So I am what you would term a “bookworm”. I’ve also worked for twelve years in publishing. In Earl’s Court London in April, the publishing world convened for the annual drink-and-swagger-a-thon, The London Book Fair. It was here that, as I trotted round the halls attempting to avoid previous bosses, I had a copy of a book thrust into my hands by a semi-clad young man. This was interesting. Marketing ploys at the fair have always been varied, the Scientologists have someone inexplicably dressed as a pirate on their stand but this was new. And the book? New smash hit, “mommy-porn”, shag-fest, “Fifty Shades of Grey” by E.L James.
This novel is the first in a trilogy spawned from a “Twilight” fan-fiction short story sensation and has been a feature of the digital charts for many months. Now available in paperback through a mainstream publisher, the media claims that it has thrust erotica into the mainstream. But hang on a minute. I can remember tattered copies of coming-of-age teen romance,“Forever” by Judy Bloom, which contained an actual penis, passing hands when I was just thirteen. We then graduated to Jilly Cooper’s raunch-fest “Riders”, Jackie Collins novels and “The Thorn Birds” by Colleen McCullough. Women have always read about sex. What makes “Fifty Shades...” so different, hmmm?
Our heroine is virginal university student and general whinger, Anastasia Steele. Her chance encounter with young billionaire businessman and full-on Adonis, Christian Grey, leads to an overwrought and over-dramatic affair. But here’s the sexy twist. After signing a non-disclosure agreement (such romance) Christian introduces Anastasia to his kinky sex dungeon and lets her know that what really gets him going is pain, punishment and total domination. It’s like “Pretty Woman” all over again!
Journalist and professional shit-stirrer, Katie Roiphe wrote in Newsweek recently that the success of “Fifty Shades” proves one thing, that modern women, flustered by the responsibility of independence and err… having a job, are now driven by a secret need to be to be dominated in the bedroom. Yep, economic freedom has lead to an army of women who are all closeted bondage fanatics. This, in my humble opinion, is bunkum. For starters that would mean that my more than casual acquaintance with Stephen King novels means that I have a latent desire to be embroiled in the supernatural. I don’t even believe in ghosts. And “Fifty Shades”, I would argue is less about spanking and more about the age-old, doomed quest of a woman who wants to change her man. I can’t make any recommendations but if you are into hard-core BDSM, this book just isn’t for you. Sure, they talk about anal sex, fisting, chaining, shaving, butt-plugs, genital clamps etc - but the sex doesn’t really progress beyond a light spanking and some hand-tying with some thoughtful application of baby lotion thrown in for afters. It’s essentially a romance with some naughty words scattered around for added shock value. What the roaring success of “Fifty Shades” shows is that the people want to be scandalised and, more importantly, sex sells…. even if it isn’t very good.
Because, yes “Fifty Shades of Grey” is not, I repeat, not a great book. Here are some actual lines from the book.
“Two orgasms... coming apart at the seams, like the spin cycle on a washing machine, wow”
“I want you to become well acquainted, on first name terms if you will, with my favourite and most cherished part of my body. I’m very attached to this” Guess what Christian is talking about!
“He’s my very own Christian Grey-flavoured popsicle” *gag*
“I am beguiled by you, Christian. Completely overwhelmed. It’s like Icarus flying too close to the sun”. Kill me. Kill me now.
The book is basically a dozen sex scenes loosely tied together with smouldering glances, a lot of gasps and some desperately dull email exchanges. The story lurches unbelievably from one orgasm to the next. In fact, Anastasia came so often and with such little encouragement that I wondered whether, perhaps, the boundaries of realism were being overstretched. Hell, maybe she is just lucky. However, aside from the abundance of orgasms the sex was, to my surprise, pretty realistic. Thanks to Christian’s seemingly endless supply of condoms, it is always safe. There are discussions about contraception. James actually uses the word “vagina” twice (gasp), although Christian’s tackle is always referred to as his “impressive length”. *snigger*
But what really raised my usually immovable eyebrow was that Anastasia (double gasp) has a period, the ultimate sex-stopper. But rather than running for the hills shouting “Unclean! Unclean!” Christian just pops out that tampon and gives her a good seeing to in the bathroom. I’ll admit that all I’m up for during my monthly visit from the blob is a hot water bottle, a bucket of gin and tonic and a box set of Supernatural but it’s refreshing to see a sexual fantasy that not only acknowledges that women bleed and that’s okay, but also that it doesn’t mean that they are closed for business.
Of course the publisher will market “Fifty Shades” as groundbreaking, liberating book that is changing the world, as it will help to sell more copies. The reality is “Fifty Shades” is the latest in a long line of sexy books. The basics are instantly recognisable; darkly attractive hero seduces young and innocent virgin, whisks her away from her provincial life with his wealth and power and basically makes her orgasm until she passes out from euphoria. Its success doesn’t mean that women are all secretly craving a gentle whipping with a riding crop or an afternoon with a butt-plug and it sure as hell isn’t the start of a new sexual revolution. What is tells us is that women are interested in and want to read about sex. What it offers, and the books that came before it have offered, is an escapism that women have been indulging in for centuries and if, in the process, E.L James can make menstruation sexy - good for her.