50 Shades of Grey=was it good for you?

It’s an erotic fiction novel turned literary phenomenon so what is it about 50 Shades of Grey? I was hearing so much about it, I bought a copy to see what has 20 million plus readers so hot and bothered. Far from the hilarious promise on the back that it will “obsess you, possess you and stay with you forever”; I hope not BTW. I thought the book was more like 50 shades of sh**e and an anti-climax of the worst kind…yes, ‘that’s what she said’.

WARNING! May contain explicit criticism of this book. I’m going to take this mo-fo apart like Lego.

Shady origins…

I probably don’t need to explain what this book is even about but here goes. 50 Shades of Grey is the first title of a trilogy by English writer, E.L. James. Its two central characters are Christian Grey, a millionaire businessman and Anastasia Steele, a college student/graduate. They meet when she interviews him for the college paper. Cue courtship etc. Then she discovers that his sexual interests revolve around BDSM (bondage/discipline/sado-masochism) but not only that, he wants her to sign a legal contract where she’ll be his ‘submissive’ and he’ll be her ‘dominant’—not just in the bedroom but for other activities and certain times.

It started out as a racy story on a fan fiction website. It was based on the romantic pairing from the teen vampire novels, the Twilight Saga—a kind of ‘What Edward and Bella did when they grew up…and found they were into leather’. The author got such a good response, she decided to take out the pesky supernatural elements but left in the moody anti-hero and the young woman who basically moons over him and makes excuses for him all the time.

The 50 Shades… books started as e-books but were so popular, she got a bona-fide publishing deal. They started selling like hot cakes. Erotic fiction isn’t a new genre but before now, it wasn’t as trendy. I heard the head of purchasing at Eason’s on the radio lately and she said they, as wholesalers and retailers, cannot keep it on the shelves because demand totally outweighs supply. The book has sold thousands of copies so far and Irish shops have ordered at least 70,000 more. The top selling book in a similar genre in Eason’s last year was barely into the hundreds. Even in Limerick, there is a 38 week waiting list in public libraries for it (true story). It is being credited with rejuvenating sex lives the world over. The movie rights have been sold for a fortune….blah, blah, blah

But that doesn’t mean the book is any good! The last such popular fiction phenomenon was Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. That gem has since become the most popular book to be donated to charity shops globally. Case in point.

Lofty aspirations and great marketing…

It has been dubbed “clit-erature” and “mummy porn”. The first is clever because the word ‘literature’ has highbrow, intellectual associations. ‘Pornography’ has more seedy connotations but putting ‘mummy’ in front of it softens the effect. I still think it’s patronising to pitch it as a bit of harmless fluff for bored housewives.

The blurb mentions “romantic” and “liberating”, which is laughable. 50 Shades is no Wuthering Heights people! It’s not a love story; it’s a sex story. It’s not insightful or illuminating so how is it liberating? The protagonist is literally and metaphorically tied up before being thoroughly f**ked. The Suffragettes are spinning in their graves right now. OMG, now thanks to this miracle book people can read erotic fiction out in the open because everyone else is doing it. What a step for women’s lib. NOT! E.L. James is no feminist icon. Save that for Simone De Beauvoir. She isn’t even a Virginia Woolf…unless Virginia pictured her “room of one’s own” as Christian’s “red room of pain” to which Ana refers all the time.

The writing is poor. The sex—as in Hollywood films—has an enviable choreography to it but not even a token dose of realism. It might not be bad enough to win at the Literary Review’s ‘Bad Sex Awards’, which are handed out for unintentionally hilarious sex scenes in books. It still has some painfully cringeworthy lines i.e. “Some Boy Scout he must have been to learn this knot”. If she’s not praising this “beautiful man” she’s commenting on how shiny her inner Goddess is. There are too many to quote so you’ll just have to buy it or put your name on the long list at the library…if you really want to be handling that kind of book after so many other people.

It’s set in Seattle, Washington but just because it uses clumsy Americanisms like “Jeez” and “Holy Hell” doesn’t make it convincing. I lived in the US for four months and not once did I hear an American say “Shall I?” or “Oh, my” but yet many of the characters sound like they are related to Mary Poppins. Why couldn’t the author set it in England, where she’s from? The plot is ludicrous; it is a thin thread stringing sex scenes together. Overall, the level of suspension of disbelief required by 50 Shades of Grey is exhausting.

Whatever floats your boat!

I’m not one to judge the sexual preferences of other people (so long as they aren’t dangerous or illegal). I’m sure readers are drawn in by the fantasy involving a lot of hot sex/being pursued and showered with gifts by a desirable millionaire. It is every woman’s dream, y’know, because we’re that shallow. There are plenty of saucy passages describing risqué lovemaking in detail. BUT on the other hand, I find it bizarre that so many women are heaping praise on a book about a control freak who sees women as possessions. How many women would like their real-life boyfriend to order them around? Or tell them how to dress and when to exercise?

The central relationship in it is dysfunctional. Christian claims he wants to ‘free’ Ana sexually but really all he wants to do is satisfy his own desires. Ana is attracted to Christian but admits she’s inexperienced and vulnerable. She’s uncomfortable with a lot of the things he wants her to do sexually because they involve control and violence, however mild. She is afraid that he’ll get too enthusiastic to the point of physically hurting her.

Taking the sex out of the equation, he is jealous and domineering. He tracks her movements; won’t take no for an answer and orders her around. The guy wants her to sign a contract agreeing to do what he wants, when he wants. His bad childhood is referred to like that’s a valid explanation for everything and he says he’s just “made this way”. How convenient. She’s constantly conflicted emotionally and cries all the time since she met him. The eventual breaking point for her is when she asks him to do his worst. He does and she is utterly humiliated.

Emotional turmoil, confusion, debasement, hurt…are they positive feelings for you? They don’t turn me on (and I don’t think I’m alone). Still, reading about Ana and Christian’s escapades is spicing up dull sex lives everywhere seemingly. Answers on a postcard please?

The part where I finally “surrender myself to my grief”…

India Knight had an interesting piece in the June 24 edition of The Sunday Times arguing that the book was just porn by any other name. She said that the only difference between men watching an explicit DVD and women reading an explicit book was good marketing. Knight even said she preferred ‘real’ porn because it does exactly what it says on the tin with no ideas above its station. I don’t want to get into a discussion about porn in society but once it’s made with and viewed by consenting adults, I don’t really care.

We need to start questioning the idea of sexual texts in society. Topless Page 3 girls in the newspaper=acceptable; naked women in ‘top shelf’ magazines =acceptable; naked men in women’s magazines=acceptable; graphic sex in a feature film=acceptable; films that just feature sex and have titles like The Hand that Cradles my Rocks=unacceptable; sexy books/DVDs you buy in chain stores=acceptable; sexy books/DVDs you buy in shops with blacked out windows=unacceptable…and so on. The mass consumption of 50 Shades of Grey at least brings this debate more sharply into focus.

Well, I could go on all night…but that’s more Christian Grey’s talent. There are thousands of better books than 50 Shades of Meh. I admire her in the sense that she has been very successful in this ‘filthy book’ niche but I don’t plan on lining E.L. James’ pockets any further. I don’t see how this particular book has captured the imaginations of so many. It is an enigma as hard to decipher as Mr Grey himself. Ahem, did I mention how beautiful he is already?

Good show for Culture Night 2011

I want to report back that while I didn’t get to sample everything at Limerick’s Culture Night 2011, it seemed to be a great success. The organisations and venues involved put a lot of effort into it. It was especially popular with families, students and people from other countries living in Limerick so Culture Night was a great PR opportunity—which was mostly capitalised upon.

The Hunt Museum was very busy and had lots of stuff on including workshops/ activities for kids, a live orchestra and guided tours. The excellent music by CoMA (Contemporary Music Making for All) added to the special atmosphere and the museum was as charming as ever. The current photographic exhibition, Changing Ireland, is amazing, incredibly moving and it’s on until October 23. The photos are displayed in advance of the publication of the latest in the series of books by James Fennell and Turtle Bunbury.

We had a sneak peek at the redeveloped Limerick City Gallery of Art in Pery Square. It was bizarre walking around there with no art in the space! The gallery was giving away free ev+a back catalogues among other books, which was a good idea in the absence of the real thing.

There was tango dancing going on beside the Occupy Space gallery, which made for a bit of voyeurism. After a look around the art exhibition space we tipped across to Conradh na Gaeilge, where they were having a old fashioned sing song and trad session in an chistin. That was good craic.

I have minor complaints…well, the blog is called ‘not good for my rage’. The programme for Culturenight.ie advertised that the Georgian House and Gardens were open for the night, which was wrong. It used to be open to the public during the week but due to funding difficulties, Limerick Civic Trust had to close it for the time being with the loss of several jobs. I think the restored Georgian-era building is one of the biggest jewels in LCT’s crown and it should have been open on the most appropriate night of the year! (On closer inspection, that online programme had a litany of mistakes and omissions. The ones in the local papers were more accurate and there were plenty of leaflets available at the venues).

The poetry bus wasn’t running to schedule and after 15 minutes waiting at the stop it was supposed to arrive at, we decided to abandon it and head for the Hunt Museum.

My little brother had never seen King John’s Castle so we went down there for a look first. The history of the place never fails to impress but I have to say some of the exhibits and the visitors’ centre look tired and/or dirty. There was a lot of litter outside the entrance and no stewards/special event for the night. BUT the castle’s courtyard had fantastic exhibits of ye olde bright blue wheelie bins and ye olde pile of broken pallets. It made you wonder what year ye olde traffic cone was excavated. The castle is due for a multi-million euro revamp next year and I hope it’ll be spent in the right areas.

So all in all, Culture Night was well worth a look. Kudos to all involved!