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…