Friday, May 11, 2012

Three chords and Fifty Shades

Talking about books you haven't read is always a dicey proposition, but when a respected industry blogger brought up Fifty Shades of Grey recently, I felt I had to say something. The long and the short of it was that this blogger has been telling writers for years to improve their writing, their grammar, their grasp of the English language. Now along comes this book which is, by all accounts, horribly written and an affront to everything she's been championing all these years. And it's a massive hit. So now she's worried that people will start ignoring her advice, and we'll be subjected to a wave of terribly, horribly written fiction.

As they are want to do, the comments section took the idea and ran with it, each individual taking their turn on the soapbox to throw off their "hell yeah!" or "hell no!" or their theories on what was really going on. Some floated the idea that Fifty Shades popularity was driven by it's origins as a Twilight fanfic. Others theorized that it was the result of it's reputation as a train-wreck of a book that had to be read to be believed. One especially popular analogy was that it was a Twinkie: a piece of literary junk food devoured as a guilty pleasure.

My own response went in a different direction: Beat on the Brat. With a baseball bat.

No, no, no, I don't mean to go around assaulting people with blunt objects! >_< Jesus, internet, you take everything so seriously. I meant this:

That song is from The Ramones, godfathers of punk rock. And when you think about it, the analogy from punk rock to Fifty Shades is pretty apt. While they didn't coin the term, punk rock embraced the ethos of "Three chords and the truth." It was an explicit response to rock acts of the 70's, which were often bombastic, pretentious, and/or overproduced. And frequently, all this stuff was in the service of a message which was vapid, incomprehensible, or just not there. Punk rock put forth the idea that you didn't need any of it. You didn't need talent, you didn't need training, you didn't need thousands of dollars of recording equipment. What you needed was authenticity. What you needed was a message that your audience understood, one that they heard and said "Yeah, right on!" to.

Listen to that song again, and note two things: One, how little is actually in there. The song is one riff repeated endlessly. The lyrics are two verses and a chorus. The two verses are each two identical stanzas of four lines, of which three lines are identical. A grade-schooler could write this song. Two, it's still awesome. You can head-bang to it, or just tap your foot if that's your thing, and either way it'll be stuck in your head for the rest of the day. It's about as stripped-down and minimalist as you can get, and that's all it needs to be to connect with you.

E.L. James, the author of Fifty Shades of Grey, doesn't have talent. She doesn't need talent, because she has something much better: an idea that resonates with her audience. That's the first consideration, and probably the only one that really matters: speaking to your audience. And if James can do it, then who are we to object? What gives us the right to stand in judgement of good literature or good taste? Should not the reader have the final say as to whether or not the book he paid for was worth his money?

If we are to take a lesson from the success that Fifty Shades has enjoyed, it should be this: the only people that have to be pleased by a work are the author and the reader. If the audience doesn't have a problem with a book's poor writing, why should anyone else? It is less important for us to write lyrical prose or have perfect grammar than it is to tell an interesting story. All the rest is mere technicalities.


  1. Totally agree. If a person likes a book, movie, performance, or even sandwich, no amount of logic/facts/what-have-you will make them change their mind. They liked it. And that's all that should matter.

    Now, they may not like certain things surrounding said experience, like background information or incessant berating by friends/critics/people-in-the-know that they *shouldn't* like it - but that initial experience is ultimately what matters. Sure, they may re-read with new insights and decide that, yeah, maybe it wasn't that great after all. But they'll still have that first experience, right?

    And I think that's important to pass along in my blogging - that this was my experience with a book, so take what you will and try it yourself.

  2. If we are to take a lesson from the success that Fifty Shades has enjoyed, it should be this: the only people that have to be pleased by a work are the author and the reader. If the audience doesn't have a problem with a book's poor writing, why should anyone else?

    Hm, this is an interesting post, and definitely true in terms of literary snobbery, and in a live-and-let-live sort of way.

    On the other hand, I think many people's objections to the success of 50 Shades also have to do with its questionable content and gender portrayals, and that, I think, is something that everyone has a right to be concerned and speak up about.

    True, people will like what they like, but when you see a popular movie/book/what have you with potentially harmful social implications, I think it's important to voice those concerns.

    But again, that has more to do with content than actual prose style, which is, perhaps, beside the point of this particular post. xD

  3. Well, the audience doesn't have to like it. They're free to reject the work or its ideas as they wish. What I'm trying to say is, if the audience likes it, then nobody has the right to say they're wrong to like it. The critics are an audience as well, of course, and equally entitled to their opinion. It's when you get one audience and another arguing about which of them is the moron rather than discussing the work that things have gone off the rails.

    Because you know what? It's not a crime to produce shoddy work. And if the author is satisfied with it, and the people who bought it liked it, then there's no problem. If the audience starts looking for something different some day, that's their right. If the author opts to improve his writing, that's his right. If he instead opts to keep doing the same thing until his audience is tired, that's also his right.

    My real problem with the situation is that it seems to be degenerating from "This book is stupid" to "The people who like this book are stupid". And the Indies With Attitude are not helping. Half of them are using this as evidence that LEGACY PUBLISHING MUST DIE for being out of touch with the market, and the other half are griping that that "tripe like this gets published" while they work tirelessly over their magnum opuses and get no respect. The comment thread I mentioned has devolved into Anons tossing molotovs at each other, safely protected by their Anonymous titles and their internet couch forts. F that.

  4. I appreciate your metaphor, but I don't think punk music is completely the same thing. Punk usually has a strong message; as you put it, it values authenticity over technical skill. Or at least, some punk goes this route. I personally don't like the Ramones because three chords and a repetitive chorus doesn't do it for me. Sure, it's catchy, but it lacks depth, and feels like an insult to artists who have spent years honing their skills.

    In the same way, 50 Shades of Grey seems to be an insult to writers who are honing a craft. I might be able to excuse bad writing (you were right: bad writing isn't a crime) but unlike punk, there is no message under the minimalism. It lacks quality and content-- unlike punk, which in your argument, sacrifices one to enhance the other. If 50 Shades of Grey does have a message, it almost certainly one I don't agree with: primarily, promoting abuse as some type of love.

    Publishing houses will give the public what they want-- they're a business providing a product. The problem is, is if the public cries out for junk food (Twinkies) and we give it to them, all that junk is going to lead to an unhealthy society. One that we have live in. Maybe I'm paranoid, but I keep getting an eerie Brave New World vibe: take your soma and shut up.


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