One day I was talking to a friend who quietly admitted that she was reading the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy. She isn’t much of a reader, and she knows I’m a voracious bookworm, so when she told me she was reading E.L. James, she said it in a quasi-embarrassed way, like she was telling me a dirty secret and didn’t want me to judge her. My response was simple: Read whatever books you want. Read what you like to read — and don’t apologize for it.
The massive bestselling status of Fifty Shades of Grey is similar to the phenomenon that was Twilight. When Twilight and Grey hit bestseller status, “real writers” (if I were talking to you in person, I’d be using sarcastic air quotes here — it’s one of my more irritating habits) lamented the state of publishing, ragged on the writing, and waved those books in the air as if to say: Look what’s happened to great literature! It’s all going to the dogs! Ironically, some of those same people said the same thing about Harry Potter, until HP found its way into colleges and the annals of what People Who Know consider to be great works. Suddenly HP wasn’t so terrible.
If you asked these folks what they think people should be reading, they’re likely to name some of the heavy-hitters on the literary scene, or maybe some renegades like Hunter Thompson and Charles Bukowski, or maybe they’ll pull out the most obscure writers on the planet, just so you know that they know more than you about “good literature.” They’ll list on their fingers all the reasons bestsellers are awful and then go home and weave a grandiose tale on their computers (or overpriced leather-bound journals), which they assume will be The Best Book Ever Written, or The Book that Will Save Us.
As a writer of middle-grade and YA literature, a couple of people have asked me when I’m going to write a “real book.” I know what they mean, of course — they think books for kids are somehow less impressive than books for grown-ups — but I’m not sure how or why this stratosphere was created, especially considering that most adult readers and writers were once devouring those same middle-grade books that they now consider insignificant.
The fact of the matter is, writing is not a solitary experience. There’s a romanticized view of being a Writer that has largely eliminated the experience of the reader. Writing a book isn’t just about the writer. Someone has to actually read your book to give it life — kinda like the Velveteen Rabbit. So say what you will about Bad Books, but the fact is, readers are reading them and enjoying them. And it’s not because they’re illiterate. It’s not because they don’t “know art.” It’s not because they’re serfs in the literary fiefdom. It’s because they’re reading what they like to read. And no one should have to apologize for that.