Who’s Afraid of “50 Shades”?

Posted on August 10, 2012

Disclaimer the First: I haven’t read “50 Shades of Grey.” So I’m talking about it in the abstract here.

Disclaimer the Second: I am a past, present and future writer and reader of fan fiction, including erotic fan fiction.

And here we go.

Everywhere you look, people are talking about “50 Shades of Grey.” And a lot of those people are making fun of it. Though I haven’t read the book, I’ve read enough excerpts to know that, yes, a lot of the prose is clunky. But there are other clunky books out there that don’t have Gilbert Gottfried and Will Ferrell, et al, doing “dramatic readings” designed to make people giggle. The reason invective gets hurled at “50 Shades” is because it’s erotica, erotica meant to appeal to women.

“That’s not it!” you protest. “We hate it because this thing is selling so many copies! More than Harry Potter! That’s not right!”

First of all, “fair” has zero to do with what sells. Better books than Harry Potter got outsold by Harry Potter, and I say this as someone who loves Harry Potter. “Lolita” is one of the masterworks of 20th century literature; its sales figures (while healthy) will never compare to that of “Valley of the Dolls.”

Second – why is “50 Shades of Grey” selling so many copies? It’s not because it’s awful, though at this point it’s got the momentum where tons of people are buying it just to see what people are talking about. But it got that momentum by turning a whole lot of women on, clunky prose and all.*

(Sometimes I think complaining that the prose in erotica is clumsy is like complaining that the internal workings of a car’s engines aren’t pretty. No, they aren’t. Car parts aren’t about being pretty; they’re just about getting you where you’re going. Not unlike some erotica.)

“But why couldn’t some good erotica be out there getting all this attention?” is the next complaint, and the thing is — the success of “50 Shades of Grey” makes it a whole lot more likely that all erotica is going to be given more attention by the publishing industry from now on. The good erotica only stands to benefit from this – though it, too, will be mocked in turn, this next big erotica hit, no matter how good it is, because our culture doesn’t like it when women get turned on. That which women find sexy will be mocked as silly and trivial, no matter what or who it is.**

And now there are erotica versions of classic literature being published … i.e., the kind of fan fiction that is already out there for free, if you care to look, but that’s almost beside the point. This is NOT the greatest outrage ever perpetrated. This is NOT the end of literature as we know it. If Jane Eyre survived the last couple of centuries, she’ll survive a couple nights of bondage with Mr. Rochester.*** And I find it wholly credible that Heathcliff and Cathy had something kinky going on the side; honestly, wouldn’t that explain a whole lot?

To say that making something erotic automatically cheapens it is to equate the erotic with the cheap. This is not an equation I believe holds true.

Oscar Wilde once said there were no immoral books; books were only well or badly written, and that was all. I wouldn’t go that far, but it seems to me the natural response to disappointment in the quality of “50 Shades of Grey” is not to knock erotica, but to make sure more of it gets out there. More and better! If “50 Shades” is simply not your cup of tea, then IMHO what we need is more flavors of tea.

The main thing I know about “50 Shades of Grey”: The other day, I was getting my car serviced and was reading a book (a Maisie Dobbs mystery, for the record) in the oh-so-exciting waiting area of a Firestone. The woman next to me – a total stranger – whispers, “Have you read 50 Shades?” I said no. “You have to! It’s so good! The guy, he’s so mixed up, but he learns to love.” That was her takeaway. It’s the first time in a long time a total stranger was so excited about a book that she just had to lean over and tell me, another reader, to check it out. She thought it was sexy. She liked the fact that it wasn’t just sex. She didn’t care about the clunky prose. For her, it worked. And to me, making endless fun of “50 Shades” comes perilously close to making fun of that woman for loving a book.

I’ll pass, thanks.

*I’ve seen some people in the BDSM scene – which I’m not, FYI, TMI – argue that “50 Shades” is a very bad representation of that kind of relationship, and that criticism I think is totally valid. That said, once again, the answer is not less erotica but more, and better.

**Leonardo DiCaprio is a talented actor who gets a lot of ridicule – usually from men – because he had the nerve to be dreamy in “Titanic.” The Beatles were considered laughingstocks in pop culture really until the one-two punch of “Rubber Soul” and “Revolver” started to convince people all those teenage girls were screaming for a reason. So on, so forth.

***Some people have a problem with derivative works, period, and their objections would apply equally to, say, “Pride & Prejudice & Zombies,” which to the best of my knowledge contains no erotica – I haven’t read that either. But that’s another argument altogether, and one that usually degenerates into me calling anti-fanfic people poopyheads, so let’s just skip it today.