Monday, May 7, 2012

Fifty Shades of Bad Writing

Greetings Friends,

Early on in my second career as a student, I encountered a somewhat jaded classmate who told me something to the effect of, "The more degrees you obtain, the less you will enjoy the books you read. When you get your Ph.D you're bound to hate everything." Well, I stopped at a Masters degree, only because Ph.D programs in English Literature are now about as hard to get into as a keyhole, or those trendy night spots that have bottle minimums that run into the thousands of dollars. Unless of course if you're James Franco, then your celebrity opens every door with a smile, even the doors to Ph.D programs in literature.

I admit to being a book snob, even during my downtime. The thought never occurs to me to pick up a mass-market paperback by one of those churn 'em and burn 'em serial authors, or indulge in any of the latest crazes like Twilight, Hunger Games or Stieg Larsson's Millennium trilogy. None of that remotely interests me. Give me literary or historical fiction, a good memoir, or the latest by one of my favourite authors, and I'm more than happy. So, what was it that drew me to the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy? Read on...

I had a Chapters Indigo gift card burning a hole in my wallet since Christmas, and last week, I happened to be in one of the stores. I was perusing the stacks when I encountered a display containing all three books in the Fifty Shades trilogy, and thought, what the hell - these aren't books I would normally pay for so why not use the gift card? And before all you library-hounds get on my case, no - it didn't even occur to me to borrow them.

So, home I went with these "erotic romances" in my hot little hands, anxious to read what all the fuss was about. I put aside the tome I was currently about 100 pages into thinking I would read about 20 pages of Grey before I gave up and carted the books down to my building's laundry room for my neighbours to fight over. Seven days later I chewed through all three volumes, just over 1,500 pages of what had to be the most insipid, formulaic drivel I ever laid eyes upon. Even the S&M-laden sex scenes became boring after about the first two. The "suspense" was predictable and the main characters were vapid and self-involved. I couldn't for the life of me figure out why I stuck with all three volumes until I polished off the last one (no pun intended) yesterday afternoon. Then, it hit me.

At some point right before I re-entered academia, it dawned on me why I love to read so much: reading a good novel is a challenge; the author's imagination and his or her ability to weave a tale that captures yours is what makes reading worthwhile. An author who writes many successful novels that stand on their own is supremely talented, in my opinion. An author who engages in the churn and burn, like many of the most financially successful ones do, relies on a tried-and-true formula that the average reader never ceases to tire of: sex/romance/suspense. Before Fifty Shades, I can't remember the last formulaic novel I read. It had to be something by Danielle Steel (gasp!) way back when I was in high school. I had high hopes for John Grisham when I read The Firm, but he amounted to nothing more than a churner and burner; mass market authors are little more than tree-killers.

As for E.L. James and her trilogy, I believe she is the latest in a long line of financially successful authors who are guilty of making the great literary talents resort to mewling and begging for publishing deals; that is, if mewling and begging even works. In the world of sex/romance/suspense, at least in the one conjured by James, writing about mewling and begging equals a huge payday. It's sad that talent still must starve, and formula is the perennial glutton at the smorgasbord.


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