Every generation thinks they invented sex; and every erotic novel that takes off has the media twittering and gasping like – shock horror – this has never happened before.
Unless you’ve been to Mars with Curiosity you’ll probably have heard of a book by EL James starting with the number 50. I don’t wish to denigrate the book and its author in any way. Far from it. It’s just that I’m amazed by the yabber this book has inspired, especially regarding its supposed pornographic content.
After all, it keeps to a tried and true formula: Boy meets girl. Boy whips girl. Boy flies off in his personal helicopter.
Substitute ‘seduce’ for ‘whip’; and ‘horse’ or ‘pirate ship’ for ‘helicopter’ and what have you got?
Barbara Cartland, tied to a bed.
For all the hype, I don’t agree that 50 Shades is pornography. For that, all you need is a bored and scantily dressed widow and a man who’s come to clean the pool.
But for the sake of argument – okay, let’s characterize it as porn. What’s wrong with that? At the beginning of his career Shakespeare wrote two highly erotic poems, ‘Venus and Adonis’ and ‘The Rape of Lucrece’, which became runaway bestsellers and made our Will an awful lot of money. It was reckoned that every young lady of the day had a copy of V&A under her pillow.
The eighteenth century saw the success of John Cleland’s Fanny Hill; then came the early Early Gothic novels, like Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho – which were frowned upon as ‘sensationalist women’s entertainment.’
Does this sound familiar to you?
The novels of the Marquis de Sade – whom Christian Grey consciously imitates – owed much to the Gothic tradition that also influenced Gogol, Dostoievsky and Shelley and later inspired the early vampire stories. Then came Edgar Allan Poe and the Bronte sisters.
50 Shades of Grey is actually ‘Jayne Eyre’ with shopping and a table tennis paddle.
It is Gothic fiction. In fact it started out as fan fiction in 2010 based on the Twilight vampire series – Anastasia and Christian are Bella and Edward. And there is nothing wrong with EL James leaning heavily on another work. Shakespeare took almost every story he ever wrote from some other source and created what I think you’ll agree is a reasonably impressive body of work.
EL James also, perhaps unknowingly, inherited the mantle of the inimitable Barbara Cartland, she of the permed hair and the poodle. Cartland’s books always featured shy virgins initiated into romance by stronger, older, richer men. They often rode horses and carried riding crops and were, without exception, misunderstood.
Do you recognize the plot? Barbara sold 700 million books with essentially that same story.
This is possibly because virginity, sexual dominance and submission aren’t “trends.” They aren’t even vaguely about sexual politics or economic equality. They are myths deep seated in our subconscious. Ask Joseph Campbell.
And which particular myth are we drawing on here? Think about Beauty and the Beast for a moment; there’s a virgin – tick; there’s a young woman who is looking for an awakening to love, tick; there’s a alpha male who is wounded, tick.
Yes, you’ve heard it all before, just in different ways; but finding different ways to tell the same stories is what we call literature.
But if you believe the media, 50 Shades is unique, a phenomenon. Yet to me the true phenomenon is the success of this particular book, when there are so many like it.
But why did it take off? Why Grey and not fifty thousand others?
I have a theory. But more of that in a later post …
Until then, even if you didn’t like the book, you can at least enjoy the commercial. It’s hilarious.