Whipping up an S&M wet dream

Fifty Shades Darker.

Fifty Shades Darker.

It is pointless to deny that there is something going on here: EL James has now sold four million copies of her Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy through her British publisher, Random House, to add to the 15-million (it beggars belief) that have been shifted in the United States and Canada.

It is the fastest-selling adult novel of all time, by which they mean “it is the fastest-selling novel of all time that is not Harry Potter”. But its content is, of course, rather adult.

The trilogy features Anastasia Steele, who falls in love with Christian Grey, a troubled young ­billionaire who likes sex only if he can accompany it with quite formal, stylised corporal punishment.

The narrative drivers are pretty slack — improbable dialogue (“I’m a very wealthy man, Miss Steele, and I have expensive and absorbing hobbies”), lame characterisation, irritating tics and an internal monologue that goes like this: “Holy hell, he’s hot!” and “No man has ever affected me the way Christian Grey has and I cannot fathom why”.

James writes as though she is late for a meeting with a sex scene. Here, her voice is quite different: meticulous, inventive, radical and conflicted; Grey is only interested in a dominant-submissive relationship. Steele just wants a regular boyfriend (or does she? Yik yak yik yak).

This is Fifty Shades of Grey I am talking about. We will come to Fifty Shades Darker later. Goddammit. I have been infected by James’s ominous, staccato delivery. After 1 600 pages of the stuff, you will too.

The trilogy’s popularity has come as a bit of a surprise to publishers, who thought they knew what women wanted. People who like to trace all new trends back to new technology have offered the explanation that women who would not be seen dead reading smut on the tube could read it on their Kindles and this launched a whole world of sales.

The unexpected element is that the shame of erotic fiction is largely in the imagination, and once people had read it they felt happy to discuss it openly. It was word of mouth that launched the paperback version on the back of the e-book.

Top to bottom
Consider, furthermore, the way high culture and low culture have collided. It has long been acceptable to read the Financial Times and also watch the Eurovision Song Contest.

Because erotica is niche to start with, this revolution took longer to reach it and only now have we loosened up a bit. By this reckoning, Fifty Shades is just Mills & Boon for the generation that would once have been embarrassed to be seen reading Mills & Boon.

But, no, there is more to it than that. First, the reason sex scenes are so difficult to write is the gear change rather than the sex itself.

It is extremely difficult to write a regular story spliced with sex, just as it would be difficult to tell a story interspersed with explicit sexual detail.

James’s sex scenes are not incidental: they are the meat of the plot, the crux of the conflict. It is a sex book. It is not a book with sex in it.

History is written by the victors, so S&M is written by the sadists and the problem with them is they exaggerate. They are not looking at it from the masochist’s point of view — it is in their job description not to.

If the Marquis de Sade thinks any garden-variety submissive is going to get a kick out of having their back broken on a cartwheel, he is dreaming.

Conversely, two opposite predilections across a very broad scope might easily collide in a fantasy written from the perspective of the masochist or naif. So that is the popularity of volume one.

The second volume is a bald and rushed go at making money from the brand. The deviant stuff is largely excised and the move towards mainstream sexual endeavour seems to bore the author. Her fantasies turn instead to what presents she would like if she fetched up with a billionaire (an iPad. An Audi. No, a Saab! Nope, I feel cheap. OK, OK, just the Saab, and some clothes, ooh, a bikini for $541 ... what a terrible waste, and yet how pert my breasts look).

The need for a plot invites in some true gothic horror show and, stripped of his deviations, Christian Grey is just a controlling, unpleasant man who, even 30 years ago, no sane heroine would ever have married, however Holy-hell-shit-I-can’t-breathe hot he was.

The third in the series, Fifty Shades Freed, is ... oh, what am I doing?

You are going to read it. Of course you are going to read it. You have probably already read it. — © Guardian News & Media 2012

 

Comments

blog comments powered by Disqus

Client Media Releases

MTN customers to receive extra 50GB of data
Imperial Logistics enters commuter bus business
Managing risk in 2017 and beyond
Small denomination notes for travellers to Zim