Thursday, June 7, 2012
If only the epithet “mommy porn” that’s been flung at Fifty Shades of Grey actually applied: There’s not nearly enough sex for the book to qualify as porn, or even erotica. It’s a formula romance sprinkled with mild kink, which is apparently enough to rate number one on the New York Times bestseller list for 12 weeks now, with the next books of the trilogy taking slots two and three.
Reading this book is an exercise in patience. You’ll have to wait 318 pages until the über-hot fictional billionaire Christian Grey finally escorts the virginal narrator, Anastasia “Ana” Steele, into his “Red Room of Pain” where, with her consent, he shackles and whips her.
That thousands of readers are willing to tolerate so much of Steele’s self-effacing narration for a handful of brief sex scenes might lead you to believe author E.L. James has done something bold here. But it’s lacking in sexyness or style.
Besides being a klutz who can’t stop biting her lip (a habit that has Christian wanting her all the time), Ana is remarkably inarticulate. Whenever she’s on the brink of a complex thought, all she can muster is “Oh my” or “Holy crap.” Terrible communicators don’t make compelling narrators.
Nobody says anything in the novel for that matter, communicating instead via murmuring, muttering, growling, whimpering, moaning, hissing, commanding, sighing. That’s just a small sampling of James’ extended thesaurus usage.
There’s also a severe shortage of bedroom creativity. A good friend with a taste for 20th-Century European history and cheap romances found Fifty Shades even less sexy than Twilight – even though this is James’ fan fiction homage to the even more sexless vampire tale.
“What’s cool about erotica is surprise,” my friend says. “In Fifty Shades it’s boring sex, because you know what to expect. S/M is hot when you make it really dirty, not when you’re in a room with chains and whips.”
The story in fact isn’t really even about sex as much as it’s about Christian’s preference for a 24/7 dom/sub relationship in which he orders around a sex slave.
The titular phrase comes from Christian’s own self-deprecation, when he tells Ana he’s “50 shades of fucked up.”
The idea that there’s something wrong with Christian is like homophobic familyphiles insisting gayness can be cured. What’s actually wrong with him is that he doesn’t always treat Ana with respect – he interrupts her and cuts off conversation to fuck, using sex to manipulate their talks, and also tracks her movements via cell phone. He’s a creep because his character is a control freak, not because he likes to spank girls.
It was only recently that health professionals reclassified BDSM (bondage/domination/sadism/masochism) inclinations from a mental illness to a sexual preference, with revisions to 1994 edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. So why can’t James, or her readers, get over the idea of Christian as damaged goods?
And why is this book so popular?
“Every 10 or 20 years, people discover that women like sex and they’re surprised by that,” says Susan Edwards, COO of Ellora’s Cave Publishing, a leading erotica publisher whose big surge in sales came when e-readers took off, mitigating the public embarrassment factor.
“The attention this book has brought has been stunning,” she says. “Sometimes you hit the zeitgeist just right.”
That zeitgeist has the trilogy – and sex toys – selling out. A new sex-positive adult novelty shop in Pacific Grove, Ooh La La, keeps running out of kegel balls. “We had to triple our order last week,” owner Shira Diallo says.
She also sells paddles, floggers and handcuffs. Spreader bars, used in Fifty Shades of Grey as a restraint, are also popular with Ooh La La’s older clientele. “They’re also position aids,” Diallo says. “They can help you hold your legs up or keep your hiney in place.”
Diallo put chairs in the store where customers can stay and talk, and the hot trilogy has gotten people talking about exploring their boundaries, she says.
BDSM has been popular in erotica since well before Fifty Shades came out. “It’s one of those things people are titillated by and fascinated with, but they don’t necessarily want to go to a dungeon to experience,” Edwards says. “You can experience something taboo without having to expose yourself to any danger.”
The kink community has mixed on feelings about the book, but Leather Leadership Conference chair Thomas Smith is happy it’s gotten people talking. “It helps people understand that it is consensual,” he writes by email.
Too bad Ana’s “inner goddess” keeps warning her away from this stalkerish man, or the book would seem less sexist. Christian is never described in specific terms, left just vague enough to be a prestigious everyman. In that sense, James encourages women to be at least slightly imaginative, applying the face to his character. Hopefully readers who apply their fantasies to the bedroom will also imagine themselves to be more empowered, and articulate, than Anastasia Steele.
Fifty Shades of Grey is available at, God help us all, Target, Barnes & Noble and other mass-market retailers. For a spectacularly funny riff on Fifty Shades via Amazon.com, Saturday Night Live-style, check out mcweekly.com/50shades