‘Fifty Shades of Grey’: Junk food for the soul

First, the confessions: I have not read any of the Shades of Grey books. Not so much as a pale, dove color or the darkness of charcoal has entered my readerly consciousness. (Aside from a snarky round-up of purple snippets). Also, I admit that I am jealous of their success, and I totally get it that E.L. James put herself out there, finished books, self-published and is now reaping the rewards while I dither among several unfinished projects, terrified of failure. Finally, I admit that I have read all of the Twilight books and all manner of other popular stuff, the kind of books that are panned by critics, satirized on “Saturday Night Live” and sold at airports.

Having cleared my conscience, I will move on by stating, without apology, that the success of the Grey books makes me despair for books, writers and readers. While, as I say, I have not read them, I have not been able to avoid reading the 500 pieces written about them. I don’t care that they are about sexual dominance and submission, which is actually a pretty interesting basis for a fictional relationship. I don’t care that the books contain what is essentially soft core porn. I care that a slip of a plot stretched so thin as to be transparent and written out in lamentable prose is at the tippy top of the New York Times bestseller list. I feel about it much the same way I feel about folks who buy paintings on black velvet from a gas station, or who listen to things like “Mozart’s Greatest Hits” that hack symphonies and sonatas into single movement “tunes you can hum.”

On one hand, the consumers of such things are, at least nominally, exposing themselves to art, music and literature. On the other hand, they are completely missing the point of all of those things. Art that is easy, so accessible as to make no difference in one’s soul, is aesthetic junk food. There are times when all of us crave the bland, starchy comfort of a Big Mac and fries, but when that becomes the gold standard of cuisine, we lose the health and sensory benefits of beautifully prepared meals with whole grains, fresh produce and aged cheeses. Everything tastes the same, and there is never the surprising juxtaposition of honey and chipotle pepper, or the crisp snap of a fresh pea pod.

I admit that I gobbled the Twilight novels like a cardboard container of French fries because the plot was compelling, but by the end of the final book I felt vaguely embarrassed, cheated and hungry for something of substance.  I wonder, reading about the smashing success of the Grey series, whether the readers (mostly women) who love it are bothered by the clichés, the turgid prose, and the lack of depth. I don’t expect everybody to sit around reading Dreiser and Tolstoy, but there is a lot of fine contemporary fiction about romantic relationships, with and without erotic content. I recently read A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness, which might seem to fit my “crap lit” profile because it’s a love story involving vampires, witches, and werewolves. It is, however, sublimely well written by a woman with a deep background in history and science;  it satisfied me as beautiful prose, and left me thinking about alchemy and the origin of various species.

Maybe it’s because times are hard. Maybe when real life is tough, jobs are lost and homes are lost, people seek solace in their free time, looking to literature not to challenge but to comfort. Perhaps it takes a kind of discipline to choose the literary equivalent of edamame and brown rice when the Grey books offer the obliterating escape of a bag of potato chips. The thing is, though, if people are going to turn to art to help them get through the very real pain of living, I believe they will be better uplifted and sustained by art that nourishes them, at least a little bit. Between the high fiber kale stew of the classics and the bucket of KFC that is romance novels and mysteries about scrapbook stores there is much to consider. There are the “made with whole grain” genres, like decent mysteries, chick lit, high quality sci fi and fantasy and historical fiction.  There is Elizabeth George, Maeve Binchy, Kelly Armstrong and Philippa Gregory. The latter category is competently written, compelling, and can definitely be a tasty and treat and a fabulous distraction with some fiber and calcium.

Finally, if I am honest with myself, my response to the success of all of the various shades of Grey is personal and selfish. I delight in beautiful prose, I like to read it, and I strive to write it. It is, to me, both art and craft with a lineage that stretches back to the wordplay of Chaucer and the lyricism of the Psalms. Richard Russo should be at the top of the NY Times Bestseller list, or Margaret Atwood, Colm Toibin, or Ian McEwan. Or someone new and as-yet undiscovered, one of the many people writing stunning prose that is not published because the public demands more serial potboilers, and novels “written” by Kardashians.

I don’t get it, I don’t like it, and it’s just the way things are. We are a nation looking for the “Easy” button wherever we can find it.  The success of James’s novels makes me green with envy, red with anger, and totally blue…but I’ll never go Grey.

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