America swoons over best-seller

“Fifty Shades of Grey” has become the fastest-selling adult paperback novel to sell one million print copies. It has broken the weekly record for paperback sales and has become the first e-book to sell one million copies for Kindles. Combined with the other two books in the “Fifty Shades” series, the trilogy has outsold the rest of the top 50 by roughly two to one.

Author E.L. James, who started the series as a “Twilight” fan fiction online, will be attending next week’s San Diego Comic-Con, signing books on the opening day of the event. “American Psycho” author Bret Easton Ellis has shown interest in adapting the book for the screen, directing, and perhaps casting such a film. (Whether he is joking — he is a satirist after all — remains to be seen.)

I first encountered “Fifty Shades” when it was prominently displayed in the front window in Waterstones, a British book retailer. Its grey and blue covers under the heavy artificial light caught my attention, and with what I’d heard about its popularity —­ I knew people, people who never read, who were picking this up — I thought I too might pick it up sometime down the road, even though I had no idea what it was about.

My second encounter, an SNL parody of an Amazon ad for the Kindle, showed me the book’s content, and I resolved not to pick it up: showcasing the SNL ladies surprised by family on Mother’s Day, caught in the act of masturbating to “Fifty Shades.” The punch line of the video, of course, reiterates the sexual nature of the series. (“What’re you reading, Mom?” “They’ll never know.”)

I’m all for reading for pleasure, but that seems a bit far.

“Fifty Shades” marks the first time that erotic literature has been so remarkably mainstream ­­­— and remarkably best-selling — begging the question: Is our society so intellectually nullified that what sells is poorly written sex?

I have no doubt that sex sells. It’s easy enough verify by looking at “Magic Mike,” or the brigade of advertisements that traipse across the television screen during prime time. I’m less worried that sex sells than I am that poorly written sex sells. If the sex in these books is what is driving up sales, I have to ask why. The romance genre is entirely dedicated to sex with a “plot.” You can even buy “porn novels.” (I have a friend of a friend who writes them.) If it’s the sex, my question is why these books, when there are so many other avenues.

If it’s not the sex, my question remains the same: Why these books? While I haven’t read the entire series, I have read the first chapter, and I challenge anyone to do the same. It’s painful (not literally painful — that comes later, during the BDSM), the sentences cliched and uninviting, reiterating the old troupe of “college girl meets super attractive man she immediately physically desires … even though she hates him.”

At least other poorly written popular fiction (the “Millennium” trilogy, “The Da Vinci Code” and even “Twilight”) tells interesting stories.

In 1958, Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita” reached the top of the best-seller list, and if you want a book about sex, it’s difficult to find one that is more apropos. But that narrative had writing. It had characters to be hated and loved, a highly sophisticated writing style and, yes, sex. Yet while “Lolita” remains highly controversial in its subject matter and highly sexualized, it also maintains a consistent ranking among the top 100 books in lists around the world. The beauty in Nabokov’s writing allows readers to remain sympathetic to a disturbing protagonist, despite the atrocities he perpetrates against Lolita.

What is it about our current culture that has shrugged off the ability to tell phenomenal writing from garbage? I don’t know, and I’d like to because maybe then we could work to correct it. Maybe then we would see the modern-day Tolkiens and Vonneguts and Hellers and Salingers in the popular arena instead of modern-day reincarnations of writers whose works have long since been forgotten.

_Sarah is a junior in LAS._