Monday, July 8, 2013

50 Shades of Grey is standing between me and well-read? Do I have to arm-wrestle it?

So something happened (almost a month ago?), and I thought I was over it, BUT I AM NOT OVER IT. In fact, I just had a sort of internal rage-dialogue with myself in the shower, which is what led me to my computer with wet hair at midnight on a Sunday.

The folks at Book Riot posted a list of 100 recommended titles for those who wish to call themselves “well-read.” This was bound to be a controversial list no matter what ended up on it, because everyone has favorites that may not appear on THIS particular list for any number of reasons, and because the meaning of “well-read” is itself subjective. And I get that the purpose of the list is to represent a sampling from a wide variety of genres that would engender a sort of well-roundedness in the reader who tackles them all.

Well, 50 Shades of Grey is on the list.

The argument for its inclusion—as far as I can understand from the lively comments section—is that, whether we like it or not (we HATES it, Smeagol), it is a permanent fixture in popular culture and has made important waves among the readerly and not-so-readerly masses. The other part of the argument is that you can’t have an informed opinion about something unless you experience it firsthand.

Let me just say, I respect and am quite fond of the people who presented these arguments. I will forever and always look to them as People Who Know a Thing or Two About Books, and I admire the way they push the Literary Elite’s buttons on the regular.

But I really just have to call bullshit on this one.

The second part of the argument sounds uncomfortably akin to the one I used on my parents when they tried to warn me, based on their years of experience as adult humans, that my awful boyfriend was, in fact, awful. “But, Mom and Dad . . . how will I KNOW for sure unless I experience firsthand his meth-induced rage while trapped in a moving vehicle with him?” (True story.)

On a very basic level, I think we can all agree that triangulating opinions from respected sources (or, in some cases, just one REALLY GOOD source; hi, Mom and Dad!) will give us a pretty good idea of what we’re dealing with, whether the subject under review is a book or a potentially disastrous dating decision. And learning from other people’s mistakes so that we don’t have to make them ourselves is not inferior to firsthand experience and does not disqualify one from holding an informed opinion (notice that I specify informed opinion). The information just didn’t happen to come from experiencing the terrible thing firsthand. AND THAT IS OK.

The first part of the argument is a little bit more tricky and also the bit that sparks my shower-fury, apparently.

YES, correct, E.L. James HAS written a thing that has subsequently gotten people talking . . . and talking and talking. But has she added anything NEW to the conversation?

Let me just check on a couple of things here:
  1. Is the main female character of 50 Shades of Grey still an infantilized adult virgin who repeatedly and nauseatingly refers to her “Inner Goddess”?
  2. Is the main male character of 50 Shades of Grey still a wealthy businessman with “singular erotic tastes” and “the need to control”?
  3. Does the plot still revolve around him dominating her through a BDSM crash-course on sexuality while she meekly submits at every turn?

The answer to all those questions is STILL and always will be YES.

So I am at a loss as to what this book is adding to the CULTURAL (pop or otherwise) conversation that might raise it above the level of Honey Boo-Boo, just for example. Because for one thing, BDSM erotica is not NEW, and for another, as far as I can tell, this particular specimen of BDSM erotica is just perpetuating the same old unhealthy message that has caused such a problem for women who want to be taken seriously since the beginning of time. That is BORING. I am bored with that.

And I don’t need to waste several hours of my life (a generous time estimate) reading this book to figure out that it's a waste of time.

If that’s not an informed opinion, then dammit, I don’t know what the hell I’m talking about. But at least I have this cookbook that teaches me 50 things to do with chicken.

Except the opposite of that,
because I welcome your thoughts and comments.


  1. 1, I want shower-fury to be a thing.

    2. You sound so smart here.
    A. If you were here and we were drunk, I might hit on you as a result of this post.
    B. The lesson here is, sound less smart.

  2. I was SO concerned that this made sense to me at 1 a.m. and then seemed like nonsense at noon today. So I thank you.

    But don't worry . . . this is sort of a rare occasion of me sounding smart.

  3. Just keep it real dumb when we hang out. And don't use 'triangulate' or akin for God's sake.

  4. *takes furious notes for this weekend*

  5. I think the best argument against including something like Fifty Shades of Gray on a list of this kind is a counterexample - books that have made that "media wave" that Fifty Shades did, except also enhanced and developed the literary (and non-literary) culture.

    The easiest example is obviously Harry Potter. There was that same media adoration and attention, that same media backlash, and a similar response from general pop culture, which quickly adopted it. But Harry Potter also sparked a literary conversation. A fanbase grew around it that appreciated more than just the content, but also the world the story took place in. Fans have taken Harry Potter and transformed it into beautiful, wonderful things that themselves have added to our overall cultural discussion. Fifty Shades? Not so much. In fact, I'd even argue that Twilight clearly deserves a spot on that list - not only has it influenced young adult literature in innumerable ways, it itself enabled the creation of the whole Fifty Shades phenomenon!

    Basically, this whole thing is stupid. Also - that is a ridiculously Anglo-centric list. But that's a completely different rant...

  6. WELL-stated. And I would tend to agree with you about Twilight deserving the spot before 50 Shades . . . even though we still run up against that unhealthy gender message.

  7. Yes, but at least you'd be able to argue that we're then able to discuss the unhealthy gender messages, which is definitely a discussion well worth having. It's not completely unreasonable.

  8. DUDE, you kind of summed up my thoughts about why 50 Shades of Grey SHOULDN'T be on that list, only my actual thought was 'why the fuck is that on there?' and then I kind of moved on and washed my hands of the whole list. So your brain is smarter is what I'm saying, I guess!

    Here's a thing though- IS 50 Shades going to even be a permanent fixture in pop culture? I mean, I know it is right now, but is it going to have a lasting effect? I really really really hope not. And also, since it's a book where people are like 'Well, at least it got people to read' then isn't it the opposite of a book you need to be well read because basically ONLY people who aren't well read are reading it AND enjoying it? (oh god, this sounds so snobby now... Oh well!)

    Anyway. Hells yes to not wasting several hours on this book.

  9. I can agree with that. Absolutely.

  10. Those were EXACTLY my thoughts when I first saw the list last month. Well they weren't really thoughts as much as a buzzing like angry bees. So I guess it took me until precisely midnight on July 8 to form those bees into an orderly configuration.

    I sincerely hope that 50 Shades doesn't last even as a pop culture phenomenon. It doesn't have much substance to give it staying power, so I think our wish may come true. And it's OK to get a little snobby about books when people are trying to peer-pressure you into reading trash. Totally OK.

  11. This post makes me so happy. because OF COURSE everybody will have different opinions on what books should make any list, but to include this on a WELL-READ list is asinine. Asinine, I say. And for all of the reasons you point out. If the list were for HAVING YOUR FINGER ON THE PULSE OF POP CULTURE, then it would be a reasonable, nay expected, inclusion.

    Please keep saying "triangulate" and "akin." I think it might be fun to observe the action. That's all I'm sayin'.


  13. The fact that you agree with this post makes ME so happy. Mainly because I don't stand a chance in an argument with you, and I would rather have you fighting for my side.

    I couldn't stop saying "triangulate" and "akin" if I TRIED. I AM WHO I AM.

  14. I am perfectly happy taking the advice of these .gifs. I, in fact, REVEL in my ignorance. My ignorance & I are now dancing a bolero.

  15. I LOVE that review. Love it.

    You and your ignorance bolero onward, and I'll just sway contentedly here in the corner with my glass of whiskey.

  16. Ahahahaha this is wonderful and you make all of the good points. I sincerely hope 50 Shades is not still a cultural thing that we have to deal with in another 5 years.

    Well done, madam

  17. EXACTLY. Preach it, sis! This book in no way positively (or uniquely) contributes to culture and shouldn't be on that list. I haven't even read Twilight (gasp, I know), and I still consider myself "well-read". BS, indeed. (Excellent ending gif, by the way)

  18. *time travels 5 years into the future and then returns*

    Well...the 50 Shades trilogy seems to have a pretty strong presence in thrift store book sections and yard sale giveaway boxes.

  19. Oh you are FINE for not having read Twilight. I mean, I enjoyed it while I was reading it, but it's just filler. And who has time for filler when there are teetering stacks of unread books?

  20. Each year Brisbane hosts a booksale in our convention centre where literally millions of books are sold for very reasonable prices in the name of charity. Each year you can tell what the previous years trend was because there are 100s of copies, looking brand new, lining the tables. This year it was 50 Shades, so many copies! And I've got to be honest, if I was going to read that book, I'm not sure I'd be in any rush to get a second hand copy...


    I've seen a few used copies that look like they've been through some sort of traumatic event. I try not to think about it.

  22. First of all, rightclicksave on that Monty Python GIF.

    Second of all, AMEN TO THAT. I don't get the whole "You can't have an opinion unless you've experienced it." Because I can certainly have an opinion on, say, Congress without having taken those arduous steps of campaigning and being elected as a congresswoman.

    Have you read Jennifer Armintrout's summaries of 50 Shades? After reading through her posts on the first 50 Shades book, I can safely say I will never, ever read the actual books, but her commentary is so delightful and points out all the what-the-fuckery with aplomb. Highly recommended.

    (Also, my book club once had a moment of temporary insanity and wanted to read 50 Shades [It was the male members of the club... They thought it would be funny], but I put the kibosh on that one with a quickness. SUCCESS!)

  23. Wait, was Twilight on the Book Riot list? Because that's much more culturally persistant than 50 Shades, I think (and maybe slightly better quality than 50 Shades? Maybe an iota?). I'm hopeful that 50 Shades will fade softly into the ether in the next year or so, especially if the movie doesn't get made. *crosses fingers*

    ALSO how did I just find this post now, about a month later? I need to be more attentive to my blog reader...

  24. It was NOT. And several people made that point in the comments there. Because, yeah...why WOULD you list the book that is a ripoff and not the book that started it all in the first place? I DO NOT KNOW.

  25. It's kind of ironic, actually, in light of this OTHER article that just came out on Book Riot, in which they satirize the idea that you can't write about something if you haven't personally experienced it.

    Silly, Book Riot.

    I started reading her summaries of 50 Shades! They are extremely detailed. It might take me a while.