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I have been reticent to blog about 50 Shades of Grey, because I really hate adding energy to such a pointless firefight. You either love it, or hate it. There’s no room for ambivalence in what is being deemed as the “housewife porn” smash-hit of 2012. Your feminist sensibilities, prudishnesss, snobbery, desire, or whatever all come out and it then becomes like trying to reason with either an over-zealous Mother Jones correspondent or a Westboro Congregant, depending.
If it is at all possible, I am an advocate of good writing, romance novels, AND light bondage. (Sorry, Mom.) The light-bondage thing, whatever. More on that later, if I’m feeling punchy. But here’s the thing about good writing and romance: I don’t believe the two are mutually exclusive. They can co-exist happily, like a roommate sitcom. Likewise, the escapist fantasy of romance as an antidote to the drudgery of daily life is perfectly reasonable. And whether you’re a disgruntled young man in an office, wishing you were traversing bat country with Raoul Duke and his lawyer, or a housewife wishing Mr. Darcy would come and take you off to his manor house, there isn’t much of a difference. Plot and style are incidental measures of taste; the real Dasein of literature comes from the spaces in between, and it can be present in all genres. It is telling, then, not so much that “bored housewives” read romance, but rather that escapism is demarcated on gender lines, and the escapism of Hunter Thompson or Chuck Palahniuk is given more weight than the escapism of Danielle Steel or Nora Roberts. I call bullshit, and plenty of other people do, too.
But then there’s this Fifty Shades of Grey business. My friends and I have begun what we call “Terrible Book Club” solely for the purpose of reading this mess, all as a cover for our addiction to cheese fries. Terrible Book Club is comprised of my friends and I, all of us with at least one college degree, none of us known for taking shit from people.
The novelty of the depths of just how bad the writing is wore off after the first meeting. What we are left with, because going line-by-line into all the shitty writing would take from now until the literal end of time, is wondering what the hell people see in this book and wondering where it fits into a larger conversation.
Ana’s comments on Christian’s lifestyle, such as calling him a “monster” with “singular tastes,” and being freaked out by his kinks, coming through as ignorance on the part of the author. Now, we know better than to assume what an author does or does not know about a subject. But certain topics come with certain biases, and the evidence here suggests that she either is in possession of a few, or is just that inarticulate that something she loves comes across as something she hates. Regardless, this does nothing for non-standard expressions of sexuality – perversions and kinks, in 19th- and 20th- century parlance. Rather than bringing Ana Steele into her own, quenching long-held desires, this is a shocking introduction into the world of S/M. Furthermore, these are hardly “singular.” The idea of singularity is wrapped in an idea of isolation – that the S/M practitioner’s life and tastes are their own, and no one else shares them. Is the point, as one member of Terrible Book Club pointed out, that this is introducing women to something they may have never heard of before?
I try not to decry books as dangerous. The biggest thing I learned in the MFA program at Portland State University is that one reader’s junk is another one’s treasure. I legitimately like Anne Rice and I wouldn’t be caught dead reading whatever the literary it-kid du jour is. And I am no fan of the ossified, pedantic, stifling world of the S/M community. But at the same time, I find it incredibly disturbing that right now, in the year 2012 – the last year of existence, according to armchair mystics all over the world – this is what passes for an exploration of women’s sexuality. My question is not even so much “Why do people like this?” but rather, “What is the meaning of the popularity of this book?” What does it mean for our culture that the sexual literary heroine of this moment is a virgin who barely eats, who has never masturbated, and despite growing up in the computer age, has never heard of sadomasochism?
So, folks out there, debating the aesthetic value of this book is basically like debating the aesthetic value of Justin Bieber. It’s a moment we’re having, and in a few years’ time, there will be another poorly-written festival of crap to take its place (provided, of course, that the world doesn’t end in December). If you like it, that’s fine. I truly do not give a shit, and you should not give a shit that I don’t like it. But for the love of god, at least check out the Beauty trilogy by Anne Rice, The Story of O by Pauline Reage, or Secretary by Mary Gaitskill. (The latter has an advantage, as far as I’m concerned, because James Spader plays the Dom in the movie version, and if there is anything more perfect than that, I don’t want to know about it.) Sexuality – even “vanilla” sexuality – is a complicated mess at the best of times. Introducing something out of the paradigm takes a lot of skill, and if there’s one thing I hate to see, it’s a group getting kicked when they’re down.