by CT Grey
144 pages, Boxtree
Review by Pat Black
I promised I wouldn’t ever be the type of person who throws a tantrum when they get a bad Christmas present. Last year, I broke that promise. #FirstWorldProblems.
I might not have minded so much had my mate not given it a good trailer. “Aw man, you’ll howl… It’s a book, but it’s a bit of a piss-take… Right up your alley… When I saw it, the tears were rolling down my face… It’s priceless!”
It wasn’t priceless. It says it costs £9.99 on the back cover. Hopefully my friend paid a bit less than that for Fifty Sheds of Grey, a parody of… What’s the point of summarising? You’ve probably got it in one.
It’s a nice hardback book, looking every penny of that £9.99. Fifty Sheds of Grey began life as @50ShedsofGrey, a Twitter parody account. It came into being not long after the literary world bent over for EL James’ smacked bums and crippled nipples trilogy, Fifty Shades of Grey – which in itself, just a couple of years later, has the feeling of an off-colour joke you made when you were drunk which no-one has let you forget.
The parody is to be applauded. It’s several Tweet-sized puns mixing horticulture, garden sheds and some sort of S&M odyssey - one to a page - juxtaposed with artful photographs of said outhouses and gardening equipment. It’s very British, very Carry-On, very “we’re dead cheeky but we’re not too good at this sex business”.
An example? Ah, okay then:
“’I think it’s time for us to take things to the next level’, she said eagerly.
“’What?’ I replied. ‘…The shed roof?’”
There is a loose narrative stitching the one-liners together as Colin, the narrator, goes on an erotic journey involving sheds and his new partner, but mainly sheds. This is basically a coffee-table book, or perhaps its low-rent cousin, the toilet companion; a one-note joke taken way too far. At a very loose estimate, there are probably about as many words in it as there are in this review. At least you don’t pay for this review.
According to the author in an interview with the Daily Mail, Pan MacMillan got in touch with him after he gathered 90,000-plus followers on Twitter. The book has sold incredibly well; I’m relying on the Mail here, but it seems some weekly sales total even surpassed its source material once the craze for all things Grey subsided. Again, you have to applaud this, with a warm grin glued to your face - like Leonardo di Caprio has to applaud the Best Actor Oscar winner every single year.
Parody – the less talented but more lovable kid brother of satire – has been around for as long as literature. Henry Fielding wrote Shamela in response to his rival Samuel Richardson’s Pamela more than 270 years ago; arguably it is now more famous than the novel it originally satirised. Nowadays, parody is an industry, helping to sell key rings, ceramic mugs and T-shirts, giving piss-takers artistic licence to poke fun at successful books or films. We’ve all enjoyed literary roasts such as the Harvard Lampoon’s Bored of the Rings, or the Barry Trotter books. I love Jeffrey Brown’s Darth Vader and Son, where the Dark Lord of the Sith is depicted taking Luke and Leia to the park and buying them ice creams. Certainly Viz magazine, Britain’s greatest periodical, would be a lot poorer if parody did not exist.
And yet, I threw the toys out when I got this for Christmas. It’s not that it’s unfunny; it’s not that I didn’t enjoy it; and of course, it’s not that I grudge an honest chancer an even break. It just seems like something you might have put together during a stolen work-time email conversation with your mates.
I can’t help but feel this wee twinge of envy. Yes. I admit it.
A couple of years ago I wrote a review on this site covering the Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon. The “punchline” to it was that I hadn’t even read Fifty Shades of Grey, and… Look, save your applause for the end. No, really folks, don’t laugh so hard. You’ll drown me out.
I sought to review a cultural phenomenon that, like the X Factor or Big Brother, seemed to infiltrate popular consciousness by media osmosis, whether you’d experienced the actual product or not. I apologise for this. At some point I must have thought it was clever. I was probably out of my mind on red wine. I wondered what the f*ck I was doing even before I got to the end.
I also attempted to investigate why EL James’ work had done so well, looking at it from the point of view of publishing trends, marketing campaigns and what it is about such literary phenomena that tickle vast numbers of readers. We’re not all sheep, so it can’t all be marketing. Can it?
I now realise that trying to examine a cultural juggernaut like Fifty Shades of Grey, The Da Vinci Code, Harry Potter or similar is a waste of time. The authors probably never imagined, in their most egotistical fantasies, that their work would become so big, so all-encompassing. Neither did the editors, the marketers or the executives. Certainly the critics didn’t. This sort of literary epidemic is probably best described as a Thing, and left at that.
Like the beastie in John Carpenter’s The Thing, this book is an imitation of its source, though not quite so malevolent. It illustrates some modern phenomena. Firstly, it shows how going “viral”, even on something as ephemeral as Twitter, can boost your chances of selling a book and making it a success. And secondly, it reiterates that a little bit of banter goes a long way.
More than once, I’ve been ready to drop Fifty Sheds of Grey off at the charity shop. Something has stopped me each time; perhaps it was an acceptance that I shouldn’t be so much of a grouch and just enjoy a prime piece of silliness. Or perhaps it was an acknowledgement that it can serve as inspiration; an unlikely success, born out of an even more unlikely success. And you’d take that tomorrow. You’d sit in your luxury garden shed and laugh your bollocks off.
Now, Fifty Sheds sits there on the Big Shelf, a daily reminder that you can hit the jackpot with the most unpromising projects. William Goldman was absolutely right: nobody knows anything.
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