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Detail from the cover of "Freed," one of the titles in the Fifty Shades trilogy by E.L. James
Detail from the cover of "Freed," one of the titles in the Fifty Shades trilogy by E.L. James

Russell Smith

Whips, handcuffs and the rise of mommy porn Add to ...

Publisher’s Weekly, the U.S. industry mag, just announced the book deal for Fifty Shames of Earl Grey. It’s by Andrew Shaffer and promises to contain a “twisted world of, well, mostly naughty dialogue and light spanking.”

This is a parody, of course, of the suddenly famous Fifty Shades trilogy, the masochistically tinged erotic romance series by E.L. James, a U.K.-based “mom of two.”

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The three Fifty Shades books have dominated The New York Times bestseller list for a month (at one point occupying the top three spots), and James has just sold film rights to Universal Pictures after a fierce auction among major studios. But media across the English-speaking world have been reporting on this phenomenon with barely concealed bafflement.

Fans of the books are almost all women, and many have been quoted saying they were at first appalled by the graphic sex scenes and the depictions of bondage, gagging and whipping, but that they responded in spite of themselves to the classic romance-novel love story: The man is rich, powerful, well-dressed, dominant yet wounded; the woman a 21-year-old virgin. He ties her up and forces her to call him “sir,” sure, but he takes care of her like a princess. It’s got it all – the Pretty Woman fantasy of being rescued by a guy in a suit, the fixation with chastity as evinced by Twilight and a release of responsibility for the stressed modern woman about taking the sexual initiative. It’s whumpingly conservative.

An article in Jezebel claimed that the idea of being tied up by the tycoon’s silver-grey necktie has even led to an increase in sales of men’s silver ties.

Most of the coverage has also unkindly mentioned that the few published reviews of James’s work – reviews written by professional critics, by the “gatekeepers,” if you prefer the pejorative phrase – have been unanimously unimpressed by her writing or storytelling. The critics, in short, have been withering. To prove their point they merely quote lines such as “his words curl around me like a soft fluffy towel from the Heathman Hotel.”

Perhaps they are bitter about this obvious usurpation of their power. The prevailing theory is that the books became popular only because they were first available on e-book, where buying and reading erotica is more discreet, and also because of the new digital social networks that permit word of mouth to spread that much faster. All that may be true, but it doesn’t explain a sudden rise in submissive fantasies among the book clubs.

The truth is that everybody in the industry was blindsided by this phenomenon: No one could have seen it coming or emulated it. In fact, most of us have already tried. There has been S&M erotica for women for decades. Every single mass-market erotica publisher has at least one S&M imprint. Even Anne Rice’s two erotic gothic fiction series (published under the names Anne Rampling and A.N. Roquelaure, both with S&M themes) were not as successful as this.

I myself thought I would get rich writing S&M porn for women in the 1990s, and published a sex book under a female pseudonym. I even made my fictitious authorial self eerily like E.L. James: I claimed I was a mother of two who lived in Cobourg, Ont. But I was 10 years too early: The only people who read it were experts on Canadian literature, which is not exactly the global audience I wanted.

So why are these peculiarly unoriginal books such a success now? Why is this particular rehashing of images of guys in stern suits with whips and handcuffs the one that has the vast American middle classes buying Kindles en masse?

It’s significant that E.L. James’s work is explicitly unoriginal: It began its life as “fan fiction” – literature that is written about the characters and settings of someone else’s fiction. Fan fiction is usually published online and is often prefaced with a disclaimer such as “these characters are not my creation.” It is meant to be read by other fans of the original work. It is also frequently sexual: The best-known examples come from Star Trek fans who imagine its male characters falling in love and having sex with each other. In this, it is a subtly aggressive hacking or subversion of the original work. So there have long been sadomasochistic or otherwise fetishistic fan-fiction subspecialties. James’s novels began as homages to (or remixes of) Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight books, and it’s on those fan sites that she first gained an enthusiastic following.

James’s work no longer contains overt references to Twilight. But no wonder she wasn’t on the major publishers’ radar: Fan fiction never makes its way into print, partly because of the copyright issues and partly because the writing is so unoriginal and generally bad.

And what of the content? I can almost hear the smacking of 10,000 academic feminist facepalms. What on earth must Germaine Greer and Gloria Steinem think of the trend: The most privileged women on earth admitting en masse that they are turned on by a loss of power? Is it proof of the final extinguishing of second-wave feminism? Or are we about to witness another intra-feminist debate about the empowerment or disempowerment inherent in the act of submission, like the polemics about pornography that divided thinkers in the 1990s?

Already a dozen columnists have claimed that the fantasy of powerlessness is a symptom of the employed and busy female, the very apex of feminist success – a dream of losing responsibility, an easing of pressure (which, incidentally, is said to be the primary reason for high-status businessmen visiting dominatrixes). You have to be a real acrobat to stretch this argument into plausibility though: There is nothing at all contemporary or current about the dream of self-annihilating true love as promised by these romances. The success of these books, in which a woman is forced to suffer indignities very similar to those portrayed in porn for men, is going to prove very difficult to explain for those who would continue to believe that men and women will always have different tastes in porn. This is entirely conventional romance plus entirely conventional porn.

One thing that’s pretty clear: Whatever the market for these books is, it’s not a conventional literary one. These buyers are new to S&M porn for sure but possibly also new to literature itself. And in this, they represent the great untapped market that every publisher and every starving writer secretly hope to tap. It’s a paradox: If the bulk of the population is made up of non-readers, then the non-reader is the one we most want to read us.

LASHINGS MORE S&M

Venus in Furs (1870) Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s handbook for male submissives was written by a man who claimed it was feminist. There is no sex in this book at all, just a lot of humiliation and some euphemism – and yet it created the very term masochism.

The Story of O (1954) Written by a woman, about a submissive and pain-loving woman, to please a man. And yet Pauline Réage’s book has aroused generations of women too.

Delta of Venus (1978) Although Anais Nin’s stories are often cited as exemplars of feminine eroticism, the women here are generally not powerful or aggressive – they are mostly passive, even occasionally feigning sleep through their partners’ deliciously dark whims.

Fear of Flying (1973) Quite the opposite of a submission fantasy, Erica Jong’s massively popular “women’s lib” novel proposed free sexual encounters without any romantic consequences or power imbalance. Neither men nor women in this ideal world wield control. Seems quaint, doesn’t it? Exactly the opposite of what contemporary women apparently want.

Secretary (2002) This film has little in common with Bad Behaviour, the Mary Gaitskill short story that inspired it. It’s a pretty straightforward romance about a well-dressed rich man who abuses his secretary until she realizes how much he loves her – at which point she welcomes the control and the tender solicitude that come with it. Better dialogue than Fifty Shades of Grey though.

Diana: A Diary in the Second Person (2008) My own pseudonymous (pen name Diane Savage), pre- Fifty Shades contribution to the canon of erotica for women on themes of power and control.

Sleeping Beauty (2011) Julia Leigh’s film portrays the ultimate in female passivity: The heroine is paid to sleep through sexual encounters about which she can remember nothing. It’s hardly erotic, though: The men are disgusting and decrepit satyrs, the woman a mere victim.



Russell Smith

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