Sometimes, the sound and fury of an uninformed pseudo-critic should be ignored, because that lessens their impact. When someone attempts to condemn an entire genre on the basis of one book, it is too familiar, an ill-informed position we've seen too often in the last few weeks.
Sometimes, however, the sound and fury of said pseudo-critic has reached enough people, raised enough eyebrows and caused sufficient teeth-clenching fury that, though it still signifies nothing, responses may be required.
I believe this is one of those times.
Before we continue, I ask that you pour yourself a very large beverage, and remove all sharp objects from your immediate vicinity.
Well, not us exactly. William Giraldi wrote some words collected beneath the title Finally, an Academic Text Devoted to 50 Shades of Grey, which were published in The New Republic.
His article purports to be about an academic analysis of 50 Shades of Grey titled Hard-Core Romance: Fifty Shades of Grey, Best-Sellers, and Society. The book is by Eva Illouz, a professor of sociology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
Unfortunately, I can't tell much about the book because Giraldi's opinion is obscured behind his own incredible, thunderous disdain for not only 50 Shades of Grey, but also the author, and the readers who enjoyed that book, and any other romance besides.
The degree to which Mr. Giraldi decorates this reading community with his disdain can be met with outrage (yup) or equal disdain (yup yup). As I re-read some choice moments in William Giraldi's bloviating asshattery, I felt that, in this case, the most fierce and cunning weapon we have in our arsenal is needed.
Many have assisted me in the assembly and loading of this weapon. It is ferocious in its simplicity and says everything we need to say. We've got American English, British English, and Spanish language variations assembled like Avengers.
Lock and load.
With their drooling enthusiasm for Fifty Shades, millions of dreamy-hearted women have chaperoned a cultural phenomenon—one that amply shows how far taste can be removed from hunger—just as millions of frail-headed men have made Tom Clancy a household name, Clancy's bestsellers being a breed of poli-sci porn for gruff guys.
Drooling, dreamy hearted women!
Dreck of this stupendous caliber has a particular advantage over literature in that one doesn't have to read all of it to surmise, accurately and eternally, that it is all uniformly awful and awfully uniform—romance novels, like racists, tend to be the same wherever you turn.
Wow. That's a canon-ball right there, isn't it? Let's look at that again:
“…romance novels, like racists, tend to be the same wherever you turn.”
Linda Holmes from NPR has brought our ancillary weapon, the ankle-holster of sarcasm:
Nothing says “I'm a thinker” like comparing racism to reading books you don't like.
— Linda Holmes (@nprmonkeysee) May 20, 2014
And again we deploy our response:
It's pointless to spend much time impugning these books as writing because they really aren't meant to be considered as actual writing, the same way a Twinkie wasn't meant to be considered as actual food. Books ejaculated this easily have the inverse effect of being extremely difficult to read.
Eva Illouz is an academic at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem who’s authored a book titled Oprah Winfrey and the Glamour of Misery, so she’s accustomed to writing intelligently about the bathetic and bromidic and brain dead.
Illouz contends that Hard-Core Romance “was written with respect and suspicion for popular cultural forms,” and although her grammar means to say respect for and suspicion of, you might yourself begin to suspect that she harbors too much of the former and not nearly enough of the latter.
Giraldi to Illou: You took this book, the genre and its readership far too seriously for my comfort.
Women everywhere, I hope, will be irked to learn that Fifty Shades “represents the ultimate triumph” of their point of view, and yet we’d have trouble contending that the white middle-class women who made Fifty Shades a commercial godsend were not “preoccupied with love and sexuality.”
Thank goodness Mr. Giraldi is here to speak on behalf of women everywhere!
Romance novels are a billion-dollar-a-year industry and make up 46 percent of all mass-market paperbacks sold in America; the publishing company Harlequin claims that half of its customers buys 30 of its novels every month; it also claims to sell more than four books per second. How did the pabulum of Fifty Shades manage to rise above such a mind-stinging preponderance of crap?
What the commercial coup of Fifty Shades reveals about us is this: We’re an infirm, ineffectual tribe still stuck in some sort of larval stage. Do I really expect Americans to sit down with Adam Bede or Clarissa after all the professional and domestic hurly-burly of their day? Do I expect them to appreciate the sexually terroristic satires of Sade, or the erogenous verse of Sappho and Catullus, or Nicholson Baker’s comical romp Vox? Pardon me, but yes I do.
At least people are reading. You’ve no doubt heard that before. But we don’t say of the diabetic obese, At least people are eating. Anyway, we can expect a resurgence of the Fifty Shades evangelism when the film version is released next year, when middle-class ladies everywhere tug their porcine beaus off the sofa and put them through another 90 minutes of torture.
The sad thing is, bloviating aside, it is absolutely worthwhile to consider WHY 50 Shades of Grey became such a phenomenon, why books like Bared to You followed it to worldwide bestsellerdom, what the sexist coverage revealed culturally, and how it changed the way erotic contemporary romance narratives are discussed, marketed, and published, even if you don't know all the answers (I certainly don't).
It's absolutely valid to wonder why that book captured imagination and sold all over the bloody place, and possibly how it did so – though if we knew the answer, we'd have a lot more money and probably an infomercial, too: SELL TIES AND TRILOGIES WORLDWIDE – WE TELL YOU HOW!
After Twilight was published (Mmmmm, irony!), I learned a very embarrassing lesson about how unacceptable my own douchey attitude about some books was — an attitude that I adjusted immediately.
To wit: Just because you didn't like something, doesn't mean there's something wrong with the people who do.
In other words, Mr. Giraldi, here is a ladder; please get over yourself.
As Alyssa Rosenberg says in her Most Excellent response in the Washington Post:
Here is a proposal Giraldi does not seem to have considered: Romance novels are attractive not just because they are a gratifying escape but also because they sometimes feel like a respite from from the significant hostility that a lot of literature shows women.
Not to mention the hostility in this article as well.
Giraldi's biggest problems seem to be that Eva Illouz, in her book, took 50 Shades of Grey seriously, and attempted to examine critically why and how that book grabbed the attention of so many millions of readers. Moreover, from the rage and insult inherent in every word he published, it seems 50 Shades of Grey sold far too many copies for Giraldi's liking, and was too popular besides. He's mad that people read it, he's mad that people liked it, he's mad it became such a huge bestseller that more books are being written ABOUT it, and he's mad because, like so many other pieces of popular entertainment before it, 50 Shades apparently signals the death throes of American intellect and high culture.
Oh, dear. What a pity.
This article is so many shades of wrong (sorry) I can't even find an analogy.
I know some terrific people who work for various media organizations, both mainstream and … whatever streams are adjacent to the main stream. They are smart and clever and gifted writers. They ask questions. When faced with a topic involving romance, they don't do this.
This, by which I mean discussing romance, is the difficult stuff to write about. Writing about romance as a genre or about individual books that have unparalleled appeal means you write about intimacy, sexuality, women, imagination, economics, privacy and emotions (and a bunch of other stuff). But because it's so much easier and so familiar to make dick jokes, make sex jokes, or come down like a thundering hippo of condescension and sphincter-clenching, that's what we get every time.
But every time a writer in mainstream media fails to do the difficult stuff well, every time they write a sex scene instead of business news, every time they condemn women and readers instead of attempting fair or even neutral analysis, they make bloggers more relevant.
Readers have learned that, too often and with a few important exceptions, writers within mainstream venues can't be trusted to look at anything involving the romance genre with fairness and decency. They judge, like Mr. Giraldi, based on one book. They condemn based on the content without understanding the context. They cry giant tears of sadness when readers choose to read romance, because it's not good for them.
Writers like Giraldi have demonstrated again and again that they can't do it. They can't handle any aspect of the romance genre, from the industry to the books themselves, without demonstrating ignorance and discomfort in worn metaphors, through condescension, condemnation, or lascivious comparison.
So go ahead. Keep on going. You're just making all of us who write and discuss the genre critically in many, many online venues far more relevant, and you do so at your expense. So thanks.