The Vagenda

Fifty Shades of Grey and the “new erotica”

So I am what you would term a “bookworm”. I’ve also worked for twelve years in publishing. In Earl’s Court London in April, the publishing world convened for the annual drink-and-swagger-a-thon, The London Book Fair. It was here that, as I trotted round the halls attempting to avoid previous bosses, I had a copy of a book thrust into my hands by a semi-clad young man. This was interesting. Marketing ploys at the fair have always been varied, the Scientologists have someone inexplicably dressed as a pirate on their stand but this was new. And the book? New smash hit, “mommy-porn”, shag-fest, “Fifty Shades of Grey” by E.L James.
This novel is the first in a trilogy spawned from a “Twilight” fan-fiction short story sensation and has been a feature of the digital charts for many months. Now available in paperback through a mainstream publisher, the media claims that it has thrust erotica into the mainstream. But hang on a minute. I can remember tattered copies of  coming-of-age teen romance,“Forever” by Judy Bloom, which contained an actual penis, passing hands when I was just thirteen. We then graduated to Jilly Cooper’s raunch-fest “Riders”, Jackie Collins novels and “The Thorn Birds” by Colleen McCullough. Women have always read about sex. What makes “Fifty Shades…” so different, hmmm? 
Our heroine is virginal university student and general whinger, Anastasia Steele. Her chance encounter with young billionaire businessman and full-on Adonis, Christian Grey, leads to an overwrought and over-dramatic affair. But here’s the sexy twist. After signing a non-disclosure agreement (such romance) Christian introduces Anastasia to his kinky sex dungeon and lets her know that what really gets him going is pain, punishment and total domination. It’s like “Pretty Woman” all over again!
Journalist and professional shit-stirrer, Katie Roiphe wrote in Newsweek recently that the success of “Fifty Shades” proves one thing, that modern women, flustered by the responsibility of independence and err… having a job, are now driven by a secret need to be to be dominated in the bedroom. Yep, economic freedom has lead to an army of women who are all closeted bondage fanatics. This, in my humble opinion, is bunkum. For starters that would mean that my more than casual acquaintance with Stephen King novels means that I have a latent desire to be embroiled in the supernatural. I don’t even believe in ghosts. And “Fifty Shades”, I would argue is less about spanking and more about the age-old, doomed quest of a woman who wants to change her man. I can’t make any recommendations but if you are into hard-core BDSM, this book just isn’t for you. Sure, they talk about anal sex, fisting, chaining, shaving, butt-plugs, genital clamps etc – but the sex doesn’t really progress beyond a light spanking and some hand-tying with some thoughtful application of baby lotion thrown in for afters. It’s essentially a romance with some naughty words scattered around for added shock value. What the roaring success of “Fifty Shades” shows is that the people want to be scandalised and, more importantly, sex sells…. even if it isn’t very good.
Because, yes “Fifty Shades of Grey” is not, I repeat, not a great book. Here are some actual lines from the book. 
Two orgasms… coming apart at the seams, like the spin cycle on a washing machine, wow” 
I want you to become well acquainted, on first name terms if you will, with my favourite and most cherished part of my body. I’m very attached to this” Guess what Christian is talking about!
He’s my very own Christian Grey-flavoured popsicle” *gag*
I am beguiled by you, Christian. Completely overwhelmed. It’s like Icarus flying too close to the sun”.  Kill me. Kill me now.
The book is basically a dozen sex scenes loosely tied together with smouldering glances, a lot of gasps and some desperately dull email exchanges. The story lurches unbelievably from one orgasm to the next. In fact, Anastasia came so often and with such little encouragement that I wondered whether, perhaps, the boundaries of realism were being overstretched. Hell, maybe she is just lucky. However, aside from the abundance of orgasms the sex was, to my surprise, pretty realistic. Thanks to Christian’s seemingly endless supply of condoms, it is always safe. There are discussions about contraception. James actually uses the word “vagina” twice (gasp), although Christian’s tackle is always referred to as his “impressive length”. *snigger*
But what really raised my usually immovable eyebrow was that Anastasia (double gasp) has a period, the ultimate sex-stopper. But rather than running for the hills shouting “Unclean! Unclean!” Christian just pops out that tampon and gives her a good seeing to in the bathroom. I’ll admit that all I’m up for during my monthly visit from the blob is a hot water bottle, a bucket of gin and tonic and a box set of Supernatural but it’s refreshing to see a sexual fantasy that not only acknowledges that women bleed and that’s okay, but also that it doesn’t mean that they are closed for business. 
Of course the publisher will market “Fifty Shades” as groundbreaking, liberating book that is changing the world, as it will help to sell more copies. The reality is “Fifty Shades” is the latest in a long line of sexy books. The basics are instantly recognisable; darkly attractive hero seduces young and innocent virgin, whisks her away from her provincial life with his wealth and power and basically makes her orgasm until she passes out from euphoria. Its success doesn’t mean that women are all secretly craving a gentle whipping with a riding crop or an afternoon with a butt-plug and it sure as hell isn’t the start of a new sexual revolution. What is tells us is that women are interested in and want to read about sex. What it offers, and the books that came before it have offered, is an escapism that women have been indulging in for centuries and if, in the process, E.L James can make menstruation sexy – good for her. 

14 thoughts on “Fifty Shades of Grey and the “new erotica”

  1. So happy to see a review of this book! Thank you! I read the whole thing, hating myself, but unable to look away, because oh my good gracious, it is a travesty of a novel! Christian Grey is a hateful man; if my boyfriend got annoyed with me for hanging out with a friend, to the point that he threatened me with physical violence (which happens on several occasions), I wouldn’t “chew my bottom lip” which Anastasia does ALL THE FUCKING TIME, I would tell him to get the fuck out of my house before I called the police.

    I’d say personally that I found it a terrible book because this is what women are reduced to – this powerless, whimpering, awful caricature who wants to be dominated by a cold, domineering, “succesful” man, with loads of money. She has a succesful job interview, sure, but she only gets the flipping job because the guy who hired her fancies her.

    And who has an orgasm, from penetration, the first time they have sex?


  2. that there are ANY billionaires is revolting enough, but that there should be so many they can be casually dropped into a silly novel is truely obscene :(

  3. Is E.L James a man? The writing reads as if it is…

    These days, why would a female erotic novelist use her initials instead of her full name?! I bet it is a man who wouldn’t get the sales if we knew that fact- just like the days of female writers going under male acronyms or initials.

    The continuous orgasms are pure male bravado- where’s the proof in the pudding? Sounds like bragging down the pub on a friday night.

    The erotic period sex scene is only ‘kinky’ because that’s what men have to buy into to enjoy it- like Marmite the general consensus is men either love it or hate it- those that hate it have to justify their dislike on the grounds of how filthy it is, and men who don’t mind the monthly flow have to condone it to the haters by the pure ecstasy the dirty kink provides! When i get some good sex when it’s my ‘time’, i’m not like
    ‘hell yeeeeeeaaaaah this is so hot right now i couldn’t be any dirtier (no pun int.d) right now.POP.orgasm’
    - i’m thinkin-
    ‘great! I’m glad i don’t have to miss out on a possible orgasm totally unrelated to bleeding’

    and I also dont allow my bf to lead me off to the bathroom so things can get messy…im quite happy to put on a spin cycle- my sheets are the only things at risk of coming apart at the seams!-now ladies dont go getting horny on me now- that wasnt a sexy washing machine metaphor..


  4. I read another review somewhere that mentioned how Anastasia refers to her feelings during sex as ‘her inner goddess’ or something or other. I can only think of one fo the best lines of Fraser:
    “There are books, that make your stomach rumble, and thrust your lunch ever so upwards”

  5. This is actually a Twilight fanfiction called “Master of the Universe” that had some names changed for publication so that Stephanie Meyer couldn’t sue their asses. If you replace “Anastasia” and “Christian” with “Bella” and “Edward” in your mind it all makes a lot more sense. I tracked down the first bit of said fanfic on the web a while back and read it through. The writing is every bit as atrocious as the reviewer here says, and my jaw dropped at several points due to sheer lack of realism. Christian doesn’t present Anastasia with just a NDA, there’s also a fully-fledged slave contract – which is just so unethical given her complete lack of clue as to what is actually happening. Such contracts do exist but they’re normally signed between mature, experienced partners who know what they’re doing and have talked all the rules through beforehand, which is hardly the case here.

    Christian’s denial of his sadism was also a rather annoying lie, because I’m sorry, but no one uses their billions to build a sweet dungeon replete with copious pain toys unless they’re at least a little bit of a sadist.

    Other typical tropes that you always see turn up are 1) all kinky people were abused and 2) he will give up his kink for true love. I’m guessing as to the latter one, but I’d bet the house that’s where the storyline is heading. Sooo predictable…

    The author really feels like someone who learned their kink through other kinky fanfics. I have no idea how this became so popular, there’s got to be much better out there on literotica or whatever if you want some sex with a story. I guess it got its original following in the twilight fanfic community and maybe it all snowballed from there. A depressing thought.

  6. Okay, so the writing is a bit rubbish and the stereo-types make your toes curl.

    I don’t believe Erica James was aspiring for a Booker Prize here (yes she is a woman – she was interviewed on Newsnight by a very uptight male interviewer who was totally uncomfortable with the subject matter of the book, [SEX!!!] which was hilarious to watch).

    And yet… if we can accept that what turns us on in the bedroom, BDSM playroom, lift, bathroom… or wherever the mood takes us.., is not necessarily the politically correct script by which we would live our real lives. Then what we have is a man who is extremely accomplished at sex. This is generally a turn on. Can’t we allow ourselves some fantasy play and throw a bone to our primal urges without taking it all too seriously? Jeez… (said ironically!).

  7. Not all International best selling novels are bad.
    I was pleasantly surprised by the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo trilogy and am so far enjoying how quickly George R. R. Martin sprinkles his Songs of Ice and Fire novels with usual fantasy clichés just to turn them around on their heads later as he kills off characters with more depth than most novels’ main characters usually have.
    And then there’s 50 Shades of Idiocy.
    As well as everything else already mentioned in the article and in the comments so far, was anybody else just amazed at the amount of product placement and brand-names mentioned throughout the book?
    Or the amount of money you have to make to have that impossible lifestyle (in case you already have the looks and some kind of inner goddess or whatever)?
    If you’re rich and have the right computer, cellphone, car, shoes and dress, you too can have a spanking good time…
    I felt like I was reading a kind of “Power-Woman Accessories Catalog” (for subs?!) or better yet, I felt like when I pick up a woman’s magazine at the waiting room at the doctor or dentist (yup, some men can’t resist the juicy sex tips advertised in the cover either only to be disappointed later, same as you), and can’t find the bleeding article somewhere in the middle of all the advertising and photoshoots (and the fact that only 3 or 4 pages in the whole magazine are actually numbered).
    Thing is, Anne Bishop’s Dark Jewels trilogy is a lot less explicit, a lot less risqué, but the universe is a matriarchal one, the characters not only have real personalities and depth, but the sexy bits are actually quite hot, a lot more erotic than 50 shades will ever be, full of drama, humour and some of the best one-liners and comebacks I ver read in my life. There is well written sexy stuff out there that challenges the norm.
    Amazingly, it wouldn’t embarrass me to give a 15 year-old niece (if I had one) one of these books, but wouldn’t give anyone 50 Shades to read, most of all, because it has no literary significance AT ALL.
    It’s just the same stereotyping but wrapped in leather and latex to inspire controversy and sales (seems to work, though).

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