(Published in the Business Standard, June 2012)
By the end of June, Fifty Shades of Grey had become such a runaway bestseller that EL James’ Sadism 101 manual had reached the most unexpected places. It was on sale in a Mapusa supermarket, at all airport bookstores, available at Delhi traffic lights where young children hawked copies: “Grey, Darker, Freed—take all together for discount, madam!”
Were these volumes of cleverly packaged bondage fantasies feminist, in their exploration of middle-aged Fantasyland soft porn, or anti-feminist, in their insistence that the woman’s role be essentially submissive? If you, like me, fondly call the book Fifty Shades of Gah in tribute to the scenes where the English language is tied up, flogged and ruthlessly dominated by the excessive use of exclamation marks, are we disastrously out of step with the mainstream?
It doesn’t matter, because the key to the surprising success of Fifty Shades is that it isn’t about the quality of EL James’s writing. As a bestseller, it’s surprising only because it’s succeeded in print; it’s an indicator of how powerful fan fiction/ reader-driven fiction has become in the last five to seven years.
Fan fiction began as an Internet phenomenon, where viewers of TV serials, films or engaged readers contributed their own homages to the series. Fan fiction writers might rewrite the plot of some episodes of a TV soap, or use characters made already famous—Harry Potter, Mr Spock—to create their own mashup. Soon, sites devoted entirely to fan fiction began to attract large and active communities, but there was more to this Internet phenomenon than just the homage to TV serials.
Think of it this way. In the pre-Gutenberg era, the power of the written word rested in the hands of those who controlled monasteries, and the scribes who laboriously copied manuscripts. Post-Gutenberg, power shifted first to the publisher and the printer, and then, as printing presses became less rare and more ubiquitous, power transferred to the writer. (The writer would argue that in the 21st century, it shifted back to agents and large publishing conglomerates, but that’s another discussion.)
For more than two centuries, to be a writer meant that you had started your apprenticeship as a reader. Most writers had the required 10,000 hours worth of writing under their belts when they began publishing, in the shape of unpublished short stories and abandoned first drafts of novels. But they also, for the main part, had 10,000 hours worth of reading behind them.
This view of writing is based on the idea that skill is essential, craft important.
But in order to enjoy the best that literature (which means no more or less than “things made from letters”) has to offer, the ideal reader would also have his or her 10,000 hours of reading. Without that apprenticeship, few of the greatest writers are accessible—not Tagore and Premchand, with their long descriptive passages, not Coetzee’s challenging ideas, nor Pamuk’s playfulness, nor Murakami’s magical landscapes.
This just doesn’t work for readers who deal with present-day challenges. One of these is the easy availability of less demanding entertainment, from the glass tit of television to the micro-stories of the Twitter feed. Another is the stressed attention span; recent studies show that contrary to popular belief, we cannot really multi-task.
Take the average intelligent person, force him or her to fragment their attention across the insistent demands of 21st century life, and what you have is someone who lacks the time or the attention demanded by the most challenging books. Add to this an unpopular but true fact: even as people develop better social media skills, gaming skills and visual skills, the average vocabulary level drops sharply, unless you make an active effort to sharpen your verbal skills.
The number of writing communities and story sharing sites on the Internet make a few basics clear. There is no lack of demand for stories in this age, and there is no lack of readership. But today’s readers are more comfortable following intricate plot twists than they are following stories that require engagement with a complex internal world, or writers who use very complex language. Fifty Shades of Grey reads like an omnibus of fantasies easily available online, compiled in one place by a writer who understands that today’s Marquis de Sade would have to communicate differently, in simpler, more basic language, to reach the same audience.
And if it has a lesson—aside from the basic one about not wearing leather in the Delhi heat unless you’re a practicing masochist—it’s a useful one. For those who insist that popularity is an index of literary worth, Fifty Shades of Grey is the only rebuttal you need. Reading it was chastisement enough. I am now hard at work on a piece of fan fiction in tribute to plumbers (so difficult to find in Delhi), called Fifty Shades of Grout.