I have resisted commenting on all of the hubbub about this “novel” for some time now. [And, oh how I have wanted to use the word hubbub.] The “novel” in question is E.L. James‘ 50 Shades of Grey. The hubbub has a far more than fifty shades, and let me just disclose right now that I have not read this book, and I will not read this book. I do not have to actually consume shit to know that I am uninterested in eating shit – I consider the components of the feces, I do a little research on the effects of eating feces, and there you have it, I am not going to eat the feces. [I call this the “Sewer rat may taste like pumpkin pie” thesis.] And so if at this point you are uncomfortable with my critique of it (the novel, not feces), you should probably move along.
Here are the first few shades that alerted me to the fact that this is “literary” fervor I will sidestep:
- The novel is the first in a trilogy that’s genesis was Twilight Fan Fiction. [Really, must one look for any more reasons to be like, “No thanks, I will have the other flavor of crap.”]
- The author’s website uses silver satin sheets as a background. [Ouch – the awkwardness engendered by such intentional efforts at sexy that miss terribly…]
- The book claims to venture into the world of BDSM – but the author has no experience with this lifestyle in any way. [Remember what happened to the Donner/Reed families when they bought a book from a guy who had ideas about a better westward route? Ahh… Hastings, you tricky devil! It sounded so accurate!]
I watched the crazy about this book take over Twitter for a minute (not my feed, because the people I follow seem to read actual literature…) and all sorts of media outlets for weeks. Initially I was surprised at the popularity, I mean, I know that people do actually read Harlequin Romances, but I did not know people ever really admitted to it, in so much as they would actually talk about it. I thought it was more like one of those secret behaviors like, I don’t know, listening to Barry Manilow, that you just never talk about with people. But then I reconsidered. The books people read do say a lot about the state of things in the world. And from this we could intuit that a) people cannot really read; b) Twilight really is that popular; c) people are so afraid to express themselves (“get busy living, or get busy dying“, as Andy would say in Shawshank) that they turn to some manufactured idea of what it might be like to do something different….
Or maybe people really just want to read something that talks about sex.
I remember when my friends and I discovered “sexy” books. It started with Forever, and then moved into the Flowers in the Attic nonsense, and sort of culminated with Wifey (thank you Judy Blume). Of course, we were, like, eleven years old.
James’ book has had the kind of reception that is reserved for the illogically wildly popular – a la Bieber, perhaps – a sort of reluctant admission that it cannot be ignored, but on more critical grounds a general sense of WTF. A New Zealand paper called it “mommy porn.” Dr. Drew said it was not just pathological, but also poorly written [lighten up, Francis.] It has been called retro, unifying for women, scary for men [Fox News always going for the fear factor], and in my favorite review, Metro News Canada claimed it was “as dull as a razor blade commercial.” Choice excerpt below:
Anastasia is of course astonishingly attractive and adored by all of the men around her while being entirely insecure. As a 24-year-old college graduate, she has somehow never been drunk or owned a computer. She begins the novel as a virgin and her first time is obviously phenomenal because that’s totally realistic. Finally, and this is maybe what bothered me the most, she is never hungry despite the numerous cardio-heavy sex scenes.
The thing about talking about the BDSM lifestyle is that to make it out to be some strange collection of weekend warrior fetishists completely disregards the reality that it s a real community, with all of the attendant nuances and social rules that govern other cultures and subcultures that exist all around us. I certainly do not purport to know much about it, and I am not a member of the community and so to rely on pop-cultural stereotypes would be as lame as say, writing a 500-page book about it.
But I do know this. When I toured Kink.com and listened to the very articulate guide talk about what went on there, (my Yelp review is here) I started to get an idea about not just how this lifestyle works, but also why people participate in it. I also live in an area where unusual subcultures tend to celebrated rather than shunned [case in point: The Folsom Street Fair] and as such, I have the opportunity to talk about these kinds of things with people who are insiders of the culture itself, and willing to educate people about it in a thoughtful and accurate way.
The ideas that real life control freaks (hello there) want to be bossed around, that all women have rape fantasies, that the pain/pleasure relationship is directly proportional… etc., etc. may have shades of validity, but as always happens when outsiders pontificate on what the insider experience is all about, they are grossly superficial.
So, am I being hypocritical in light of my insider-outsider thesis to comment on James’ book? Maybe. But I think if you are really interested in knowing what this lifestyle is about (I’m talking to you Dr. Drew) there are a lot of more accurate resources to turn to for information – experiential or academic. I am reminded of a final project several of my seniors worked on last month examining the landscape of Aquatic Park in the East Bay. They discovered that the park was a place significant in the gay male community for sexual liaisons and immediately assumed that it suggested marginalization of a population. Their initial, superficial analysis (in which they considered getting “data” on this subject – gay male lifestyle – from the police department!) was met with some raised eyebrows, which led them to consider some other interpretations, the most noteworthy being that they would not ever be able to fully understand the purpose and place they were studying as outsiders. Their final project was wonderful in its ability to show the power of perspective and danger of false assumptions of understanding. It was an extremely worthy metacognitive exploration.
So, if you just wanna read some titillating prose, at least find some that is a cut above the Harlequin tradition. Try Mary Gaitskill’s Bad Behavior, for some interesting and seemingly more authentic writing in this vein, and leave the purveyors of Fan Fiction in the appropriate domain – do not confuse fanaticism with expertise. E.L., we are talking to you:
Image from here.