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Why So Popular?

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Edward Gorey Charitable Trust
Drawing by Edward Gorey

“My jaw falls to the floor,” remarks Anastasia on hearing about her lover’s past. “What? Christian was hungry once. Holy crap.” Christian, then, in reaction to being a victim, is a philanthropist, but also a “strange, sad, kinky guy.” The SM sex the reader is eager to read about is not natural to him, but an anomaly brought about by evil. Precisely by coming some way to meet his perverse desires, Anastasia can perhaps cure him of them. With this narrative frame in position we can actually feel virtuous as we head for the playroom.

In line with its comic-strip atmosphere, the writing in Fifty Shades rarely goes beyond the formulaic. Reading it as an e-book one is constantly tempted to count occurrences, discovering, for example, that the combinations of “holy” with “cow,” “crap,” “shit,” and “fuck” occur 130 times, that the heroine blushes on thirty-seven occasions and bites her lip on fifteen, that mouths “drop open” fifteen times, eyes roll fifty-nine times, and Anastasia says “Wow” thirty-eight times.

This impression of a constant reshuffling of the same limited repertoire is particularly strong in the sex scenes, where Christian finds “his release” on eight orgasmic occasions and we are reminded of Anastasia’s “panties” on thirty-eight. There are five references to “just-fucked” hair. Groans beat moans by seventy-five to thirty-nine, while squirming is approximately three times more likely than writhing at twenty-two to eight. Body parts clench on thirty-five occasions and quiver on ten. Orgasm comes in at eighteen, while climax crawls behind at ten.

None of this is remotely erotic for the simple reason that nothing tactile or visually exciting is ever convincingly evoked. With no gift for description, James is often reduced simply to asserting that the mood is carnal or hedonistic. For the sake of comparison with the Thomas Hardy novel that Fifty Shades frequently refers back to, here is a moment in Tess of the D’Urbervilles when Angel Clare sees Tess milking the cows in the early morning:

She had not heard him enter, and hardly realized his presence there. She was yawning, and he saw the red interior of her mouth as if it had been a snake’s. She had stretched one arm so high above her coiled-up cable of hair that he could see its satin delicacy above the sunburn; her face was flushed with sleep, and her eyelids hung heavy over their pupils. The brim-fulness of her nature breathed from her….
Then those eyes flashed brightly through their filmy heaviness, before the remainder of her face was well awake. With an oddly compounded look of gladness, shyness, and surprise, she exclaimed—“O Mr Clare! How you frightened me—I—.”

Here are a few moments from the scene where Anastasia loses her virginity:

Suddenly, he sits up and tugs my panties off and throws them on the floor. Pulling off his boxer briefs, his erection springs free. Holy cow… He reaches over to his bedside table and grabs a foil packet, and then he moves between my legs, spreading them farther apart. He kneels up and pulls a condom onto his considerable length. Oh no… Will it? How?
“I’m going to fuck you now, Miss Steele,” he murmurs as he positions the head of his erection at the entrance of my sex. “Hard,” he whispers, and he slams into me.
“Aargh!” I cry as I feel a weird pinching sensation deep inside me as he rips through my virginity….
“Come for me, Ana” he whispers breathlessly, and I unravel at his words, exploding around him as I climax and splinter into a million pieces underneath him….
“See how you taste,” he breathes against my ear. “Suck me, baby.” His thumb presses on my tongue and my mouth closes round him, sucking wildly…. Holy fuck. This is wrong, but holy hell is it erotic.

Nevertheless, and despite the worn-out repetitions, typical of pornography and indeed of sports journalism, or any text that merely asserts that the action is exciting rather than giving us exciting evocation, there are good reasons for Fifty Shades of Grey’s special success. Both Christian and Anastasia are people who think too much. They live in their heads, not their bodies; they want to remain in control, want to believe they are good, and yet want to enjoy all life’s good things. In short, different and caricatured as they are—he all power, wealth, and expertise, she all innocence and spunky independence—they are both representative of modern middle-class aspirations.

Relationships, particularly sexual relationships, are the territory where the related obsessions of control and independence are most urgently challenged: it is hard for both sex partners to be sovereign individuals when their bodies are locked in an embrace. Perhaps one wants to do something to the other that the other doesn’t want, or wants the other to do something that that person isn’t eager to offer. Above all, the thinking, calculating mind will find itself disturbed by sensations and emotions that may prove ungovernable. Very soon both Christian and Anastasia discover that they are not the people they thought they were; their long negotiation around issues of sexual domination becomes a voyage of self-discovery that threatens—very much against the grain of James’s cranked-out prose—to become interesting.

The pattern is set at once when Christian, having shown Anastasia his playroom, asks her what she is willing and not willing to do when it comes to anal sex, bondage, toys, masturbation, and so on, and she candidly tells him she has no idea, having never had sex at all. Her inexperience disarms him, encouraging him to “make love” to her, rather than “fuck hard.” This leaves him confused and convinces the reader that he will never do Anastasia any real harm. What self-respecting villain is it that warns his victims what he is about to do and encourages them to ask him to stop if they are not happy with the proceedings?

But the author has burdened Christian with an unhappy past and SM ways in order to give her heroine a chance to explore her sexuality more thoroughly than might otherwise have been the case. So while Christian finds his rigid rules for conducting relationships threatened by her winsome inexperience, she discovers that being blindfolded and moderately slapped and whipped is more exciting than she could have imagined. In an e-mail she tells him:

You wanted to know why I felt confused after you…spanked, punished, beat, assaulted me. Well, during the whole alarming process, I felt demeaned, debased, and abused. And much to my mortification, you’re right, I was aroused, and that was unexpected…. I was shocked to feel aroused.

To which Grey replies:

So you felt demeaned, debased, abused, and assaulted—how very Tess Durbeyfield of you…. Do you really feel like this or do you think you ought to feel like this? Two very different things.

This is as close as the book gets to suggesting that there may be areas of desirable erotic experience that not only can’t be squared with the right-thinking worldview the author eventually upholds but might also require a revision of notions of identity, individualism, and the independent modern girl.

Presented with the choice of losing her beloved if she refuses to comply, or getting hurt if she does, Anastasia’s mind divides. The voice of moral conscience warns her to steer clear of this disturbed man while a more enthusiastic, uninhibited part of her character rejoices in every affirmation of her sexual hold over Christian. If the latter impulse is understandably referred to as Anastasia’s “inner goddess,” the former is inexplicably dubbed her “subconscious.” How the subconscious can participate as a voice in a very conscious debate and why it would take the part of conventional morality is unclear. When Anastasia first considers accepting Christian’s SM contract, we have her writing:

You can’t seriously be considering this… My subconscious sounds sane and rational…. My inner goddess is jumping up and down, clapping her hands like a five-year-old. Please, let’s do this…otherwise we’ll end up alone with lots of cats and your classic novels to keep you company.

Seventy pages later Anastasia agrees:

What have you done? my subconscious screams at me. My inner goddess is doing backflips in a routine worthy of a Russian Olympic gymnast.

In the end the subconscious turns up seventy-eight times, the inner goddess fifty-seven. When at the end of the book Christian gives Anastasia six lashes with a belt, causing her such serious pain that she decides to end the relationship, we hear that “my subconscious is shaking her head sadly, and my inner goddess is nowhere to be seen.” Page 514 leaves us with Anastasia weeping alone and the prospect of two further, equally long books, Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed, to take us through a series of improbable vicissitudes and sexual exploits on the way to the inevitable marriage and motherhood that any experienced reader will have seen at once is the only possible conclusion.

It is in this regard that E.L. James’s novel is so different from Histoire d’O, to which it has been flatteringly compared. In Anne Desclos’s work there is simply no question of dominant men being “cured” of their “perversity” by cute and wholesome students of English literature; rather O accepts her submissive role in the sadomaso relationship entirely and willingly, appearing in the last scene of the book with a chain leash and an owl mask, silent and unspoken to, an object for her two dominant lovers to use as and when they will. In short, the French novel is rather more challenging.

Much debate around the Fifty Shades trilogy has centered on these questions: Is it pornography and does it demean women? James has defended her work, declaring it a romantic fantasy written entirely for herself. It’s evident that many of the sex scenes, if removed from the supporting narrative of a relationship under negotiation, would be indistinguishable from any number of texts available on websites offering pornography. But this is a novel whose extraordinary sales figures are far more interesting than anything to be found between the covers; or rather the content invites interest mainly insofar as one struggles to understand why such a poorly written book has been so popular. After all, there is no shortage of erotica out there.

The key would seem to be that the pornographic elements become attractive when held in a narrative frame that allows the reader to feel as innocent in this sexual journey as the novel’s heroine. And as responsible as its hero: Christian never forgets to put on his condom, and when he invites Anastasia to use the pill, he organizes an appointment for her with a top gynecologist. It is this atmosphere of innocent, often infantile comedy combined with middle-class dependability that perhaps frees certain readers to indulge an appetite for pornography that they would usually repress. The wedding service evoked, the hand can head south.

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