So I tried to read Fifty Shades of Grey, but I got bored after a dozen pages, and then the library wanted it back, because there were a zillion more holds on it. I returned it without regret. It was not so poorly written as some people said. It was just a romance, written in the predictable prose typical of the genre; what I read was unremarkable.
It was silly, of course. Most books are. Most people are. We want silly things. We want the world to be other than it is. We want there to be someone young and gorgeous, who at age twenty nine has a hundred thousand employees -- I may be getting my numbers wrong here, but you get the picture -- and who sees us, not as commonplace, but as extraordinarily attractive. We want our attraction in return to be unambiguous and uncontrollable, something that sweeps us (and our scruples) away in a grand flood. That would be marvelous.
It's the basic plot of the romance novel, from Jane Eyre on: someone from a higher, more authentic, more intense, higher-class world (however we conceive of that; the variations are endless, depending on one's taste and training) will notice that we are special, pluck us out of a tedious low-class world that is blind to our wonderfulness, and bring us into theirs. Where we will shine with the brightness that was always there, but never properly seen.
It's a good plot. It has deep roots, and it's based on a truth that we really don't want to lose hold of. We are, in fact, special and precious, we are radically undervalued, and a world that would appreciate us is possible. These things are all true, and keeping them central is worth a little silliness.
So the silliness is not the problem. The problem, really, is that it's not silly enough. It doesn't say, "what would the world that valued me really look like? What would I really have to do, so that someone -- anyone, master of empires or no -- could see what is extraordinary in me? What perception would I have to cultivate, in order to be overwhelmed by my desire for somebody -- anybody -- outside the covers of a book or the frame of an LCD screen? We need to build that world, to expose that extraordinary interior, and to cultivate that perception.
I don't know where Fifty Shades was going to go: I didn't really think it was going to go anywhere that would help me with any of those three tasks. If I were to propose an objection to it, it would only be that it wasn't silly enough to be really helpful. It proposes a world that's just a little different from ours, an exposure just a little more extensive, a perception just slightly shifted. That is not going to do it.
Now contrast my friend Larissa Brown's Beautiful Wreck: a book that understands how different the world would need to be, how sharpened and cleared one's senses would have to be, how hard one would have to work, before such a narrative could really make sense. Now there is a romance novel worth reading.