I read an interesting article the other day in The Atlantic Wire, ‘The Alleged Sexiness of 50 Shades of Grey’ by Jen Doll, reviewing and criticizing the book which as you all probably know is at the top of the New York Times Bestseller list. In her article, Jen points out the author E. L. James’s lack of or improper usage of techniques commonly applied in the art of writing. She mentions all the important elements of writing and fiction that are missing from the book, referring to the extensive lack of characterization, the unrealistic dialogue, etc. What I found hilarious about the article though were the readers’ comments.
After scanning through the comments, it is my understanding that almost everyone agrees that Fifty Shades of Grey has filled a need, so to speak, and the author E.L. James is to be thanked for this and to be excused for minor faults in an otherwise excellent piece of work. Minor faults like the improper use of language, two-dimensional and stereotypical characters, bizarre descriptions, unrealistic and stiff dialogue, etc.
It’s a well known fact that popular books and bestsellers are usually not literary. And as Alice James wrote in her diary a long time ago, when her brother, famous writer Henry James, was asked to write for the popular press, he was told by the editors that he could write anything he pleased “so long as there’s nothing literary in it.” This is all understandable to some degree. But not being literary does not mean that it shouldn’t have all the necessary elements or ingredients of a good read or story. Is the exaggerating publicity of the book then, despite all its literary or artistic defects, a literary failure? A hoax or farce? Or plain simple hullabaloo on the parts of the readers, the publishers and the public?
Back when I was in high school there was this rumour that Keats was killed by a bad review, that in despair and hopelessness he turned his face to the wall and gave up the struggle against tuberculosis. This was later proved to be wrong. In fact it was proved that Keats accepted his harsh reviews with considerable calm, and yet the image of the young, rare talent cut down by malicious reviewers remains firmly fixed in my mind and in the minds of many of his readers. In the words of Elizabeth Hardwick:
“Poor Keats were he living today might suffer a literary death, but it would not be from attack; instead he might choke on what Emerson called a “mush of concession.””
The sad truth is once the commercial success of a book is established, it is easy enough to work out a plausible reason for the public’s craze, which in the case of Fifty Shades of Grey is the promise of sexiness, ‘mommy porn’ as it has been called. But even “in its promise the book fails” says Jen Doll in her article, “and yet all over America, as The New York Times tell us, people are asking for this book.”
Elizabeth Hardwick, the American literary critic and writer wrote:
“It is not merely the praise of everything in sight – a special problem in itself – that vexes and confounds those who look closely at the literary scene, but there is also the unaccountable sluggishness of the New York Times and Herald Tribune Sunday book-review sections. The value and importance of individual books are dizzily inflated, in keeping with the American mood at the moment.”
These words were written in 1959, a year after Vladimir Nabokov’s novel ‘Lolita’ (rejected by many publishers of erotic fiction for having the wrong kind of sex) was published in New York. Makes me wonder – if Elizabeth Hardwick were here today, what would she say?