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Wandering into general background, an experiment

November 17, 2012 23 comments

I know, I know, I should be writing by billet about Breathing Lessons or the one about Classé sans suite. Right now, I can’t. My brain cells have been fried for a couple of weeks; I haven’t reached the page 50 of Grand Hotel; Marcel acts like a stalker with Albertine and I won’t go on with these books as I don’t want to ruin them for me by reading them at a bad time. That leaves me with books for fried brains and the radio.

Let’s start with the radio. The other day, I heard an interview of François Reynaert and Vincent Brocvielle, co-authors of the recently released Le Kit du 21e siècle, Nouveau manuel de culture générale. I don’t know how to say culture générale in English. The dictionary says general knowledge but I’m not happy with it; it’s more like cultural background to me. Well, these two writers have described in their book the basic cultural background needed to live in the 21st century. One of them argued that this cultural background cannot be only literary as the elites think it should be, but more a common base of general knowledge about the world we live in. It goes from basic economy, to books and without forgetting TV shows, commercials and films. His opinion is that these common references are a cement to a society, a way to build a collective psyche. I agree with that.

But then I started challenging myself on this. I don’t watch TV, I have no idea of the latest shows, the commercials or the star anchormen of the moment. I know nothing about the new humorists or singers. The only thing I want to do when I have free time after work and family life is crawl on the couch with a book or play the piano. That interview made me question my way of living. Am I excluding myself from my environment, cutting myself from the general background of the French society? This is still nagging at me and I don’t have a clue. I’m not going to start watching stupid TV shows to be on the same wavelength as my fellow citizens, am I?

This brought back a conversation I had a month ago with my in-law when she asked me whether I planned to read Fifty Shades of Grey whose French translation was just released. I’d never heard of the book at the time and that she knew about a book I didn’t stung a little. I’m the bookish one in the family. So I investigated. I saw a small article about it in Télérama, not in the literary section (how wise) but in the news section. The curiosity I have for books is so endless that I’m ready to try a book like this to understand why it is such a success, something I’m not ready to do with TV shows.

And here I am, downloading the English version of EL James’s success. A nous, “mommy porn”, fried brains should suffice for this.

So what? Let’s say this read could be the source of endless sarcasm on my side and I’ll spare you the summary. I think that Stephenie Meyer could claim at least half of the money EL James makes with her book as it is only a transposition of Twilight. It’s everywhere, in the secret required from the heroin (she signs a NDA), the descriptions of the main characters, their parents, the location, the plot. It’s so blatant that it’s almost painful. Sure, EL James crosses the PC line and dares to use fuck and all its grammatical derivatives, but when it comes to style, compared to EL James, Stephanie Meyer is a reincarnation of a Brontë sister. I swear I will never make fun of creative writing classes in the future, because I wished EL James had attended some. Her style is so appalling that she doesn’t deserve to be called a writer. Scribbler sounds more appropriate. The good thing about reading this kind of book in English is that you’re sure to memorize the few words you actually don’t know because they’re hammered so many times that in the end, they stay in your memory, fried brains or not. So Christian Grey smirks and I’ll never forget that word.

The substance of the book is terrifying of stupidity but I wonder what it means about our century. Why is it so successful? It’s marketed for women. Is this what we consider a glamorous relationship? A woman needs to be submissive? And you, poor men, you need to be frightening, mercurial, controlling and domineering? When were kind, funny and attentive flushed in the bathroom of the 21st century relationships? As a feminist, I wonder what the readers find in this book. It’s not about sex games between consenting adults, it’s about power, hurting and suffocating someone’s personality. It’s about psychological harassment. Is that glamorous?

Still investigating the phenomenon, I learnt that it will be made into an American film. Immediately, I wondered about the business plan –can’t help it, job conditioning—and about the scenario for such a book in a country that has explicit lyrics stickers on their CDs. How are they going to make a profit on a film that will be forbidden to people under 18? Through DVDs and derivatives? Are they going to bowdlerize savagely and cut all the BDSM sex scenes? But then, what’s the point? I’m curious about that and about who will dare to play the main roles.

So, the conclusion about Fifty Shades of Grey? I’m glad I read it, I can criticize it freely now. After reading it, my advice is the following: if you want to read about a controlling guy, a stalker and man who has a sick vision of love relationships, just read La Prisonnière by Marcel Proust, there’s plenty of that in this volume of In Search of Lost Time and at least you’ll have a brilliant literary style. (More of that in an upcoming billet). If you’re really curious about submission, try Histoire d’O by Pauline Réage. And if you want real kinky sex, just go back to the source and read Justine ou les malheurs de la vertu by the Marquis de Sade. But forget about EL James.

After this enlightening experience, where do I stand about sharing the general background? The thought is still nagging at me, but honestly, I’m not sure I want to experiment further. May I stay in my bubble with my TBR and my piano?

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