Northern Mummy

General thoughts and wittering about all sorts of things

The other bandwagon

on July 29, 2012

You may think that there’s nothing left to be said about E.L. James’ Fifty Shades series.  You might be sick of hearing it mentioned.  If that’s the case, look away now and come back next time, because I promise this will be the only time I discuss it.  However, I do want to talk about this, partly because it’s something that’s been on my mind lately and partly because it affects me, albeit only slightly.

There are those who feel that anyone who reads the books, or indeed does anything which alludes to or reflects the theme, is “jumping on the bandwagon”.  It’s probably true that anyone who reads the books now is likely to be doing so because they don’t want to feel left out, and that brands who base their advertising around the increasingly recognisable book covers or who create products which reflect themes from the stories (I saw a cupcake last week with some handcuffs iced on the top!?!?!) are knowingly trading off the sensation created by the antics of Christian and Ana (or at least by people’s reaction to them).  Perhaps this is jumping on a bandwagon, but I imagine that those who are doing so are jumping with their eyes wide open, fully aware that, rather than being a personal choice they’re making, it’s one motivated by a desire to fit in and know what everyone’s talking about.

But there’s another, alternative, bandwagon gaining momentum, and I suspect that many of its riders (if that’s not extending the metaphor slightly too far) don’t even know they’re on it.  As with anything which becomes so explosively popular, Fifty Shades has attracted a fair amount of criticism, some of it really quite harsh.  I don’t know how much of it E.L. James listens to, or cares about.  I don’t know if she’s the sort of person who is unduly bothered by that sort of attack (I suspect not, given that the history of Fifty Shades’ evolution into the success it is today demonstrates above all her dogged determination to put her stories out to the masses, whatever the response).  However, other people have listened to the criticisms and a fair few of them have decided to join in, whether they have read the books or not.

I’m not here to defend James’ work.  She can do that herself if she wants to, and anyway, all I’ve read is the publisher’s preview, which amounts to about three chapters (and can be accessed here, should you wish to do the same), so I’m not really in a position to do so.  Some of the criticisms concerning the subject matter, seem quite valid.  This isn’t really to do with the sex – I’ve no objection to sex in fiction, although from a Christian point of view I don’t think extensive descriptions are helpful for personal purity.  What I’ve found particularly disturbing is the idea, in response to the books, that being in that kind of controlling relationship could be considered sexy or exciting (it really isn’t, believe me).  Miranda Dickinson, whose own novels I enjoy reading, discussed this recently on her blog, and I agree with her wholeheartedly so I don’t feel I have any more to add to that.

However, even from my own limited reading, I feel qualified to challenge the other criticisms I’ve heard, which focus on the writing itself.  “It’s just Twilight with the names changed,” say some.  Yes, we all know that the books originated as a fanfic and she changed the names.  It might not be the most original idea, but everyone has their influences, and if you can make a success of your work without having to work too hard to conceal them then why not?  Harry Potter, for example, is a mish-mash of several traditional ideas, heavily influenced in places by the boarding school stories of the mid-twentieth century, and J.K. Rowling came in for her own share of criticism, but she’s still a multi-millionaire.  Fair play to both of them.

“It’s badly written,” people say over and over again (well, actually, the phrase I’ve heard usually appears in there somewhere as well).  When I went to read the excerpt I mentioned above, the link was provided by someone on Facebook who commented “I honestly couldn’t write like that if I tried”.  By this time I’d heard that comment several times, so maybe my expectations were just so low I was pleasantly surprised, but I’m wondering what these people are comparing it to?   I wouldn’t be so surprised if it was just literary snobs and people who only really read books that win awards and are very worthy, but this is every second person and their Granny saying it!  Now, I’ve read some reallyreally bad writing at times.  If you visit fanfic websites, for instance, you can read some of the most appalling punctuation, syntax, grammar and clichéd dialogue you’ll ever see in your life.  I imagine it’s similar to teaching creative writing to twelve-year-olds.  (Don’t ask me what I was doing reading it in the first place, I think I might have googled something about a former character from Casualty or something, and inadvertently stumbled upon the world of fanfic, but it’s like a morbid fascination once you get reading!  And anyway, there are some good ones too!)  My point is that James might not be about to win any literary prizes for her writing, but then she’s not writing literary fiction.  I don’t know, perhaps the  quality of writing deteriorates rapidly after the first few chapters (“I’ll pop in some sex now, then I can just bung down any old words and nobody will notice”).  But as the opening of a paperback novel, the sort you want to read on the train or take on holiday or whatever, I didn’t find it off-putting.  The punctuation was in the right places.  The sentences were, as far as I remember, structured appropriately and made sense.  It had a style, and – importantly for a novel written in the first person – it had a voice.

Which brings me to my next point.  When you write in the first person, the way I see it, you use the voice of the character who is narrating the story.  That means all the language has to be appropriate to her/him.  If they’re young, the language has to be up-to-date.  If they’re older, their adjectives and idioms need to fit their age and status.  Fifty Shades has come under heavy fire for over-using particular words and phrases and I think this is unfair.  One of these, as I’m sure you’ll have heard, is oh my.  People have created word counts which tell you exactly how many times this and other phrases are used in each book.  But is it not reasonable that a person would use specific turns of phrase repeatedly in their speech?  I know I do.  If I had to speak for the equivalent of 500 pages, is it not likely that I’d use one of my favourite words 79 times?

As I’ve said, I’m not here to defend the books.  What I’m saying is that all these James-bashers are on as much a bandwagon as those praising her to the skies (especially the ones, on both sides, who haven’t read the books).  And the more these things get talked about, the more it has an effect on writers.  I can’t speak for everyone, and maybe some people, especially those already established and known by their audience, don’t feel bothered by it.  But I wonder how many authors have begun scanning their work for repeated phrases, ones they thought were idiomatic to their characters and part of their personality, but which they’re now thinking might be criticised as repetitive and symptomatic of  Bad Writing.  And I wonder how many, like me, have started to question what they’re doing.  To ask if their work, too, is poorly written, and they’re just not aware of it.  To think that perhaps, after all, nobody will want to read it and it might be better just to give up now.

A few weeks ago I lined up a group of friends as a sort of focus group.  I thought that they might be able to read through the manuscript of my novel and suggest improvements, ways to fill the holes and get out of the miry, inescapable dialogue I so often find myself in.  They were really excited about it and it was starting to rub off on me a bit, too.  I just needed to sort out a couple of sections and then I was going to send it out to all of them.  Now the doubts have started to creep in: I never thought I was Kazuo Ishiguro, I never believed I was writing the most enchanting poetry with every stroke of my keyboard, but I thought my stuff was OK.  But then I thought the opening of Fifty Shades was OK.  And I might have used the phrase oh my a few times, which is no good now it’s become the preserve of Bad Writing (not to mention the fact that it will be forever associated with porn).  Maybe it’s really not OK after all.

It’s not E.L. James’ fault.  It’s the fact that everyone is suddenly an expert and we all have a right to an opinion about things we know very little about, really.  And what’s more, we can all discuss it and compare notes on it and look it up ad nauseam, thanks to the good old internet, so even if we didn’t initially know what everyone was talking about, we do now (I have to say that when I first heard of it I was very excited as I believed it to be the sequel to Jasper Fforde’s Shades of Grey!  Even more amusingly, I have since heard that some people have unwittingly purchased Fforde’s novel when they were looking for something far more racy).

I hope that doesn’t sound like an appeal for sympathy – it’s honestly not meant to be.  I’m simply trying to articulate what’s on my mind and look at the pervasive nature of popular culture (and explain what’s happened for those of you who had promised to help me out!)  In my lifetime I must have been guilty of jumping on countless bandwagons and it’s something I try to avoid doing blindly.  But this is the first time I’ve realised that sometimes, you can be trying so hard to steer clear of one that you end up jumping on one coming the other way.  I’ll beware of  that now, too.


2 responses to “The other bandwagon

  1. Alice says:

    “it’s really badly written” seems to be the favourite criticism of books with mass-appeal! I remember reading that about The Da Vinci Code and feeling terribly uncouth because I had really enjoyed it and found the writing interesting, accessible and gripping!

    I’ve not read a bit of it, but I totally understand why people have and are a bit obsessed. I think most of us read simply wanting a different world for a while and as long as the sentences aren’t really clunky we don’t even notice the quality of writing. Only when a book is simply beautiful do I really stop and notice what the writer was doing. Generally I just want to be swept along with a good story!

    Oh, and don’t let this hold you back from sharing your stuff! Everything I’ve read of yours has been accessible, relaxed and a pleasure to read – I’ve never had to work hard to understand what you mean or re-read a sentence trying to work out what you’re saying! I cannot wait to read more!!!

    • northmum says:

      Thanks for your comment, Alice. I agree – I don’t think most of us are looking for a perfectly-crafted masterpiece every time we pick up a book for a bit of escapism and I’d probably pick plot over style most of the time! I’m sure the criticism originated from someone more used to Booker shortlists and the like, but it’s fascinating how quickly the comments spread and others adopt them as their own opinion. I will be keeping on writing as I don’t really know how I couldn’t, it just made me question my judgement to hear everyone going on about Bad Writing (when Bad Writing is probably just what I and plenty of others usually read!)

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