Fifty Shades of Pay: A Failed Attempt To Get Rich By Writing Erotica
My mother has recently begun urging me to read some erotica, and the full strangeness of this only hits me as I’m typing this sentence. Let me explain: as one of those writer types, one must try to keep abreast of the literary scene, yes? And to eschew genre or mass-market pulp, the kind that you and I (O intrepid bastions of Apollo’s Quill!) wouldn’t read unless for the high sport of mockery, must be taken into account. After all, can we actually just read Proust and Stein every single day? Let’s relax with some trash, or a guilty pleasure, or something lightweight.
Actually, my mother’s insistence is not predicated on the author’s need to stay connected to what the majority of people want to read. It’s because there’s gold in them thar bodice-rippers, and her son deserves a seam as much as the next smut prospector. Despite my high-mindedness (I’ve got a degree for God’s sake! I’ve skim-read Ulysses and own the selected poems of Ezra Pound) her words did appeal to one of my instincts: greed. So I made the plunge and bought Fifty Shades of Grey, E.L. James’s chronicle of the BDSM-flavored relationship between Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey. Where James has walked, so could I. From her works, I attempted to draw inspiration.
Writing sex often goes very wrong. In the UK, the magazine Literary Review has an annual Bad Sex in Fiction award; past winners include Tom Wolfe, Norman Mailer, and David Guterson. Their mission statement is to "to draw attention to the crude, tasteless, often perfunctory use of redundant passages of sexual description in the modern novel, and to discourage it". Noble it may be, but what of the great many people for whom crude, tasteless and perfunctory sex is the norm? Are they not to be granted literary reflection?
I tease out a few sentences, testing the water. Without forethought, I automatically assume a female POV. I question this later and realise I’m afraid that a male protagonist would be considered a reflection of the author, his perversions a printed echo of mine. Not that I have perversions. Steele’s attraction to Grey is done in such a way that her desire is clear . . . but what is it? Sexiness is a protean concept, signifying different ideas for each person. Perhaps blandness is the way to go? Grey is described as handsome, sure, and copper hair is specified. The recurring imagery, at least what I noticed, was his tendency to smile mysteriously and tilt his head like a curious dog. Here we encounter the first of my hurdles: how to convincingly convey attraction that is both specific enough to convincing, while vague enough for the reader to project their own fantasies.
Do not think me completely inexperienced in writing sex scenes. At university, I wrote an intentionally bad trilogy of detective novels, filled with cliches, plot holes and grammatical errors. What follows is intended to be satire. Honestly. Detective Tarrigan seduces his latest client, a femme fatale called Lacey Bombshell (Remember: not serious. Please, please remember.) Here is the scene in all its gloriousness:
“My name is Lacey Bombshell, Inspector Tarrigan, and I need your help, Inspector Tarrigan.” She smiled her eyes and her teeth were white but NOT UNPLEASANTLY.
“Nice to meet you, Miss Lacey. What can I help you with? Do you perhaps need someone to teach you the art of loving?”
He leaned in and flashed a smile. Lacey was aroused, and looked down from the rippling muscles of his body to the bulge in his trousers.
They had sex, and he tore all her clothes off easily. Her brassiere fell off and plopped on the floor, as Tarrigan frantically began to grope her breasts. She moaned and said “Oooh” as he did it, and felt how erotic the moment was. Her nipples were pointy like the top of chess pieces, but pink, and he did not play chess. Knowing the art of women, he began to lick her left elbow. She moaned again, and had four orgasms.
Now it was his turn, she took his “weapon” (penis) into her mouth like a marshmallow twizzle, and began to pleasure him. He grunted like a gorilla, and sexily began to slap the back of her head faster and faster. She had trouble, because his “penis” (weapon) was very long, and hard as a paperweight.
Once you’ve had a taste of Tarrigan, you never go back.
“By the way, what was it you wanted?” he remembered.
Undeniable as the quality of the above is (unavailable for purchase; picket your local bookstore) there’s probably not going to be any resonance with the public’s sexual imagination, stretching as it is. People of all walks of life, reading BDSM fantasies on the train, in public, talking about it with each other. I want in. Fingertips hovering, cursor blinking, I try to dredge up an idea.
Does the prose matter? Maybe not. Sniff all you like at the legion of clangers in Fifty Shades of Grey, it doesn’t ruin the book. Some of the sentences are charming in their unevenness, like: “Honestly, his surname should be Cryptic, not Grey.” E.L. Wood doesn’t present herself as high art. She’s even said she’s not a very good writer. This is very humble and charming of her. It fills me with misery.
I have a problem. It’s more specific to me as I’m the one sitting here, trying and failing to experiment with erotica, but might needle you as well. So many people, including her, knock E.L. James’s abilities as a writer, calling her books complete garbage. Yet, for the life of me, I’m completely unable to do what she’s done. I’m not even sure what word to use for “penis” (it sounds too clinical, “cock” too asinine, “manhood” too medieval) but E.L. James has captured the sexual unconscious of millions, without even trying to. Twilight fan-fiction bests my serious attempts.
Modern art = “I could have done that” + “Yeah, but you didn’t”
Fifty Shades of Grey = “I could have done that” + “Christ, no I couldn’t”
Now, I’m not claiming the book to achieve any level of genius. Though, on a separate note, there’s a very sterile and menacing air to the book that may be entirely in my head; steel and glass pervades the novel’s atmosphere, and I’m unable to shake the association between Christian Grey’s surname and decaying meat. This may say more about my psychological welfare than the novel, but sometimes artworks can be mass-market “trash” and have deeper wells of meaning that the author may not have consciously intended.
E.L. James has taken her fair share of knocks. Criticisms from members of the BDSM community and feminists are valid and necessary for the dialogue surrounding this book. Snobs sneering at trash are not. Just don’t read it. Unless you think it contributes to a vast and harmful illness of society, why raise hell? There’s plenty of room for disciples of Marguerite Duras and Georges Bataille. Redefine the structures and paradigms of sexuality, fantastic. May more writers endeavor to do so. Yet so many criticisms do not pick on harmful sexual ideas, misrepresentation of BDSM, reinforcement of gender stereotypes, but on a simple crude thought that goes thus: “You’re reading that? What a load of crap. It’s not good writing. Not like I read. Not like I write.”
Yeah? Go ahead and try it. Differ as we might in our aims and ideas, E.L. James has done something I’m unable to do, and for that she has my respect. Attack the book if you must, but don’t assume erotica’s an easy path. I wish it were. Wistfully I shall dream of an alternate reality where The Erotic Adventures of Detective Tarrigan has set me for life. I’ll never be a master of erotica. To my mother, I can only apologize.
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