Review by Pat Black
EL James has whipped up a frenzy – sorry – with Fifty Shades of Grey.
The phenomenon can no longer be tied down… sorry. I promise I’ll stop.
Well, you must beg me to stop. But only with the safe word, so that I know for sure when to stop. Otherwise I’ll just think you like it and will keep going.
Look, I haven’t done this stuff before, alright? I’m a meat and potatoes man. Cut me some slack, here!
Whether you’ve read the book or not, it’s too big a thing to be ignored in popular culture. It has become the biggest selling book in, well, ever. It has surpassed JK Rowling’s efforts, which I did not think possible. And it isn’t a kids’ book, a big sci-fi novel or a fantasy epic or anything else, well, understandable. It doesn’t translate well to billboards, you won’t see any fairy cakes with themed icing at Asda, and – incredibly – it isn’t aimed at teenage girls, who have been proven cash cows of late with The Hunger Games and the Twilight saga. Fifty Shades of Grey is a dirty book, mostly read by women over 25… and much older. This must strike you as quite interesting whether you’ve read it or not.
And loads of people have formed an opinion on it without actually reading it. Which is also very interesting in its own right. How many of those one-star reviews on Amazon have actually been left by people who have parted company with their cash to read Fifty Shades of Grey? How many are jealous of EL James’ success? And how many have darker motives?
EL James is actually positioned beneath your sort of workaday erotica writers on the lust ladders (in the tights? Sorry, I couldn’t resist. Once you get started on dirty things, you know how it goes, I couldn’t stop myselfSLAP).
The most snigger-worthy thing I’ve heard about this series – there’s a trilogy, naturally - is that it appears to have started life as a “tribute” to Stephenie Meyers’ Twilight stories. The Grey novels concern Ana, a 21-year-old virgin, turned into a fleet-fannied uber-vixen when she hooks up with Christian Grey, a billionaire and pervert who is into BDSM.
You know, I had to look up BDSM on the internet. Well, on Wikipedia, to be precise. This isn’t a joke – I wasn’t sure what the “D” stood for. I made a successful stab at the other three letters but couldn’t be sure about the “D”. I’ve had my eyes opened in the course of my research for this article, that’s for sure.
So anyway, Ana is gradually drawn into Christian’s orbit and gets into the same stuff he’s into – kinky sex, bondage, blah blah. There’s no big secret to this story – voyage of discovery, submissiveness (in every way imaginable) to a rich, powerful man, gaining sexual experience, and becoming empowered as a result of being loved and desired. I do sympathise with people who have been grinding out (should I say sorry for that metaphor? Sentence reduced on appeal) those novels that you see on those tucked-away shelves in bookshops, the pink spines, the covers with silly footwear and masks and things on the front. If you’re an erotica writer scratching a living, it must feel as if EL James has stolen your balloons.
Which is great news if you’re a masochist. But, take heart, ladies and gentlemen of the fluffy pink pen – EL James has opened the door. Unlike stories about wizards, magical jewellery or even pale, stringy and oddly unthreatening vampires, I doubt erotica is going away anytime soon. The amount of mediocre erotica I’ve been asked to read in the past six months alone pointed to a larger phenomenon, once I’d stopped laughing. There is so much of it out there. It’s women’s version of “reader’s wives”. It all stands to reason – we are human and we won’t stop being interested in sex. There always has been, always will be erotica – look, it even has its own “I’m not Porn, honest” name.
But this is the Elvis-on-Ed-Sullivan watershed for dirty books; the moment when they became superstars, and could no longer be constrained in popular culture. EL James has given you all a chance - not to be Elvis or the Beatles, but you could be Duran Duran or the Oingo Boingo band or something. You could do alright, and better than alright.
Because, to be brutally honest, women reading books with lots of sex in them is nothing new. Think of all the eighties bonkbusters, Jilly Cooper, Jackie Collins… and that’s before we get to so-called chick-lit, which is often erotica made glossy by the sterilising hand gel of consumerism (if I buy these £500 shoes on a credit card, maybe he’ll have sex with me!). And then you look at the TV soaps, even outright sociopathic ones like EastEnders; sex, fidelity and infidelity are at the core of this programming, consumed avidly by women several times a day, with a quick break for home renovation shows before Embarrassing Bodies and then bedtime. Bottom line, women love to read about and think about sex, as much as men enjoy watching it. So EL James’ work and the reaction to it is nothing new.
Then we have good old hype and marketing. The book covers are beautifully designed – shades of blue, rather than grey. Each novel in the trilogy potentially could be about something else, to look at the cover. So, before the books became an unstoppable monster, your furtive mummy porn consumer could have gotten away with reading the paperbacks on the train without attracting any undue attention from people sitting nearby.
Plus, it’s everywhere. One thing you can guarantee is that hype breeds success. If it becomes unavoidable, people will get curious. Like being interested in sex, it’s simply human nature. Marketers are well aware of this. Did they create the Shades of Grey success story? Was it a genuine word of mouth phenomenon? Is it a bit of S as well as M? It’s too late to know for sure, now - once the marketing gets involved, there’s no stopping it.
Don’t discount the Kindle factor – there’s no way these books would have sold in such numbers without them. Despite the game efforts of people who run Ann Summers and the amount of coverage the books are getting in the media, sex is still very much a shameful affair when it comes to open-doors entertainment; something that must be kept under the mattress like a spotty teenager’s dirty magazines (I know, very retro). I like to think I’m broad-minded, but I’ll never forget the astonishment I felt when I visited the home of a middle-aged woman who was a friend of a friend’s family and saw the shelves in her house stuffed with pornographic VHS tapes. She cared not one jot who saw them. Why should this be shocking?
To the sex itself, then. Is it scratching a heretofore hidden itch for society? I’m not sure. It has a hint of the illicit, and of course, if you want to get someone’s attention, make them aware that you’re going to tell them a secret. EL James admits that she is putting her fantasies on the page, but are they the fantasies of millions of women? Maybe. I don’t know. They might become the fantasies of millions of women as a result. It’s hard to know. As Caitlin Moran points out in How To Be A Woman, the sexual fantasies of women are a quantum leap beyond the insert-A-into-B drives of your typical soft-bellied hairy-arsed man.
I have read one article which posits the theory that the Shades of Grey books do tap into a wider phenomenon; that BDSM is a massive turn-on for women because they have a deep – and shameful – desire to be dominated by a man. Pure caveman stuff, in other words. Your kinks are your own, but if it’s true I find this politically disturbing. It seems to be suggesting that women are rejecting equality in the bedroom. In what other areas of their lives are they rejecting it, then? And where is the ultimate line for this type of submission/domination – the limits of your own will? Assault? Worse? That can’t be true, surely.
So I think Grey’s anatomy of success is part curiosity, part hype. It’s not down to writing talent – so many dead metaphors, so many phrases taken from a cut-out-and-keep guide to melodrama; heaving bosoms, breath caught in throat, even fluttering eyelids, god help us.
And add to that, a handy device which allows us to read books we wouldn’t be seen dead in public reading if we so wish; you could be lying beside your partner in bed with a Kindle, and they wouldn’t know you were reading erotica, Blake’s 7 themed slash-fic, Lenny the Lion’s colouring book, the Bunty annual, Katie Price’s back catalogue or whatever.
What of the hate, then? Well, just as sure as there may be some women who greatly desire to be dominated by men, there are a lot of men who openly desire to dominate them, and not in nice, safe, sanitised sexy ways either. If women show curiosity or enthusiasm for something – especially if it involves anything to do with sex – then some men will automatically snarl at them for it. “That’s stupid. Why do you watch that? Why are you even bothered? Why do you read that?” A quick glance at Amazon’s reviews for Fifty Shades of Grey will reveal these people. I would bet that a good percentage of them have not even read the book.
That’s right – I have not read a single sentence of Fifty Shades of Grey.
I was considering downloading it to Kindle, reading it and giving you a proper review – zeitgeist and all that, gotta get those internet hits – but then I realised two things. (A) I don’t really want to read it, and (B) I’m more interested in how this book has gotten to where it has.
In a lot of ways it’s encouraging that EL James has done so well. As a writer, it shows that even if you’re slaving away on something fairly obscure, there’s absolutely no barrier between you and major success. I mean for Christ’s sake… Twilight slash fic! Seriously! And yet, she’s done it. Skiing on Money Mountain, read by millions. The dream we all dream of, as Prince said. Or was it Sheena Easton?
The only things I know about this book and its author come from reading articles on the Guardian website, seeing the front cover every time I go onto Amazon, and a couple of bad reviews I read while I was there. I haven’t even looked at its entry on Wikipedia.
Is her prose bad? No idea. My suggestion that it is, is by far this article’s biggest sin. It can’t be that bad. Lots of people have slated it for the things I mentioned, but then I remember people slating JK Rowling and Dan Brown for their own apparent lack of writing skills. I don’t think either are that bad – in fact, JK Rowling is a fine storyteller in my opinion, and I can’t wait to read her next book - so EL James is probably in the same category.
At this stage, of course, it doesn’t matter. It must be quite disturbing for some self-appointed masters of the written word to think of themselves sitting way down the table from EL James at publishers’ dinners. For all the hype, perhaps there’s a teensy wee bit of democracy on the go. People have put the money forward. Is there merit in the simple fact that something is popular and caught the public’s imagination? Is there a vindication? Or is there something sinister at large, something created for nefarious, purely capitalist purposes?
I guess the main reason for this hoax is to show how something can get into our minds in popular culture without us reading a single sentence on a page or viewing a minute of it on a cinema screen. Harry Potter, the X Factor, Twilight, and many other things get absorbed by our minds by proxy. They become inescapable.
And to be fair - once they’re out of the spotlight, they’re gone. I couldn’t tell you who won the X Factor two or three years ago; couldn’t remember what the winning song they recorded was, either. I can see their faces, though. This, to me, is truly disturbing, because even in a world of mass media, with god knows how much choice on television, in cinemas and on our computer screens, things can still dominate us and distract us long enough for someone to split with the cash. In a way, we are being controlled. In this statement, I can hear the crinkle of a tinfoil hat being created. All the same, I have the ugly notion that some consumers are simply doing what they’re told.
But still, let’s not end on a sour note. Good luck to EL James, I wish it was me. For reals. Now, if you could just loosen these straps… I need to make a phone call you see, my mum doesn’t know where I am. I’m kind of thirsty, too.
Are you still in the house?