Folks, it’s been a while. For a couple of months, I have been officially enjoying my summer holidays. Rather than harvesting peaches on a kibbutz, or trekking around Thailand on a donkey, this Summer’s main activities (for me, anyway – it seems other people have been all het up with some sporty stuff) have been based around a family member’s wedding, an extended visit from several Australian relatives, and more BBQs, family meals and road trips than I have ever experienced in such a short period of time. In addition to this, I have managed to cram in two of my mates getting hitched, a weekend by a Spanish pool, and the whole of series one and two of Green Wing. I have read books by Grisham, Coben, Jewell and Maupin, re-read an old Jack Reacher and got sucked into Aaron Sorkin’s latest series on Sky.
But there’s one thing I have not done during my hiatus from my day-to-day routine.
I have not read Fifty Shades of Grey.
Just saying that out loud in some circles would put me in the same category as a member of a confessional style support group.
“My name is Nicky and I have not read the must-have, so-called Mummy-porn book of the Summer.”
I did try to. Honest. Before the horny madness had taken full hold of the world's females, when the book was only being mentioned online, I ordered it from Amazon. However, due to a lost credit card and a subsequent cancelled order, the book never made it. (I also ordered Heartburn by the late, great Nora Ephron - a book I’m still yet to read, but one for which I will continue to make the effort.) My lack of 50SOG didn’t bother me then though, because at that point, I had gone off the whole idea. There were a couple of reasons for the change of heart.
1. By then, it was all everyone I knew was talking about - friends, family, twitter-mates and Facebook friends. My Grandma was full of it.* I decided, just as I did in 1997 with the uber-hype surrounding Titanic, I was not going to be a sheep to fit in with them all. (I still don’t know what happens. It sinks, I presume.)
2. I read the first eight pages on the ‘Look Inside’ facility on Amazon (something I should have done before initially ordering it) and decided it was not for me.
It wasn’t the sex that turned me off – it didn't let me get that far. Rather, it was the lack of detail and set-up that preceded the initial meeting of the two main characters, and the two main characters themselves, who somehow manage to keep up enough of a rapport to shag their way through three whole novels. The protagonists seemed shallow, so I didn't feel the need to find out the depravities that went on beyond page eight. Which is a pity because as far as I am concerned, dirty novels are all to the good. I just want the key players to be complex and engaging.
But herein lies the problem. How can little old me, little unpublished, wannabe writer me, even begin to criticize the work of a bone fide author; an author who has sold more books than anyone in the history of the world ever (probably), an author whose works I have watched be restocked on their own special stand by the front door of my local Tesco time and time again. It is quite simple. I can’t.
I cannot and will not slag off E L James for managing to do what I can only dream of. She has created characters that have struck a chord among the millions of women that have been unable to tear themselves away from her pages. How brilliant to have been able to do that! As a non-50SOG reader, the image of Christian Grey that I have in my head is a cross between Ken Masters of Howards Way fame and, as Victoria Coren recognised in her Observer column last month, Alan Partridge or football’s own John Motson. Sexy is not what spring to my mind, in spite of the first rate sporting trivia he might utter involuntarily between spanks. Yet for millions of women all over the world, it seems as though Mr Grey is the pinnacle of their frustrated sexual desires. He is our generation's Mr Darcy, or Rochester. The literary incarnation of James Spader in the 2002 spank-fest Secretary. He is what every woman secretly dreams of - apparently. Pity the poor husbands and boyfriends who continue to go about their daily routines, looking forward to the moment they can sink onto the sofa and have a sneaky half-hour on Championship Manager. Little do they realise, their other halves are strung up in the bedroom, knickers in mouth waiting to be penetrated by a personality that simply does not exist within the man that shares their bed.
No, fair play to E L James, she has certainly pulled it off. (Back to her book selling prowess now, not another sex act.) But it makes me question whether I would actually want her success. Would I be content to lie back on my gazillions of pounds, raking it in as more and more women succumbed to the sexual utopia I had harnassed in my rompy read, whilst having to put up with review after review of negativity about my actual writing? Can the financial reward and overwhelming recognition by the public block out the constant criticisms?
I spent three years doing a sort of English degree (it was combined with other stuff, so not the full dosage) where I read a new worthy, sometimes incomprehensible, often boring text every week. At the end of my time, I vowed I would never pick up a book again. Luckily for me, right about then, came Lisa Jewell, Lee Child, Marian Keyes, Armistead Maupin, Nick Hornby and every other popular, contemporary author whose words I have devoured in the years since. It wasn’t reading that was boring me. It was the undiluted concentration of elitist high-brow material that I was forced to plough through, with no time to recognise that books are there primarily to be enjoyed. I am sure I would have appreciated the poetry of John Donne or plays of Christopher Marlowe much more, had I had the time to soak them up and explore them fully, rather than speed-read them the night before so I could appear vaguely knowledgeable in the following morning’s seminar, should a question be fired at me. I don’t want to be the type of writer whose only acclaim is critical and whose work is a chore to read. I want people to enjoy what I write, and it has to be said that 50SOG has certainly been enjoyed. Crime writer Lee Child has stated in various interviews how snobby the literary world can be, and how he is happy to be considered a popular writer, even if it means missing out on the professional kudos that goes along with it. If you can only be viewed in one way, then like Child, I’d rather be popular than critically acclaimed.
So, back to E L James. There’s no doubt about it, she is popular as far as book sales go - the figures speak for themselves. However, unlike fellow Child fans, of all the people I know that have read James' books, I have not heard anyone say that they think they are well-written. Not the critics in the papers, but people I actually know. No one has appreciated the beauty of her language, or the way she has built her characters into multi-dimensional and complex figures that are lifted from the page. No one has said to me, when they hear that I have not read the books ‘Oh, Nicky, but you MUST!” No one. They've all made comments about inadequacies of the prose and then gone on to describe the hilariously graphic filthy bits. As much money and recognition as these books have generated, I don’t think I would trade that for the novel-reading, everyday public actually liking my style. Or I could just be really jealous. Who knows. And I suppose, if I had to choose between being E L James or Christopher Marlowe, there's no question. Bad reviews pale into insignificance when compared to an untimely dagger in the eye. Don't they?
|Some books I did read this summer. And very lovely they were too.|
* She wasn’t.