Monday, July 30, 2012

That's What She Said

In 1964, Justice Potter Stewart, an influential centrist jurist on the Supreme Court at the time, passed down an immortal judgement on obscenity as part of his opinion on the case of Jacobellis v. Ohio:

I know it when I see it.

And let's be honest: most of us see it everywhere.  (Has anyone ever watched The Office?  Yeah.  That's what she said.)  As Tom Lehrer sang in his classic satire Smut,

Filth, I'm glad to say, is in the mind of the beholder.
When correctly viewed, everything is lewd;
I could tell you things about Peter Pan and the Wizard of Oz - there's a dirty old man!

Smut by Tom Lehrer on Grooveshark
do actually listen to the lyrics - they're so clever

My introduction to trashy novels was pretty typical, I think.  My choir, made up of 24 girls ages 12-18, went on a two-week tour to England the summer after I finished 7th grade.  On one of our long bus rides between cathedrals, I noticed the older girls huddled in the back few rows.  I'd hear one voice murmuring, followed by a burst of laughter.  I went back to check it out, and they quickly hid the book they were reading; it was just for upperclassmen, they told me, and I wasn't allowed to listen.

Dear readers, you know where this is going, don't you?  As soon as we got back to DC, I headed to the nearest bookstore and nonchalantly skimmed the shelves until I found the exact same book.  That night, I closed the door to my room and devoured it.  (At the time, I didn't know why it had to be a secret, but I knew it was.)  Since I was 12 years old, much of the book went over my head, but by the end of high school I had read almost all of the author's works - and I enjoyed them.  They were well-written and well-researched historical fiction with a decent amount of erotica thrown.  What wasn't to like?

That's why I'm still so surprised by the overwhelming reaction to the Fifty Shades of Grey books by E.L. James.  According to the New York Times, the trilogy has "electrified women across the country... for some reason it's OK for [women] to admit that they're reading this book."

I have two questions for the millions of women who propelled the books to their crowning seat at the top of bestseller lists:

1. Have you really never read trashy novels before?
2. How can you stomach the terrible writing?

Okay, fine.  I can believe that there are many women out there who, for whatever reason, have never browsed the romance aisle at their local bookstore.  Fine.  But even if you haven't, why are you lowering your standards for these books?  I can accept that trashy novels are mainly a private thing that aren't discussed in the carpool line - or at least they were until EL James took her story from the internet to paperback.  But that doesn't mean that we shouldn't expect the same level of craftsmanship in the writing as we do in the classics.  (The classics can be dirty, too, by the way: I took an English class in college where we read John Cleland's Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, which is better known as Fanny Hill.  Discussing that with 20 other students plus a revered professor was beyond awkward at the beginning, but actually we learned a lot about societal norms in the 18th century.  It was fascinating.)

My confession is that I haven't actually read all of the Fifty Shades books.  I haven't even read all of one of them.  I got about a quarter of the way in and was so disgusted by the terrible writing that I stopped.  But if you start to type "worst lines in" into the Google search box, the first suggestion that comes up is "worst lines in 50 shades of gray" and then it spews out over 1.5 million hits.  For the sake of preserving some semblance of decency, I won't rewrite any of them here, but you can find some gems on BuzzFeed and Vulture.

So I ask you, dear readers.  Have you read Fifty Shades of Grey?  If so, did you like it and why?  Please explain this phenomenon to me.

And then, when you're done, go find Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure.  It'll blow your mind.

(...that's what she said.)


  1. Unfortunately I read it. It was not good. At all.

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. oof. I'm sorry. At least you're in good company? you can start an Atlanta-based support group :)

    3. I do feel vindicated in the knowledge that no one I know has enjoyed it :) But you know what? I would love to write such a poorly written book and make the kind of money she has made! It would be worth the criticism!

  2. I haven't read it because I've heard the writing is SO terrible....why pay money for that?! But other dirty books....don't mind if I do!

  3. I am usually all about pop lit, but for some reason this book (and girl with the dragon tattoo series as well) holds totally no interest for me. I slogged through Twilight. Consider me enlighten for the decade.


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