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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 violent rape, while at the same time being reassured that there is a distinct line between this sort of evil sex and the friendly promiscuity between us right-minded folks who condemn it but like to read about it. Larsson seems entirely unaware of any irony; likewise, one suspects, his many fans.

The Millennium trilogy sold around 70 million copies worldwide over four years. E.L. James’s novel Fifty Shades of Grey has achieved similarly remarkable figures in a much shorter space of time and offers an even more effective formulation of the have-your-cake-and-eat-it strategy. The underlying goal of the book would appear to be to take pleasure in describing a series of softly SM sexual encounters, in which the female reader will be invited to identify with the submissive partner; however, this is to be done in such a way that however wayward the sex may be, the heroine and indeed her spanking hero can remain essentially innocent, good, positive people who, in a better world, would never have wanted such a disturbing form of intimacy. Like all really popular fiction, Fifty Shades of Grey is resolutely conservative: transgression is explored and enjoyed not to call moral or social codes into question but to reinforce them.

Anastasia, twenty-one, a literature student approaching her final exams, is beautiful, supposedly witty, and a virgin. No man has ever so much as held her hand and she has never used her hands to commit any impure act. It seems she has no difficulty being good. Initially her problems with control are limited to keeping her “wayward hair” in order. She thinks a great deal, “overthinks,” perhaps. In any event, her favorite occupation is “reading a classic British novel, curled up in a chair in the campus library.” It is safe to identify with her.

She does not seek to meet “mega-industrialist tycoon” Christian Grey. Rather she substitutes for the friend who was supposed to interview him for a student magazine but has fallen ill. The bold questions she asks Grey—“Are you gay?”—and which initially cause him to take an interest in her, are not her questions, but her friend’s, read from a sheet of paper. She is not responsible.

An innocuous comic-strip atmosphere informs the opening pages. Exclamations of the “Holy cow! Holy crap!” variety abound. Anastasia, her “blue eyes too big for her face,” trips up, “falling headfirst” into Grey’s office and, of course, into love. Grey, twenty-seven, is perfection in caricature: “He’s not merely good-looking—he’s the epitome of male beauty, breathtaking.” His gaze is “bold,” “unwavering and intense,” his voice “warm and husky like dark melted chocolate fudge caramel.” As for his body, “Michelangelo’s David has nothing on him.” An obsessive achiever, he flies helicopters, airplanes, and gliders, and plays piano with impeccable expertise.

Needless to say, when, after their first meeting, this immensely rich and powerful fellow who exercises “control in all things” travels from his home in Seattle to Vancouver, Washington, to visit Anastasia where she works part-time in a hardware store and, while making a purchase of rope and masking tape, contrives to touch the girl’s hand, she feels the effects “all the way down to somewhere dark and unexplored, deep in [her] belly,” and will spend the rest of the day “a quivering mass of raging female hormones.” In short, the scene is set for harmless, possibly wearisome, romantic fantasy, where the only foreseeable problems for Anastasia will be how to accept lavish gifts—a computer, a car, a wardrobe of new clothes—without being overwhelmed.

It is Grey himself who warns our heroine of possible danger. A present of an 1891 first edition of Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles, subject of Anastasia’s undergraduate thesis, is prefaced with a quote from the novel:

Why didn’t you tell me there was danger? Why didn’t you warn me?
Ladies know what to guard against, because they read novels that tell them of these tricks…

The danger Grey alludes to is his desire to control sexual experience in a sadomaso relationship where he is dominant and his submissive partner must subject herself, blindfolded, to his every whim; these pleasures are to take place in his playroom:

The walls and ceiling are a deep, dark burgundy, giving a womb-like effect…. By the door, two long, polished, ornately carved poles…hang like curtain rods across the wall. From them swing a startling assortment of paddles, whips, riding crops, and funny-looking feathery implements.

Holy fuck,” remarks Anastasia, confirming a decisive shift in register.

Hardy’s Tess complained to her parents that they hadn’t warned her of the dangers a young girl might meet, unchaperoned, in the company of an unscrupulous man. She is seduced, perhaps raped, by Alec D’Urberville, who takes advantage of a moment of exhilaration and confusion. Eroticism, in Thomas Hardy, is always accompanied by a loss of control, a fatal lapse of awareness; this is its excitement and its danger. To be excessively guarded, as is Tess’s more idealistic lover Angel Clare when he rejects her after discovering that she has already had sexual experience and hence is not the person he thought she was, is to renounce erotic experience. Angel abandons Tess on their wedding night, leaving their marriage unconsummated. So both of Tess’s partners, frequently referred to in Fifty Shades of Grey as possible models for Anastasia’s lover, let her down, one by forcing sex on her, one by denying her physical love.

Christian Grey, as it turns out, is neither one nor the other. Rather he is determined to have all the violent excitement he can, without any danger whatsoever. He will dominate, but only once he has the assent of his submissive partner. A cautious man, he will take advantage of no one, for fear of repercussions, for fear of hurting someone. He seeks to control not only the circumstances around him, his and his partner’s pains and pleasures, but also the moral significance of his actions; so if he keeps Anastasia under strict surveillance and loves to turn up when she least expects it, it is always in order to be gracious, make some generous offer, charm a parent, or save his girl from some pestering rival. In particular, before there can be any sex with Anastasia, Christian, unlike Alec D’Urberville, will let her know what she is in for and invite her to sign a long and detailed contract, in which she can indicate precisely what she is and is not willing to do. It is hard to imagine any less erotic foreplay than such labored contractual formulations as:

Does the Submissive consent to be restrained with: Hands bound in front Ankles bound Elbows bound Hands bound behind back Knees bound Wrists bound to ankles Binding to fixed items, furniture, etc. Binding with spreaderbar Suspension

On the other hand, the purpose of the contract is evident: to allow the sex partners, and indeed the readers, to take pleasure in extreme sexual experience while remaining essentially nice, considerate people who have everything under control.

E.L. James posted early versions of Fifty Shades of Grey online, presenting the story as fan fiction honoring Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight. What Fifty Shades has in common with that book is a narrative that is essentially the extended negotiation of a relationship, with the girl at the center of our attention seeking to enjoy the rapture of being loved and physically possessed by a fantastically beautiful, powerful, and dangerous man, while nevertheless retaining her identity and independence.

Meyer’s romantic male is a vampire, James’s an extraordinary mortal of vast wealth and talents who on his own admission, however, is “fifty shades of fucked up.” For Christian’s sadomasochistic obsession has a simple and rather dull explanation: his mother, a poverty-stricken “crack whore,” died when her son was just four years old; adopted by a rich family, Christian was nevertheless insecure and hence easy prey for a friend of his adoptive mother’s who seduced him into a bondage relationship when he was fifteen. This lasted six years. Now an adult, he has simply reversed the terms of that formative relationship and seeks to control his sex partners as rigorously as he does his vast multinational company, which, among other things, strives to eliminate hunger worldwide, this because Grey as a little boy had suffered pangs of hunger.

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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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