In my mind, there’s a scale between commercial and artistic. 100% commercial is shit like Jersey Shore, The Real Housewives, and the Kardashians. There’s nothing thoughtful or artistic about it–people set up cameras in front of a group of “adults” who feed off of attention and the observer effect. 100% artistic would be works that may have commercial value, but that’s not their intent–David Lynch comes to mind.
My point is that not everything that sells is good, and not everything that’s good sells. Firefly (which I will go to my grave defending as a show that produced some of the most artistically moving episodes of television of the 21st century), was cancelled after one season. Jersey Shore has a musical.
All this to say that… I started reading 50 Shades of Grey. I know, I know, I’m ashamed. I’m giving it a go partially because I wanted to see what all the fuss is about, and partially because I ascribe the same philosophy about criticizing art as I do about criticizing politics: if you don’t vote, you don’t get to complain. Well, I really, really, REALLY wanted to complain about 50 Shades, but I couldn’t do that based on other people’s reviews and the Wikipedia plot summary. Don’t worry–I didn’t actually pay money for it. I’m just going to say I got a free version on my Kindle and pretend I got it from the library.
I was emailing back and forth with my sister, who has made it abundantly clear that she will NOT read 50 Shades of Grey. I casually mentioned that actor Ian Somerhalder (formerly of LOST and currently of The Vampire Diaries) is interested in playing the role of Christian (why this rips out my still-beating heart is another post for another time). My sister’s response: “DID SHE SERIOUSLY GET A MOVIE DEAL? I THOUGHT THAT WAS A JOKE. I WILL NOT PAY TO GO SEE PORN.” Ignoring the obvious correlation joke (“so you mean you’ll go see porn for free?”), it got me thinking.
Why is a book series like 50 Shades of Grey–which, I refuse to let people forget, started off as alternate universe Twilight fanfiction–getting developed for the screen by a big-name company like Universal? It’s definitely not the writing quality. It’s not the inherent likability of the characters (frankly I can barely handle clumsy Bella and possessive Edward, let alone clumsy Ana and possessive Christian). It’s not the subtle, respectful way the author handles the culture of BDSM (that was sarcasm, by the way).
It’s because the story is addictive. It’s commercial. There’s something in it that makes us want to know more, to turn the page, to ignore our better judgement and the taste in literature we’ve cultivated since sophomore year of high school when our English teachers sat us down and explained why Shakespeare is worth reading. It’s the same reason why Twilight made it to the big screen in the first place.
My fiction and playwriting classes in college didn’t talk about commercial viability much. They focused on art, on telling a story, on good imagery and symbolism and beautiful writing. This is all very well and good, except that it’s not likely to make your writing go viral. And many writers are fine with that–they might not want their books to be made into movies or to be added to Oprah’s book club, because that’s not why they write.
My TV writing classes were a different story. My teachers encouraged us to write good characters, strong dialogue, funny jokes, evocative scenes of drama, yes, but they wanted us to write things that were approachable. Sellable. Dare I say… commercial. Because the harsh reality in the world of television is that artistic gets ignored and commercial goes viral. Artistic gets cancelled and commercial gets renewed for a second season of 23 episodes. So my teachers dutifully beat the idealism out of us and pushed us to write commercially viable pieces of work.
And it was the best teaching method they could have employed, because it helped me to sniff out what the masses want–what they yearn for, what they’ll dutifully read even if they feel the need to hide the cover through a Kindle or a magazine. The thing is, no matter how much I hate 50 Shades of Grey, it makes me feel better about my own writing, because my writing is roughly 5 times better. I would say it’s 10 times better, but my mother raised me to be a lady, and ladies are always modest.
If I can combine my above average writing skills* and my nose for commercial viability into a potent novel-writing potion, I can literally rule the world.** So sit back, try not to be scared, and enjoy the ride.
*Assuming that average is the average joe and above average means I’ve spent the last 10 years of my life honing my writing, both creatively and academically.
**It’s entirely possibly that I really mean figuratively.
UPDATE: Between writing this post and publishing it, I actually tried to read 50 Shades. The writing is easily as poor as everyone has said it was, so I didn’t even get to the juicy parts before my good taste forbid me from continuing to read. Maybe I’ll suck it up and finish it someday, but at the moment… nope.