Columns > Published on July 27th, 2012

Scandalous! Is 50 Shades of Grey Better Than You Think It Is?

Photo from ScreenCrush

Welcome back to Scandalous!, in which I dauntlessly voice an unpopular opinion about a popular book.

So here's the thing about 50 Shades of Grey: it's not as bad as you think it is. I know that seems impossible. Here's a book that started its life as erotic Twilight fan fiction published in eBook format, and all of a sudden it's everywhere. It's on every bookstore's most prominent display. It's constantly referenced on blogs and websites and in the news. It's a trilogy being made into a movie for which every casting rumor gets a headline. On top of which, like Twilight, it features a strong man dominating an unsure, younger woman. And do we really need more books like that?

So I get it, I certainly get it. And yet the backlash against the book and its sequels has taken on a mean-spirited, sexist tone. The phrase "mommy porn" in particular is condescending and crass. I don't believe in ridiculing a huge group of people who like something that I don't like. I don't believe in the right or wrong of a preference, or in presuming that every fan of a certain property must be stupid. There is no accounting for taste, after all. Erotica may not be your cup of tea. Twilight might not be your cup of tea. BDSM may not be your cup of tea. eBooks may not be your cup of tea. But what is it about this particular cup of tea that creates such widespread disdain? 

I don't believe in ridiculing a huge group of people who like something that I don't like.

I imagine that most of 50 Shades of Grey's detractors have never read the book, and therein lies my dislike of its criticism. For those who have read it and offer a thoughtful, informed appraisal, I have no beef. In fact, I probably agree with you. My problem is with the ceaseless contempt for the book and its fans by those who have never read it - in particular men who think it's gross and absurd for middle aged women to read popular erotica, or god forbid in the case of author E. L. James, to write it. 

Or perhaps the contempt stems from its Twilight origins. Twilight is another series whose fans receive universal mockery, to the point that a middle-aged woman who was hit by a car while waiting in line for the Twilight panel at Comic-Con became an instant punchline. I don't care for the Twilight series personally, but any book that can move a huge population of people to read voraciously can't be all bad. How many Twilight or 50 Shades of Grey fans weren't big readers before, and have since been inspired to move on to new, better books? I'd wager quite a few. Juicy, shallow books are like gateway drugs; I got started on Christopher Pike before I moved on to Stephen King, and from King to DeLillo. Onward and upward - but Pike was that first hook for me, and I'll always be grateful for that. 

It's possible that people hate 50 Shades of Grey because James first self-published it as an eBook. Writers in particular might feel affronted that such an inferior work should become so hugely popular when their own magnum opus sits collecting dust on a shelf. We can all relate to that sort of professional resentment, and when I feel that way about another writer, I remind myself of what Julia Cameron says in The Artist's Way: "Very often audacity, not talent, makes one person an artist and another a shadow artist—hiding in the shadows, afraid to step out and expose the dream to the light, fearful that it will disintegrate to the touch." Don't resent another author's audacity in publishing a work that isn't as good as yours. Admire that audacity; learn from it.

I have read 50 Shades of Grey. And you know what? It's just fine. It's not ingeniously crafted nor staggeringly original, but I certainly don't begrudge any mom who chooses to get her rocks off to Christian Grey, a gorgeous billionaire who knows his way around a bedroom; or who can relate to Ana Steele, a college senior who never feels quite comfortable in her own skin. The book is serviceably written, and it offers a fantasy element that is undeniably alluring - even if I don't particularly enjoy the gender politics promoted within. Hell, it's hot. It's dumb but hot - not unlike a large portion of mainstream media. I am certainly not defending dumb but hot as a philosophy, but I don't think it's fair that 50 Shades of Grey has received so much more derision than Baywatch or Transformers.

Of course, we hold our books to a higher standard than films or television, and I believe in that. But what I don't believe in is snobbery or knee-jerk ridicule for a commercial property that I haven't even read. I read 50 Shades of Grey because I wanted to know what all the fuss was about. It's short and easily procured, so why not read it? I wanted to have an informed opinion, and my informed opinion is that this book is harmless. I see no difference between it and any other trashy beach read. 50 Shades of Grey is no more insidious than a Daniel Steele novel, or the Sookie Stackhouse series, or a Jackie Collins book. If you are outraged by the existence of this entire genre, than sure, go ahead and take dead aim at 50 Shades of Grey. But only if you've read the book first. 

So speak up in the comments. Even if you haven't read the book, I'd love to know if you had a strong reaction to it, and whether you stand by that reaction. And if you have read it, tell me what you think.

About the author

Meredith is a writer, editor and brewpub owner living in Houston, Texas. Her four most commonly used words are, "The book was better."

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