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On Fifty Shades of Grey

So I read most of the first book. Skimmed the other two, because I couldn’t keep at it – even when I skipped to the sex parts. At first it was shockingly funny – she’s a 22-year-old virgin who doesn’t masturbate? he shows her his Red Room of Pain first thing? he gets out a whip and the first thing she thinks is Oh Jeez! – but then I just got depressed. On several levels.

Like, was there no editor? No copy-editor? Why isn’t there better porn for the women who are scarfing this up? Why don’t they know about the legion of erotica that already exists? And kinky people should be pissed – you don’t have to have some early childhood trauma to enjoy s/m sex stuff. And the way Ana doesn’t masturbate but is able to orgasm at the press of a button with Christian? Men are thus supposed to be some kind of all-knowing omniscient sex gods (no pressure, there, right?) and women just sit there and let them turn all the dials and knobs, waiting for it to happen? The sexual messages alone are astonishingly backward, but easily wiped away by people defending the book as “just a fantasy.”

(If I were into such discourse, I could unpack how this ‘fantasy’ matters. How our imaginations make our realities. How what we dream about affects the day-to-day. Some other smarty pants person can discuss that.)

How easy it is to hit the wrong note when it comes to writing about sex! Every time Anastasia Steele would think ‘Holy crap!’ knocked me out the story. The descriptions of Christian Grey’s super modern ultrasleek houses did nothing for me. The music he liked, the food they ate, the cars they drove, the activities they did beyond sex, the clothes both of them wore – NO.

We could devolve into a discussion about how cliched and cheesy those trappings are. But that’s pretty cheap and lazy. Making fun of people’s sexual fantasies is pretty fucking nasty. I have to give E.L.James a ton of credit – she may have a fake name, but everyone knows her real one now, and it’s her picture on the back of all these books. Books that are filled with her version of what is sexually provocative. That takes some major guts.

I don’t mind telling people stuff about my own life. I mean – my dumb life? It’s just the way it is. Why hide it? But the stuff I imagine, that I make up? For some reason that’s even more embarrassing for me. (I should probably get over this, and quick.) Still, it’s revealing, showing people how you imagine something could happen. When you add sex to that, your vulnerability increases exponentially.

I admit – when I read something sexual that appeals to me, that doesn’t knock me out of the story or make me cringe or die laughing – I am beyond impressed. I will buy that book, even if it’s not a favorite.* There’s something really amazing about being able to achieve that, the harmony and melody of diction and setting and action. Writing accompanying dialogue that doesn’t clunk, explaining what parts went where, and how, what details to include, what to leave out – this is incredibly difficult. It can go wrong in infinite ways. It sort of makes me feel shy about writing about sex at all.

(But I have to! Because I totally respect it when people get it right! It’s such a challenge, and a political mandate, too, to create a realistic sexual representation in a world full of porn and fakery. Right? Right? Plus sex is totally fascinating – don’t even pretend you don’t think so!)

But knowing there are people waiting to pounce on ‘bad sex writing’ it’s not surprising that writers avoid it. (Especially male writers, who can be accused of ‘watching too much porn’ or some other shaming thing.)

Literally turning off your reader – can you think of a bigger risk to take?

*I should make a list of these books. Hmmm…

7 Comments

  • Holly on Jul 09, 2012 Reply

    I could not even bring myself to read it long enough to get to a sex part because the writing was so stinky to me. It made me think of stuff some sex/romance stuff I wrote when I was 14…so embarrassing. I don’t care if it takes balls to write about sex, I still don’t want to read crappy, Harlequin-y juvenile writing. Barf.

  • Carrie on May 16, 2012 Reply

    Yes, that whole thing about ‘what will my family think?’ is pretty strong and difficult to avoid!

    But a sext or a dirty story told over drinks – there’s context supporting it. With writing straight-up erotica, it’s on the writer to provide ALL of the context. And if you fail, you fail hard. And you cannot predict why you might fail, because there’s no accounting for sexual tastes. And then you feel incredibly dumb because this one thing you are serving up that you think is so awesomely hot and sexy – other people think it’s gross or boring. Then you wish the earth would open up and swallow you to avoid the mortification. It’s amazing to me that anyone overcomes this and publishes their smut…

  • rockstarscars on May 15, 2012 Reply

    Oh, that book sounds dreadful.

    And I hear you on putting fantasies out there. I feel like it’ll be no big deal to write about real stuff- but fantasies? Well…I guess some of it wouldn’t be too difficult (when I think about sexting and stuff, that’s really all that is) but I think admitting to any actual feelings would be harder for me. At least, in this context. And if I ever wrote erotica that was published?? Oh yeah, I’d totally need a pseudonym. (truth be told, it’s all picked out.) It would be kind of sad for me to get published and not be able to tell my dad about it. But egads, I couldn’t have my old man reading about the nasty shit I like.

  • Carrie on May 14, 2012 Reply

    One thing about the bdsm aspect of this book is that, at least in the first one, it never seemed to be behavior she was digging. She liked it, in spite of herself, and then did it because she was angling for the prize, the whole package, the emotional love and attachment of Christian Grey as well as the physical. So in some respects, the power exchange between them wasn’t that interesting.

    I think I might be a poor judge of erotic writing, personally. I like it when things are realistic – awkward, uncomfortable, ugly – because that’s more titillating than a fully plush fakey dream world. I get pulled out of regular porn like that, too: “Is that a Martha Stewart for K-Mart bedspread they’re doing it on? I used to have one like that in college!” That kind of thing. So I dunno.

  • Syntax and Salt on May 14, 2012 Reply

    I found this unreadable – the first bit of erotica I read was Story of O as a teenager. And while the tastes specific to the book have never really been a part of my palate it was well written and a pulse racer. Knowing that this was based on Twilight fan fiction and is essentially brutal plagiarism I didn’t have high hopes to begin with but it was somehow worse than Twilight, which was hard for me to imagine. Sex is difficult to read or write about. I enjoyed Secret Diary of Call Girl quite a bit. The voice of the author is a lot more engaging. And the attitude of the book is less about creating a fantasy and more about enjoying the fantasy as it comes even when it isn’t perfect. It does elevate the professional sex worker business to a fantasy which many of the women I know found discomfiting and entirely over their own boundaries.

  • Carrie on May 14, 2012 Reply

    I’ve had the same experience with erotica anthologies. I just sold a boatload of the Best American Erotica that Susie Bright edited. I normally defer to Susie Bright in all things sexual, but there’s just no accounting for sexual tastes, I guess. So much of it did nothing for me.

    I have nothing specifically labeled erotica to recommend, though I do like how Micheal Ondaatje writes about sex -In The Skin of a Lion, The English Patient (no shock there) – but typically my block with most erotica is that it tends to be in a hurry to get to the ‘good part’ and as a result I care less about the characters and who (and how) they fuck. I guess it’s somewhat like foreplay – if you don’t get me in the mood to feel empathy for your characters, then I don’t care how artfully you swing them from the ceiling and how well you describe their engorged bits or whatever.

    For example, there is a sex scene in one of my favorite YA books, Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta. It’s probably not more than two paragraphs, but it’s one of my favorite sex scenes ever. Mostly because everything that’s led to that moment is so crucial. And it’s not graphic, but it’s not vague, either. And there’s no obvious, giggle-inducing language (penis, pussy, fuck, etc.) that hasn’t already been used before. I don’t know. I have no idea how you’d make something like this work. The only explanation is something fuzzy – it’s ‘magic’ or it’s ‘poetry’ and analyzing that kind of thing makes me uncomfortable.

  • Ela on May 14, 2012 Reply

    I’m intrigued by this, as a perennially naive person who wants to learn more. The book sounds awful–absent copy-editing is a turnoff before you even get to the backward messages.

    I’ve been reading an anthology passed me by a friend titled “Sugar in my Bowl: Real Women Write about Real Sex.” I’ve pretty much had to give up with it–you expect unevenness in an anthology, but three in a row were just so bad, and several others were plain boring.

    Probably the most interesting piece wasn’t about sex at all, but engaged with the fact that the author had written a sex novel under a pseudonym at the start of her writing career and still, 20-30 years later, was mortified about it and no one but her editor knew her identity as the sex book writer. Lots about the stigma against women using raunchy language at all…

    Not interested in S&M, but would love some recommendations for good erotica, especially not-exclusively-hetero, let’s say…

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