While working on and developing This Book is Fucking Stupid, I became increasingly fascinated by the world of one-star book reviews and terrible book synopses. A number of things very soon became apparent. First, I discovered that good books – by which I mean both books of quality and books which have been lauded as books of quality by more respectable literary critics and publications – are as likely, if not more so, to receive negative reviews from readers than mediocre books beloved of mainstream audiences with less literary tastes. All of the authors I admire – from Burroughs, Ballard and Bukowski, via Stewart Home, Ernest Hemingway and Henry Miller to Chuck Palahniuk and Alain Robbe-Grillet, are in receipt of an almost equal number of one and five-star reviews.
Second, and equally depressingly, many of the worst, most poorly written book synopses, outlining the most absurd and implausible plots, didn’t belong to self-published pot-boilers, but to books riding high in the bestsellers lists. Of course, many self-published e-books proved to be supported by shamefully amateurish blurbs, but then any author who publishes a piece that’s under 6,000 words in length and calls it a novel clearly hasn’t a clue and we can expect little else.
Third, I began to appreciate just how vast the domains of erotica and fantasy writing really are, as well as how people really are suckers for series at the moment.
It was while searching the bestseller lists for abysmal blurbs for my occasional ‘bad blurb of the day’ series – and I have to say I was spoiled for choice, if not completely overwhelmed by the volume of contenders – that I stumbled upon the 50 Shades trilogy. The blurbs were terrible, but what intrigued me more was the polarised reader reviews. And there were many. This wasn’t a case of a few people with very different opinions posting their reading experiences, but a full-blown raging controversy that runs into postings into the thousands. What was curious was the fact that, whereas more often than not you’ll find those who abhor a book do so for precisely the reason those who adore it do so, with 50 Shades it was different. Those who loved it loved the plot, the characters… and those who hated it hated everything, but in particular the prose.
I wondered fleetingly how the 50 Shades phenomenon had bypassed me, and if I was really falling out of touch with the mainstream I so love to keep abreast of if only to dismantle and berate, before promptly forgetting about the whole deal and refocusing on something more important, like whether or not I needed to recharge my mobile phone.
A couple of days later, lo and behold a gaggle of women were discussing the book within earshot. Despite their varying demographics, they were all in one mind and totally aflutter over this exciting, steamy novel they’d been recommended. Stepping away from this predictable plot development, I was reminded of two important lessons I’d seemingly forgotten: 1) word of mouth is still the most effective promotional method going. 2) people are idiots who’ll subscribe to any crap, and herd mentality reigns.
The repetition of phrases was a recurrent theme in the postings of the book’s detractors. Now, I have no issue with repetition myself, and having absorbed a substantial amount of pulp fiction, as well as Stewart Home’s complete literary output and most of Robbe-Grillet’s major texts, I’ve come to appreciate the fun that can be had with recurring phrases. I’ve been known to apply a spot of cut-and-paste myself in the creation of various texts, with specific effects in mind. In fact, in writing This Book is Fucking Stupid, I took the practice a step further, in that the core narrative provided the basis of two novellas and a trio of short stories (although not all have been published at this moment in time). So, repetition’s fine by me, but there’s a world of difference between repetition for effect – orientation, disorientation, parody, pastiche, pulpiness or to create a strange sense of déjà vu, for instance – and limited vocabulary or a lack of lexical imagination. Judging by the comments regarding the standard of prose in 50 Shades, there seemed little doubt that it was very much a case of the latter, and that this was the most amateurishly-written dross to have ever been sent to press by a major publisher.
Perversely, my curiosity was aroused. I found myself wondering just how bad it really was, so took myself to WHS on my lunch break the next day, and having flicked through the NME, gravitated toward the paperback section.
On finding other customers browsing the bestselling fiction – a predictable array of all of the Game of Thrones titles (and having read an except of one of those over the shoulder of a fat guy with BO on the bus recently I really can’t comprehend their popularity either), plus Stieg Larsson’s imaginatively-titled Girl With…. doorstops and half-arsed horror and cack crime fiction by the likes of Karin Slaughter – there was simply no way in the world I was going to be seen, even by total strangers, with my nose in a print wedge of mummy porn. So I turned to face the shelf directly behind me, which I discovered housed the paperback non-fiction bestsellers, which include biographies and autobiographies.
Amidst the predictable pap I found the laughable This is a Call: The Life and Times of Dave Grohl (he’s not fucking dead yet, his life and times are now and they’re ongoing), and, worse still, a 500-page autobiography by Bear Bullshitter Grylls. Entitled Mud, Sweat and Tears (the man’s such a hero: having broken his spine in 36 places and being told by doctors he’d never walk again at the age of 21, by virtue of his sheer determination he defied all the odds to become the youngest person to climb Everest just 18 weeks after his accident. Or something). I was also interested and elated to see that in between her tireless questing to find her missing daughter and clearing her own name, Kate McCann’s managed to pen a 500-page memoir about her tireless quest to find her missing daughter, and of course, all of the royalties will be used to fund doubling the number of investigators for Interpol, because Madeline, the first young girl ever to disappear, must be found and she is most definitely alive because they’ve produced CGI images of how she looks now.
Bear Grylls: that’s not mud he’s covered in.
It’s not that I want to belittle the achievements of others, but I can’t help but question their motives, and the motive of the publishers, too. The rack of ‘real-life trauma’ tomes only highlights how fucked up the whole deal is. With titles like Groomed (subtitle: ‘An Uncle Who Went Too Far. A Mother Who Didn’t Care. A Little Girl Who Waited for Justice.’ and Little Prisoners: A tragic story of siblings trapped in a world of abuse and suffering, there are many questions to be asked, and not just who buys these books, and what do they get out of it?
Of course, these are radically different strains of shit lit from 50 Shades. Or are they? These titles all engender vicarious living, and lead readers into territories they wouldn’t otherwise dare – or want – to enter for themselves. If Bridget Jones represented the everywoman, then the facile Twilight transplant characters who populate the 50 Shades trilogy represent the everywoman’s kinky fantasies, a peek through the keyhole into a netherworld that’s less seedy than swinging because, well, it’s always more exciting and fun when there’s a rich powerful man involved. The real-life tales of atrocities perpetrated on children are just another aspect of Eastenders syndrome: it’s as depressing as fuck and the regular viewers watch it because the daily trials, tribulations and agonising ordeals of the characters make them feel better about their own pathetic shitty lives. Perhaps it is sick, perhaps the society’s sick, but it’s alright if it makes you feel better.
Critics and ‘quality’ writers can and will endlessly berate such titles and despair at their immense popularity, and the fact 50 Shades is the biggest ‘literary’ phenomenon since Dan Brown exploded with the formulaic potboiler The Da Vinci Code and its immediate successor, which was in turn the biggest ‘literary’ phenomenon since J K Rowling’s ever-lengthier succession of Harry Potter titles speaks volumes. But as I commented in a previous piece, Readers rarely seem to agree with critics, yet purchase books on the strength of the reviews its received – and then complain, feeling that they’ve been in some way misled by the critics’ positive assessment of any given text.
I read a few excerpts of the 50 Shades books on line, using the Amazon ‘look inside’ function, which it has to be said is no substitute for browsing in a bookshop but can save some embarrassment. Of course , the one who should be embarrassed is Erika Leonard, better known as E. L. James – embarrassed by her shamefully poor, GCSE-standard prose and the fact that she’s coining it off the back of such low-grade fiction. It’s the literary equivalent of KFC.
Just as fast food and the so-called obesity epidemic threaten to drown the populace in tsunami of fat, so shit lit is just one more example of the zombifying brainrot media that’s endemic. It’s perhaps fair to say that, finally, the novel truly is dead. I now consider it my duty to bury it.
And if you’re loving my work, the ‘Fifty Shades of Shit’ special edition of This Book is Fucking Stupid is out now on Amazon Kindle.