I haven’t read or seen Fifty Shades of Grey, but from what I gather, with friends on both sides of the Fifty Shades fence, it doesn’t seem like anything I want to check out. However, this isn’t the first time that sexist themes and lack-luster writing have created wildly successful works of American literature. While there are sadly a plethora of examples that fit this category I give you most famously: Ernest Hemingway
“Mr. Grey will see you now.”
(Photo via The Bourbon Brain Trust)
Unlike E. L. James, I’ve read Hemingway. I enjoyed For Whom the Bell Tolls and The Sun Also Rises. I also think The Old Man and The Sea is a truly moving work. But will I re-read them? Probably not.
Most of Hemingway’s work isn’t technically superior to anyone else writing during his lifetime, in fact I’d venture to say it’s inferior, but that was probably a key to his success. He was trained as a journalist not a novelist and since people were readings newspapers every day for their news, his writing style appealed to what they knew and made his work easily digestible and therefore incredibly marketable. Much the same, Fifty Shades of Grey famously began as a work of fan-fiction that was transformed into a novel, keeping the same tone, grammar, and style that the original web-friendly manuscript contained. This gives James the advantage of writing to an audience that, generally speaking, spends a large amount of time reading and communicating on the internet.
Since way more accomplished authors and scholars have explored Hemingway’s work with various feminist critiques, I’ll suffice to say that Hemingway is unapologetically sexist in his work. And for a literary figure whose reputation is slated on writing truthfully, I consider this to be a great hypocrisy. Honesty requires investigation and a willingness to be wrong. I admire authors who are able to build depth in all their characters and who, when writing in unfamiliar territory, try and fail gracefully. Hemingway’s refusal to explore female characters is not only sexist, it’s lazy writing.
Once again, the American literary scene is faced with a commercially successful text that misrepresents sexuality and healthy relationships. And it doesn’t matter what other stories and novels successful writers recommend, or what points they try to make; what the public wants the public will get. Ellen Glasgow (a Pulitzer Prize winning author writing around the same time as Hemingway ) once wrote “Mediocrity would always win by force of numbers, but it would win only more mediocrity.” It has often been the role of writers to change public opinion and expose the reading world to truths they might otherwise not want to face. With so much great writing already existing and continually begin written about themes similar to Fifty Shades of Gray, it’s important to promote those pieces and never stop working on our themes and ideas.
I’m not suggesting that E. L. James is the next Ernest Hemingway nor that she strives to be. What I’m saying is that I don’t want literary history to repeat itself or replay the same themes over and over. I want to continue advancing the art of writing both technically and socially.