24 May 2012


I read a fair number of blogs on a regular basis.  I guess if you're a blogger, it's part of the job.  Some of these blogs are really good, and some of them are not.  But I read them all.  Many of the ones I think are terrible are far more widely read than my own.  I am trying to figure out the secret to success.  (If you know, would you please e-mail me?)

The best blogs are the ones that get me thinking, or that inspire me to write posts of my own.  This week, I again owe a debt of gratitude to Misty of The Family Math.  You might remember Misty; she does not plan to encourage her son to believe in Santa Claus, and her post on that subject inspired me to write one of my most popular posts, In Defense of Santa.  She has inspired me again this week with her post Five Reasons I Won't Read Fifty Shades of Grey.  (I encourage you to read her post, as it will help you understand what I am talking about below.)

Fifty Shades of Grey is a bestselling novel, currently popular among women's reading groups.  As of this writing, like Misty, I have not read the book.  I understand that it contains passages that are sexually explicit, and that makes it the Wifey of the current generation.  By that, I mean that, like Judy Blume's iconic novel, it has been roundly criticized as obscene, stricken from library purchase lists, preached against, banned, discussed, and read in the subway under a plain brown wrapper (or on a Kindle or Nook), for anonymity's sake.  No one wants to admit it, but everyone wants to read it, to see what the hubbub is about.

Except for Misty and her readers.  Misty, who, I repeat, has not read the book and does not plan to, says her friends who have read it tell her that "[i]t's terribly written, but it's sooooo good!" Despite what sounds to me like a pretty enthusiastic endorsement from her friends, Misty has concluded that the book is not worth reading because it is - and these are her exact words and her emphasis - "poorly written shit."  She worries that reading such works will damage her own writing craft.  (Misty claims to be a professional writer, so she has legitimate concerns about the ongoing quality of her work.)

Misty lists other reasons why she thinks the book won't appeal to her.  She's not into erotica, she's uncomfortable talking or reading about sex because of her upbringing, and she is sure her husband wouldn't be "into" it.  I usually don't clear my reading list with my husband (or my parents) ahead of time, but those aren't the big problems I see with Misty's approach.  The big problems I see are twofold:  (1) the ethics of calling another writer's work shit without having actually read it and (2) the generally anti-intellectual refusal to read something that might expand a reader's preexisting limits and make her uncomfortable.  I'll address each in turn.

1.  The Ethics of Shit.

When I was a child (and I believe I'm a little older than Misty), shit was what we called a bad word.  Bad words were words that you did not utter in the presence of anyone older than yourself, or anyone in a position of authority.  When you were around Grandma, your friends' moms, or the parish priest, you would never, ever, in a million years, say the word shit.  Seeing it in print was titillating, and hearing someone say it aloud in public was scandalous.  (Remember George Carlin?  He made a career out of the scandal associated with saying bad words out loud.)  Though shit and many of Carlin's other favorites have lost some of their shock value over time, mostly because they have come into common use, there is no denying that calling someone else's craft shit is a stinging insult.  I also can't get past the idea that the use of shit to critique someone's work evidences a lack of a more creative and expansive vocabulary.  In criticizing a novel I don't like, I might call it uncomfortably and gratuitously explicit or stylistically unappealing.  But poorly-written shit?  What does that even mean?  It does not give your reader the slightest clue as to what you think is wrong with the work.

The bigger problem, though, is the ethical one.  To my great disappointment, I am not a professional writer.  Despite my best efforts, I have never had a single creative word published for profit.  Nevertheless, I do consider myself a writer, because that's what I spend big chunks of my day doing.  In this day and age, anyone can call herself a writer by setting up a blog and publishing an essay or three.  My blog, while not widely read, does have a small, fairly devoted readership, and I feel I owe my readers a responsibility not to be misleading, mean, or disrespectful - to them or to other writers.  I do not review products that I have not used.  I do not accept money to say things I don't necessarily believe.  I do not criticize art works that I have not seen, or music that I have not heard.  And I do not review books that I have not read.

In response to a comment I left on her blog, Misty assured me that she was not reviewing Fifty Shades of Grey - she was merely explaining why she did not plan to read it.  I see a distinction between saying "I have heard a lot about this book, but I don't plan to read it because I'm not into erotica" and saying "That book is poorly-written shit, and reading it will damage my own craft."  That's a heavy criticism to levy against some other artist's work, and if you plan to say things like that, I think you have an ethical responsibility to know what you're talking about.  Read the book, and then criticize away.  But do not use a blogging platform to publish uninformed opinions that insult other writers - and readers.  Doing so is, in a word, unethical.

2.  What's Wrong With the World These Days

Now, let's jump from the small picture to the big picture.  Being a well-educated, intelligent human being means, sometimes, reading something that you don't necessarily want to read, because doing so will push your limits and challenge your tastes.  If you think about it, that's the essence of education.  Raise your hand if you really felt like reading The Catcher in the Rye or To Kill a Mockingbird when your high school English teacher assigned it.  Not too many hands, I bet.  But if you read these books, are you glad you did?  Did you learn something?  Did Holden Caulfield or Atticus Finch teach you something you hadn't known or make you think about something you hadn't thought about before?

Now, I'm not saying that Fifty Shades of Grey is on a literary par with Salinger.  The fact is, I don't know, because I have not read Fifty Shades.  What I'm saying is that sometimes it's possible to be pleasantly surprised by a book that you thought - or even heard - was going to be terrible.  The opposite situation is also a possibility.  You simply can't know until you push yourself to try.

And the trouble with the world today is that there are too few people out there who are willing to try.

There are toddlers who refuse to taste green peas because they look funny and unfamiliar.  There are legislators who don't know a single openly gay person but swear they will never vote in favor of same-sex marriage.  There are people who say they hate rock and roll music who have never bought a single rock album.  And there are people who say classical music is "boring" but have never listened to it.  (Good classical music is anything but boring.)  One of my favorites, which I hear all the time, is the old stereotype that the German language is "harsh."  Nobody who says that actually speaks or understands German, or has read Rilke in the original.  German is a beautiful language.

It's willful ignorance.  It's "I can continue to hold onto my preexisting beliefs as long as I don't think about their basis in reality."  It's an unwillingness to educate oneself, or to do anything even remotely uncomfortable, for fear that one's prejudices might fall apart upon close examination.

Does reading a book about sex make you sexually promiscuous?  Does speaking German make you Hitler?  Or Mozart?  (Does speaking English make you Churchill?)  Does reading something that's poorly written make you a bad writer?  Of course not - unless you were predisposed to being promiscuous, dictatorial, musical, or illiterate.  If your foundation is firm, you have nothing to fear by giving it a little shake.

The toddler fears the peas because they're green, they look funny, and they taste different.  Trying them will not make him turn green, and the taste in his mouth will be temporary.  If he doesn't like them after he tastes them, he can move on and try something else.  Or he can go back to his familiar snacks, having made an educated decision about the unfamiliar food.  But he just might like the peas, and if he does, he'll have broadened his world view just a little bit.  He'll have more options the next time he's hungry.  As he gets older, he'll be able to discuss different kinds of food, and express an opinion as to which ones he likes.

So it is with books.  And from books, we graduate to ideas.  And with ideas, we make decisions about how to run our world, and how to treat the others with whom we share it.

Please, writers and readers, treat each other, and each other's work, with respect.  Be willing to try something new, or something you think you might not like.  Shake your foundation a little, and see if it holds fast.


Mary said...

Well argued, counsellor! And well written, Jennie. We have so much to learn from the things to which we have the most resistance.

Jane said...

Oh Jennie! I love the cut of your jib. So well put. And of course I agree with your assessment of German and Rilke, in particular! J x

Any name said...

This is amazing! I read all three 50 Shades books. They are awful, but they have this train wreck quality that keeps you hooked.

Part of the reason I read them was to distill what I could impart in my own writing to make it as addictive but still be well written.

I do wish people would broaden all their horizons more.

Wendy said...

If you are a professional writer then you *must* both read this book and pay attention to how it is marketed.

This book (and to be honest, I have only been able to get to page 100 - I have to picking it up because every few pages I throw it across the room) is setting a precedent on how books will be written and marketed in the future.

The author gave us the same thing only different (adult xxx Twilight), there was a big word-of-mouth buzz that got it noticed, she's taking on a taboo subject, *and* despite how poorly it's written (and there is no argument there) it is on the NYT bestseller list.

Go figure.

I suggest you you stop trashing this book and start paying attention to the formula it uses and how it is marketed. It's one thing to be a writer, its another to be a successful writer. If I could figure out this formula you can bet that I'd have a book like this out there in a heartbeat. It would then free me up to write the books I really want to write.

Being a successful writer is not about writing the next great American novel, it's about finding a large audience who is willing to pay to read your work.

Like it or not, this book is paving a new road in book publishing. It would do well for all writers to take notice.