LURID: Spanky Panky, Fifty Shades of O

LURID: vivid in shocking detail; sensational, horrible in savagery or violence, or, a twice-monthly guide to the merits of the kind of Bad Books you never want your co-workers to know you're reading.

Fifty Shades of Grey has caused all manner of sensation.  The Twilight fanfic turned erotic bestseller has garnered column inches and thousands of fans, reignited sparkless marriages, been the subject of a Hollywood bidding war, inspired a parody (Fifty Shames of Earl Grey) and made everyone look twice at the woman on the subway enthralled by the content of her Kindle.  However, erotic literature is nothing new.  In all languages, from The Song Of Solomon to Fanny Hill, from Catullus and Plutarch to Anais Nin and Henry Miller, people have been looking to fiction for kicks since writing was invented – the earliest surviving erotic literature in existence was hand-copied, by monks – and it’s only in our sexually schizoid times that the popularity of such a book comes as any surprise.

In keeping with the genre, the protagonist, Anastasia, is a virgin at the outset, therefore her belief that her lover, Christian, is the Best Thing Ever to occupy her vagina is not unexpected.

So, why all the fuss?  Despite the ‘Mommy Porn’ hype, FSOG contains little that’s genuinely scandalous.  It’s a straightforward tale of Girl-with-low-self-esteem meets ridiculously handsome Boy, gets Boy, has lots of sex, angsts.  It’s straight outta Barbara Cartland or Danielle Steele.  In keeping with the genre, the protagonist, Anastasia, is a virgin at the outset, therefore her belief that her lover, Christian, is the Best Thing Ever to occupy her vagina is not unexpected.  Her breathy, first person account of her sexual initiation starts to read like advertising copy for a bland unisex fragrance.  She describes Christian as “this beautiful, powerful, urbane man”, with a voice that’s “warm and husky like dark melted chocolate fudge caramel” who makes her dream of “gray eyes, leafy patterns in milk and… running through dark places with eerie strip lighting.”  When they finally start copulating – and it’s all foreplay until p.102 (“Aargh!” I cry as I feel a weird pinching sensation deep inside me as he rips through my virginity”) – the sex scenes quickly plateau into a syncopated rhythm of nipple tweaks, studly thrusts, clenching muscles and – every time – a glorious, explosive vaginal orgasm that knocks Anastasia into semi-consciousness.  It’s all monogamous, responsibly condom-wrapped, titillating fun, with none of the kinky sex scenes even approaching the eye-popping infamy of the goldfish in Shirley Conran’s 1982 raunchfest, Lace.

Therefore it’s not the narrative of FSOG that has helped it become the book du jour.  It’s captured the zeitgeist because there are so many more interesting things about it than its story. 

The origins of the book (it originally appeared online, chapter by chapter, entitled Master of the Universe, as one fan’s fantasy manipulation of what Edward and Bella might get up to if they weren’t restrained by Stephenie Meyer’s Mormonic modesty) have caused a lot of chatter. Although author E. L. James changed the names of her central couple, the bones of Twilight still peek through; there’s the Pacific North-West setting, Edward/Christian’s adoptive family and Bella/Anastasia’s separated parents, his initial warning to Bella/Anastasia that she should stay away from him, the way he saves her from a threatening car/bicycle, and the grating emotional fragility displayed by codependent Bella/Anastasia (“I’m too pale, too skinny, too scruffy, uncoordinated, my long list of faults goes on”) even in the face of her lover’s continued reassurances that she’s “flawless”.  Despite James’ insistence that FSOG has been re-edited and is now a substantially different text to MOTU, blogger DearAuthor compared both editions and disagrees.  When she ran both versions through plagiarism busting, she got a similarity index of 89%. 

This raises some important issues for publishing.  If E. L. James used the Twilight mythos and fanbase in order to build her own trilogy, does she owe Stephenie Meyer any part of the millions of dollars she is currently raking in for the three Fifty… books?  It’s not new for an author to take another’s characters and work with them, although they usually wait until the original creator is dead, and negotiate rights with the estate.  There are two “official” sequels to Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca, for instance, Susan Hill’s Mrs de Winter, and Rebecca’s Tale by Sally Beauman, and one of Stoker’s descendants penned Dracula:The Undead from his great-grand uncle’s notes.  This type of posthumous sequelization is a fairly safe bet for publishers, as readers already have awareness of the characters and basic scenario and are likely to have their curiosity piqued by a new title.  Fan fiction has also been around for a long time, in massive quantities, but until FSOG started attracting seven figure payouts, no one was making any money from it.  Are we entering a new era where it’s acceptable to purloin other writers’ characters and situations without seeking permission, and when the originator of the material can have no expectation of payment for the use of their intellectual property?  Do writers own characters, or do readers? Unless Meyer chooses to sue James, the legal issues remain moot.

Do writers own characters, or do readers? Unless Meyer chooses to sue James, the legal issues remain moot.

And then there’s the sex.

Sex and fan fiction have long gone hand in hand.  There’s a great sense of playfulness about much fanfic, a willingness to push boundaries, to include non-mainstream perspectives, to poke fun at the original concepts, to outrage some readers and titillate others, therefore a lot of the sex is non-vanilla.  There’s also a desire to claim characters as intimate friends, to know their most secret, carnal thoughts, to be inside their heads at the moment of climax and to communicate their every nuance of sensation, so fanfic does get extremely explicit.  Fanfic is all about taking what you love about an author’s world, and reshaping it so it fits your own reality more snugly.  And, if readers follow an alternative lifestyle, they like to see their activities and proclivities reflected in their fiction, without having to consider the censorship or commercial constraints that prevent them from being there in the first place.  Especially if those activities and proclivities take them into the realm of Bondage, Dominance, Submission, and Sado-Masochism (BDSM).

Although Stephenie Meyer’s prose and characterization are irredeemably bland, her world-building is intriguing.  This makes Twilight the perfect playground for fanfic – it’s very easy to improve on the original, but you’ve got plenty of characters and a reasonably robust mythos to work with.  Add in the inherently Dominant/submissive relationship between Edward and Bella, and the long initiation Bella undergoes into the vampire lifestyle during the course of the four books, and it’s no wonder that the BDSM fanfic writers have had a field day.  E. L. James is not alone: there are hundreds of thousands of Twilight fanfic pieces online, many of them reimagining Edward and Bella as a human couple whose relationship isn’t defined by a Vampire/mortal dynamic, but as straightforward D/s.

However, just as Meyer writes vampire-lite (they sparkle in sunshine! The friendly ones are vegetarian! They go to high school!), in her version of the story James tantalizes her readers with equivalently watered-down kink.  Although Christian gets busy with a fur mitt, riding crop, restraints and pleasure beads, there’s nothing that will be particularly shocking to anyone but the virginal heroine, Anastasia, who is outraged the first time she is spanked – and enjoys it (“My body is singing, singing from his merciless assault”).

BDSM encompasses a broad spectrum of sexuality, and has become a catch-all descriptor for those who like to indulge in occasional spanking sessions, to those who attend parties and play out scenes in front of others, to those who have devoted themselves full time and absolutely to the Master/slave lifestyle.  The activities depicted in James’ books represent only a narrow sliver of that spectrum.  There are many in the community who object to the BDSM label slapped on FSOG by the mainstream media. It’s understandable that they might resent Anastasia’s belief that Christian’s sexuality is an illness, caused by his abuse and abandonment as a child, that leads to her thinking she can “cure” him of it.  The focus on climaxing from penetrative sex is also problematic, as much of BDSM philosophy is about the control and denial of lust, and about achieving mental ecstasy rather than physical orgasm.

When you compare FSOG to other texts labeled BDSM, it’s easy to see the gap between James’ sparkly slap-and-tickle and the real deal. 

The 1954 French novella, The Story of O, is perhaps the best-known literary work dealing with dominance and submission and it casts a long shadow over subsequent texts.  Part love-letter, part response to the challenge that women can’t write erotica, part submissive completion of a Master-ordered task, ‘O’ follows the progress of a nameless woman (unlike Anastasia, she is a successful and sophisticated fashion photographer, living in a spacious Paris apartment) on her quest to understand the meaning of total submission.  Her lover René brings her to the remote, members-only Chateau Roissy, where she is stripped naked except for a thick leather collar and bracelets, and asked to submit to all kinds of torture, penetration and restraint at the hands of the masters of the castle: they’re going to get very medieval indeed on her ass.  But this is the way O wants it. She wants only to be loved, and to prove that she loves in equal measure:

O recalled the prisoners she had seen in engravings and history books, who also had been chained and whipped many years ago, centuries ago, and had died.  She did not wish to die, but if torture was the price she had to pay to keep her lover’s love, then she only hoped he was pleased that she had endured it.  All soft and silent she waited, waited for them to bring her back to him.”

During her first two weeks of training in the castle, O silently submits to all kinds of humiliations that would have Anastasia running for the door screaming.  The reader gets a clear sense of O’s changing sense of self as the rituals continue, and her growing strength in subjugation:

The chains and the silence, which should have bound her deep within herself, which should have smothered her, strangled her, on the contrary freed her from herself… Beneath the gazes, beneath the hands, beneath the sexes that defiled her, the whips that rent her, she lost herself in a delirious absence from herself which restored her to love and perhaps, brought her to the edge of death.”

Her survival earns her an “iron ring with a triple spiral of gold”, a symbol that proves she is an initiated submissive.  When she returns to work, her colleagues notice a dramatic change in her demeanor (“She stood and walked straighter, her eyes were clearer, but what was especially striking was her perfection when she was in repose, and how measured her gestures were”).  She embarks on further erotic adventures, with a model-turned-lover, Jacqueline, and with a new master, Sir Stephen (like Christian, possessed of a “gray, unflinching gaze”), accepting whatever kink comes her way with the same calm smile.  O is presented as being in control because she always has that binary choice (yes/no) within her power.  She can stay/go, stop/continue, agree/refuse – but we know she will always give her consent.  This puts her poles apart from Anastasia, who resists Christian all the way, confused by his requests and nervous about his power over her.  O owns every single degradation of her flesh. The Fifty… trilogy is, at core, a fairly conventional romance about how two people negotiate the boundaries of a complex relationship into marriage.  In contrast, O’s journey takes her to the ultimate in submission, a party where the other guests use her as a plaything, while acknowledging her transformed status.

Was she then of stone or wax, or rather some creature from another world, and did they think it pointless to speak to her? Or didn’t they dare?”

Although E.L. James skips lightly over the more thorny aspects of BDSM, the sheer popularity of her work can only succeed in turning more readers on to further possibilities, and may signal a sea change in wider attitudes to consensual sexual acts.

The Story of O is a difficult book on many levels.  Some readers love it, others feel it makes their skin crawl.  Intent is all.  Outside the closed world of the Master/servant lifestyle (where the gender of the dominant and the submissive is irrelevant), the eroticization of extreme pain and the objectification of women become political and unethical.  Stripped of its philosophies and consensual framework, BDSM becomes sexual sadism.  Without her desire and authorization, O becomes the victim of rape and violence.  It only tells one side of the story; we never learn why the masters deserve the sacrifices O makes.  A true dominant takes his or her responsibilities very seriously, earns the power exchange and never takes a sub for granted.  However, The Story of O does address the raw kinks in human nature, the close links between pain and pleasure, freedom and subservience, denial and release.  The Story of O is what it says on the box: one female submissive’s dark fantasy.

Anne Rice’s bestselling Sleeping Beauty trilogy explores a broader range of BDSM than either Fifty Shades of Grey or The Story of O and presents both male and female submissives.  It’s set in a medieval fantasy world, and draws heavily on the iconography of fairy tales.  The first book, The Claiming of Sleeping Beauty, begins with a familiar scene, the progress of a young Prince towards the thorn-bedecked castle, where a beautiful princess has lain sleeping for a hundred years.  However, this prince will awaken Beauty, not with a kiss, but with full-on penetration as she lies there unconscious.  He claims her as his slave, and takes her – naked all the way - back to his mother’s castle for training, promising to return her to her parents “greatly enhanced in beauty and wisdom”.  From the King and Queen’s blushes, it’s clear that they have also experienced a period of service under Queen Eleanor’s instruction.  Beauty meets other young princes and princesses at the castle, all sent as tributes from neighboring kingdoms, and then embarks on a series of erotic adventures with her fellow slaves over the course of the three books.

Whereas The Story of O is tragic in tone, with the protagonist headed towards her wished-for death, the Sleeping Beauty trilogy is an elegant comedy, albeit one peppered with whipping, slave auctions, and pony play.  Beauty is taken apart and put back together again as a much stronger, more self-aware individual, and she gets her HEA with a handsome prince – although the implication is that they will continue to play with one another.  Of course, Rice was writing in the 1980s, when it seemed the route to gender equality was linear and one-way.  Interestingly, in the Fifty… books, it’s the dominant, Christian, who falls apart and must be rebuilt – perhaps a sign of our uncertain times and the crisis of masculinity?

Although E.L. James skips lightly over the more thorny aspects of BDSM, the sheer popularity of her work can only succeed in turning more readers on to further possibilities, and may signal a sea change in wider attitudes to consensual sexual acts.  Just as Twilight may have initiated a generation into accepting supernatural coupledom, Fifty Shades of Grey may introduce a whole new audience to the joy of kinky sex.  There are major crossover possibilities with the rest of vampire romance - Laurell K. Hamillton blends bloodsucking and BDSM in her Anita Blake novels, which contain explicit discussion of domination and submission.  Like Meyer, James has gathered a whole army of readers whose devotion to her characters goes far beyond the boundaries of the page.  And, any book that puts female sexuality to the top of the news and entertainment agenda can only be welcomed, especially when seen in the context of the current war being waged against women’s reproductive rights. 

Where do you turn for your paperback thrills? Have you loaded your eReader with The Whippingham Papers or The Hellbound Heart? Are you a Sadean or a Gorean?  Please share – but remember to play nicely in the comments otherwise you may feel the sting of your Mistress’s displeasure.

Author Image courtesy of Heidi Green Photography

Karina Wilson

Column by Karina Wilson

Karina Wilson is a British writer based in Los Angeles. As a screenwriter and story consultant she tends to specialize in horror movies and romcoms (it's all genre, right?) but has also made her mark on countless, diverse feature films over the past decade, from indies to the A-list. She is currently polishing off her first novel, Exeme, and you can read more about that endeavor here .

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Typewriter Demigod's picture
Typewriter Demigod from London is reading "White Noise" by DeLilo, "Moby-Dick" by Hermann Mellivile and "Uylsses" by Joyce April 5, 2012 - 5:04pm

Well written, that made my morning a lot more interesting. YAY BONDAGE.

Tbh, I'm very much a masochist, but I'm a dom, so it makes for weird coupling. So they get to verbally abuse me, while I do fun stuff with chains. Protip:arms behind back works and is very useful but it's boring.

Joshua Chaplinsky's picture
Joshua Chaplinsky from New York is reading a lot more during the quarantine April 6, 2012 - 6:47am

Mistress Karina, eh?

Karina's picture
Karina from UK/Hong Kong is reading the usual trash April 6, 2012 - 8:40am

@Typewriter It's all about the ties that bind - and what those ties are then bound to.  Anastasia graduates from Christian's grey silk necktie (as featured on the cover of FSOG) to chains with cuffs.  As for Beauty and O - what don't they get tied up with?

@Josh I'm watching you.

Dennis's picture
Dennis from Los Angeles is reading Necroscope by Brian Lumley April 6, 2012 - 9:16am

This was a great article.  So great that I'm actually now thinking of reading these stupid books.  *sighs

Karina's picture
Karina from UK/Hong Kong is reading the usual trash April 6, 2012 - 10:03am

@Dennis Don't! I can guarantee your fantasies are better than the reality.

ProsperaChicksRule's picture
ProsperaChicksRule from UK is reading Radical Desire Mark Ramsden April 27, 2012 - 5:09am

Great article, didn't know about the Twilight connection, had wondered why this lightweight book had sold so many. I thought it was going to be as well written as Secretary or Nine and a Half Weeks (both originally literary short stories) and was surprised by an anaemic protagonist who can't even swear properly. 

Story of O and Beauty trilogy both firm favourites of mine.

Madeleine Moore's Sarah's Education also did this earlier and better.