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Julie Flynn Badal

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Let Me Count the Shades of Grey: Why HBO is the Modern-Day Houghton Mifflin

Posted: 06/14/2012 4:10 pm

I am with you, you men and women of a generation, or ever so many generations hence.
I project myself--also I return--I am with you, and know how it is.
Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so I felt.

--Walt Whitman, Crossing Brooklyn Ferry

It was one of those balmy spring evenings in New York where everything felt possible, like the world really could be an oyster.

Jack Johnson sang sweetly through my iPod ear buds as I walked past the newly green trees. Kids circled around the block on their bikes past bedtime. People on first dates were falling in love.

I cut through Brooklyn Heights to my book group meeting on the roof of an apartment building in Dumbo. We greeted each other with a kiss on the cheek and drank sparkling rose as the sun set over the East River.

The river taxis swerved through the water, leaving white crests in their wake.
The sky grew darker and the lights on the bridge brightened like a holiday. I thought of how this view had inspired one of the most celebrated poems in American history, Whitman's "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry."

Brooklyn is the home to countless authors, the setting for innumerable novels. We were blocks from where Arthur Miller lived with Marilyn Monroe; where Truman Capote wrote Breakfast at Tiffany's. Could there be a more ideal location for a book club meeting in all the world?

I wanted to pinch myself.

I genuinely enjoyed the company of the women in my book group. Most of us were on our second child and no longer had the energy for one upsmanship. To go anywhere at all in this city with two kids in a double stroller was akin to tilling the earth all day with a small plow. Sheer exhaustion killed all cattiness and competition between us.

On the rooftop in Dumbo, we spooned Middle Eastern salads onto our plates and settled back into the patio furniture to discuss our latest read. The splendor of the spring evening merited something sultry and transgressive. But we were not there to discuss Lady Chatterley's Lover or Tropic of Cancer.

Instead we gathered to talk about what every other woman in the nation could not stop masturbating about. We were there, in all seriousness, to talk about Fifty Shades of Grey.

***

Like many mothers of young children, I joined a book club to discuss something other than preschool applications and my husband's consuming work schedule. As a former English major, my literary ambitions once had some heft and pretension. My bookshelves were chock full of good intentions. I fantasized about taking on Joyce's Ulysses or finishing Swann's Way.

But who was I kidding? These novels were written for people who spent the morning strolling through the hedges behind their estates, people who sipped tea with their suitors at four o'clock. I could hardly find a second to blow dry my hair. I often resorted to eating handfuls of cashews or Annie's whole wheat bunnies out of my daughter's snack trap for lunch.

When would I find time for Proust?

So when someone in my book group suggested we read Fifty Shades, I wasn't going to get all Betty Friedan on her. Our lives had become a precarious tango between disappointment and pleasure. Who was I to deny us a bit of smut? From sun up to sun down, my two daughters compete wildly for a piece of me. My back cannot be turned for a second, lest they tear each other's hair out. By eight o'clock in the evening, I'd be happy to mix myself a skinny margarita and erase myself entirely with those Bravo housewives.

Our Fifty Shades discussion opened awkwardly. We fumbled around for substantive commentary, but there really wasn't a whole lot to say. E.L. James didn't leave anything to the imagination. I wouldn't be breaking new ground to examine the popularity of this book and what it signifies for women. Enough has been written about this topic and the reasons why women are sucked in. Suffice to say, I was pretty sure we'd collectively hit rock bottom.

We were not eleven years old anymore, sneaking peeks at romance novels in a deserted aisle of a grocery store. We were women with accomplishments -- among us sat a psychotherapist, attorney, photographer, teacher and social worker. But that evening it felt like we fell back into another era, a time when women didn't have a right to their own accomplishments or desire.

Maybe we should have just played bridge and drank mint juleps around a card table, leaving the good name of literature out of it.

My group had never read Lolita in Tehran, but perhaps we should have. Maybe the boundless intellectual freedom of our country spoils the illicit pleasures of reading something of quality. If we were forced to smuggle books across town beneath our chadors would we start to savor well-written passages like pieces of fine chocolate?

Given the Cheerio-encrusted state of our home lives, I don't want to begrudge any mother who bothers to read anything at all. Hey, I'm dying to read Andy Cohen's new memoir as much as the next woman. But the outrageous popularity of Fifty Shades makes me wonder whether Walter Benjamin was right all along. Maybe the novel is dead. At least for many of us. Sure, we'd all like to consider ourselves literary. The label seems neutral enough, like being a potter or gardener. But good books require guts and stamina. They are like little kids with a piñata. They bash things to bits with a big stick and won't let up until the job is done. That little papier-mâché donkey that is your life will have its insides spilled out all over the ground.

Without Oprah to curate our book club picks, we're ambling around like lost children, falling prey to perverts lurking in the shadows. Given the power of the written word, I'm not so sure reading something is better than reading nothing.

A part of me is beginning to think we should just call it a day.

We're better off watching good television together like many did a decade ago, screening early seasons of Sex in the City while eating carryout on their friend's living room floors. Today, television has never been better and the quality of writing is worlds above the women's commercial fiction publishing houses are peddling. Who is to say that a book is more thought-provoking than a television show?

The female protagonists of shows like HBO's Enlightened, Veep, and Girls struggle to locate themselves in the bewildering chaos and hypocrisy of modern life. The choices these characters make are not always wise. Sometimes they're even cringe-worthy. But these characters continue the fight for a sense of self despite obstacles and humiliation. If we somehow fail to relate to these achingly real portrayals, we may just learn something about the complexities our growing children might face.

Lena Dunham, the 26-year-old writer, actor and executive producer of Girls, is becoming something of a force to contend with. I mean, just last week she moved out of her parents' apartment in Brooklyn Heights into her own place a few blocks away.

Pushing my two daughters around town in a stroller, I've often spotted Dunham and other actors from the show. They are on their way to the laundromat or grabbing coffee at Starbucks, doing what regular people do. But for me, it's something of a thrill to see them so close. I'm reminded of the playwrights, poets and novelists that lived and wrote in this neighborhood that I now call home. And I would hazard to guess that Dunham, in all her self-absorbed, obsessive and wounded ways, just might be the new voice of her generation.

 
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