being philosophers, or because they were philosophers?
The idea I tried to communicate with that book was that no matter how smart someone is, they’re still human. As some critics have pointed out, if you took thirty-seven people from any industry (thirty-seven plumbers, for instance), you could pretty much write the same book about romantic failures. Which is probably true: We all “fail” at love. Philosophers are not that different than the rest of us in that regard, though I still think their “failures” tended to be more extreme than the average person in part because of their obsession with their work.
Some of the stories in the book are extreme. Louis Althusser strangled his wife. That’s a bit more than ‘failing at love’, isn’t it?
Absolutely! And in that case, his actions had more to do with his psychosis than with a domestic dispute with his wife. What was most shocking, though, was the matter-of-fact way that he wrote about the incident in his autobiography. Even years after the episode, he was still very detached from it emotionally.
There’s a Simpsons episode where Homer has a crayon removed from his brain, becomes smart, becomes unhappy, and gets the crayon put back in. Do you think some of the philosophers in your book would have lived happier lives with crayons in their brains? Nietzsche went mad; it seems like the kind of thing he might have tried…
Would Nietzsche or Schopenhauer have been happier with crayons in their brains? I’d say yes, but I doubt either would have tried that because of ethical objections. Is there an inverse relationship between happiness and intelligence? Probably. I’ve read some studies that link high IQ/creativity to mental illness. I don’t think the relationship is an absolute one, however, as there have been countless unhappy people of average or lesser intelligence. And I’m sure there are some really smart, happy people out there.
Are you a philosopher?
Not by any standard definition of the word. If you go by the original meaning (“lover of knowledge”), maybe.
I get the impression that Nietzsche would have loved the internet. Do you think he’d have used Twitter? Facebook? Maybe some dating sites?
I’m sure Nietzsche would have taken to social media and dating sites and, very quickly, become disillusioned. Cynics don’t tend to develop large online followings. That’s not to say he wouldn’t have had an interesting online presence. Because of his syphilitic madness, some of his later books read very much like a Charlie Sheen meltdown. I can easily see Nietzsche tweeting, “I AM DYNAMITE!”
What’s next? Do you have anything else coming out in 2012?
My next project is another nonfiction book, tentatively titled “Literary Rock Stars: A History of Wayward Writers.” Harper Perennial is publishing it in 2013.
Andrew Shaffer’s Great Philosophers Who Failed at Love and other books are available at Amazon and most retailers. Fifty Shames of Earl Grey will be published later this year by Da Capo. You can also visit his website and find alternative cards at the Order of St Nick website.