I don't have much desire to read "50 Shades of Grey" but the debate over whether or not it's "great literature" interests me.
There's a couple of assumptions people are taking it on their own to make: 1) that EL James is not a great novelist. 2) that the trilogy is not an epic. 3) that her characters are forgettable. I think these assumptions are unfair and that most people at this point are extremely jealous of the success EL James is enjoying. I strongly disagree with all the assumptions. Clearly the characters are not forgettable (I will not forget the above passage so easily). Clearly it's an epic (all three in the trilogy are bestsellers) and clearly the marketplace has bestowed its grace on the talented writer. Then one blogger says its "not all about sales" but that "artist should be agents of change!"
First off, what is "great literature"? Why are all of these people trying to put their own assumptions on a concept that is pretty subjective. I've never once seen a definition of "great literature". There's two ways I can think to define it: 1) if I determine something is great, but that seems somewhat arrogant. And 2) If history determines something is great, i.e. a book withstands the test of time. Many books were published in 1952, for instance, but the only one I've ever read and will probably at some point re-read is "Old Man and the Sea".
Why would something withstand the test of time? It may or may not have great writing. That seems subjective and also determined by the colloquialisms of the time. If someone wrote like Shakespeare right now, for instance, they would have a total of zero sales other than the author's mother. But it does seem like great literature touches on elements that are universal (why are we here, what is the purpose of life, etc) or push the envelope on issues that are controversial. In the past that might've been racism, slavery, poverty, class warfare, the decline of the close-knit family, sexual taboos, etc.
Clearly "50 Shades of Grey" has done something to trigger the fascination (and sales) it has. It's sold over 50 million copies to become the fastest selling book of all time not because of the quality of the quotes above but because it hits right at the core of what the boundaries of a healthy sexual relationship might be and how wide those boundaries can get. Soft-porn and romance do not do that. "50 Shades" did. We can all be so lucky to write a book so thought-provoking. Artists are often met with hostility, disturb the establishment (including the ones who try to define art). They provide a sincere map of the human condition that both entertains and resonates with a "that's how I feel!". Is EL James soft-porn, great literature, or both. Time will tell. Not random bloggers (including me).
Altucher is basically using sales as a proxy for greatness, and that fits my broad intuition. Within any niche or genre I think that quantity sold is an adequate measure of greatness... and literature snobs should agree, given the zillions of "Best Seller" lists they vie for positions on.
More abstractly, if you can't measure it then it doesn't exist. Sales numbers are a way to quantify the I-know-it-when-I-see-it metric.
I good counter-arguement would be to perform a regression analysis on the time series of sales vs. "greatness" defined by some other measure (e.g., elite opinion). Do the ratings converge over time? Diverge? What's the correlation?