Why So Popular?

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Roger Cremers/Hollandse Hoogte/Redux
E.L. James, Amsterdam, July 2012

“Touching yourself” was strictly forbidden in the Parks family. My father was an evangelical clergyman, my mother his zealous helper. The hand mustn’t stray below the belt, because such pleasures were always accompanied by evil, lascivious thoughts. Yet as Dusty Springfield memorably sang in “Son of a Preacher Man,” “being good isn’t always easy, no matter how hard I try,” and at thirteen for this son of a preacher man it was impossible. To get around the conflict—the sexual imperative and the fear of falling into sin—I would imagine going through the entire Anglican marriage ceremony with whatever girl was the object of my desire before allowing the hand to move to its inevitable destination; in this way, I hoped, my fantasies would be conjugal rather than lecherous and any sin much diminished.

A great deal of modern narrative follows this strategy for having one’s cake and eating it: a certain transgression is desired, but the moral code that deems the act a transgression must not be undermined, or even openly opposed. Nicholson Baker had much sophisticated fun with this tension in his erotic novels Vox and The Fermata. The latter imagines a man who has the power to stop the world, freezing everything in a static moment, while within this “fermata” he is able to move around and manipulate whatever he wants with complete impunity. It’s an extraordinary facility, but instead of using it to accumulate wealth or change the world in some dramatic way, he merely undresses beautiful girls, fantasizes, masturbates, dresses the girls again, and removes all evidence of what has happened. As much pleasure appears to be taken from the fact that the world has not been at all changed or violated as from the secret possession of female beauty and consequent sexual pleasure.

Baker is a fine writer and remarkable stylist and invites the reader to be aware of the ironies behind his hero’s adventures and indeed our engagement with them; his books offer amused reflection on the ambiguous position of wayward fantasies in a moral world. However, if one wishes to achieve huge popularity as a writer, it is as well not to make fun of these complex, and for many people rather solemn, negotiations. Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy was a case in point: Larsson’s investigative hero Blomkvist is promiscuous but always gentlemanly. The sex he enjoys is tame to the point of tedium. In particular he always leaves the initiative to the ladies, who invariably end up sitting on top. Yet Blomkvist spends much of his time pursuing men who indulge in brutal, violent sexual perversions and is assisted in his mission by a young woman who has been the victim of such perversions and who carries out ruthless revenge of the eye-for-an-eye variety. Hence the reader can enjoy descriptions of violent rape seen as a form of just retribution for previously described …

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