Thursday, March 14, 2013

Why I read Fifty Shades of Grey

When I was growing up, my dad used to warn me that if I didn't have any knowledge of pop culture, I wouldn't be able to interact with anybody outside my small circle of friends.  It wasn't really that bad - I'm proud to say that I wasn't so sheltered that I couldn't carry on conversations with others in high school and college - but I did have a pretty narrow sphere of interests.  That hasn't much changed.  When you're an academic, you can usually get along instantly with other academics.  Same goes for being Episcopalian, and a classical musician.  And since I started reading classics, I've had countless fabulous discussions about books, sometimes with people I never expected had ever read, say, George Eliot.  On the other hand, not everybody reads the old stuff I enjoy, which is why I also try to keep up with just a few of the current book crazes.  That's why I devoured all of the Twilight books in my high school and early college years.  More recently, I read The Help and all of the Hunger Games books.  And because of them, I've had some great conversations about society and politics, racism and violence.

So when Fifty Shades of Grey made the bestseller list and all the news - and then stayed crazy popular - I wondered why.  I read a few articles on the craze, and I looked up a few feminist bloggers who completely tore it apart, taking it to task for its terribly harmful depiction of gender roles, relationships, and sexuality.  I thought the popularity would die down, but it didn't.  So I decided to try it out, if for no other reason than the fact that I'd be able to carry on an informed conversation about it.  Unwilling to spend any money on it, I requested it through the campus library, and it was my turn with Duke's copy almost seven months later.

Now that I've read Fifty Shades of Grey, I fail to understand its popularity even more than before I'd cracked it open.  It is fanfiction, plain and simple.  Melodramatic, annoyingly angsty, with characters and personalities ripped straight from Twilight with only minimal details changed.  And the sex scenes...  It's all terribly awkward and uncomfortable but, like much of the reasonably literate fanfiction, hard to put down.  I'm not equipped to undertake my own feminist analysis, but suffice it to say, this book has really terrible things to say about women in relationships.  I wouldn't recommend it, and I doubt I'll end up in any conversations about it because all I'd have to say would be vehement criticism.

And yes, I'd be a little embarrassed to admit that I'd read it.  I was mildly embarrassed to have to pick it up from the music library's hold shelf, where countless books on Reformation theology have waited for me.  I was embarrassed when the music librarian helped with my library account - what if she saw that I had it checked out and thought worse of me for it?  She and I are great friends; I saw The Hobbit in theaters with her in January and we intend to see the new Star Trek film together.  Once I had Fifty Shades of Grey in my possession, it stayed at home.  It took me a few days to read, and in that time, I started another book too, because I didn't want to carry Fifty Shades with me to school to read over lunch in the faculty lounge.  It was nice to finish and return it, and my husband, who was a little appalled that I was reading it, was glad to get the book out of the house.

And all this left me wondering: Why do we care what we read publicly?  I'm told that Fifty Shades has had great success as an e-book, with people speculating that this was because people didn't have to make it known they were reading it in public places.  If I'm a reader, shouldn't I feel free to read whatever I want, wherever I want?  What does it say about me that I had this embarrassment over Fifty Shades of Grey?  What does it say about me that I read it at all?  Are there other books I'd be ashamed to be seen with?  If something were a book I'd be ashamed to be seen with, would I normally want to read it at all?  Why do I feel a need to make a public explanation on my blog detailing why I read Fifty Shades when I don't normally make these sorts of disclaimers about the books I read?

I don't have any answers, but if nothing else, Fifty Shades got me thinking.  It's true, my pondering has been far more about reading choices and the potential vulnerability of reading in public instead of about BDSM and sparkly vampires (oops, I mean, millionaire businessmen), but one one level, I do have to commend any book that gets me thinking this much.

What do you think?  Have you read Fifty Shades?  Have you ever been embarrassed to be seen with a book you were reading?  Should we just read whatever we want and not care who sees us?


  1. You bring up some really interesting thoughts, Samantha. I think there are different reasons for not wanting other people to see what you’re reading--one of them is definitely embarrassment or self-consciousness (sometimes I don’t want people to see that I’m reading children’s literature); but it also might be because you are worried it will initiate a conversation, and you don’t want to just want to read. Or maybe you’re reading something kind of private (like something that might indicate you’re having problems in your marriage or are struggling with depression) and so you don’t want other people to observe and cast judgement.

    I have to admit that I am insanely curious when I see another person reading a book, and I always try to catch what they’re reading. And, I’ll also admit, I probably do judge them to a certain extent. For example, if they’re reading “Jane Eyre,” I think they’re probably a person I could be friends with, but if they’re reading “Fifty Shades of Gray,” I think we probably wouldn’t have much in common. I think your post perfectly explains why I could be dead wrong in making such judgements!

    1. You make some great points, Amy! I hadn't thought of conversation-starters, or of private (but not necessarily embarrassing) topics. I too would tend to think that someone reading Fifty Shades isn't necessarily the sort of person I'd have much in common with...but then, I myself read it too. Perhaps the lesson here may be for all of us to be a little less judgmental about people's reading habits.

  2. I haven't read Fifty Shades of Grey, and really have no interest, but I thoroughly enjoyed your Greatest Hits post, and your analysis!

    To tell you the truth, it was all the Facebook updates last summer from every middle-aged, under (over?) sexed soccer mom on my friends' list that turned me off from the book. Who knew so many of my friends fit into that demographic? The Facebook updates were the equivalent of reading in public, and I was embarrassed for them because they didn't seem to know they should be embarrassed for themselves! How's that for uptight LOL!

    I remember when everyone was reading "Harry Potter" and the series was released with more "mature" covers exactly for this reason. Adults who would be embarrassed to be seen reading a childrens' book wouldn't hesitate to buy something that looked more like a P.D.James or John Grisham.

    I think we're prone to judge a book by its cover and by extension, a reader by her book. But as we know, great books can have unappealing covers just as there could be lots of reasons to be reading low brow fiction. But if I ever decide to read it I'd do it in private too :)

    1. Thanks, Lee-Anne! And I'm with you - there's something about this book in particular that seems to have engendered this kind of embarrassment, either on the reader's part or on the part of the person who notices someone reading it in public. I think it's because this book is really just erotica, and that's not a genre that typically becomes popular enough for people to read it on the bus (or train, or airport, or workplace...)

      I actually read a very interesting essay on the differences between the adult and kid covers for Harry Potter books, and why the essayist had chosen to collect the entire set of both as a result. This person (can't remember who, or their gender unfortunately) said that the stories themselves felt different based on whether the cover promoted friendship and adventure (the kid's covers) or quest narratives and the battle between good and evil (the adult's covers).

      Honestly, unless you're super curious, as I was for some odd reason, I really wouldn't recommend this book. There are so many other more interesting and better-written popular books out there.