For a book that has sold 35 million copies and counting, Fifty Shades of Grey and its two sequel books get a lot of shade. In a piece about the success of the book’s French translation, the New York Times prefaces:
E. L. James has none of the poetry of Anaïs Nin, the muse of Henry Miller whose journals made her the 20th century’s pioneer of female erotica. Ms. James is not profound like Georges Bataille, the 20th-century French intellectual whose philosophical works explore the dark side of sex. She is not wanton like Catherine Millet, the French art critic and editor whose 2001 memoir graphically catalogs her never-ending anonymous sexual encounters — in swingers clubs, offices, parking lots, cemeteries and trucks in the Bois de Boulogne. And Ms. James is certainly no Marquis de Sade, the 18th-century French aristocrat whose fictional fantasies about sexual abuse, torture and murder created the word “sadism.”
Ouch. And this is just one of many cases of “shade” thrown at the bestselling author.
Author Allan Massie’s blog post “Fifty Shades of Bad Writing” on The Telegraph referenced what he calls “a witty review” that characterized the heroine of James’ novel as a woman who “thinks like a scullery-maid in a Victorian wank mag.” Meanwhile, MadameNoire.com, in a post titled “50 Shades of WTF: Why America is Reading Crappy Twilight Fan Fiction Erotica (and Loving It)“, bluntly stated:
E. L. James’ extremely successful, widely read and popular novel “Fifty Shades of Grey” is not a good book. It is not well-written or constructed. It is not deep or transformative. It is pages upon pages of overwrought masturbatory prose, warped into ever more turgid passages of prose that you can’t even take pleasure in “hate reading.”
But while all the disses and deprecation of the writer’s work seem to be coming from critics and literary experts, readers (who we write for) have a different take.
After initial cover-your-smile comments like “It makes you squirm in your seat,” readers interviewed for the Today segment reveal the book helped them build a bridge to bigger themes like compromise and expressing what you want. Last I checked, writing was/is about helping the reader understand/see the world in a fresh way. Good writing teaches the reader something about the world or her/himself.
Of course, the poetry of our writing matters. Language is our currency as writers so syntax and word choice matter very much. But at the end of the day, if the reader doesn’t connect with your work, it’s bad writing — bulletproof grammar and all.
It’s fun to throw shade at James’ teenage dialogue (yes, that was shade). I continue to cringe at “Laters, baby.” But I kept on reading. And reading. Three books in less than three days. That counts for something. (Just ask each Random House employee who got an extra $5K in their pocket this past Christmas on account of the books’ phenomenal sales.)
For us writers, I think Fifty Shades offers a valuable lesson. Not in the power of sex to sell books (we knew that, already), or the frustrating fact that so-called “bad writing” can sell millions in months while our
“good” great writing goes unnoticed — but in making sure that our labor over the beauty of the words doesn’t trump the soul of our writing.
What are we trying to say? Who are we trying to say it to? Have we said it the best way we can? If we’re focused on pulling that off, there’s no time to throw shade at someone else’s work.