I, like most readers, have a friend who does not read.
No matter how many conversations I and my reader friends have with her, she continues to express no interest in any form of literature whatsoever. Even the word “book” seems to make her eyes glaze over and her mouth gape open slightly as if her soul is trying to look for any available orifice to escape through.
So when she brought up the movie Fifty Shades of Grey, I assumed she knew nothing of its novel counterpart. And so I proceeded to verbally tear it a new one.
I was confident in my verdict of the novel because I had not hopped on the hate bandwagon as many others had done. Instead, I actually read half of the book and came to my own conclusion.
I won’t mince words. Not only was the book awkward to read, it was walking-in-on-your-little-sister-having-sex awkward. The main character’s narration sounded like a 15 year-old girl trying to pass herself off as a woman in her 20s and Christian Grey’s attraction to her was nothing short of baffling.
I layed my criticism on thick and, all the while, I saw the excitement leave her eyes. However, it wasn’t until I ended my diatribe that I learned not only had she evidently read the book, she had liked it.
My brain bisected; one half tried to understand how she could have found this trashy gas station toilet paper appealing, while the other searched with the nervous energy of an over-caffeinated grad student on ways to backpedal and make this situation less uncomfortable.
For months this occurrence had me replaying all the times I was shamed for liking something some third party had deemed uncultured or stupid.
I thought back to the 14 year-old me that had to put book covers over her Star Trek novels because the other teens would make fun of her if they saw her reading them. The girl that enjoyed reading Nicholas Sparks on weekends between homework assignments.
How did she feel when her books were ripped apart?
Some readers try to validate their bashing of certain books by arguing they have long-lasting societal effects. By reading books like Fifty Shades, or clones of this series, abuse in relationships will become normalized and the generation after us will set feminism back forty years. Readers of YA, popular fiction, or romance will lower the standard for what constitutes as literature and the rest of the world will suffer as a consequence.
However, as someone who is and knows people who read a wide selection of books from classics to contemporary novels, and so on, I can say that this is not likely.
Most of the fans of Fifty Shades that I’ve encountered (save for my friend) are happily married women with children, ages ranging from early 30s to mid 40s. These are not highly impressionable women that are going to leave their husbands in favor of meeting a sexy billionaire with mommy issues that would spank them with a paddle. These are women that want to let loose for a few hours and have fun.
Do I think they should be reading something with more sophistication like Jane Eyre or Anna Karenina? Sure. But—-call me crazy—I’m not one of those literary hysterics that believes the world is going to come crashing around our ears if a few people read something I find unsavory.
I believe that reading can be a transformative experience in principle, but I’m also aware that not everyone that reads a novel perceives it as a religious text on which to base the foundation of their lives.
Does that mean I’m defending Fifty Shades for it’s crappy writing and frankly rapey undertones? No. I’m defending the readers. All kinds of people read “un-literary” novels. Even academics can be tempted.
Every so often people want to read something that isn’t earth-shattering or intellectually revolutionizing. They’re just looking for a little entertainment to stave off boredom or help them sleep. They’re called guilty pleasures, nonetheless, I don’t think we should feel guilty for them.
Charles Dickens won’t lose his keen eye for detail if a single mother reads a Harlequin romance.
Jane Austen’s sharp wit won’t dull if a teenager leafs through the adventures of Bella Swan and her vampire lover.
All the greats will still be there, ready to share their brilliance with the world for many more generations to come.
So just relax and let people read what they want to read. For all you know, those crappy novels might be the gateway drug to higher reading.