Overweening Generalist

Thursday, August 9, 2012

50 Shades of Grey: My Take, My Fake

In Laurie Penny's article in New Statesman on the book and hub-bub surrounding E.L. James's 50 Shades of Grey she writes, "The only people who haven't bothered to read the damned books, it seems, are most of the journalists writing about it." I'm no journalist (although I play one in my fantasies), but I'm - as of the date above - one of those non-readers of 50 Shades. Laurie Penny writes "books" - plural - because James has come out with a trilogy, and they've sold, according to the London Telegraph of 7 August: 12 million as a trilogy in the UK alone, 40 million worldwide. The entire Harry Potter series sold 450 million worldwide, but still, James's trio counts already as one of the greatest sellers of all-time. Already. And they haven't been out for a year!

In a cosmically hilarious sense and a bit synchonistically I decided to look into the 50 Shades phenomenon just after finishing a funny book by Pierre Bayard called How To Talk About Books You Haven't Read. I have read Marquis de Sade, "Pauline Reage"'s The Story of O, and Anne Rice's well-written porn, and I use the term "porn" neutrally. I just think it's a basic part of culture. And I read Anais Nin and all sorts of stuff like that. (Some 20-something female readers of James will one day learn that a book called Lady Chatterley's Lover was, like, a total scandal ya know? only about 60 years ago, and they'll be incredulous, think it almost inconceivable, after skimming in this Lawrence character for eight minutes. But then I was unimpressed as a 14 year old boy, when I checked into Mellors and the Lady.)

When I saw that James's books were selling off the charts, I had to figure out what was going on, so I started reading articles - with excerpts of the clunky prose - and knew I couldn't stay awake if I tried to actually read James. What interested me was the social phenomena that attends sales of multi-millions of one single title...which qualifies as a "Black Swan" event in publishing. 

                              Here she is: the firer of loins the world over, E.L. James

Back to Bayard for a moment. He argues near the end of his book: "How can one deny, however, that talking about books you haven't read constitutes an authentic creative activity; making the same demands as other forms of art? Just think of all the skills it calls into play - listening to the potentialities of a work, analyzing its ever-changing context, paying attention to others and their reactions, taking charge of a gripping narrative - and you will find yourself convinced." (pp.182-183) Earlier in the book there's a very amusing chapter that features Montaigne, and asks, if I have read a book but can't remember what happens...have I really read the book? Can I honestly say I've read that book if I don't recall the plot, who the main characters are, etc? When I know I have read a work but can't remember much of anything in it, and I don't say that outright, but instead report some sort of "here's what I'm guessing I read if only I can remember it," you're basically doing the same thing as the person who has never even touched a copy of the book they're going on and on about right now, totally pulling your leg. And yet: yes. I believe Bayard has made a strong - and completely hilarious - claim for the act of talking about a book one hasn't read as an Art. This book - Bayard's - was on a level of sheer ludic joyfulness - and very learned, I must say - that Derrida only dreamed  he could reach. And I thought Derrida was very funny at times. But then there's my OG-required digression, fulfilled for yet another blogspewage...

I hope I have qualified if not justified myself in commenting on a book I haven't read. I am performing here, utilizing the artistic skills of the forger. Oddly, I consider this just fine when Bayard and I do it, but when you do it you're being a pretentious ass, and I want to cage you and make you admit you haven't read the book like I (really) have. I admit this is a moral quandary, and...I'm working on it. Let us take this discussion up later, hmm? Back to James. (By the way, if you're reading this S&M trilogy and feel self-conscious in a certain setting, and someone of repute asks you what you've been reading, might I recommend saying you're reading "James again." With luck your interlocutor will assume Henry or William or even P.D. When faced with a follow-up question, go ahead and just practice Bayard's art.

Or go the bold route and say you're interested in kinky sex, and thought this one would fill the bill. Your call.

By almost all accounts - and conservatively, I've read about 60 articles on the James books, I sorta feel  like I've read them - the books appear awkwardly-written and cliche-ridden by those in the media who seem to have actually read them, and what saves James appears to be her fidelity to the classic romance novel tropes. But when have we ever demanded great prose style from the romance genre, let alone the S&M novel? (And anyway, style and "good writing" seems far more horribly subjective than almost all critics officially Milled and Humed in our finest universities. If I love the story, and it's a page-turner and "flows," who gives a crap if it's not James Joyce?)  Listen to these three journalistic hipsters at Slate talk about the book for 40 minutes; it's terrific for the practice of Bayard's art. These were James's first novels. She's an ex-TV exec, lives in West London with her husband, has two boys. She was inspired by the Twilight vampire stories, and wrote fan-fiction based on it, finding herself in mid-life crisis, pouring out her sexual fantasies into the template provided by Twilight creator Stephenie Meyer (I must confess I haven't read those books or seen the film either). When she found she'd gotten 37,000 hits for her stuff - she took it down and re-wrote what she had, leaving out Meyer's characters, re-purposed the plot, and well, you're probably up on this stuff already. Anyway, she's struck publishing gold.

If you aren't up on the new "mommy porn," - of which term I find pretentious and galling because, as more than one commenter has noticed, do we have "daddy porn"? No: daddy's porn is called "porn." Are we supposed to pretend mommies don't have sexual fantasies? Where do we imagine those babies came from? Jeez, can't mommy also be a "woman"? -  the major Hollywood studios got into a bidding war for the rights to the book(s), and Universal won, at $5 million. What's funny is there are plenty of interviews with James online, and she knows she's not a good writer; she's genuinely astonished she's sold 40 million copies. Hell, Dan Brown only got $3 million for The DaVinci Code's rights. 

Earlier I labeled the 50 Shades sales as Black Swan. In a world where most books published are lucky to sell 10,000 copies, selling a million in a few months is off-the-charts weird. It's as if one book can support the entire publishing industry. Harry Potter and The DaVinci Code were Black Swans too. As one literary agent is quoted in Katie J. M. Baker's article in Jezebel, "Sometimes a random book will just pop." Aye. I couldn't have said it better myself. 

Oh wait: yes I could've. 

Why? Why the Massive Popularity?
So here's what quickly fascinated me: why all the sudden the openness about S&M? Publisher's data shows that more than 50% of the women (and it is women who are reading this trilogy) are in their 20s and 30s, and they're more urban and blue state. I have found no data on what percentage of readers are bona fide mommies...

Well, the first big splash came from renowned academic feminist Katie Roiphe. First she published this article in Newsweek, arguing that women now have much more equality and economic power in the world of work, and, as one of her detractors lampooned Roiphe, "women are tired of all this feminist liberation, and secretly want to be tied down and whipped by wealthy plutocrats." (Laurie Penny, in the New Statesman article linked above.) What strikes me most about Roiphe here is how deluded she seems about her earthshaking importance. I'd read a bit of her before. She's a smart academic feminist, but I sensed a smidgen of the Cult Leader in that video. In this one, related to the topic of James's books, she seems more down-to-Earth. Just as I'm writing this, a Slate article appeared by Katie, and she has her problems with us saying "vagina" out loud so much lately. Go figure that irrepressible Katie! Later I read Sarah Seltzer's piece at AlterNet and claws come out: "Most feminists are in a longstanding sadomasochistic relationship with Katie Roiphe." 

Someone - my notes have failed me - commented on the glosses that link the massive popularity of James's novels to the economic depression, and the increasing income inequality in society. Their point? This can't explain it: do we look at men who read James Bond novels and say, "Do men just want to be spies and seduce women because of the recession?" Which I found both funny and glib. I found I needed more. What could explain 40 million poorly-written romance-and-S&M books sold in a few months? 

Patty Marks, who has run the publishing house Ellora's Cave since 2000, which specializes in romance genres with very hardcore sex in them in which the characters live happily ever after in the end, says that women have achieved much more power over the last 20 years, and they have fantasies about giving it up every now and then. They have real power now; they can afford to give some away when they want to. She says her market research reveals that men also want to see stories in which a woman takes control. Her house claims to be "the world's first publisher of erotic romance, " and they sell 200,000 books a month, both in print and e-book versions. They have sub-genres: "Older women/younger men," "Multicultural/Interracial," "male/male" (which she says took off after the movie Brokeback Mountain), "time travel" (really?), and "paranormal," this last featuring shape-shifters, wolf-men, and of course, vampires. Marks says the hardcore sexy vampires stuff really got going around the time of Anne Rice's Interview With The Vampire

So Marks seems to agree with Roiphe about the reaction to increased power, but she sees it as female responsibility in general: hell, mommies have to make a lot of decisions every day; they're responsible for far more than most of us give them credit for. They too fantasize about relinquishing power every now and then. (And why not make it to a good-looking billionaire, who, if you only could get to the hurt boy inside him, you can heal and nurture him too, in a true love story...with whips and paddles and buttplugs? I ask this rhetorically.)

Ahhh...but now we're getting somewhere. Marks also thinks 50 Shades took off because, well, these kinds of books already sell a lot, the media just doesn't want to talk about it, but the e-book format makes it a lot easier to purchase, and read furtively. Further, Marks was there when it blew up: 50 Shades "had a good publicity machine around it." Now that makes sense to me. Also, after James pulled her fan-fiction, there was a lot of word-of-mouth about how hot it was; later it could be found on a tiny publisher in Australia. All those who loved the massively popular Twilight series but who would love to have seen the characters actually go through with it and have sex - and why not kinky sex? - were primed. 

There's a really terrific academic book - funny and learned - by a sociologist named Murray S. Davis. The title? Smut: Erotic Reality/Obscene Ideology . Davis saw three basic views about sex in our culture: Jehovanist, Naturalist, and Gnostic. One thing I remember about the Naturalist position (which is what I seemed to have grown up in) is that, nudity is nothing to get all worked up about. The human body is beautiful. My parents were like this. One problem for the Naturalists, as Davis saw it, was that, sex is a natural, loving expression, no hang ups...but you have so much of it and it can get boring. You need to spice it up. I was reminded of Davis's book when I read Marina Warner's take on 50 Shades in an article by Vanessa Thorpe in the London Guardian. It could be, Warner thinks, that nudity and arousal are so commonplace with Internet and pop kulch, that something about the linkage between prohibition and arousal has been rent (this is my inference), and women need to take it up a notch in their reading of romance novels. That also rings intuitively true to me.

O! There is no end of material to read if you want to know all about 50 Shades of Grey but don't want to actually read it!

I will end with an observation from the euphoniously-named Giaconda Belli, from her piece on the James trilogy in the Los Angeles Review of Books. First she has some insights on Sade and James's books, and later: "With no offense to J.K. Rowling, one could say that these novels are Harry Potter for sexually active female adults." And I'll have to say, without reading the book(s), this is spot-on!

Why do YOU think these books became a Black Swan?

Ellen Degeneres reads from 50 Shades of Grey:


Eric Wagner said...

I definitely learned how to talk about books I hadn't read getting an English degree.

Talking about a book I've read but forgotten about seems different to me than talking about a book I haven't read. (Of course, I haven't finished your blog yet. I plan to finish it before I post this however.)

In England they used to have Bluffer's Guides. I read and enjoyed the Bluffer's Guides to Literature, the Occult and Cricket. Of course, I don't remember much about them, such as the rules of cricket.

I think E-prime might have improved lines like "the books are awkwardly-written and cliche-ridden."

I think one can mock any book by taking passages out of context. I've heard people do that to many books I love. It troubles me that you hypnotically repeat phrases such as "poorly-written" so many times. "Good writing" seems to me difficult to define. Many folks would define much of what I call "good writing" as "poorly-written."

I think books become best sellers largely because they work for a lot of people. I've met many people who just love the Harry Potter books.

I enjoyed your post. I hope haven't come across as too critical.

michael said...

I thought about the lines about bad writing and kept them in, because here's some schmuck who even admits the audacity that he's criticizing a book he hasn't read. Which I found perversely funny...but then I have a WEIRD sense of humor?

But after a 10-15 min meditation, I decided to re-write a section, taking into account E-Prime-ish ideas. I think maybe it's a little better now, but after reading numerous passages from EL James, I still feel the need to assert that the prose suffers. I don't know if you've seen any of it. What I've seen amazes me: as if a bright 10th grader could've written it. Then again, note that one of the Slate commenters (in the podcast) thinks James is being deliberately funny...Juxtapose that with 40 million sold worldwide and I see that as noteworthy. (Meanwhile: you and I and other Joyceans are over the moon when we can get someone interested in reading Ulysses with us, eh?)

Let's give James her due: Danielle Steele sold a trillion copies of her books, and James seems as good as her...and she finally did the full monty and included the kinky sex. (Apparently Barbara Cartland or one of those old ladies who are huge-sellers in the romance genre is appalled at James for the sex! This I find hilarious on at least two levels...)

On the whole, I see the 50 Shades phenomenon as sex-positive and "good news." It certainly has revitalized fledgling bondage and leather gear shops. (I have articles if you want 'em.) More kinky-gear stuff is being sold at Tupperare-like parties. (Let us call it the 50 Shades "stimulus package"?) Also: classical music sales have gone up due to the book! (Christian Grey listens to classical.) A hotel chain has a 50 Shades package. Another hotel has replaced Gideon Bibles with 50 Shades.

And hey: one erotic books publisher has re-done the classics, like Northanger Abbey, A Study in Scarlet, and Jane Eyre...with all the steamy sex included this time.

Thanks for the criticism. I found it constructive.

Eric Wagner said...

Thanks for your response. I really like your writing, and I hesitated to post my comments. Allen Ginsberg talked about syllable by syllable intelligence. I think books work on the syllable level, the word level, the sentence level, the page level, the book level, the life work level, etc. (Zukofsky said each poet writes one poem their entire life.) I hesitate judging a work by an excerpt, and I even resist judging a book if I haven't read all of the author's books. Then again, I don't think I write book reviews well.

I find it humbling to find what works for a large group a people. No matter how I try to teach a variety of music to my music history class, nothing works as well as showing them the Temptations tv movie and the real Tempts. Over and over again at the end of the year students say they learned to love the Temptations and the Beatles in the class. One or two comment on Beethoven or Coltrane or George Strait, but what works for hundreds of kids? David Ruffin! Now, I love the Temptations, but I find it interesting what strikes a chord in a minority of students (Thomas Pynchon) and what works for a majority of them (Poe, Plath, etc.)

Eric Wagner said...

I remember someone asked Bill Burroughs why he didn't write a best seller. He said he couldn't. He said people could tell if one wrote down to them. I love Stephen King (Bob Wilson didn't), and I think he takes his writing very seriously.

Cleveland Okie (Tom Jackson) said...

@Eric, What did RAW say about Stephen King?

@Michael, At a science fiction convention I attended a couple of months ago, I took part in a reading discussion, and one of the women there said very matter-of-factly that she doesn't read anything except "paranormal romance" books. So apparently it is a genre to itself.

Eric Wagner said...

Tom, once in a discussion of style Bob mentioned Stephen King as an example of bad style. Interestingly, William Goldman has praised King as a stylist. Different lanes for different brains, I guess.

michael said...

@Tom: Paranormal Romance: a genre I haven't even touched! There are more things in heaven and Earth...and I think I'm well-read? What a FOOL I am! Who's the James Joyce of Paranormal Romance? where to start?

When I was chatting with RAW on his balcony I said I recently read an article on incoming Princeton students and their personal reading choices. Most did not read for pleasure at all, but the ones that did most often cited Stephen King, and RAW said, "I knew you were going to say that." Then RAW told me King has no style and that HPL was his idea of style in horror writing.

This notion of "style" and how different readers apprehend what "it" "is" seems fascinating to me.

FWIW, I have not been impressed in reading Stephen King. If others like him, great. As Eric sez, "different lanes for different brains."

A person in my book group said I need to go back to the early King; now he's phoning it in.

I've seen King interviewed and have read interviews with him and I like the man from those sources.

RAW's esthetics: It's good to keep expanding what a novel or even non-fiction can be: play with forms, drawing from the avant-garde, shifting perspectives, etc. I think he thought prose can be a lot of things, but it ought not "look" like the 19th century novel?