Let’s start with a confession. I haven’t read Fifty Shades of Grey. Well, not from cover to cover. But I’ve read enough over people’s shoulders to know I want more, especially now I realise it’s not the sequel to Sebastian Faulks’ Second World War French Resistance novel Charlotte Gray. It will be all mine to devour, just as soon as I get my hands on the copy I ordered from my local independent bookseller over a week ago.
Already, I can say with confidence that E. L. James’ three-volume vagina monologue is a great book, despite the limitations of my intimacy with the text, and not withstanding my BA Honours degree in English and a passion for reading serious literature that has endured for 46 years so far. I shall keep you in suspense for a few paragraphs before I tell you why.
Fifty Shades of Grey (and to a lesser extent, the second and third volumes, Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed) are the stuff that new writers fantasise about – and that digital media make possible in a way none of us could have even dreamed of in the dull days of paper porn. Any writer who claims not to have wanted to write a book that hits the spot and then some is almost certainly not being entirely truthful, bound by a heavily boned corset of modesty.
Rampant downloads, mounting bookshop sales, cash flowing in uninhibited – an alleged £6.5 million in just a few months, if you include the sale of the film rights – orgies of debate and disagreement in multiple corners of the physical and virtual worlds: what writer could resist topping the sales of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code and J K Rowling’s Harry Potter books? How much does quality of writing matter when what you write brings in money in quantity?
That E. L. James is no mistress of characterisation or purple prose is not in dispute. In the month since my obsession with Fifty Shades began, I certainly haven’t caught a hint of any on online forums or Amazon reader critiques, in emails from friends and Facebook posts, through chance conversations on street corners and buses, and during casual encounters in church halls and theatre dressing rooms. There is some relief to be had in this, for were E. L. James being widely hailed as a writer of promise, it would be right to have serious concerns about the critical faculties of the reading public. What most readers do agree on is that she is endowed with the gift of being able to structure a narrative and keep the reader reading – not something to be sneezed at.
A fundamental question, and one that E. L. James may or may not ever have asked herself, is whether writers should even try to describe the sexual act. Martin Amis has made a fine living for himself as a writer, trying, over and over again and with varying degrees of success, to do what he says cannot be done. E. L. James has turned her hand to it, apparently without a qualm.
In 1993, The Literary Review introduced the Bad Sex in Fiction Award, set up by Auberon Waugh, and won over the years by ‘good’ (for which read ‘literary’) writers including A A Gill and David Guterson. I shall wait breathlessly to see whether as a ‘bad’ (for which read “without pretensions to be being ‘good’”) writer, E. L James will see her name on the shortlist come the autumn. If over the summer your fancy is taken by a beach full of bikini-clad bodies glistening with sun oil, or by the rippling muscles of a mountaineer hoisting himself up a sheer rock face, you could do worse than while away an idle five minutes thinking of who you would nominate for OCA’s Summer Sex Awards. Nominations, please, for examples of writing about sex which are Over-the-top, Crass and Awful.
Now let me release you from your torment by telling you why I think Fifty Shades of Grey deserves the serious attention of people who care about writing and reading. It’s got people thinking and talking about things that really matter. If the highest aim of the writer is to challenge the reader to question, to think, to talk and, possibly, to change, E. L. James has succeeded.
In heterosexual partnerships, so we are led to believe, some people are having better sex as a result of talking about the book. It’s got men thinking, again, about what women want from them in the bedroom (and in the garden, the multi-story car-park, the lift and on the park bench). The consequences are not always pretty. The Sun reported last week that 31-year old Raymond Hodgson was convicted of assault for squirting his girlfriend in the face with brown sauce. He was fed up with her reading Fifty Shades of Grey and says: ‘I did what I did to show her what saucy really means.’
Reviewing the book in the current issue of The London Review of Books, Andrew O’Hagan’s proposition that ‘each era gets the erotic writing it craves, or deserves’, is a compelling and convincing one. It’s a shame that he misses the point (of both the book and about the relationship between feminism and women’s physical desires) when he asserts that ‘It’s not that Fifty Shades of Grey and E. L. James’ other tie-me-up-tie-me-down spankbusters read as if feminism never happened: they read as if women never even got the vote.’ Women themselves have not been slow in coming forward to talk about the books’ role in liberating them to become much more assertive in their sexual relationships with men. I’d be surprised if any of them has mentioned the ballot box.
The books have made people confront the fact that our mothers and mothers-in-law are interested in sex. A Facebook friend found out through reading a post of her sister’s that their mother was reading Fifty Shades of Grey. Taken by surprise, she retorted: ‘I thought mum was more M&S than S&M.’ Another relates that his mother-in-law exclaimed, when he saw a copy of the book on a weekend visit to her house: ‘It’s not porn. They’re selling it in Sainsbury’s.’
It has made people who are not older women confront the fact that older women have sex – despite the suggestion, voiced and unvoiced, that we probably shouldn’t. The July issue of Woman and Home (target readership ABC1 women aged 35+) included an interview with E. L. James. The same issue features Joanna Lumley, predictably airbrushed, on its front cover. The tension between the reality of women’s faces and bodies and their depiction in the media is a hoary old chestnut that more than 80 years of female suffrage has made more, not less, troublesome.
In The Evening Standard last week, Brian Sewell took the opportunity to launch a legitimate assault on the technical aspects of this year’s BP Portrait Award winner, Auntie by Aleah Chapin. Straying beyond the brief of an art critic and moving quite firmly into the realm of misogyny, he then asked: ‘Did Miss Chapin not see that in her obsession with the ghastliness of ageing flesh, she had enlarged this repellent body beyond the scale of the head and given primacy, not to the implications of the face – the eyes purblind, the slight smile a rictus, the tousled hair perhaps some indication of character – but to the belly-button and the breasts?’ By contrast, the same portrait is described by the OCA’s Jane Horton as ‘an open and intimate portrait (that) draws you towards the details of her ageing body in an empathetic way.’ Careful timing or carelessness, Mr Sewell, when Fifty Shades of Grey is proving a catalyst for intelligent talk about sex and ageing?
I started with a confession and will end with three predictions. A work acquaintance says that within a month, copies of Fifty Shades of Grey will be piled on the book shelves of charity shops across the land. Another anticipates a generation of ‘grey’ babies next spring. Now one of my own. Writing, like sex, is usually a private act. Reading is best enjoyed alone. That’s why I wonder whether Fifty Shades The Movie will be as successful with the mummy porn audience as the books are proving to be. If we accept the generalisation that when it comes to sex, women are turned on more by words and men more by images, E. L. James may find herself the foster mother of ‘daddy porn’.