Today, we have a culture of bias, one which celebrates our irrationalities rather than seeking to minimize them. This culture infects our politics, relationships, and economy—all negatively—not just in the United States but around the world. Most prominently, the widespread and unchecked influence of confirmation bias is worsening divisions in racial and gender prejudice, class tensions, and politics. I’m in plentiful company when I say irrationality in today’s discourse, never mind a dearth of empathy, is threatening to kill us.
Alas, this essay won’t do much to fix these global woes. My sights aren’t so high.
Instead, I intend to focus here on a specific subset of consumer bias, though one that speaks volumes to our larger social ills: biases in what we read, as individuals, and how we think about what we read. What we read, as a society, has a strong bearing on the health of our society. How much we read, similarly, hints at our society’s well-being, stability, and growth. Viewed through a contemporary capitalist lens, what we read, how we read, and how much we read reflect the ethical and intellectual makeup of our consumer choices, especially in a society which so clearly exchanges time for money. Every hour spent reading caries with it, after all, an opportunity cost. In this narrow sense, then, to read is to consume, but what are we consuming and how does it affect us? Are today’s consumers rational readers or, if you will, are readers rational consumers?
The (Ir)Rational Reader
Decades of business research contradict the narrative of the “rational consumer.” Biases lead consumers to be both irrationally critical of goods and services which may be helpful to them, as well as accepting of what may harm them. Contrary to the message of many first-year business or economics courses, consumers are neither particularly well informed nor systematic in their decisions. They are driven mostly by the paradoxes of choice, by availability bias, and by social pressures—not by reason. These emotionally embedded forces lead most people to predictably rote behavior, patterns driven not by analysis but by their subconscious. In fact, absent a systematic approach to decision making, we now know that our “preferences are malleable and context-dependent, that memory and perceptions are often biased and statistically flawed, and decision tasks are often neglected or misunderstood.”
In other words, most people make most of their decisions, most of the time, on subconscious autopilot. They are not, in the strictest sense, making any decisions whatsoever. Worse, the literature tells us, they then post-rationalize these irrationalities, convincing themselves that their choices were in fact in their own best interest, when in fact they were anything but.
Our biases, the literature tells us, are extremely difficult to counteract. They underpin our cognitive wiring, leftovers from survival strategies critical to our ancestors. A tendency toward availability bias, for example, made sense when our entire species lived in small tribes, with limited social choices and even more limited environmental opportunities; negativity bias made sense when, every day, our worst-case scenarios almost invariably ended in death.
As individuals, we are wired for irrational biases. It takes systematic, analytical, logical efforts to triumph against them.
Unfortunately, most of us have no idea our biases bind us so completely, or that there’s any fight against them to be won. We live too much in a culture which revels in them.
What, then, is this culture of bias? In a culture of bias, individual feelings, preferences, loyalties, and habits are more celebrated, more prevalent, and carry more weight than observable facts, empiricism, logic, and analysis. This system minimizes, ignores, or is largely ignorant of the effect of biases on all of us. Emotivism may be long out of vogue as a formal system of moral thinking, but in practice it’s alive and well in today’s globalist super-society, and Americans aren’t the only ones living by their impulses.
That this doesn’t fill the masses with horror, that we’re not collectively aghast and prepared to do anything to make more capable decisions, is a proof of the culture’s existence. Instead of seeking reason, in our culture we tend to accept our own discernment prima facie, untested and unchecked. Many of us do not learn, in our lifetimes, the basics of logic or rhetoric, either to utilize them or to fight their misuse; insidiously, our society accepts and even celebrates irrationality. That logical biases exist, and what they mean for our day-to-day behavior, seems to be information utilized mostly by marketing gurus and advertisers, who take advantage of our ignorance to twist our perceptions—a variety of Roland Barthes’s mythologies, the worst kind, what Harry Frankfurt labelled bullshit. We are a society aswim in it.
We can rewire our biases, to some extent, but they will remain with us throughout our lives. What are we to do? We can question them, check them against formal analyses, and point them to more factual and helpful ends.
Unfortunately, this requires real work.
The Importance of Reading
People often read to escape work, the doldrums, or other unpleasantnesses. We use fiction especially to live through another’s eyes, to let someone else’s troubles eclipse our own. Excepting the books assigned to us in our education, most of what we read, we read by choice. If I read, I may choose between non-fiction and fiction. In fiction, I can choose between “literature” and “genre”, and in “genre” I might choose between science fiction, romance, mystery, adventure, and so on. Within each “genre,” of course, I can choose between authors.
For example, I may choose Anne Rice or Stephenie Meyer over E.L. James, whose “genres” do not quite align but who share some qualities in common. (More on these three in a bit.) Since we choose what we read, it stands to follow that we make irrational choices in what we read as much as we make irrational choices for anything else. For those who say that what we read, or whether we read, are unimportant or are entirely arbitrary choices and have no impact beyond individual preference, consider: reading fiction strongly impacts our personality; television or film do much less to develop critical thinking, vocabulary, and cognition than does the written word, so reading A Song of Ice and Fire really is much better for you than watching A Game of Thrones; and without reading—especially deep, difficult reading—humans typically do not learn disembedded thinking, a crucial skill in any advanced society. Literally, a democracy or republic which does not read will, almost by definition, wither; its members will lack both the dialectical abilities to debate one another and to resolve their differences, as well as the empathy to desire what’s best for their fellow citizens.
In other words, reading (even reading fiction) is in itself an exceptionally rational act, one which can deliver extraordinary benefits. Reading contributes to an individual’s development, and it plays an incalculable, central role in the functioning of a healthy democracy or republic. It follows that what we read and how we read matters.
Bias in reading exists aside from mere preference. We all have preferences; for example, I prefer to read science fiction over romance, and when we say that someone has a preference, we generally accept that such preference is personal and unforced. Sometimes we even mean that it is informed, though often the idea of an informed preference is troubled from the start. Thus, for now, let us leave questions of reader preference aside. What matters here is that bias exists and that it is a separate phenomenon from preference.
In the more academic sense, bias “is defined as any process at any stage of inference that tends to produce results or conclusions that differ systematically from the truth.” Though similar, this definition differs from my dictionary’s: “An inclination or prejudice for or against one person or group, especially in a way considered to be unfair.”
Now, let’s apply something like the spirit of these definitions to the concepts of readers and books. We could, I suppose, apply it to drivers and cars, chefs and foodies, or climbers and ropes, but I’m interested in bias as it applies to books because I’m a writer, and because I believe that a greater focus on bias by a greater number of writers and readers could shift the book industry, and our society, for the better. Read better words, make a better world.
Preference, Reader Bias, and Analysis: Non-Fiction
While I want to focus most of this essay on fiction, we should obviously analyze non-fiction, as well, to weigh its value for us and for others. If I try to read Ken Ham’s Demolishing Supposed Bible Contradictions, for example, I can do so as generously as possible and yet I can scarcely move past Jason Lisle’s introduction. Notably, Lisle establishes the criteria by which Ham later categorizes the various “non-contradictions” of the Bible; Ham’s own structure depends on Lisle’s. Yet by page 19, Lisle’s propositions show serious fractures, and by page 20 I can reject the entirety of the text because Lisle’s argument dismisses millennia-old foundations of logic, causality, and reason. For me to accept either Lisle or Ham, I would have to jettison formal reason, Aristotelean logic, and centuries of observation. Furthermore, I would need to adopt a worldview which permits, and even requires, capricious intercessions by an arbitrary deity. Additionally, I would need to ignore arguments presented by more respected, capable, and careful theologians, ones whose rigor I might respect even while remaining an agnostic and a sceptic. I would, lastly, need to obliterate any respect I had for any kind of humanism; indeed, I would have to return to a mindset more appropriate to 617 CE than 2017 CE, and I would have to forget the histories and definitions of both secularism and science. I can only conclude that neither Dr. Lisle nor Mr. Ham have any intention of convincing logicians, or anyone capable of a modicum of critical reflection—that cannot be their goal—and that their texts exist only to reinforce the gullibility of the uncritical and the uneducated, to lend their followers a flickering sense of empty superiority. I can’t recommend anything by Ham, but may I suggest The Blind Watchmaker or Cosmos?
Before shifting to discussions of fiction, it’s also worth noting the concept of preference in non-fiction reading. One may prefer to read no non-fiction—most illogical—but assuming that one reads non-fiction, what about preferences? Are religious apologetics or treatises on astrology on equal footing with books about economics or neurobiology by peer-reviewed experts? Are tomes about flat-Earth theory, billed as non-fiction, on par with readings on the latest findings in extraterrestrial geology? The answer to these last two questions is a resounding no. But what about preferring astronomy texts to applied biology? Or any two texts from physics or chemistry, from well-argued historians, or from the humanities?
Read as you choose.
We can’t read everything, and certainly not in a timely fashion. Available knowledge about real phenomena, with real bearing on our lives, has outstripped any individual’s ability to learn; we passed this threshold long ago. What are we to do? Read critically and learn deeply, for understanding the rigors of any one field or discipline is likely to give us an appreciation for and something of the ability to judge quality and capability in other fields and disciplines, to recognize when others are also rigorous in their thinking, reading, and studies; this isn’t foolproof, but it’s a start. We can develop a network of writers, thinkers, speakers, researchers, debaters, and others who we know to be as exacting in their approaches as necessary, who understand the sciences and other secular institutions such that we can trust them. We must, in the end, join a web of experts, relying on each other in a spirit of situational leadership.
Preference, Reader Bias, and Analysis: Fiction
Now, to the meat of it: Reading fiction can increase empathy and reinforce learning in ways which reading nothing but non-fiction cannot. A habit of fiction reading reduces stress, frees the mind of obsessive thoughts, and broadens thinking. For proof of this, ask any fiction junkie. Preference in subject matter or theme do not seem to matter much, but reading broadly and choosing strong authors over less-capable writers can. While we all have preferences, I strongly encourage readers—and especially writers—to reach frequently outside their own preferences. Science-fiction writers should read romance, horror writers should explore historical fiction, mystery writers should sample speculative fiction, Caucasian writers should survey African American writers, male writers should study the books of female writers, and so on. Reading outside our experiences widens our appreciation for others’ voices and views, but on a more fundamental level it wrenches our cognition into new shapes, prods our brain with unfamiliar words, and furthers us as human beings.
Except when it doesn’t. Not all writing is created equally, and much of it is crap, but how can we begin to assess its quality?
One Aspect of the Author Function
First, learn something of the authors whose work you read. Though it matters differently for different works, the “author function” does matter. We should be cautious about assessing work based upon knowledge about the author, even as much as we shouldn’t allow ourselves to be ignorant of the author. In fiction as much as in non-fiction, we should keep an open mind to fresh voices. First readings should be, if at all possible, generous ones, yet we can infer a certain amount of a text’s value by its author.
For all authors, what if anything do we know about their backgrounds and training? What do they say, if anything, outside their fiction? With what organizations and causes do they align themselves? In examining the author, though, we should try to avoid our own confirmation biases, any tendency toward out-group homogeneity bias, and certainly our own in-group biases.
If we are liberals and an author is an avowed conservative, for example, we should probably keep an open mind about the ideas and themes which emerge from the text, at least until we are convinced of the author’s own biases and position. Context still matters. As for myself, if an author is an out-and-proud neo-nazi, I’ll either skip the reading or, at least, approach it with my defences in place; if an advocate of crystal healing, I’ll heighten my scepticism of the author’s underlying messages, even in a work of fiction; if someone with whom I’m likely to agree, I still want to limit the likelihood I’ll absorb themes and messages without reflection.
Beyond the creator, of course, exists the creation. In non-fiction, I’m ever grateful for good, clear writers, but we should be exceedingly slow to judge the merit of non-fiction by the quality of the writing or, for that matter, by the moral fiber of the writer; the list of awful people who have given us great discoveries and inventions is a long one. True, if any idea has merit, it’ll appear in someone else’s writing sooner or later, often more clearly than in the original, but we should be careful in non-fiction to separate the value of information from either the quality of the writer or faults in the writing.
In fiction, however, the situation becomes more complex. As important as Darwin’s On the Origin of Species might be, the facts of his observations about evolution by natural selection exist separately from the work itself. Had Darwin not written his famous observations, the phenomena would have been noted, sooner or later, by someone else in some other way. The concept of evolution by natural selection exists distinctly from observations about it. I cannot, however, say the same of James Joyce’s Ulysses. Had Joyce not written Ulysses, himself and at the exact time he wrote it, that work and those ideas expressed with that artistry would never have existed. Period. Non-fiction is invariably about something, some subject outside itself; fiction may wrestle with ideas outside itself, but possesses an essence independent of yet interwoven with its subject matter. Fiction is a fact unto itself.
This makes the judging of fiction a somewhat different ordeal, beginning with the author and the context of its creation. H.G. Wells was an awful racist; can I still enjoy The War of the Worlds? Virginia Woolf was a deplorable classist; does that make Orlando any less impressive? Does knowing these facts about Wells or Woolf alter our views of these works, change their meanings, or give them a richer subtext? I hope so. Both books still occupy space on my shelves.
The Words Themselves
The second way we might assess the value of what we read is to examine, with extreme care, even a limited portion of it. Like medical doctors, we can examine minutiae in an effort to diagnosis the condition of the larger organism. In a book, we might analyze a few pages, drawn from a pivotal or foundational scene. Smart fiction matters, fiction with rich language, well-considered themes, new ideas, and a voice. Garbage in, garbage out is a real danger. Can we identify garbage and avoid it? The first hint appears in the prose. Neil Clarke, the publisher and editor of one of science fiction’s most prominent and award-winning magazines, lists the following as the number-one criterion for assessing a story—it must be:
- Well-written. Language is important. There is no distinction between “style” and “substance” or “story” and “writing.”
I agree. How a work of fiction is written cannot be entirely unknotted from how worthy the work is. If the prose is fundamentally poor, allowing for quirks of style and uniqueness of voice, then the work as a whole is probably empty.
With that in mind, let’s return to Anne Rice, Stephenie Meyer, and E.L. James, and let’s employ them for comparison. I could, of course, talk about any work, but these three provide particularly juicy and illustrative similarities and differences.
Both Rice and Meyer list nineteenth-century romantics and Shakespeare among their influences. To my knowledge, Meyer has never explicitly admitted Rice as an influence but, shall we acknowledge, their works share some sparkly, beautiful, obsessive vampires. James, by contrast, expressly began by writing Twilight fan fiction, triggering copyright infringement; she is, by some accounts, still infringing. In terms of ethos and pathos, Rice’s body of work reflects her varying relationships with Catholicism and atheism. Meyer has stated that her Mormonism didn’t directly inform her creations, but those are distinctly contrite, well-mannered, and abstinent bloodsuckers between the covers of her novels.
How to assess these series? A complete thematic analysis would deserve a book-length treatment—I neither have the time nor the inclination—but with a brief summary we can approach our goal. The themes in Rice’s work, taken as a whole, run vastly deeper than Meyer’s; then by comparison, Meyer buries James. A clear hierarchy of richness, complexity, and content divides these authors.
In ways that Meyer fails to do, Rice explores centuries of changing zeitgeists, the slow impact of secular philosophies across the sociological landscape, the effect of humanism and the Enlightenment upon the spirit, the erotic nature of violence, gender fluidity, ennui, the weight of modern history, and the corrupting nature of power. Conversely, throughout her series, Meyer reinforces themes of feminine inferiority, objectification, and stalking-as-love; her attempts at larger themes ring hollow. Through Fifty Shades of Grey, James repeats Meyer’s themes, then adds a worship of oligarch-style capitalism, dangerous mythologies about “fixing a man”, and a good dose of sociopathy which can’t be explained by vampiric bloodlust. For good measure, she gave millions of readers an extremely bad education in responsible BDSM. Both Meyer and James fail, in any real sense, to resolve their plots in ways that shatter or alter expectations about the more harmful tropes at the centers of their work; they give us comedies when only tragedies would do. Rice, being the stronger writer, makes no such mistake.
If we comb these works, does anything appear in the page-by-page text which might warn us? Could we, at the glance of a few paragraphs, make some educated guesses about Rice vs. Meyer vs. James? While we should never judge an entire work by a few paragraphs, we can certainly make some assertions, and quickly. Here is a passage from Twilight:
There were five of them. They weren’t talking, and they weren’t eating, though they each had a tray of untouched food in front of then. They weren’t gawking at me, unlike most of the other students, so it was safe to stare at them without fear of meeting an excessively interested pair of eyes. But it was none of these things that caught, and held, my attention.
They didn’t look anything alike. Of the three boys, one was big—muscled like a serious weight lifter [sic], with dark, curly hair. Another was taller, leaner, but still muscular, and honey blond. The last was lanky, less bulky, with untidy, bronze-colored hair. He was more boyish than the others, who looked like they could be in college, or even teachers rather than students.
The girls were opposites. The tall one was statuesque. She had a beautiful figure, the kind you saw on the cover of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, the kind that made every girl around her take a hit on her self-esteem just by being in the same room. Her hair was golden, gently waving to the middle of her back. The short girl was pixielike [sic], thin in the extreme, with small features. Her hair was deep black, cropped short and pointing in every direction.
And yet, they were all exactly alike. Every one of them was chalky pale, the palest of all the students living in this sunless town. Paler than me, the albino. They all had very dark eyes despite the range in hair tones. They also had dark shadows under those eyes—purplish, bruise-like shadows. As if they were all suffering from a sleepless night, or almost done recovering from a broken nose. Though their noses, all their features, were straight, perfect, angular.
But all this is not why I couldn’t look away.
I stared because their faces, so different, so similar, were all devastatingly, inhumanly beautiful. They were faces you never expected to see except perhaps on the airbrushed pages of a fashion magazine. Or painted by an old master as the face of an angel. It was hard to decide who was the most beautiful—maybe the perfect blond girl, or the bronze-haired boy.
They were all looking away—away from each other, away from the other students, away from anything particular as far as I could tell. As I watched, the small girl rose with her tray—unopened soda, unbitten apple—and walked away with a quick, graceful lope that belonged on a runway. I watched, amazed at her lithe dancer’s step, till she dumped her tray and glided through the back door, faster than I would have thought possible. My eyes darted to the others, who sat unchanging.
“Who are they?” I asked the girl from my Spanish class, whose name I’d forgotten.
As she looked up to see who I meant—though already knowing, probably, from my tone—suddenly he looked at her, the thinner one, the boyish one, the youngest, perhaps. He looked at my neighbor for just a fraction of a second, and then his dark eyes flickered to mine.
This foundational scene, in which Bella and Edward become conscious of each other, signifies much about the rest of Twilight, and its symbols may or may not mean more than Meyer intended. For those who’ve also seen the film, the apple takes on a different role, and may or may not convey the obvious. In the film, what does it mean that Edward bounces an apple off his foot? In the book, what does it signal that Alice throws the uneaten apple into the trashcan? That apple is both a blunt metaphor and a muddled one.
What about Meyer’s language, her control of it? How many words does she waste? Most of them. How deeply do her metaphors delve, and how many meanings does each contain? (Not deep, and not many.) By comparison, let’s examine the introduction of another vampire, this time from Rice:
“But what happened to you?” asked the boy. “You said they bled you to cure you, and that must have nearly killed you.”
The vampire laughed. “Yes. It certainly did. But the vampire came back that night. You see, he wanted Pointe du Lac, my plantation.
“It was very late, after my sister had fallen asleep. I can remember it as if it were yesterday. He came in from the courtyard, opening the French doors without a sound, a tall fair-skinned man with a mass of blond hair and a graceful, almost feline quality to his movements. And gently, he draped a shawl over my sister’s eyes and lowered the wick of the lamp. She dozed there beside the basin and the cloth with which she’d bathed my forehead, and she never once stirred under that shawl until morning. But by that time I was greatly changed.”
“What was that change?” asked the boy.
The vampire sighed. He leaned back against the chair and looked at the walls. “At first I thought he was another doctor, or someone summoned by the family to try to reason with me. But this suspicion was removed at once. He stepped close to my bed and leaned down so that his face was in the lamplight, and I saw that he was no ordinary man at all. His gray eyes burned with an incandescence, and the long white hands which hung by his sides were not those of a human being. I think I knew everything in that instant, and all that he told me was only the aftermath. What I mean is, the moment I saw him, saw his extraordinary aura and knew him to be no creature I’d ever known, I was reduced to nothing. That ego which could not accept the presence of an extraordinary human being in its midst was crushed. All my conceptions, even my guilt and wish to die, seemed utterly unimportant. I completely forgot myself!” he said, now silently touching his breast with his fist. “I forgot myself totally. And in the same instant knew totally the meaning of possibility. From then on I experienced only increasing wonder. As he talked to me and told me of what I might become, of what his life had been and stood to be, my past shrank to embers. I saw my life as if I stood apart from it, the vanity, the self-serving, the constant fleeting from one petty annoyance after another, the lip service to God and the Virgin and a host of saints whose name filled my prayer books, none of whom made the slightest difference in a narrow, materialistic, and selfish existence. I saw my real gods…the gods of most men. Food, drink, and security in conformity. Cinders.”
In one sense, a comparison between these two texts is impossible. Rice taps into a collective neurosis; Meyer, into a kiddie pool of teen angst. They’re an order of magnitude apart. The clichés in Meyer’s passage are numerous; Rice invented the clichés, which had no existence before she wrote them, not even in Stoker. Meyer tells rather than shows, wasting her prose along the way. Two steps removed, Rice shows us through the notable mechanism of her characters telling us, and the prose of Interview is rich but tight; in Interview, it would be difficult to cut more than ten percent of her sentences. In Rice’s passage exists the angst of three hundred years; in Meyer’s, we must believe that decades- or centuries-old vampires have no greater strategy for blending into the human world than trying to fit in badly (so extremely badly) at the local high school.
The excuse that Meyer’s work is “young adult” while Rice’s is decidedly adult ignores the slippery and shifting nature of YA literature itself, whose boundaries shift and slither between maturity and youthfulness. It also suggests that YA writing should somehow be worse or dumber than writing for adults—something every enthusiastic childhood reader knows to be wrong. Rice is simply a more competent writer than is Meyer. Now, if Meyer is a derivative of Rice, what about James as a derivative of Meyer? Let’s examine the introduction between Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey:
If this guy is over thirty, then I’m a monkey’s uncle. In a daze, I place my hand in his and we shake. As our fingers touch, I feel an odd exhilarating shiver run through me. I withdraw my hand hastily, embarrassed. Must be static. I blink rapidly, my eyelids matching my heart rate.
“Miss Kavanagh is indisposed, so she sent me. I hope you don’t mind, Mr. Grey.”
“And you are?” His voice is warm, possibly amused, but it’s difficult to tell from his impassive expression. He looks mildly interested but, above all, polite.
“Anastasia Steele. I’m studying English literature with Kate…um…Katherine…um…Miss Kavanagh, at WSU Vancouver.”
“I see,” he says simply. I think I see the ghost of a smile in his expression, but I’m not sure.
“Would you like to sit?” He waves me toward an L-shaped white leather seat.
His office is way too big for just one man. In front of the floor-to-ceiling windows, there’s a modern dark wood desk that six people could comfortably eat around. It matches the coffee table by the couch. Everything else is white—ceiling, floors, and walls, except for the wall by the door, where a mosaic of small paintings hang, thirty-six of them arranged in a square. They are exquisite—a series of mundane, forgotten objects painted in such precise detail they look like photographs. Displayed together, they are breathtaking.
“A local artist. Trouton,” says Grey when he catches my gaze.
“They’re lovely. Raising the ordinary to extraordinary,” I murmur, distracted by both him and the paintings. He cocks his head to one side and regards me intently.
“I couldn’t agree more, Miss Steele,” he replies, his voice soft, and for some inexplicable reason I find myself blushing.
Apart from the paintings, the rest of the office is cold, clean, and clinical. I wonder if it reflects the personality of the Adonis who sinks gracefully into one of the white leather chairs opposite me. I shake my head, disturbed at the direction of my thoughts, and retrieve Kate’s questions from my backpack. Next, I set up the digital recorder and am all fingers and thumbs, dropping it twice on the coffee table in front of me. Mr. Grey says nothing, waiting patiently—I hope—as I become increasingly embarrassed and flustered. When I pluck up the courage to look at him, he’s watching me, one hand relaxed in his lap and the other cupping his chin and trailing his long index finger along his lips. I think he’s trying to suppress a smile.
“S–sorry,” I stutter. “I’m not used to this.”
“Take all the time you need, Miss Steele,” he says.
“Do you mind if I record your answers?”
“After you’ve taken so much trouble to set up the recorder, you ask me now?”
I flush. He’s teasing me? I hope. I blink at him, unsure what to say, and I think he takes pity on me because he relents.
This establishing scene opens with a cliché, and the reader experiences much of the novel’s most important meeting as pure telling rather than showing. Not one, not two, but five qualifying verbs appear in this sequence: three thinks, one hope, and one sure with an “I’m not.” Does Anastasia give us any hint here, any whatsoever, that she might ever transcend her mousiness? Can we find in these words any sign that the slave may become the mistress? No, and indeed the long arc of Fifty Shades becomes a fix-the-broken-man story, rather than a tale fundamentally about the actualization of Anastasia—not only a problematic theme, but one which ultimately robs both characters of any legitimate agency. That lack of agency should, upon careful reading, not surprise us. These pages present us with a language equal to the protagonist, and even the sentences are weak. This was five hundred words which could be three hundred. As an experiment, let’s cut, add a trifle, and see what emerges:
Is this guy over thirty? In a daze, I shake his hand, and a shiver runs through me.
“Miss Kavanagh is indisposed,” I say, “so she sent me. I hope you don’t mind, Mr. Grey?”
“And you are?” he asks, his voice warm, his expression impassive.
“Anastasia Steele. I’m studying English literature with Kate—Katherine—Miss Kavanagh, at WSU Vancouver.”
“I see,” he says with the ghost of a smile. He waves me toward a white leather seat. “Would you like to sit?”
His office is too big for one man. In front of the floor-to-ceiling windows sits a gargantuan desk. It matches the modern coffee table, carved in dark mahogany. Everything else is white—ceiling, floors, and walls. Beside the door hangs a mosaic of small paintings, thirty-six arranged in a square, mundane but in precise, photographic detail.
Grey catches my gaze. ”A local artist. Trouton.”
“They’re lovely,” I say, “raising the ordinary to extraordinary.”
He cocks his head and regards me intently. “I couldn’t agree more, Miss Steele.”
I blush. He sinks into the chair opposite me.
Apart from the paintings, his office is cold, clean, and clinical. Does this reflect his personality? I shake my head, disturbed by my desire for him, and from my backpack I retrieve Kate’s questions. Next, I set up the digital recorder, dropping it twice on the coffee table.
Mr. Grey waits while I pluck up the courage to look at him, and I do, determined to see this encounter through. He watches me, one hand in his lap and the other cupping his chin. He trails his long index finger along his lips.
“Sorry,” I stutter. “I’m not used to this.”
“Take all the time you need, Miss Steele.”
“Do you mind if I record you?”
“After you’ve taken so much trouble to set up the recorder?”
I blink. He’s teasing me, surely?
Forty percent of the text has vanished, but the core and spirit remain. Yes, this would be a different book, a more honest one, a sharper one, in which we can already believe that Anastasia might prove a stronger protagonist. The qualifiers disappear. Not only were they lazy writing, but who wants to exist in that head for multiple volumes? Now Anastasia is at least determined to see this encounter through, though she doesn’t yet know it will last for so long.
I dissect most text this way, but especially fiction. Doing so isn’t foolproof—sometimes a few lazy pages in an early, key scene can still give way to an excellent story with rich ideas and a powerful voice. Sometimes. Rarely. In the vast majority, a few pages will proclaim the novel; write a few pages well, write a book well, and vice versa.
Lest you think I’m being unfair to James or have no appreciation for erotica, let’s return to Rice, not to her Vampire Chronicles but to a later work, The Claiming of Sleeping Beauty. Let us join the Prince right after he has stormed the castle, claimed the Beauty, and awakened the King and all the cursed servants:
The King glanced up very quickly to accept the Prince’s commands and with unfailing courtesy he backed out of the doorway.
The Prince turned his full attention to Beauty.
Lifting a napkin he wiped at her tears. She kept her hands obediently on her thighs, exposing her sex, and he observed that she did not try to hide her stiff little pink nipples with her arms and he approved of this.
“Now don’t be frightened,” he said to her softly, feeding a little on her trembling mouth again, and then slapping her breasts so they shivered lightly. “I could be old and ugly.”
“Ah, but then I could feel sorry for you,” she said in a sweet, tremulous voice.
He laughed. “I’m going to punish you for that,” he said to her tenderly. “But now and then just a little very ladylike impertinence is amusing.”
Rice communicates a great deal with these lines. The King realizes he is addressing the great-grandson of the emperor he once served—at once we understand Rice’s homoerotic world, where sexual servitude between royal lines is a norm—and he yields. The submissiveness of Beauty, even from these early scenes, is a purer and more intensive submission than we see from Anastasia at any point in Fifty Shades, but immediately it contains a hint of Beauty’s own arc: “Ah, but then I could feel sorry for you.” That impertinence carries resistance, a promise of growth and strength, a hint at the fundamental and real tension in Rice’s erotica—in other words, in a tale otherwise intended to titillate, the story promises real if subtle conflict.
Is the prose perfect? No. Rice’s language is more active and masterful than James’s, though the Beauty series uses it in less-inventive ways than does Interview. Here, Rice abuses the word little, for example. In the interest of impartiality, let’s give these one hundred fifty words from Beauty the same treatment as those from Fifty Shades:
The King glanced up to accept the Prince’s commands and, with unfailing courtesy, he backed out of the doorway. The Prince turned his full attention to Beauty.
Lifting a napkin he wiped her tears. She kept her hands on her thighs, exposing her sex, revealing her stiff, pink, tiny nipples. He approved of this.
“Now don’t be frightened,” he said softly, feeding on her trembling mouth again, then slapping her breasts so they shivered. “I could be old and ugly.”
“Ah, but then I could feel sorry for you,” she said in a sweet, tremulous voice.
He laughed tenderly. “I’m going to punish you for that. But now and then a ladylike impertinence is amusing.”
Eighteen percent gone, without shaving any meaning from these lines, less than half the superfluousness of James’s writing. Though this passage is short, we would find the rest of Sleeping Beauty to be similarly rich and concise. More importantly, though, Rice exhibits throughout her catalogue an awareness of meaning in imagery, subtle foreshadowing, and richness that both James and Meyer lack. She’s simply better with language and narrative.
And what else is fiction but language and narrative? Why do we accept anything less than excellence in writing? We don’t watch the Olympics to see sort-of-good athletes, we don’t go to the symphony to hear kind-of-okay musicians, so why do we consume books with halfway-all-right words? I recognize that mediocrity exists in the other arts too, but that is because the culture of bias extends now across the human experience.
In 2012, the good news was that the fervor over Fifty Shades of Grey sparked a renewed interest in Rice’s Sleeping Beauty Series. Plume books printed 350,000 copies of Beauty, which I’m certain is more than sold in the 1980s. Not bad, Anne, but by 2015 the Fifty Shades series had sold more than 125 million copies worldwide, more than a hundred times the volume of Rice’s erotic collection. Yet Rice’s books are objectively, by almost every measure, the better books—the language is richer, the themes and layers of meaning much deeper, the arc more satisfying, and even the erotica better written and more tantalizing. Examining her career as a whole, Rice exceeds her copycats, so why would Beauty not outsell Fifty Shades? One can argue, of course, that Rice’s books were first published in the buttoned-down ’80s, and they were never allowed to shine, but books sometimes get second lives, and for Fifty Shades’ 125 million copies to generate only 350,000 copies’ worth of interest in Beauty—
Well, that’s simply irrational. It’s as if there’s a culture of bias which steers us toward mediocrity.
The Culture of Bias, Mediocrity, and the Lie of Five Stars
Mediocre books, even awful books, often outsell great books. This is regardless of the so-called genre.
Am I being unfair? Can we reduce the overwhelming popularity of the rather badly written Fifty Shades of Grey to preference, rather than to bias? It’s logically inconsistent to argue that 125 million rational readers, whose preference is for erotica, chose Fifty Shades over obviously better works, like Sleeping Beauty. Is it that the public merely prefers “realism,” set in a modern era, without supernatural trappings or the gloss of fairytales? Obviously not, since Meyer’s supernatural, fairytale-like novels (even marketed with that Snow White-like apple on the cover) have sold roughly the same number of copies, worldwide, as James’s. Clearly, there is in our culture of bias a tendency to shift us toward a popularity of the lowest common denominator, and this contributes to or perhaps creates the possibility for books like Fifty Shades to rise to meteoric success while a resurrected collection like Beauty only receives the marketing engine required to move a mere hundreds of thousands.
People have a limited capacity for choice. Availability bias, recency effect, spacing effect, suggestibility—these and other cognitive biases make choosing what is popular the easy choice, and in a culture of bias, the popular choice will almost certainly be mediocre, if not bad. The average brick-and-mortar Barnes & Noble gives a shopper so many choices that, in the interest of time, he or she might fall victim to a less-is-better effect, a list-length effect, or sheer marketing overload. Without strategies to guide us, and the discipline to check our own tendencies, too many choices overwhelm us. In the interest of saving brain capacity, we select what’s hot now, what’s sold most aggressively, or what “everyone else is talking about,” as if “everyone else” was a trustworthy authority.
In issues of nutrition or physical training, it is easier to accept that most people have little idea what they’re talking about, even more so in medicine or architecture; yet in the literary world, our cousin’s best friend’s teacher’s sister babbles on about Fifty Shades, adds to the noise-signal problem of what-to-read, and the buzz grows to an unstoppable tidal wave. It becomes easier, for most readers, to join the wave. The nutritional equivalent is the Starbuck’s pumpkin-spice latte—you know you shouldn’t order it, but everyone else is, so why not?
Yet as I’ve already posited, overcoming our own biases and the biases of our society, as a whole, takes real work. As a culture, we would need to overwhelmingly value smart words over dumb ones, intelligent themes over lazy ones, careful writing over sloppy, and so on. Reading well, however, is like physical exercise: extremely unpleasant at first, then much easier and more satisfying as practice develops. It is much better, on the whole, to be in shape than out of shape. It is much better, as a whole, to read well than read shit. Yet here we are, a society of people who more or less do little but read the literary equivalent of that pumpkin-spice latte.
A culture of reader bias has a negative effect on writers, because the opinions of readers are these days so public, and because those opinions are often connected with ratings systems which inadvertently harm a book’s sales. The rating systems reflect the mediocre tide. This culture also hurts readers, because it distorts the value of books. This shows up most often in five-star systems and, because Amazon is the biggest bookseller on Earth, bias shows up in the ratings of Amazon’s offerings more than anywhere else.
If an objectively well-written book, with rich language and difficult but valuable themes, presents too much of a challenge to too many readers, they’ll give it three stars, two stars, one star. If their biases are disguised as preferences, they’ll give any book outside their comfort zone three stars, two stars, one star. If any book offends their sensibilities, they won’t judge it by its quality but by their emotional response to it, giving it three stars, two stars, one star.
Kim Stanley Robinson is arguably one of the most important authors of the last half century. One of the most notable works of science fiction in the last ten years has been his 2312. Its rating on Amazon is 3.5 stars. Its readers give it three stars for being “a little bit boring” or having “a challenging style at times.” One author calls it a “Good character driven story,” proceeds to miss the novel’s entire point, and still gives it three stars. Another called it, “A lot to read,” three stars. A two-star review labels it, “A little too quirky.” Robinson paints us a path to a grand human future, and one critic calls it, “Lame,” one star. Heaven help us.
As they say these days, “I can’t even.”
By comparison, Fifty Shades of Grey has an average of four stars. While James definitely takes her lumps from reviewers, she earns reviews like these: “It’s awful, but oh so addicting,” four stars; “50 shades of awesomeness,” five stars; “Trashy guilty pleasure,” four stars; and “interesting,” four stars. As an average across all her reviews, E.L. James beats out Kim Stanley Robinson by 12.5% in terms of ratings. I can scarcely make this clearer: an author who gives us irresponsible, badly informed BDSM fantasies written with lazy prose and poor character development beats one of the most important futurists of all time in the ratings game. My guess is that she outsells him, too, by a lot.
Many authors depend on the rating system for marketing, for exposure, and for sales. Yet, because of the culture of bias, the five-star rating system is toxic. There is no such thing as a five-star book (or a book which is defined by any other number of stars); there are only the accumulated noises of an entire biased system, expressed in yellow stars.
A Takeaway and Larger Social Ills
Reader bias is simply a subset of consumer bias; consumer bias, merely a strain of the greater culture of bias. Perhaps, in the end, all this discussion of books, words, vampires, science fiction, Kim Stanley Robinson, and bad BDSM advice really does point to something much bigger than five-star reviews and book sales. It’s no great stretch to connect books and reading with a society’s overall education, intelligence, and thoughtfulness. As a whole, if our society’s popular-reading habits, the quality and intelligence of our book-rating systems, and our choices in high-volume bestsellers are any indication, our society might be in trouble.
I don’t know how to solve society’s ills. I do have some ideas for how to cure our reading ills:
- Appeal to Writers — Fellow writers, please be better writers. Be the best writer you can be, and try to define how good your writing is by standards other than how popularly appealing it happens to be. If you haven’t already, study the greats, and presume them to be great until your careful study shows you otherwise. No matter what your genre happens to be, or what you think you like to read, please read the classics and the major award winners, read outside your comfort zone, and let that reading inform your own work. As I hope I have shown, popular is not necessarily good. Have something important to say. You, yourself, should read more intelligently, broadly, and critically. Learn to use language excellently. All of us, collectively, should challenge readers to rise to the highest level of our skill and, indeed, to the highest level of theirs.
- Support K–12 Schools — Drop any libertarian fantasies that schools are only the concern of parents and their children, and should be paid for only by those constituents or only by private dollars. Even our system of funding public schools through property taxes is, was, and has always been grossly misguided because it funds some schools so well, while funding others not at all. As Thomas Jefferson knew, schools are the cornerstones of society. All of us, through our taxes, volunteerism, and votes, must support an educational system which works for all. What I mean by this is schools which serve every child, from the richest to the poorest, equally and well. Included in this education must be a strong foundation in reading and literature, primarily in English, but with ample opportunity to study, learn, and read in other languages. As a democracy (or if you insist, a representational republic), we are only as strong as the least-educated segments of our population.
- Support University Reform — The university system has been under a forty-year-long siege of privatization, and we must reverse this. For reasons similar to K–12 education, the system must serve this entire nation, not only its moneyed elites. Programs in the humanities and arts, including English and literature programs, must be strengthened, made more diverse, and appeal to the brightest and best students. Inasmuch as we bolster education and research in the Sciences, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, so too we need the Arts and Humanities—not STEM, but STEAM or THAMES. University admission must be extremely competitive, but free to the best students, and inexpensive to everyone else who qualifies. We should seriously consider strengthening our nation’s vocational programs, where vocation includes technology training; coders don’t need masters degrees in computer science, but nor do they need to be paying $25,000 or more for dubious one-year private programs.
- Do Away with Popular Rating Systems for Books, Films, and Other Arts — As much as people may hate gatekeepers, as much as our society rails against them, and as much as they once quashed diverse voices, they did (and still do) serve important functions. They offer historical and comparative contexts which most people simply don’t possess, as well as a degree of objectivity about the complexity, richness, and competency of art, including literature. While I do not defend the worst aspects of such a system, I do defend the value of trained critics, reviewers, publishers, editors, and academics. While we may be too committed to the five-star popular rating system to completely jettison it, I strongly encourage Amazon and other “distribution gateways” to develop a hybrid system. The system will work better, too, if there is more nuance in it. A book may be rated by the general public on “look and design,” “entertainment value,” or any number of other qualities, but this would always be balanced against “ratings” by a handful of certified reviewers, or even professional critics. Critics would themselves be beholden to a professional body, one which held them to high standards and prevented abuses. We have too few now—a handful of newspapers and journals, a smattering of powerful blogs, Kirkus, Publisher’s Weekly, and not much else. An objectively terrible book should never see an overall five-star rating; an objectively excellent book should never see a two-star rating, much less a one, and reader preferences should not be the end all and be all of books’ ratings.
“I found this book to be slow and tedious,” writes one reviewer of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Another writes, “I enjoyed this book until the ending, which leaves the reader in limbo,” two stars; a third writes, “Very underwhelming. Just seemed to end in the middle of the story,” two stars. When reviews like that carry any weight against the likes of Atwood, we’ve already fallen a long, long way indeed, and the village idiots are minding the bookstore, ripping out all the pages they don’t like.
Let us recognize the damage done by the culture of bias, and let us do everything we can to overcome it.