I wasn’t going to say anything about those ghastly Fifty Shades books, in the hope that the whole thing might just go away, but I’m so sick of reading about them and hearing them hailed as something good that I could restrain myself no longer. Be warned, I could subtitle this piece In Which We Consider The Power of Delusion. Let’s not kid ourselves that these books are anything other than really atrociously awfully written porn without a shred of merit of any kind, and the fact that they can cause a so-called phenomenon is a poor indictment of our society.
Several years ago now, I wrote a book on pornography with a colleague. We were looking at the literary end of the market in France – some of you may have seen films by Catherine Breillat (like Romance) or read books by Michel Houellebecq. We wondered why French art was borrowing all these tropes from pornography and set about analysing a large range of novels and films. This is what literature is good for: it magnifies and challenges what’s implicit in mass market stuff, it obliges the reader or spectator to question their expectations and intents.
In brief, what we found was that porn is not so much a genre as a sexual practice in itself, designed to be undertaken in the absence of a living, breathing, consenting other. It’s the nearest art comes to a drug, given that it is created to produce a direct response on the body. It is also fraught with anxieties about sexual identity and performance, and about genuine relationships with other people. It almost always taps into the least attractive and most regressive of gender traits, the male need to dominate, the female readiness to submit, a pattern which is reproduced in works concerning same sex encounters. It often feeds off hostility and resentment of the needs and demands of others, and the fact that we cannot be fully autonomous. It is very close to violence, degradation, humiliation and pain. For the most part the consumption of porn is not wrong, but it is a little sad and lonely. It often indicates such insecurity and such isolation that only fantasies of absolute mastery and flawlessness prove satisfying. The fact that Fifty Shades of Grey has been hailed as ‘mommy porn’ (and lets pause to consider the perjorative nature of that term – how come the previous century of porn hasn’t been entitled ‘daddy porn’ or ‘bachelor porn’?) really says something for me about the damage done to mothers by our excessive insistence on attachment parenting. If I ruled the world, I’d take the copies of Fifty Shades out of those womens’ hands, and try to give them some of their life back instead.
The fact that people need porn isn’t really my issue here (the fact that we laugh indulgently about it rather than wonder what the hell is happening to our society is more of a worry – is this what ‘liberal’ has come to mean? Never saying no?). No, what really bothers me is that these books are so excruciatingly bad. I was in the big bookstore in town the other day and overheard two young women reading passage of the books out to one another in dramatic voices and laughing. Then they put the books back on the shelves and went to browse the tables of new publications and I really felt like going over and shaking their hands. People who saw clearly! I mean, I never minded Dan Brown (who looks like Tolstoy in comparison), and I wasn’t about to hop on the coat tails of all the sneery critics dissing the Harry Potter novels. Those books had good stories, and if the prose wasn’t consistently beautiful, it wasn’t really that bad. But Fifty Shades? People, how can you bear it? It’s so awful it hurts! And now, what’s happening but a mass migration of sheep-like publishers onto the erotic bandwagon. Oh please. The wonderful Kim at Reading Matters has an excellent post on all the Fifty Shades wannabees that are destined to hit bookstores and ereaders in the near future. I found it depressing, that in an industry centred on imagination, those in charge should show so little of it.
And what upsets me most of all, what made me nearly crash the car when I heard it reported on the radio news, no less, is this plan to rewrite classics like Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights with sex added in. So hold on a minute, what are we saying here? That we’ll take books that have survived for hundreds of years because they have never failed to delight each successive generation with their rightness and ability to entertain, challenge and enthral, and we are going to graft wholly unnecessary, misplaced sex scenes in, written by some hack with less talent in their entire being than the Bronte sisters contained in their little fingers? The Little Professor says it so much better than I could, but essentially, adding sex to those books is to misunderstand and deform them entirely. It is ALL KINDS OF WRONG.
We’re headed towards one of those ghastly self-fulfilling prophecies. If we insist on saying that crappy stuff is good, and the literary is bad, i.e. hard work, difficult, then it will become thus. We will come to associate anything that does not give instant gratification or require the least possible effort on our parts with some sort of tedious chore. When did the requirement to read slowly, carefully, thoughtfully turn into an unreasonable burden? I’m not saying: read only literary works, never genre novels. I’m saying: enjoy the use of discernment. Never stoop to the lowest common denominator because corporations desperate for whacking great profits tell you it’s okay. Don’t get suckered into thinking that the classics are for other people or that literary always means inaccessible; never underestimate your own capabilities. We were all born with the extraordinary gift of a brain; wouldn’t it be the most ungrateful waste not to use it to its full extent? For what, exactly, are we saving up our mental powers?
Right so here’s the real message of this post: people, respect quality. Quality. It is not an elite term, it is not judgemental, it is not exclusive. It is a recognition of the best we humans have in us. It is a subsection of the divine. Let’s think about living lives of quality, of enjoying the best quality in whatever it is we choose to consume. If we care about what we put into our stomachs, then shouldn’t we care as much about what we put into our heads? Let’s put the Fifty Shades books in the bin, and get something properly life-enhancing off the shelf.