Saturday, July 21, 2012

Fifty Shades of Literacy

Like lots of people lately, I've been thinking about the Fifty Shades series. The globally bestselling series that is notable for its erotic content, including BDSM practices. I've not taken to buying and reading them, though I did read the first page of the first book. The style and prose are not my cuppa tea--the content's not exactly what I care for either, but I'm not passing judgement on that.

Now, I'm not one who typically bemoans the reading practices of the general public. I'm not someone who espouses devotion to some supposed canon of great literature. Usually, I'm just happy when folks are reading--which Americans do so much of! Bestsellers fly off the stands, people look at Facebook, employees have to comprehend documents at work--we're reading all the time.

I'm also suspicious when folks criticize popular reading because it often functions as a conservative and anti-feminist political argument. In the 1850s, Nathaniel Hawthorne lamented angrily so-called "sentimentalist" and other fiction by women authors, the "damned mob of scribbling women" he called them, whose books sold infinitely more than his. Likewise, in 1977, important author Ishmael Reed wondered if he might sell more books "if [he] was one of those young female Afro-American writers that are so hot now." Lambasting popular reading habits has often served to belittle and demean the literacy practices, both reading and writing, of women. And not just their literacy practices, but the very details of women's lives and experiences.

With all that said, I had a thought the other day while reading Ryan Skinnell's Facebook page. He expressed frustration with those individuals who simultaneously complain about how "people just don't read" and about how "people shouldn't be reading the 50 Shades book!"  He noted the disingenuousness of making both arguments: you ought not criticize people for not reading and then criticize with equal fervor what they do decide to read. As I've already said, I'm not thrilled by the Fifty Shades prose, but I acknowledge that it's reading. It absolutely is.

People are reading all the time--all kinds of stuff. And writing, too. Folks today, read and write so much. And, as literacy expert Deborah Brandt suggests in Literacy and Learning: Reflections on Writing, Reading, and Society, "Increasingly we will read in order to write" (174).

In light of that, I just hope someone reading the Fifty Shades books will think, "I could write something way better than this," and then does so.