Maybe it's my current workplace (academic publishing), but my lunchtime circle loves to hate on Fifty Shades of Grey.
"The writing is terrible."
"No self-respecting woman treats herself like that."
"People read it on the subway."
"The movie's coming out, though. I'm going to see it, I think. My friends want to, not me."
Now, I certainly follow the arguments against Fifty Shades' literary cred. And perhaps the protagonist, a strong young woman on the first page, loses herself to whips and entrepreneurial dominance because it's spicier bedtime reading. Maybe we're all just a little jealous because many of us are aspiring writers and we're watching EL James take up our B&N shelf space.
But I do feel that it's important not to ignore the importance of this series from a publishing standpoint. According to Business Insider, 70 million copies of the Fifty Shades series have sold in the U.S. (That—and it breaks my heart a bit—is more than Harry Potter.) It has been translated into over fifty languages. Lots of people have read Fifty Shades of Grey. And even more people are talking about it. Because Fifty Shades is the head cheerleader: you may think you're better than her five-inch heels and four-inch skirt, but you'd damn well better treat her with respect.
I think that we probably get a book or series like this every couple of years. It keeps the presses pressing and the publishers employed. Back in high school, before the days of Fifty Shades, I picked up a copy of Valley of the Dolls at my local library. The librarian tapped the crackling dust jacket and said quietly, "Oh. I remember this one." The 1966 Susann title suddenly seemed incredibly dirty. (All I knew about it at the time was that it was allegedly based on Judy Garland's struggles with narcotics.)
My grandmother always liked to know what I was reading. I mentioned Valley of the Dolls to her during my next visit—old people would appreciate old books, right?—and she wrinkled her nose. "That's trash, Laura."
Maybe it was trash in 1966. But it has become one of my favorites. It's slightly sexual (probably very sexual for its era), and I find none of the characters aspirational. But one reason that I love Valley so much is its portrayal of '60s Hollywood—admittedly to someone who knows very little about the '60s or Hollywood. And it was a bestseller of its time. It feels significant. "Everyone" was reading Valley of the Dolls when it came out, and even those that hadn't cracked the cover were criticizing Susann for her inability to write.
Where does this leave us, then? In a vicious cycle, doomed for generations to read (or not read, or to pretend not to read but actually read) mediocre books that will define the publishing industry and pee their territory on top 10 lists and bestseller shelves? Perhaps. But that only further convinces me that it's dangerous to be such snots about the whole thing.
This isn't to say that I have learned something from this parallel. Believe you me: if I have a grandchild, the day that he or she brings over a copy of EL James' first book and says, "Look what I found at this garage sale. It's from 2011. Who even has print books anymore? And what's S&M?" I will probably go through that familiar hate spiral because I never sold millions of books and say, "That's garbage! Getting your work published used to mean something. Give that to me. I'm burning it."
Laura Briskman is a graduate of Kenyon College. She now works in academic publishing in New York.