Home > 2010, About reading, Feminism, James EL, Novel, Opinion, Personal Posts > Wandering into general background, an experiment

Wandering into general background, an experiment

November 17, 2012 Leave a comment Go to 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?

  1. Brian Joseph
    November 17, 2012 at 4:05 pm

    Great post Emma.

    I really sympathize with your sentiments about living in a bubble. I alos watch no television shows and stay away from at least 95% of what is currently popular in books, music, etc. Sometimes I feel a little alien but ultimately I read, listen and look at what is important to me. Who cares what everyone else is doing?

    I also enjoyed your comments on Fifty Shades of Grey. I will just say that I think that almost everyone should enjoy a little fluff once in a while. For many that fluff will be Fifty Shades of Grey. For others it is something different. Even I must confess to enjoying an old Godzilla movie once in a while:)


    • November 17, 2012 at 4:10 pm

      Children keep you grounded in today’s world, in a way.
      I agree with you, I’d rather read and watch what I like too. But sometimes, I’m a bit lacking when it comes to small talk. (especially since I know nothing about soccer, wine and golf)

      I like the fluff too (look at my category “Sugar Without Cellulite”) but I like my fluff well written. I enjoyed Harry Potter and I thought that Twilight was better than expected.


  2. November 17, 2012 at 4:25 pm

    I’m sorry to hear about the fried brain. I could never read 5o shades of “oh my”. I’ve read the first 5 or 10 pages on amazon just to get an idea and it was so atrociously bad … The few people at work who read it told me it wasn’t even pornographic or erotic or anything but maybe they had to spice up the French version as well (they had to for the German market it seems as it was too tame). I hope you will recover your faculties soon. As for the bubble – I never watch TV – I live ok with it.


    • November 17, 2012 at 4:32 pm

      I’ve read it in English, I can’t read bad stuff in French, it’s insufferable. When it’s in English, I always learn new words or ways of turning phrases.
      I don’t think it was spiced up for the French market.


    • November 17, 2012 at 4:35 pm

      PS: since my name is Emmanuelle and that I’ve had to endure thousands of comments about it, I really sympathize with all the Anastasias of the planet.


  3. November 17, 2012 at 7:10 pm

    I hadn’t heard of FIFTY SHADES and then suddenly I heard it dozens of times in one day. It makes me think of the 9 1/2 weeks sensation a few decades ago. Different strokes and all that. I won’t be reading it, won’t be watching it. Recently I had to have someone explain to me who the Kardashians were. You’d think that it’s not possible to go through life knowing all about these people who appear to be a unique tribe of consumers.


    • November 17, 2012 at 9:21 pm

      Don’t bother reading it, really.

      Who are the Kardashians? Wait, let me google this.


      • November 19, 2012 at 5:55 pm

        That’s what I did. Martin Amis’s book Lionel Asbo makes fun of celebrity culture–no Kardashians, of course, but it’s the same general idea.


        • November 19, 2012 at 9:15 pm

          Often on the same wavelength, aren’t we? I know nothing of the celebrities, not interested.


  4. November 17, 2012 at 8:00 pm

    I wrote about Fifty Shades a couple of months back because my usual policy of ‘read whatever you like, so long as you read’ really had to be amended in this case. It is SUCH a horrifically dreadful book, and what its popularity says about our culture is so depressing that I had to stand out against it. I would normally never condemn a book, but this is truly dire. I liked what you said about Marcel and Albertine – a far, far better representation of the same sort of relationship!


    • November 17, 2012 at 9:18 pm

      Thanks for mentioning your post, it’s clever and spot on. You’re better than me at constructing an argumentation and I agree with what you say.
      I’m with you on the “read anything as long as you read” and I like light stuff every now and then. Books are like films, you can’t go for the difficult ones all the time. But I’m also with you when you say that this is not worth reading at all.

      For other readers, here is the link and I recommend you this entry.


  5. November 21, 2012 at 1:04 am

    I think I’ve long since given up forcing myself to read or to watch rubbish merely for the dubious distinction of “keeping in touch”. When Billy Wilder was told in his old age that he was considered by many to be “out of touch”, he replied that he regarded that as a compliment. And everything I hear about “50 Shades” – as well as the passages I have sampled in a bookshop, and which I think are more than enough to allow me to form an opinion – makes me share your dismay that something that is both badly written and, frankly, so demeaning, could become so popular. And no, in answer to your question, there is nothing at all glamorous or sexy about what you rightly term “psychological harassment”.


  6. leroyhunter
    November 22, 2012 at 2:25 pm

    My attitude tends to be that people who only know “culture” in terms of “hits” – be that TV shows, books like 50 Grades of Shale, or homogenised Hollywood stuff – are the ones that are out of touch. Easy!


    • November 23, 2012 at 12:54 am

      A bit expeditive to me. These hits also anchor you in time. When you hear a popular song, you might think “I remember that song, it was a hit when I was 20” or “it was a hit when such political event happened”
      Living in a bubble makes you lose these landmarks, and time vanishes and I have the feeling I don’t have these collective landmarks anymore.


      • leroyhunter
        November 23, 2012 at 2:34 pm

        Yeah, I was being too glib. Of course those landmarks are there. I meant just that there’s more to life then just the big landmarks. Plus I think they become genuinely less important (for me anyway) as you get older.


        • November 23, 2012 at 9:51 pm

          I think these landmarks aren’t important in the present time.

          They’re precious for the future or I’d say for memories. I have no landmarks from 2001 to 2007 and it’s unsettling sometimes. Someone talks about a film and you’ve never heard of it and you check on its release date and you find out it was on the screens during that span of life without landmarks.
          Of course, I have other memories from that period but no one shares them with me except my family.


  7. November 22, 2012 at 7:29 pm

    You ask what ‘culture générale’ would be translated as in English. I suspect it would be ‘popular culture’, the sort of non-highbrow, non-literary or supposedly unsophisticated culture that, if used historically, would be called folklore.

    I enjoyed ‘Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe’ by Peter Burke recently which, though from the late 1970s, still has a lot of interesting things to say about that transition period of 1500-1800 when ‘unlearned’ sections of society were starting to have access to reading and writing skills and the distinction between classes was more clear-cut, so that we now mistakenly have a romantic notion of the unlettered populations of Europe as being ‘the folk’ with closer or purer ties to the natural world. Of course, it was never that simple.

    Popular culture now is something we all partake of, to a greater or lesser degree, however sophisticated those of us in our ivory towers might imagine ourselves to be. Does this approach the French term ‘culture générale’ at all? (Sorry to blather on.)


    • November 23, 2012 at 1:02 am

      Thanks for your very thoughtful comment.
      I asked an Anglophone co-worker: there is no equivalent to “culture générale” in English. To have a good “culture générale” means to be well cultured and it refers to a broad culture in various themes. When you say of something “c’est de la culture générale” it means it’s something you should know if you’re well educated but not something you learn in school. It’s more about the knowledge you acquire when you read papers, listen to the radio, in other words when you’re curious about the world you live in.
      It’s not the same as popular culture but part of popular culture is “culture générale”
      The game Trivial Pursuit is based on the concept of “culture générale”


      • November 23, 2012 at 2:04 am

        Thanks for clarifying that. I realised I was talking through my hat after actually doing a little research, and you’ve confirmed it! Good to learn something new though…


  8. December 2, 2012 at 10:50 pm

    Strolling in shops in search for Christmas gift, I stumbled upon boxes to improve your “culture générale” like here and here

    We seem slightly obsessed with the concept.

    Do you have that in your country?


  1. December 8, 2012 at 7:57 pm
  2. November 13, 2014 at 12:02 am
  3. December 15, 2019 at 1:08 pm

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