Fifty Shades signals new era

CLEM BASTOW
Last updated 05:00 06/07/2012
Fifty Shades of Grey
SAUCY READ: New bestseller Fifty Shades of Grey

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OPINION: THE Literary Review's Bad Sex in Fiction Awards nominees for 2012 have not yet been announced but I feel quite certain that E. L. James' Fifty Shades of Grey will be represented, if not handsomely rewarded. How can you go past ''He's my very own Christian Grey-flavoured popsicle''?

Shakespeare or Hardy or even Barbara Cartland it isn't, but Fifty Shades of Grey - the story of how shy, virginal college student Anastasia Steele enters into a relationship with the mysterious magnate Christian Grey, who turns out to have a penchant for bondage and domination - has just become the fastest-selling paperback in history. Reports suggest James is earning $1.35 million in royalties each week, much of them from e-book sales, where the Fifty Shades phenomenon began.

The book is not just any bestseller, however: debate rages as to whether it is an entertaining diversion or a sinister users' guide for setting feminism back 100 years.

Author and sometime anti-feminist Katie Roiphe argued that ''working women'' are behind ''a renewed popular interest in the stylised theatre of female powerlessness'' and that all feminists harbour repressed fantasies of submission.

Feminist activist Jaclyn Friedman rebutted Roiphe and called for ''mainstream narratives inviting us to identify with women who like to dominate in bed ... women of colour and queer women as sexual heroines in control of their choices''.

Self-styled cultural commentators scramble to name this genre-fiction phenomenon: ''mummy porn'', ''clit-lit''. Noted bastion of good taste Bret Easton Ellis wants to make the movie adaptation.

And yet on buses and trains worldwide, people keep reading about suave Mr Grey and awkward, virginal Anastasia and all their terrible, terrible sex scenes: ''Pulling off his boxer briefs, his erection springs free. Holy cow!''

Holy cow, indeed. Yes, Fifty Shades of Grey has some howlingly bad sexy prose - though it also, in Ana's inner monologue, has a rather charming lightness - but is its popularity one of the signs of the impending feminist apocalypse? I'm not so sure.

It seems a little generous to suggest that James (the pen name of Erika Leonard) set out to dismantle decades of good work done by women's liberation activists when she wrote Fifty Shades (and its second and third volumes, the hastily cranked-out Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed). Leonard is on record as saying of her books, ''This is my midlife crisis, writ large. All my fantasies in there, and that's it.''

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It was, after all, written originally as a Twilight fan fiction piece that imagined what would happen if that book's notoriously abstinent lovers, Bella and Edward, did the deed (with whips and cable ties) instead of simply staring at each other.

Given that Twilight - with its passive heroine, pro-life themes and Edwardian sexual politics - was considered by many feminists to be the great villain of the last few years, surely a story where ''Bella'' (here Anastasia, or Ana) chooses to enter a consensual adult relationship is an improvement?

The spanner in the works here is the nature of Christian and Ana's relationship: it has always been difficult for people to reconcile women's desire for equal footing with men with the desire of some women to be submissive, sexually. However, as Friedman wrote in her Guardian piece, ''Most actual feminists who concern themselves with the sexual realm are focused on creating a world in which all women have genuine agency.''

Ana has agency. Sure, she didn't seek out a Dominant in the back pages of a grubby street paper but she finds love and, yes, power in submission. Are we still so concerned by what consenting adults do to each other in the privacy of their own homes?

I'm inclined to agree with Jezebel's Katie J. M. Baker, who posits Fifty Shades' success - shonky prose notwithstanding - as a potential dawn of a new era: ''Thanks to the book's success, there are customisable guides to finding your perfect brand of smut, and it will [undoubtedly] be easier for more talented female erotica authors to get book deals.''

(Indeed, the fact that so many people seem certain Fifty Shades will lead to the crumbling of world gender politics is almost quaint; when was the last time a book, those funny old-fashioned things, was deemed to be such a powerful, dangerous thing?)

True, Fifty Shades of Grey may yet win the Bad Sex in Fiction Prize. But here's a moment from one of my favourite novels, Oscar Hijuelos' The Mambo Kings Play Songs Of Love: ''[He] loved her so much he licked her rump hole.'' That book won a prize, too: the Pulitzer.

The point is not to suggest that E. L. James is in any danger of joining Hijuelos' esteemed company as a noted novelist, but rather that sex on paper is a bit like sex in real life: rather embarrassing, when you think about it.

A fan wrote to author Neil Gaiman a week or so ago, concerned that Fifty Shades' success would ''put good, thoughtful and valuable literature at risk''. Gaiman responded with these words of wisdom: ''Some books are, often inexplicably, even with hindsight, bestsellers. That's been the way of it for 150 years or more. Read the books you love, tell people about authors you like, and don't worry about it.''

No matter how silly their sex scenes are.

- The National Times

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