Fifty Shades of Grey is a superb book; EL James has exceeded expectations to become the curator of an important and impressive literary milestone. This ex-TV producer from West London is now a global best-seller, and has set the record as being author of the fastest-selling paperback of all time, surpassing the Harry Potter series. Yet, the critical reception has been largely negative. In fact, to call the reception negative is to put it nicely; acerbic, malicious and pugnacious are more apt adjectives. The hatred and vitriol is all over Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and pretty much any other outlet that encourages the publication of personal opinion - the internet has decided it doesn't like this book.
A lot of this boils down to literary snobbery. The majority of people I've encountered who answer my question, "What do you think of Fifty Shades of Grey?" with something along the lines of "It's awful", haven't even read the book. Presumably they're too busy reading Richardson's Clarissa or Cervantes's Don Quixote whilst quaffing flutes of Dom Pérignon to bother with EL James and her inferior attempt at literature. Indeed, they'll often bemoan the current state of popular literature and long for a time when the details of Elizabeth Bennett's love life was on everyone's lips, or when readers of All The Year Round waited patiently for their next installment of Dickens's Oh My Gawd Guvna Poor Nell Is Gonna Croak It.
Therein lies the first problem, Fifty Shades does not attempt to be, or even so much as hint at being, anything other than what it is: pop erotic fiction. The novel is entirely absent of arrogance or delusions of literary grandeur, to complain that it's low art is like ordering a triple chocolate cake, with chocolate sauce and chocolate ice cream, and then moaning it has too much chocolate on it. What did you expect?
Fifty Shades is not a perfect book, far from it, often times it's clunky, clichéd and badly written. The characters aren't particularly believable and the book falls foul of purple prose more often than I care to mention. There's one scene in which Christian Grey kisses Anastasia Steele in a lift - EL James describes how Christian holds Ana's hands behind her back, pulls her hair by the ponytail and runs his hand along her chin - I couldn't help myself from laughing at this ridiculous and awkward description, as it sounds like Christian has three arms. This is one of many instances of poor writing. Does this make it a bad book? No, of course not, it makes it badly written, and if thousands of years of literary history have taught us anything, it's that good books don't necessarily have to be well written books; George Orwell (paraphrasing G.K. Chesterton) would have called this a good bad book.
What does make this a good book then (or rather a good bad book)? For me it's the language. I was startled when I first flicked through Fifty Shades - the reading age is very low for a novel that couldn't be any more clearly targeted at an adult audience. I would hazard a guess that it's somewhere in the region of 10 or 12, which is precisely why the book is so wonderful. Just as The Sun newspaper, which was once reported as having a reading age of 9, allowed many people who couldn't read broadsheets to read the news, EL James has written an adult book with adult content that can not only be read and understood by those who claim to understand Finnegans Wake, but also by those who may have difficulty reading.
This is (partly) how I account for the book becoming a best seller, I don't praise this book for being particularly innovative (it isn't) or because every sentence should be savoured and cherished as a work of art (it shouldn't be), but because it is, in a certain sense, a social leveler and, more importantly, it gets people reading who otherwise may not have read before. The fact that literature, any kind of literature, can still get people talking (particularly people who wouldn't normally do so) is what should be cherished and, like it or not, we have EL James to thank for that.
Obviously I know sex sells and I know that the detailed scenes of BDSM are the main reasons behind the novel's success, but that, too, is part of its brilliance. It highlights challenging questions (questions I'm not nearly qualified enough to talk about, so I'll keep this paragraph short) about gender roles, submission, domination and how we feel discussing them - it's quite normal to discuss sex, whatever kind of sex that may be, yet the book has revealed a multi-national state of arrested development, whether this was intentional or the natural fallout of the book's theme is irrelevant.
So whilst this is in many ways a bad book, I feel it's only bad in the sense that junk food is bad. Yes, I would very much enjoy sitting down to a carefully and lovingly prepared seared foie gras on warm brioche with roast figs and a port glaze... yet at the same time, despite knowing that microwavable burgers aren't real burgers and that microwaving the bun feels both unholy and disturbingly soggy, or that the strawberry filling in a Pop Tart tastes nothing like strawberry and is probably going to kill me, I'd still like that on occasion too. And that's OK. You're allowed to like both.
So I encourage you to read Fifty Shades and to enjoy it for what it is: a bit of a fun that doesn't take itself too seriously. Don't worry, Proust, Shakespeare and Austen aren't going to disappear. Literature is quite safe.
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