When Courtney asked me back in December to read E L James’s Fifty Shades of Grey for our Year of Genre, we had no inkling that an erotica novel would become the fastest selling book in history. Courtney chose me to read the future bestseller while she read The Story of O. At first we weren’t going to include Fifty Shades on the list, but then we decided we’d be remiss if we didn’t at least say something about the book. (Though a lot has already been said—see Holly’s previous post on fandom.) After reading Fifty Shades, a book that reads quickly in a typical page-turner kind of way, I realize that most of what I want to say about the book can be expressed as a series of responses to the common assumptions and more-than-occasional scorn heaped upon the work.
Does the success of Fifty Shades of Grey mean that women secretly want to submit to men and escape the “shackles” of feminism?
No, that’s bullshit, and if you believe this then not only are you a dope, but you clearly haven’t read the book. At its core, Fifty Shades is nothing more than the old romantic cliché of “virginal heroine tames savage bad boy.” Because of that dynamic, all the power is actually in Anastasia’s hands.
Does the book’s popularity mean that kinky erotica is going mainstream?
(You wish!) Most likely not. In fact, in spite of its sexy reputation, the book actually portrays BDSM/kink negatively. This happens specifically at the end when Anastasia finally gives in to Grey’s advances (she manages to hold him to boring old sex for most of the book).
Just as soon as they get going she backs out, tells him that his “shit’s fucked up,” and leaves him. (Sorry for the spoiler, but if you are really interested there's always the other two other books in the series, which you won’t hear about here.)
Is Fifty Shades of Grey worthy of being called literature and/or art?
Well, it is a book, at least, but it certainly doesn’t pass the Adam’s test. James is a relatively inexperienced writer who got shoved in front of the public before she had time to hone her skills, and her editors were asleep at the wheel. But whatever. Good for her. Let’s be honest, we've all dreamed of experiencing the same kind of undeserved overnight success that James has. Artistic integrity be damned.
Does the success of Fifty Shades of Grey mean anything else about modern literature and society?
Hells fucking yes it does. (All my swearing has a point, I promise.) During the first half of the 20th century, it was illegal to publish certain works by James Joyce, D. H. Lawrence, and Henry Miller in the United States. (Not illegal to own, but illegal to make and sell, because that’s how obscenity laws work in this country. You can own something obscene, but your community can pass laws making it illegal for more of it to be manufactured and sold where you live.) The goal posts of obscenity have shifted during the last 100 years to the point that a book marketed chiefly to prurient Twilight fans who want to see surrogates of their favorite characters getting their freak on is a ubiquitous bestseller. It is also because of this shift that I am free to swear so much in this piece, that I was allowed to use the word “cock” in my piece on The Outlander, and that Paper Darts can publish a book rife with (hilarious) sexual content. (Which reminds me, have you purchased your copy of Get in if You Want to Live yet? Go do it now, then come back. Done? Good.) Still, despite all this cultural change, the Mobile, Alabama, public library system still will not carry Fifty Shades because they do not shelve “erotica.”
Sex in literature is so prevalent nowadays that in every one of the books we’ve read for the Year of Genre there has been at least one sex scene. Sex in The Forever War was cold and clinical and no different than the rest of the rations the soldiers were issued for survival. Sex in The Outlander I’ve already talked about in a previous post. The most memorable sex scene in American Gods was a beautifully written gay interlude. True to the Game had enough sex in it that I wondered if it wasn’t supposed to be erotica. Even that Pulitzer Prize winning turd Lonesome Dove (which we skipped over) had sex in it (I really hated that one, and it cemented my conviction that Gaiman deserves a Pulitzer). I imagine the rest of the Year of Genre will be littered with sex as well, simply because it has become part of the literary landscape. Because, well, it's humans writing these books.
Now, all of you bitching about what Fifty Shades is doing to society and literature and the society of literature can just fucking stop it. Fifty Shades is removing limitations. It is making it less likely for books to be burned, banned, or otherwise declared illegal. For that reason, if for no other reason, we should not chastise people (a fucking astounding number of people) for wanting to read it.
we should not chastise people (a fucking astounding number of people) for wanting to read it.
Having said all that, I’m still trying to figure out how I spent an entire night reading a book so poorly written and so stupidly absurd. Honestly, I have no idea.
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