50 Shades of Frustration

I’ll bet you’re expecting me to go on a nice rant about the decay of modern civilization and how the scale of 50 Shades of Grey’s success supports the Mayan prediction of a fast-approaching apocalypse.

In fact, I have rather mixed feelings about the whole thing.

First of all, as a writer, I am undeniably jealous. Of course I assume that my work is much better (though there’s always the chance that I’m delusional) and therefore deserves much greater commercial success. I naturally think of the great starving writer/artist archetype. Some poor frustrated genius who cuts off his ear in distress and flings it in the face of his critic, bellowing “You just wouldn’t LISTEN to my symbolism”.

Vincent van Gogh: Self portrait with bandaged ear

Look at what you made me do, philistine!

Secondly, as a human being I feel a kind of pretentious need to revile bad writing. It doesn’t really matter whether I’ve read the book or not — I have an idea of what constitutes good literature and I feel quite sure that my recognition of the inferiority of this popular book somehow makes me intellectually superior to “the herd”.

But despite these points, I really don’t think it’s such a bad thing that 50 Shades of Grey has taken the world by storm. In order to share my perspective with you, I’d like to pose some questions:

Is popular really so bad?

I like popular stuff. I enjoy rap music and hamburgers and superhero movies. I despise artsy movies, even though I am a writer and enjoy weaving tapestries of symbolism and so forth. I really don’t feel good about Finnegan’s Wake, either, despite much critical acclaim. Maybe what’s brilliant is not all that clear cut after all, and maybe there’s something to be said for satisfying material. A cheeseburger is satisfying in a different way to a fillet bearnaise, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a right to exist (or to outsell the fillet bearnaise).

There is no way to predict what will be popular and what will drive people’s taste. From some perspectives, almost anything can appear brilliant (James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake for example). Maybe this uncertainty is part of what bothers us, while we all clamour to recreate 50 Shades of Good Luck, despairing that we just can’t win that lottery by betting on the same numbers that won last time.

Are we being consistent?

Let’s do a thought experiment. A completely average guy, a bad writer, a poor worker and a generally unremarkable person buys a lottery ticket and wins.

I can’t say I deserve this, but nor can you!

Sure, you might feel a bit envious, but you can’t really say the money wasn’t “deserved”. He bought his ticket, faced the same odds as the rest of us and got lucky.

So now let’s take a completely unremarkable writer who writes a book, persuades a publisher to promote it and lucks out, earning a fantastic return. As much as I’d like to feel this is somehow unfair, it strikes me as more fair than the guy winning the lottery.

After all, no matter how bad a book may be, it takes work and perseverance to write it, and more work and perseverance to get it published. Happening to run a lucky trend is just that: good luck.

The silly thing is that we now all assume that the only literature that is commercially successful is rubbish. We then go further and assume that only crap will be successful. Do you really believe that?

Isn’t it nice that any work has the potential to succeed?

Imagine if the only successful novels were works of poetic genius. Good luck making a living, bucko. Maybe it’s a good thing if popular fiction can be created easily. Doesn’t it excite you that you could create the next world phenomenon? Perhaps a simple fantasy or a story you would like to tell your child could capture the imagination of millions and make you rich beyond your wildest dreams. Is it really so bad for that possibility to exist?

So what are you waiting for, pretentious writer?

This is a call to action. Get off your high horse. Believe in your work enough to stop complaining about the fairness or unfairness of a random process. Create something glorious and put it out there. Accept that you are writing for somebody other than yourself. If the work gains popular appeal, you can make money. If it doesn’t, have enough self-esteem to know that creating something great is a reward in itself and you do not need to be validating by a mass market of lunatics.

Create the best thing you can and who knows, it might be the next world phenomenon.

And hey, will it really kill you to write something that somebody might actually enjoy reading?

(Speaking of that, you should buy my books. A couple of hundred thousand sales would really add authenticity to this post.)

Fellow writers out there (or anyone else), let’s hear what you think.

UPDATE:

I am amazed. I discovered the following quote from 50 Shades of Grey in a post by Danzo over here:

“His finger circled my puckered love cave.¬†
“Are you ready?” He mewled
smirking at me like a mother hamster
about to eat her three legged young”
I went through a rollercoaster of amusement, astonishment, shock, horror.
I had heard that the books were bad. I had naturally assumed that I knew what that meant. Clearly I was mistaken.
This is like a religious moment for me. Or maybe something more like what a young soldier feels in Vietnam when he witnesses his first atrocity. My mind is now blown open like the stomach of a putrefying corpse.
I had thought 50 Shades unremarkable, but maybe I was wrong. Perhaps it is bad enough to be remarkable.
Is this a recurring theme in popular culture? Remarkably good or bad are in some sense the same — either will succeed.
I’m afraid to consider the possibility that remarkably good is losing its place…
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