I went to a big bookstore today. Unlike most of my visits there, which are purely about browsing, this time I made a few purchases. I had gift cards, a thank you present from a student I mentor. As I was paying for my books I smiled to myself at the stack of books displayed near the cashier – Fifty Shades of Grey of course. Apparently booksellers are displaying this title thus so shoppers won’t have to suffer the embarrassment of asking for help finding it. Like condoms or something. I doubt I’d be embarrassed. I think I’d just waltz in and shout “where’s that crappy porno book?” or something like that.
At any rate, I considered reading Fifty Shades, to see what the fuss is. But now there has been so much fuss that I pretty sure I already know what it is, so I don’t think I’ll bother. Life’s too short and my reading pile is too tall. I didn’t add Fifty Shades to my purchase despite its attractive point of purchase marketing.
But I asked my cashier, a conservative looking woman possibly of South Asian descent and maybe about my age, if they were selling a lot of “that awful book”. She groaned, literally groaned and proceeded to accuse most of the people buying of being “not normal readers”. I wasn’t sure what she meant at first; I thought perhaps she meant they were deviants or something, kind of a harsh assessment really. I mean, it’s just a book. But then she clarified that the book was mostly being bought by people who didn’t normally buy books, or read. As a book professional she could tell the type. I believed her. I remember being able to tell the newbies when I worked in a theater in Toronto. They were the ones who when handed a program would say “Oh, what’s this?”
So Fifty Shades is bringing non-readers to the bookstore, maybe even the library. Is that so bad? The same thing happened a few years ago with Twilight. It was the book that made teen girls who rarely read get enthusiastic about books. Yes, their bookish classmates might have sniffed derisively but so what? At least they were reading.
And let’s not forget that ten, fifteen years ago (is it that long, really?) Harry Potter did the same thing for tween boys. It created readers. Even then, if you recall, people bemoaned the fact that it was a “silly wizard book” that was causing all the fuss in middle schools, rather than, I don’t know, David Copperfield or Lord of the Flies I suppose. I mean come on, really? Harry freaking Potter, people. How can that be bad?
The Harry Potter books are better than the Twilight books; they just are. And Twilight is by turn, better than Fifty Shades. Maybe (God help us) Fifty Shades will turn out to be better than the next phenomenal book that entices the next hold-out of non-readers into bookstores. Who will it be? Teen boys? (gosh I hope so). Grown men? I predict the next “phenomena” will be just such a book, another non-reader appealing book, perhaps a combination of Fight Club, Little Brother and From Russia With Love, maybe with a bit of easy sex. I predict it will be a pile of steaming crap too (unlike those three books), but that shouldn’t matter. As long as it gets non-readers reading.
My reader friends and I have oft decried the poor quality and questionable messages in the Twilight books. From what I understand the sexual politics in Fifty Shades are even worse. Well, that’s a shame, but what are you going to do? They get people reading.
Here’s the thing. One day, a girl who loves Twilight is going to tire of those books. She will pick up any number of better (or worse) copycat books. But in time she will tire of those books too. And the dull suburban housewife who thrills at Fifty Shades and Bared to You and all the forthcoming offshoots of this frankly perplexing trend will eventually tire of these formulaic books. And the teen boys and men will tire of whatever over-packaged under-written dreck is coming next.
The boys and men will eventually read Fight Club, Little Brother and From Russia with Love.
And that’s when we win, people. We win because readers ultimately travel UP not down. It doesn’t matter where you start and there is no destination. But the journey is always upwards. Better books, more challenging books, books that require thought and effort. The journey is what matters.
As long as people are reading I’m okay with Fifty Shades of Grey.