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Quality versus commercial success

Sometimes those of us who are content to confess “I know nothing about Art [with a capital ‘a’] but I know what I like …” are condemned for either copping out and/or being Philistines, but that’s life and anyway so what?

Personally, for example as regards music I am devoid of both ability and sensibility. I’m afraid I’m a Classic FM man when it comes to classical music – give me the mainstream popular favourites, or something I’ve never heard before which sounds like either a successful television series theme tune or a pastiche of the style of one of the composers traditionally thought as one of the ‘greats’ every time.

Offerings from the likes of Stockhausen, Cage … or indeed anyone who dares to market random plinkety-plonks, discordant atonal screeches, or anything sounding like two hyperactive toddlers left alone with a hammer in a music instruments room, and sadly you’ve lost me before you can press the CD machine ‘play’ button.

When it comes to jazz, or indeed what might be terms intellectual or ‘difficult’ pop/rock music, the avant garde instinctively repels me. I’m the kind of guy for whom music is an ‘add on’, just a background  accompaniment to what I’m doing in life – not something that I would ever concentrate upon or for which would choose to sit down, clear my afternoon simply in order to let a major piece or music or album wash over me.

It’s the same with painting, sculpture or anything that might be taught in an Art class. For me, anything that I might be capable of producing automatically fails the quality test by definition. Thus anything hanging in a gallery that involves just throwing paint at a canvas, or manoeuvring it with your nude body, and/or riding around it on a bicycle whilst wearing a beret and artist’s smock, is out.

Yes, if your definition of one is someone ‘who believes you have to be able to prove you can paint in the grand, classical manner before you can be generally accepted as a worthy experimental artist exploring shapes, squiggles and abstract concepts’, I am happy to be condemned as a Philistine.

Then it comes to literature, which is my topic of the day.

I have not read Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James, the self-styled erotic romantic novel featuring BDSM – bondage, domination, sado-masochism – apparently specifically aimed at a female readership, first published as an e-book in 2011. I understand, by looking it up on the internet, that there are in fact it is a trilogy, with Fifty Shades Of Grey being the first, Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed being the others. According to its Wikipedia entry, the Fifty Shades oeuvre has so far been translated into 52 languages and has sold 125 million copies in total. The 2015 movie of Fifty Shades of Grey, starring Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan as the female and male protagonists, premiered in February 2015 and passed the US$500 million mark at the box office within five weeks.

Finally, to complete the story, this month E.L. James published Grey, the telling of the Fifty Shades main relationship from the viewpoint of the male lead, to considerable publicity, mixed reviews and sales success.

I must here (again) make a confession. I don’t read enough to be able to class myself as an intellectual. By preference I go for histories, reportage, biographies, diaries and letters rather than fiction anyway. But that’s just me.

From what I have read and seen, the Fifty Shades Of Grey phenomenon has divided opinions among female readers, critics and pundits.

Some welcome it at a signal of female sexual emancipation and openness. Others decry it as exploitative, pandering to male dominance and misogynistic tendencies and contrary to all feminist principles, effectively a bad development because it is setting back the cause of ‘sisterhood’ by decades.

I’m not really interested in these issues and their implications. My instinct – being a kind of ‘let it all hang out’ type of guy, willing to try anything at least once – is that if secretly, deep down, some (maybe all) women sometimes harbour fantasies or proclivities leaning towards being dominated, or indeed themselves dominating, in their sexual relationships then (as long as nobody gets hurt or damaged) I see nothing wrong in it. Go for it, girls!

Today I’m more interested in the punditry and peer comment. Of those I’ve been exposed to, 80% of the written and spoken reviews of both books and movie have been dismissive of its quality as ‘Art’. Critics of both genders have been queuing to condemn James’s writing style as – I’m summarising here – laughably terrible, unwieldly, second-rate and banal.

Ditto for the movie.

The point I wished to make is that the world of books and publishing is a strange one. It’s full of contradictions, back-biting, media feuds and hypocrisies. One of its ironies is that commercial success – though when it happens quite capable of being staggeringly large – is extremely rare, irrespective of the quality of the writing, and often completely random.

How frustrating must it be for a female author of indisputable talent – and also for her agent and publisher – to sell just a few hundred copies of each of her well-received novels when, further down the street, another book [for example, a bog-standard ‘ghosted’ autobiography of some former sports star or Page Three girl with a certain notoriety] can shift millions of copies and top the best-seller lists.

On the other hand, which would you rather be?

A highly-regarded author who can barely make a living from his or her ‘vocational’ skill … and please don’t kid yourself that they aren’t vast swatches of such individuals … or someone who, although having to suffer being universally slated as naff and hopeless in the media every week, produces a book that somehow connects with the public at large, thereafter allowing them to laugh all the way to the bank and live like royalty for the rest of their lives?

I suspect that a large proportion of the critical herd that delights in attacking Fifty Shades is inwardly resentfully thinking “Crickey, its success has nothing to do with the author’s quality, talent or indeed any creativity in the story – to put no finer point upon it, I could have written that!”

Envy is a strange mistress.


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About Guy Danaway

Guy Danaway and his family live on the outskirts of Rugby. He is chairman of a small engineering company and has been a keen club cyclist for many years. He has edited Cycling Weekly since 1984 and is a regular contributor to the media on cycling issues. More Posts