An Interview with Diana Sheets: Fifty Shades of Putrid?

Aug 20, 2012 by

Gone is a society of readers who inhabit the imaginary realm of serious literature while making highly individualized choices about what to read that is informed only in part by critics who guide their intellectual, moral, and social tastes.

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

1) Diana, I by no means consider myself an expert or scholar, but I tend to watch what people seem to be reading. We have gone from “Harry Potter” to “The Hunger Games” to this latest atrocity—“Fifty Shades of Grey”. Am I off on this?

Gone is a society of readers who inhabit the imaginary realm of serious literature while making highly individualized choices about what to read that is informed only in part by critics who guide their intellectual, moral, and social tastes. Today we read texts only 140-characters long.  We have trouble spending hours alone in the solitary company of a challenging book.  We crave diverting entertainment.  We need our blockbuster novels—pitched to a fifth-grade reading level—to become blockbuster movies.  Reading them, watching them, sharing our sense of community with our friends who have experienced them affirms our sense of belonging and entitlement.

We become part of a groupish phenomenon.  We are no longer discerning readers with singular lives informed by the judgments of critics who make assessments based on standards of great literature.  Our book tastes are dictated by advertising, movie trailers, YouTube videos, and tweets.

There is the “Harry Potter” series (seven in all), which was inaugurated in 1997.  There is the “Twilight” series (four) introduced in 2005.  There is “The Hunger Games” trilogy, introduced in 2008.  All are pitched for the young adult market.  “Fifty Shades of Grey” borrows shamelessly from “Twilight” while assuming the “Mommy Porn” format.  Think “Sex and the City” (sex, sex, sex pitched as romance, romance, romance —plot optional) with a faux innocence meant to simulate the sensibility of “Twilight”.

But “Fifty Shades of Grey” comes with a naughty bag of toys and a kinky “bondage/discipline, dominance/submission, sadism/masochism (BDSM)” gestalt (  “Fifty Shades of Grey”, as the entry in Wikipedia notes,  was conceived as “Twilight” fan fiction, and its two central characters were modeled after Edward Cullen and Bella Swan.  Imagine “Twilight” turned inside out and pitched to adult woman (more or less) seeking titillation (and check out my essay “Twilight, Harry Potter, and the Youthful Reader: Morality, Gender, and $$$ in Today’s Fantasy Blockbusters”,

But all that misses the point.  I think Stieg Larsson’s “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” series is founded upon the same formula.  In today’s book market you self-publish (with generally meager sales) and/or try to market your fiction with formulaic strategies targeting the quasi literate (George Gissing’s “quarter-educated mob”) who are influenced by blockbuster sales, movie adaptations, and all the associated merchandise.  The so-called literary writers are less and less literary and increasingly relegated to the academic ghettos.  Then, there are the celebrities—in name or spirit—who pen their infamous memoirs.  Why have the alternatives become so limiting?  Americans today barely read, yet they crave the public affirmation that comes with “Everyone else is reading what I’m reading!”  We want to witness the private lives of celebrities, craving their gilded privilege while, simultaneously, routing for their ruin.

2) Let’s face it. Some books one reads for fun and adventure, and some I refer to as “airport reading”. Is there no one out there who labels certain books as maudlin, vapid or insipid?

No, in our postmodern era, hierarchical assessments informed by an appreciation of high culture have become taboo.  You are not permitted to venerate Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” while debunking “Fifty Shades of Grey”.  No one must be judged by the content of what they read.  Indeed with the advent of e-books and tablets, you can read your pornography nearly anywhere with impunity.  Today readers actually feel morally validated when they read a trashy best seller.  Why?  Because the average or mean dictating the so-called literary marketplace keeps getting dumbed down, down, and down.  Instead of being embarrassed by the “lit trash” they “consume”, readers feel vindicated because the books they read are now the standard bearers of the publishing marketplace.

In other words, in today’s mass market, celebratory culture “The Da Vinci Code” trumps “Don Quixote”.  If women read the same bestseller not only are they deemed to be savvy readers they are also credited with discerning taste since their selection is affirmed by thousands of other women reading the same book.  Indeed, virtually no one has read anything else, so to have a conversation about a serious novel these days requires that you either enter an MFA program/literary workshop or join a book club where people committed to serious literature agree to read the same selections.  These are the only ways you’re likely to have an informed conversation about anything other than a blockbuster novel.   Thus, the individual who reads personal selections from the Western Canon and adheres to literary standards of excellence has, in effect, become a solitary reader in a Literary Gulag where, ironically enough, to be imprisoned is to be set free.

3) I wonder what it says about the United States of America as a nation—the best seller lists. Your thoughts?

Yes, well, let’s examine “The New York Times Best Seller list” in fiction (print and e-books) for the week of August 19th, 2012,   No. 1 is “Fifty Shades of Grey” (E.L. James). No. 2 is the second in her trilogy, “Fifty Shades Darker”.  No. 3 is the third in her series, “Fifty Shades Freed”. No. 4, “Gone Girl” (Gillian Flynn), is about a woman who disappears on the fifth anniversary of her marriage, and the reader is left wondering if she was murdered by her husband.  No. 5, “Odd Apocalypse” (Dean Koontz), is about a man who communicates with the dead. No. 6, “Bared To You” (Sylvia Day), is about an obsessive relationship between two people.  No. 7, “Where We Belong” (Emily Giffin), is about a woman and the mysterious young girl who shows up and is linked to our heroine’s past.  Nos. 8 & 9 are Harlequin romances by, respectively, Susan Mallery and Linda Lael Miller.  No. 10 is by romance writer Danielle Steel. No. 11 is “Slammed” (Colleen Hoover), about love and slam poetry. No. 12 is “Black List” by Brad Thor, a suspense thriller about a pending terrorist attack. No 13, “The Light Between Oceans” (M.L. Stedman), tells the story of a lighthouse keeper, his wife,  and the baby they rescue who washes ashore.  No. 14, “Deep Down” (Lee Child), is part of the Jack Reacher crime series. No. 15, “I, Michael Bennett”, is a detective story by James Patterson and Michael Ledwidge.

Conversely, take a look at “The New York Times Best Seller list” in fiction for January 1, 1950 beginning with the No. 1 and proceeding down the list: “The Egyptian” by Mika Waltari; “Mary” (Asch novel) by Sholem Asch; “A Rage to Live” by John O’Hara; “The Way West” by A. B. Guthrie Jr.; “One on the House” by Mary Lasswell; “The Woman of Rome” by Albert Moravia; “The Big Fisherman” by Lloyd C. Douglas; “Let Love Come Last” by Taylor Caldwell; “The Man with the Golden Arm” by Nelson Algren; “The Mudlark” by Theodore Bonnet; “Loving” by Henry Green; “Prince of Egypt” by Dorothy Clarke Wilson; “The Dream Merchants” by Harold Robbins; “Cry, the Beloved Country” by Alan Paton; “The Sheltering Sky” by Paul Bowles; and “Gypsy Sixpence” by Edison Marshall,  This list was created in 1950, a few years before I was born.

Yet I have read the fiction of at least six of these writers: John O’Hara, Alberto Moravia, Nelson Algren, Henry Green, Harold Robbins, and Paul Bowles.  Arguably I should have read A. B. Guthrie Jr.’s book since it won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1950. Alan Paton’s “Cry,  The Beloved Country” presents the story about a black Anglican priest in South Africa in search of his son Absalom.  It seems familiar; maybe I’ve looked at it.  Certainly, it’s the type of novel I often feel compelled to read or used to feel compelled to read until everything became politically correct.

By contrast, from the 2012 list the only two writers whose fiction I’m sure I’ve read were E.L. James and Danielle Steel.  I looked at both in order to research my fiction or my literary criticism.  Perhaps I’ve also read Lee Child, again for research purposes, although I’ve managed thus far to avoid reading James Patterson.  The question for me, then, is the following: Why is nothing on “The New York Times Best Seller list” today of interest to me?  And why should I have read or wished to read books by half the writers on the list in 1950?  The reason is, of course, that the fiction was better written in 1950 than it is today and much more varied. Writers had life experiences that informed their stories instead of going directly into MFA programs and writing about “little me”.

Many people in 1950 read fiction to understand the world.  Today, no one reads fiction to understand the world.  Even if they wanted this kind of fiction, where would they find it?  The publishing world is entirely feminized and politically correct and that fictional world espouses the liberal progressive values of multicultural social justice at the expense of painful reality.  Today’s readers embrace fiction to validate their moral worth, not to discover excruciating truths.  Truth, for them, is the enemy drenched in steroids, capable of indiscriminate carnage, and willfully destructive of their fabulist universe.  I have argued in my essays archived on Literary Gulag that everything revealing and important about life in America has been excised from today’s fiction.

4) Fortunately, I will be in London in August for about a week, and will peruse what the public is reading there. Are the Brits more sophisticated than readers in the U.S.?

Let’s not go overboard.  Remember that E.L. James, author of the “Fifty Shades of Grey” trilogy, is British, and, of course, so is J.K. Rowling who wrote the “Harry Potter” series.

Nevertheless, there are British writers whose fiction I enjoy.  I recommend Will Self’s “The Book of Dave” (2006), a fabulist tale of London set both now and 500 years in the future.  I also like his short story collection “Liver: A Fictional Organ with a Surface Anatomy of Four Lobes”.  His book “Umbrella” is current on the list of books under consideration for the 2012 Man Booker Prize.

I also have been reading Edward St. Aubyn’s “Melrose” series.  Of these “Mother’s Milk” was shortlisted for the 2006 Man Booker Prize.  I suggest beginning with “Never Mind” and reading them all sequentially.  Imagine if Evelyn Waugh had been reborn as Edward St. Aubyn.  The outcome: pathos, comedy, and tragedy suffused with boredom and wit.

I highly recommend the BBC TV series, “House of Cards” (1990, 1993, 1995, downloadable from Netflix) based on the novels by Michael Dobbs (“House of Cards”, “To Play the King”, “The Final Cut”).  Dobbs was the former chief of staff at Conservative Party headquarters in Britain, and he knows his political theater.  That series is ranked 84th out of the best 100 TV series ever made in Britain (  It’s witty, smart, funny, dare I say, brilliant?  The type of film you seldom, if ever, see these days.  Kevin Spacey will be making a U.S. adaptation for American television set to air, I believe, in 2013. The BBC TV series and the novels can be taught together, that is, if you can get your hands on the novels.

5) There are some writers who actually seem to get better with age. I have just finished “11/22/63” and “Under the Dome” and will have to write Stephen King and tell him, he is actually getting better- incorporating history, with culture, with a love story, while also delving into mystery, and the human spirit and religion in “Under the Dome”.  Are there writers who twenty years ago, you may have scoffed at, but now examine more positively?

So far no surprises.  I was disappointed in some of the short stories of Saul Bellow (from his Collected Stories, published in 2001).  Years before I had read “Herzog” and “Humboldt’s Gift” and had been awed.  Then, I read “The Adventures of Augie March” and was reminded all over again of Bellow’s tremendous gifts.  Nevertheless, I decided that writers are generally either short story writers or novel writers.  Rarely can they do both brilliantly.  You’re either working on a large canvas (novel)  or concentrating on a moment in time (short story).  While I prefer writing on a big canvas (see my novels “The Cusp of Dreams”,  and “American Suite”,, I date my reawakened adult passion for fiction to my discovery of the short stories by John Cheever and Harold Brodkey.

6) The phenomenal success of “Fifty Shades of Grey” is a mystery to me.  These books seem to “magically appear” and run rampant. Are people that starved for a good book, or do they just mindlessly follow what everyone else is reading?

The answer is that today people’s taste for fiction is largely dictated by publishers. So yes, they mostly follow the trend.  If everyone is reading a certain book, it has cachet.  But my interest is in considering the situation from the vantage point of a historian.  What I find fascinating is the devolution of style and content, e.g. BDSM.  May I recommend that you start by reading Marquis de Sade’s “Justine”, published in 1791 followed by his “The 120 Days of Sodom”, which he penned in 1785?

Then read Anne Desclos’s “Story of O”, which was written under the pen name of Pauline Réage and scandalously published in 1954.  Skip forward in time to Catherine Millet’s pathetic confessional “The Sexual Life of Catherine M” (2001) of being “gang banged” and all that.  Conclude with “Fifty Shades of Grey” (read, if you have the will power, time, and inclination the rest of her trilogy provided you don’t have to spend a dime).  Compare the style of prose, the complexity of the sentences, the plot, the sentiments.  The “Story of O” might be interpreted as a literary rendering of “The 120 Days of Sodom” presented from a female point of view.  “The Sexual Life of Catherine M” parodies “Story of O” while posing as titillating “tell-all” memoir.  “Fifty Shades of Grey” is a parody of parody, a mockery of both “Twilight” and fiction earnestly engaged in depicting BDSM.  “Fifty Shades of Grey” does not shock.  (Nor, for that matter, did “The Sexual Life of Catherine M”.)

It’s for the women who want to spice up their concept of romance with a little naughtiness primed to give it a kinky twist.  “Fifty Shades of Grey” offers neither literary style nor plot substance.  It’s not even bonafide degradation.  Let’s call it today’s semi-decadent, suburban foreplay.  Not surprisingly its chief benefit has been to inspire the merchandising of BDSM sex props to facilitate the acting out of sex scenes depicted in the novel.

7) Pathos—no relation to Athos of “The Three Musketeers”. Is this what we are coming to?

Oh, yes.

8) Authors nowadays seem to be resurrecting the dead—dead themes, dead issues, nothing fresh, new or vibrant. . . . Or I am off on this?

We agree.  But I’m not the authority on the zombie books, films, games or otherwise.  My interest is, however, related to the cultural zombies inhabiting academe, schools, and libraries who under the guise of social justice and cultural relativity are laying waste to our culture.

9) Lastly, you always seem to be working on something that will grab the public by the jugular vein- how about a sneak preview of your next work?

I’d be delighted.  I’m presently covering the 2012 presidential election.  Given my expertise as a political historian (Ph.D. Columbia University) who has studied why popular conservatism continues to sway voters in the age of mass democracy, I am and will be covering the 2012 presidential election on my website, Literary Gulag. I am interested in how Barack Obama and Mitt Romney present their stories to voters.  I’ve just posted my first essay, “Righteous Battles: The Foundations of Political Warfare in the 2012 Presidential Election,” which examines how our moral belief systems influence who we are likely to support for president, My next essay will look at the role of personal narrative—the biographical stories that have shaped the lives of Obama and Romney—and how this influence is shaping their political and economic strategies.  I hope my perspective will provide readers with an insightful approach that reveals what’s really driving this campaign, and why it’s become so nasty.

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