There's been a bit of a trend on the mega-bestseller list over the past few years: ridiculous romances for women. First, we had Twilight, the epic love story of an entirely unremarkable high school Junior and the vampire who stalks her. Then we had, of all things, a Twilight fanfiction, with the names changed, become the fastest selling paperback of all time.
And everyone has been eager to get on the mockery bandwagon.
There are plenty of things to criticize in these books. Not only is the writing style far from stellar, but the characterization and themes often have disturbing implications. However, while these books are eminently criticizable, even mockable, that mockery should focus on the text, and not on the readers.
Although I haven't read 50 Shades of Grey, I read all of the Twilight books, and I found many elements of them offensive. Yet I read all of them, and I frequently enjoyed them. Despite the fact that Meyer's writing style leaves a lot to be desired, despite the fact that Bella isn't really a character at all, and despite the fact that the "love interests" frequently made me want to throw the books against a wall, I found the series strangely addictive. They were like book popcorn -- substance-less, most likely bad for me, but something mindless to munch on after a stressful day.
I actually think it's a good thing that books like 50 Shades of Grey are appearing in literature. All mediums have the "mindless enjoyment" segment. Movies like Transformers -- all explosions and action, little plot or characterization -- make millions every summer. Reality TV shows, from Toddlers and Tiaras to American Idol, get consistently high ratings, and many people complain about shows like Glee for six days a week, and then tune in on the seventh. With "the sky is falling!" op eds lamenting the decline of reading, it's wonderful to see proof that people do read, not only as a chore for intellectual fulfilment, but for mindless, gossip-inspiring, relaxing fun.
Moreover, as a culture, we often enjoy bad things. We revel in ridiculousness. Last year, everyone was making fun of the song Friday -- but they were also watching it, singing it, remixing it, and bringing it up on a daily basis. Although I don't know anyone who would call themselves a "Twilight fan" (far from it), the books came up in frequent conversation every time a new movie was released. I know many people who bought copies of 50 Shades of Grey for the purposes of mockery. Combine these books' well-known popularity with the common cry of "oh my god, it's so bad!" and of course more and more people are going to pick up copies and give it a look. They don't want to miss out on the fun.
But all of these things get thrown aside because these books are popular with girls and with women. Twilight fans get despised by "real fans" at events like Comic Con, because screaming girls are the last things they want around. 50 Shades of Grey gets dubbed "mommy porn," because goodness knows that throwing the idea of a mother reading it in there makes it absurd and amusing. Because women are the ones buying and enjoying these books, they become a definitive description of women's tastes. All women like these books seriously. All women who read these books think that they are quality literature. All women have no interest in anything beyond swooning romance. Let us all point and laugh at the ridiculous tastes that women have in books. When a movie like Transformers comes out, no one declares it proof that men are all brainless, because they like unrealistic explosions and action occasionally, instead of always watching obscure indie films. Yet because people are already predisposed to consider "women's interests" to be shallow and silly, they take these books' popularity as proof of this theory, instead of proof of the fact that sometimes, women enjoy a bit of light entertainment too.
It's all turned into another case of the "not like other girls" syndrome. Other women buy it sincerely, and sincerely think that it is quality literature, because other women are silly. Female readers are put on the defensive: "I read it, but only to mock it! I'm not like the others!", or "I love YA fiction, but not Twilight! I'm smart, I promise!" We don't want to be painted with the Idiot Brush that the media uses to dismiss these female readers, but the idea of "silly women" and "ridiculous romance" are so ingrained that we often don't think to question whether these labels actually apply to other readers, or whether they, too, are being mocked and belittled for no good reason.
If someone enjoys a book... good for them. They don't have to defend their enjoyment, or have their intelligence doubted because they like a bit of light entertainment. Critics can criticize these books. They can mock them and quote them and tear them apart and analyze the messages that they send. But they should leave the readers alone.