Brought across from Facebook, with minor emendations:
[Skepticlawyer] is getting rather sick of repeated requests for her opinion on 50 Shades of Grey, so here is a public announcement to the effect that she will not be reading it, with her reasons:
1. I have a low tolerance for bad writing. The fact that I know a reasonable amount about literature does not mean I read everything on offer. Life is too short and I do have a day-job (one that does, alas, involve reading a great deal of bad writing).
Please remember you are making this request of someone who once learnt an entire foreign language because she was annoyed with poor English translations from that language.
Also remember that you are making this request of someone who stops reading books if they are badly written or badly translated. I gave up after 10 pages of Twilight. I also stopped at the end of the first Stieg Larsson book in part because of this. The bad translation was on top of implausible characterisation and shocking inaccuracies in its portrait of the Swedish welfare state. As most of you know I am a classical liberal not enamoured of welfare states generally or the Swedish one in particular, so it takes quite a bit of error to make me leap to any given welfare state’s defence.
2. If I wish to read smut, I have a classics major. This means I can read well-written smut if I so choose.
3. I do not wish to be dragged into debates about the effect books (or other artistic works, like films) have on their readers. There is one particularly popular review of 50 Shades of Grey being shared on the interwebs that makes arguments of this type. Suffice to know that there is no evidence – none, zip, nada, zilch, zero, the big goose egg – that literature or films or other artistic representations have any specific causal effect on general human behaviour. People since Plato have argued that art can make people immoral or moral, well-behaved or criminal, and I have to say that just because a great thinker made that argument doesn’t make it any good.
That point goes in both directions, too.
I love Steven Pinker and think he is a brilliant and careful scholar, but when he argued that the 18th century novel contributed to the growth of human sympathy and compassion characteristic of the period, I had to restrain myself from throwing The Better Angels of our Nature across the room. There is not a shred of evidence for this. American Psycho will not make you debased or cruel or inclined to chop people up in your spare time. Pride and Prejudice will not teach you the difference between good and bad manners or how to judge character.
4. There is nothing so diverse as human sexuality. Nothing. People opining on what they perceive to be trends or patterns in this area are very often commenting on a very limited range of behaviours, limited thanks to the scope of their available research and their professional obligations. If I were to opine on human sexuality no doubt it would be coloured by my previous experience as a lawyer working in criminal justice. Any impression I thus conveyed would almost certainly be a false one.
5. 50 Shades of Grey is popular. Here is a universal truth: bad stuff can tap into something primal and be immensely popular. Gladiatorial shows. Rubber-necking at train wrecks. Etc. People are strange. See point 4 above. FWIW, I don’t actually care what people read or watch, as long as it is made legally (so porn is fine, but child porn is not, etc). Porn can be great. Catullus crosses over into porn quite a bit, and it’s awesome.
6. When it channels Plato: to wit, arguing that reading certain books or watching certain films has a causal effect on behaviour, or contributes to misogyny, or whatever (the arguments are both confused and confusing), feminism is deeply unconvincing. I prefer my feminism to be convincing, so here is a request: please stop it, feminist scholars, you are bringing a great and noble cause into disrepute.
7. It would be nice if we could all stop with insisting that creative productions of whatever sort show some sort of measurable effect of interest to the social sciences or sciences. Of course, it may be that one day we will discover that they do have measurable effects: science does indeed march on. If they don’t, however, it doesn’t matter. Things do not always have to be for something. They really don’t.