When I sat down to write a commentary on E.L. James’ bestseller Fifty Shades of Grey, I absolutely eviscerated the novel. My intent was to write a scathing critique of the book, from its truly terrible writing to the boring and repetitive nature of the sexual acts it portrays and the blatant misogyny occupying nearly every page of the narrative. I truly hated reading Fifty Shades of Grey because the whole time I was reading it, I kept waiting for it to reveal some kind of so-bad-it’s-good quality. I wanted it to be like watching Plan 9 From Outer Space, or something. With such a huge cult following, it had to have some redeeming quality, or so I hoped.
I’m here to tell you there is no positive feature anywhere in Fifty Shades of Grey. So, with this in mind, I wrote a commentary piece ripping it to shreds. I was prepared to gleefully publish this commentary, so I was talking to some coworkers about my approach to critiquing the novel when one dissenting voice among my friends said, “Well, at least it got people to read.”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Surely he wasn’t serious. I dismissively fired back with, “If this is what it takes to get people to read, our culture is in serious trouble.”
I may have been right. However, during the last few days I’ve been meditating on the idea that Fifty Shades of Grey may have served a positive purpose after all. Inarguably, it did motivate a lot of people to read a book, which is a depressingly rare pastime amongst the general public nowadays. More than 65 million people around the world have read this book. It is the fastest-selling novel of all time. While the merits of the novel aren’t debatable because it doesn’t have any merits on its own, the indirect consequence of Fifty Shades of Grey as a social phenomenon has (and I truly hate that I’m writing these words) been an increased interest in literacy.
The characters are either utterly vapid or caricatures of sadistic creeps. The plot is virtually nonexistent because it only exists to loosely tie together the rapid-fire sex scenes that are the backbone of the novel. The writing is abysmal. None of the ingredients of a so-called “good” novel are present, but somehow the author was able to connect to a global audience and create interest in a book. Taking the time to read a book is a major commitment nowadays, and E.L. James’ Twilight fan fiction-turned literary megahit has proven that readers are willing to make the time for a novel. This, in a strange way, is a gift to the literary community.
Is it sad that this is popular literature? Absolutely. Is it better for the masses to read something rather than zone out in front of their televisions or engage in any of the multitude of mind-numbing distractions our culture has to offer? Yes.
So, with reluctance, I offer up gratitude to E.L. James. Hopefully readers’ experiences with her, uh, literature will inspire them to explore everything else the world of literature has to offer.