Grey Watchman
image via Publishers Weekly

Is Grey, the summer’s biggest publishing sensation (perhaps bar one, which we’ll get to in a minute) a real book? That’s the question posed by Andrew Hart in today’s Gawker Review of Books. In examining the phenomenal explosion of E.L. James’s series, and specifically this summer’s riff on the iconic 50 Shades books, he suggests that (in the immortal words of Gertrude Stein) “there’s no there there.”

In the summer of the simulacrum, Grey was the defining book. The simulacrum is the unreal stand-in. It’s the shadow of past experience that has taken the original’s place. It’s the evil twin who has killed off and is now masquerading as the good one. Simulacra can take the form of derivation after derivation of something that’s pure fluff to begin with. Take Coca-Cola: totally superfluous, serving no particular need, something we want only because we want it. Two levels removed from Coke, there’s its simulacrum: Caffeine-Free Coke Zero, a painstakingly accurate attempt to reproduce the taste of the original with none of its nutritional or medicinal effects. Drinking Caffeine-Free Coke Zero is “almost literally drink[ing] nothing in the guise of something,” and that “something” is itself pure fluff. Grey is the Caffeine-Free Coke Zero to Twilight’s Coke: at two steps removed, nothing masquerading as superfluous something. Grey is the perfect book of this summer.

Even among fans of the original series (well, what’s original? The first 50 Shades book? Or Twilight? Or can we trace this line back even further?), there seems to be a sense that this Christian Grey was #NotOurChristian. Seeing his inner life seemed to diminish him, rather than revealing mysteries untold. 

Hart takes this opportunity to turn to the other megabook of this summer (told you we’d get there!), Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, which, he argues, disappointed fans in a similar way:

The book’s failure to recapture what made To Kill a Mockingbird resonate with so many people—its failure to serve as simulacrum—is what made it so disappointing to so many people. I think that’s what’s so troubling about Atticus’s objectionable beliefs in Go Set a Watchman….A racist Atticus jeopardizes not just the integrity of the character, but of the place inside of yourself where you go to feel good when the world around you provides no possibility of hope or comfort. A racist Atticus drags the inner youthful idealist kicking and screaming into harsh contemporary reality, when so much is so wrong that it’s easy to question whether we’ve ever made any progress at all. If you were expecting a nostalgia-reinforcing simulacrum, a remix of the familiar feelings from To Kill a Mockingbird—and this summer, why wouldn’t you be?—the book struck a jarringly discordant note.

Particularly interesting to me is the way in which both of these books have been swept up in controversies of authorship: quite literally, in Harper Lee’s case, since the provenance of the manuscript has been questioned since its discovery was announced; but also for E.L. James, where it became a larger debate over whether fan fiction should be permitted/celebrated/shared for free/published for money/banned.

Is there a certain standard of “realness” that a book needs to achieve? Is public acclaim all that’s required? Or sales? Or am I (or is Gawker) just ignoring the fact that people like sequels, and it’s not a big deal?

I recommend checking out the entire article, if only so you can tell people you were reading a piece that discussed both E.L. James and Foucault! Lemme know what you think about it in the comments…