Fifty shades of dumbing down

Jennifer D BeggDigital Media, Jennifer, Stuff3 Comments

50 Shades Trilogy

GUEST POST: Tom Bishop – Why getting people to read anything at any cost is not always to be applauded

50 shades of grey e card

Fifty Shades of Grey has obviously been getting a lot of coverage in the press, and one particular article that caught my eye was this one, in the Guardian. Now, let me make one thing clear: as long as people enjoy it and are entertained by it, great – I have no interest in the ‘don’t read that, read this’ arguments, since I know full well my tastes don’t really suit everyone.

Having said that, the same half-arsed argument, ie ‘if it gets more people reading, it must be a good thing’, is all-too-frequently rolled out, allowing people to justify reading The Da Vinci Code or Harry Potter, or any other flavour of the month/year/decade book, while prize-winning books grow dusty and yellow on their shelves because they can’t find the time, energy or inclination to begin to engage with something more substantial. Again, I may appear to be skirting a fine line with intellectual elitism, but for me there are three main problems with that argument:

1) Those people who don’t normally read might not be so impressed/thrilled/entertained by whatever fodder is currently all the rage, and might reasonably conclude that this reading malarkey is a waste of time. This may not seem like a big deal, but if the argument in favour of uber-pop literature is that it gets people reading, putting them off reading altogether is not a great outcome.

2) It perpetuates the myth that reading is somehow a more intellectual pastime than appreciation of any of the other arts, which is evidently bullshit – it’s all about subjective response to someone else’s attempts to create something. I’ve played computer games far more intellectually stimulating than some books, and vice versa. Your mileage may vary, but I defy anyone to compile an absolute hierarchy of art, and it’s downright presumptuous to imply that all “people who don’t normally read books” are in some way intellectually disabled and in need of some kind of gateway book to kickstart the enrichment of their awful lives – though in some cases that may be true, the generalisation is (ahem) morally repugnant.

3) It utterly lowers the bar for authors: why try to write a great book when you could write a successful one? With the publishing industry in the state it’s in, you can appreciate why any print house would want to grab a runaway best-seller with both hands, but long-term they’re just diluting the market, and you obviously can’t sell lots of books to “people who don’t normally read books”. Those of us who *do* normally read books will find ourselves increasingly faced with a dwindling selection, as publishers look to find the next lowest common denominator, and authors look to gain their attention. It’s the same thing that happened in the music and film industries, and obviously we still get some outstanding films and music, but the environment of those industries means that the few that do make it have invariably had long, hard struggles and many failures to get there – who knows how many exceptional albums and jaw dropping movies have never been made, because the people who could have made them have given up hope in the face of ambivalent producers or A&Rs who simply want universal themes in primary colours?

It’s bad business, smug and misplaced elitism, and bad literature – but if it tickles your fancy, that’s fine. Really, it is: read it, enjoy it, and tell your friends what you thought. Just please don’t try to dress up your guilty pleasure in a cloak of artistic or social merit, because that’s simply ridiculous. Also, while we’re at it, it’s worth pointing out that not ALL of the classics are completely inaccessible; so if you do find yourself regularly reading these unusually hyped books, and little else, why not try something like carbon offsetting, and make yourself read something a little more challenging after each slab of cheeky escapism? Better yet, join a book club. Or not – if all you want from books is some light entertainment, good for you. But if not, there’s no need to wait for the next herd-approved* text to come along.

* I honestly tried to avoid the snobbery. Sorry.

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Jennifer D BeggFifty shades of dumbing down

3 Comments on “Fifty shades of dumbing down”

  1. David

    The reading public get what they deserve (are willing to consume), which includes banal eroticism and pseudo pornography. I have not read 50 Shades of Grey, although I have read the first two Harry Potter novels to my six year old son and recognise that literature should be age appropriate. My argument is, thus, not about the intellectual merits of specific novels but concerns the level of maturity encouraged by literature whose sole ambition appears to be the instant gratification of desires. Harry Potter is commendable for a child of six: not great, but full of the stuff that makes up children’s literature over the last fifty or so years. 50 Shades of Grey, I understand, deals with a similar level of emotional maturity as a rights of passage (for the reader as much as characters in the novel) exploring sexual contacts. Whether these books are sufficiently intellectually stimulating I leave tot the subjective views of any audience for this comment. However, emotionally they relate to the desires of a teen and pre-teen audience. There is plenty of accessible, high quality, adult literature that flirts with magic, or with sexuality and eroticism, so the question remains ‘why is literary commercial success pinned to delivering emotionally immature products’. This is fast-food reading, carefully shaped, packaged, enhanced and marketed. Snobbery, no, genuine fear for the generations to come, yes.

  2. Jennifer D Begg

    I agree with you on the emotional immaturity of the characters and character development but the sexual aspects are definitely not aimed at even a teen audience. They are very explicit and definitely aimed at the over 20s.

    I am all for smutty novels (or smutty sci fi which is my preferred genre), I just hate that people now think 50 shades is the standard of writing that goes along with this type of book. Just because it’s erotic fiction doesn’t negate the need for great characters / plot etc.

    I am a Harry Potter fan and I agree with you on the age appropriate nature of the books. I agree with most of Tom’s article, the Harry Potter thing is the only aspect where we disagree. I think HP develops with the reader and the age of the protagonists and therefore are great books (if not, great literature).

    The power that marketing now has on the publishing industry is truly scary and I, like you, worry for the quality of writing available for future generations. Only time will tell.

  3. bishely

    I’m not so sure that 50 Shades/Harry Potter et al necessarily suggest a downward curve for literature in general: It’s worth pointing out plenty of authors achieve commercial success without such extreme dumbing down, and though they might not have the runaway success of the mega-hits, they build solid and rewarding careers on a solid foundation of good writing… There are plenty of good books out there – my suspicion is that the marketing hype validates people buying into the flavour of the month rather than exploring the thousands of other new books which might just float their boat a little better. There’s plenty of great new fiction (and non-fiction) around, but the overpromotion of one book on gimmicky grounds tends to detract from the many other – perhaps more fulfilling – books available, possibly leading to those books going out of print and their authors being dropped. Realistically, I don’t think people will stop writing good literature, just that it’ll be a lot harder for them to get published and with that the audience and recognition they deserve.

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