Saturday 30 August 2014

Fifty Shades

Technical problems. So (and rather like the television test card of fond memory) here is a recycled blog  to keep the ball(s) rolling until normal service is resumed. I originally put this up more than a year ago, when Fifty Shades of Grey by E. L. James was in the first flush of its notoriety. Not topical then, although a forthcoming film will no doubt serve to re-activate interest in the Fifty Shades franchise.

On Fifty Shades of Grey

Let's begin with two extracts from two very different novels by two very different authors:

Slowly, she unbuttons the dress jacket, one button at a time. The red silk slips down. Nothing underneath. She holds her young breasts in her palms. She offers them to him! Smooth, bare shoulders, proud throat. She puts her long hands around her neck, like a coil. Velvety palms, thin fingers. She remains like that, exposed, looking  at the narrow, dirty window. She pulls down the zipper of her jeans. She comes out of those blue pipes, naked. 

Here's the second:

He speeds up. I moan, and he pounds on, picking up speed, merciless, a relentless rhythm, and I keep up, meeting his thrusts. […] I detonate around him, again and again, round and round. 

The first passage comes from Norman Manea's The Lair, published in 2012 by Yale University Press. Manea is a very distinguished Romanian novelist and recently became a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. The second comes from E. L. James's Fifty Shades of Grey, the fastest-selling novel of all time.

There's not much to choose between them, is there? They're both absolutely rotten pieces of writing and neither has a trace of what Eliot called felt thought. The blue pipes, the detonations - where's the feeling? Where's the thought? They are both laboured and clumsy and ridiculous and share the blasted present historic tense which is the tarnished hallmark of too much contemporary fiction. 

The first extract is translated from Romanian while the second only appears to be. The first (we may need reminding) is serious literature while the second is culled from what its author calls 'adult romance' but which has elsewhere been accurately described as 'Mummy Porn'. Shades (let's agree to call it that) is coarse, unoriginal, tedious, banal and, with its clunky redundancies and repetitions and erratic grammar, an insult to even an average reader's intelligence. But so is The Lair. What's going wrong here? 

Shades is a failure in every respect apart from commercially (which of course is the only measure that really matters in today's literary culture) and has been ignored or derided or condemned by anyone with good taste and a brain. The astonishing sales (70,000,000 and rising) are said in part to be down to a shift in technology: Kindle users can now read such embarrassing trash in public, with no cover art giving the game away. If my reaction seems snobbish then I can only argue that some things are still worth being snobbish about and if not we may as well pack up and light out for the territory - but my point here is that if a meretricious piece of ill-conceived and illiterate smut can sell in its millions to a huge general audience then something must be said in defence of legitimate pornographic writing. We'll come back to the silly infantilism of Shades later on, but first let's look at proper grown-up literary pornography (or erotica, if you want to sound high minded and connoisseurial).

In the 1960s Philip Roth set the ball rolling with Portnoy's Complaint, initiating a new kind of sexual candour which was  outrageous, controversial and trailblazing. While the novel was bracingly frank about the consolations of masturbation, it didn't prompt its readers to follow suit, holding the book in one hand and a piece of liver (wasn't it?) in the other. At least I assume that. Roth enjoyed immediate fame and notoriety and good sales, though nothing like Erika Leonard's, because his book was very funny indeed. Having said which most literary erotica sidelines the humorous and is all but incompatible with any kind of good writing.

There are, of course, exceptions. Nicholson Baker has written three explicitly erotic books - Vox ( a witty phone-sex dialogue which climaxed in, well ... a climax: “Oh! Nnnnnnnn! Nnn! Nnn! Nnn! Nnn! Nnn! Nnn!”); The Fermata (a fantasia in which the narrator could arrest time and get up to all manner of hanky-panky, an idea with its origins in H G Wells's The New Accelerator), and last year's collection of short stories, House of Holes. This featured a depraved theme park and was a relentlessly smutty and hilarious catalogue of transgression and perversity. Harry Matthews' Singular Pleasures (1990) consisted of sixty-one very brief descriptions of Onanism in different settings, reflecting his staunch Oulipian commitment to self-imposed structural restrictions and permutations. Alasdair Gray, in his magnificent second novel 1982, Janine explored with grace and urgency the erotic dementia of an alcoholic salesman. These are all good writers with many non-erotic publications to their name, and they all know how to handle language, how to get an effect. In the interests of gender balance we might include The Story of O by Anne Desclos, a Gallic tale of epic awfulness with lashings of lashings.

Baker, Matthews, Gray and Desclos are all diving confidently into waters where lesser writers are either drowning or paddling to adapt an image employed by Jung when he compared James Joyce's writing with that of his schizophrenic daughter Lucia. It was Joyce who recognised what he called the 'morbid pedantry' of pornographic writing, and who so brilliantly adapted and enlivened the form in the Nighttown episode of Ulysses, the episode that particularly attracted the censors. In 1933 the American Judge John M. Woolsey's landmark judgement ruled that Joyce's great novel was not pornographic, and his deadpan summing-up always bears repeating:

[W]hilst in many places the effect of Ulysses on the reader undoubtedly is somewhat emetic, nowhere does it tend to be an aphrodisiac.

Remove the 'somewhat' and you're close to Shades. Erika Leonard originally published her work online under the pseudonym Snowqueens Icedragon (sic, and in itself enough to induce a bilious attack in the discriminating), as part of the new cultural phenomenon known as 'fan fiction'. She was prompted by her enthusiasm for Stephanie Meyers' Twilight, a series of vampire romances aimed at adolescent readers (and unsophisticated adults), with sales of 100 million copies worldwide. Not being a cutting-edge kinda guy I first heard of fan fiction last year at a Cambridge conference dedicated to the literary collaborators of Benjamin Britten. A distinguished Britten scholar told me she had posted some (innocuous) imaginary accounts of Britten's life on line and, intrigued, I looked them up. They were bright, well-written and playfully amusing scenarios that revealed the author's deep knowledge and understanding of Britten's life, work and personality. It seemed harmless, if pointless - a donnish exercise to pass a wet Sunday afternoon. But other fan fictions were, I soon discovered, both alarming and depressing - atrociously inept Sherlock Holmes pastiches, creepy Star Trek rip-offs featuring Kirk, Spock and colleagues in breathlessly transgressive situations (i.e. having intercourse with aliens), earnest and illiterate reformulations of cult favourites with an emphasis on the gothic. All of this was negligible at best, but what there was in great abundance were energy, enthusiasm and a free-spirited appropriation. So it's perhaps not entirely a bad thing.

I was reminded of so-called 'Tijuana Bibles', cheap small-format American comic books hugely popular in the Depression era, featuring public figures and (in a gesture of post-modern self-reference) established newspaper comic strip characters like Popeye and L'il Abner, all engaged in spirited coitus and other illicit shenanigans. Aimed at adolescent males, they were eight pages long with bracingly filthy dialogue and crudely explicit images of copulation, essentially aids to masturbation. These are now highly sought-after collectors' items and have a certain artless charm. 

Which brings us back again to Shades, which has no charm at all but is certainly artless. It's a gormlessly rebooted Jane Eyre (with added rumpy-pumpy) and depicts (too strong a word) the relationship between college graduate Anastasia Steele ('unworldly, innocent') and damaged billionaire Christian Grey ('beautiful, brilliant, and intimidating'). They meet for an interview in Seattle and Steele, who is a virgin, accepts Grey's invitation to sign a contract allowing him complete control over her life. Like you do.

We are invited to share her surprise and dismay when it turns out that 'Chris' is keen on BDSM (Bondage, Domination and Sado-Masochism), all of it 'straight' and, as it turns out, disappointingly tame. Chris was abused as a child - imagine! - and the upshot is that he now gets his kicks in a 'red room of pain'. It's not especially well-equipped, but perhaps billionaires stay rich by not splashing out on plush manacled furnishings. The author, like most of us, doesn't know too much about billionaire lifestyles so Grey, thinly-sketched, is a resistible cross between Mr Rochester and Richard Branson. He's predictably classy - French-speaking, piano-playing, opera-going and fastidious. Given the Seattle setting he could pass for Frazier Crane's milquetoast brother Niles.

The thing is, and please alert anyone you know who is planning to waste ten quid on this worthless perpetration that, in an exemplary case of 'all gong and no dinner, nothing much happens. They eventually fall in love and have a child together, putting all their low-wattage cavortings, such as they were, behind them. It was all just a phase, you see? An overture to the fulfillments of monogamous parenthood. There's a  clumsy redemptive pay-off and the annoying cop-out message is that all the spanking and clamping was simply a means to an end, and not an end in itself. This is the most pernicious nonsense of all.

We are eventually told that Anastasia, no longer the coy virgin, is far from being the exploited sex-slave of Steele's dreams. In the psychodynamics of this set-up the submissive chattel actually calls the shots. She is quite, y'know, empowered? Critics with a knowledge of such matters have complained that Leonard appears to know little about BDSM (or, come to that, anything else including basic English) and there have been some eloquent denunciations from feminist writers - but the arguments all seem rather moth-eaten. Much debate has surrounded the phenomenal sales of a publication that has not been commissioned and nurtured by editors or proof-readers and which bypasses all the usual publishing hurdles. It suggests an emerging counter-literate world in which publishing is not for everybody but certainly for anybody, so prepare for a deluge of increasingly desperate spin-off cash-ins. My real concern is that readers are apparently willing to settle for so little - are they really so needy, so undiscriminating, so gullible? Is this what reading Rowling's Harry Potter books ten years ago has led a generation to? Is this their idea of fun?

Shades was clearly easy to write but is by no means so easy to read. The agreement drawn up between the protagonists of  is expressed thus:

‘The Submissive will obey any instructions given by the Dominant immediately without hesitation or reservation and in an expeditious manner [. . .] The Submissive shall accept whippings, floggings, spankings, canings, paddlings, or any other discipline the Dominant should decide to administer, without hesitation, inquiry or complaint’

'Paddling' is (I looked it up so you don't have to) spanking somebody on the backside with a table tennis bat, or similar article. The language of the contract, with its ponderous shall/will variation, is not titillating and when it comes to delivery Fifty Shades of Grey turns out to be all gong and no dinner. Leonard's work lacks not only lustre but also lust and what this lousy book avoids entirely (apart from basic literacy) is pornographic inventiveness, which strikes me as a bit of a swindle. There is nothing at all of interest in the uninspired and unlubricious sex scenes to keep the reader engaged. There's no plot, of course, just a situation which is explored (again too strong a word) in deadly prose, and at interrninable length throughout this and two sequel volumes. The tone is (perhaps aptly) strangulated and, at the same time, so preposterously solemn that one can only hoot with derisive laughter before throwing the wretched thing across the room (and before you ask I read a borrowed paperback - my Kindle is intact).

Leonard's lovers address one another in a weirdly pedantic and chortling register:

‘What a tempting morsel you are, Miss Steele,’ he tells her. ‘You intoxicate me, Miss Steele, and you calm me.  Such a heady combination.’ To which she replies: ‘We aim to please, Mr Grey.’ 

It really is that bad, all the way through. They never quite get to say 'Forsooth' and 'Egad' but they come pretty damn close. Is this how members of the BDSM community chatter among themselves? Is this costive jocularity part of the edgy lifestyle?

Erika Leonard is set to become the Ayn Rand of soft porn - the original online episodes later reformulated as Shades were perpetrated under the Randian title Master of the Universe. No longer confident or honest in their judgements for fear of appearing highbrow, elitist, snobbish or even discriminating, many reviewers have been nervously equivocal about the book's style and content, treating it as 'a guilty pleasure', 'a poorly-written but addictive page-turner', 'eminently readable' and 'a talking-point for years to come.' One critic deadpanned that the book 'was in a class by itself'. Shades  is soon to become not merely a film but 'a major motion picture event' directed by the humdrum conceptual artist Sam Taylor-Wood. She should remind herself of the perils of mainstream erotic film-making and arrange a screening of Stanley Kubrick's last movie, Eyes Wide Shut. Scripted by Frederic Raphael from stories by Arthur Schnitzler, and starring Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, it was heralded as serious attempt to render the erotic with courage and candour. This was indeed a major motion picture event, and was an absolute stinker.

Back once last time to Shades. The heroine (a literature graduate) and her creator both seem unaware of any heritage erotica that might add a little oomph to the endeavour. A good place to start would be with James Joyce's letters to his wife Nora Barnacle, 'my darling brown-arsed fuckbird' - there's more erotic fizz and crackle in that salutation than in a dozen dungeons full of humdrum kinkiness. But perhaps Joyce as a mentor is raising the bar to giddy heights. There's also a lengthy tradition of flagellation writing to draw on, although it's all pretty feeble. Algernon Swinburne had a keen appetite for this kind of thing, possibly acquired as a schoolboy at Eton College (his pseudonym 'Etonensis' certainly suggests this). He is one of the pre-eminent algolagniacs in English literature (and I had to look that up also - 'one who derives sexual pleasure from pain'). Swinburne's The Whippingham Papers (1887) includes a relentlessly tedious 94-stanza poem 'Reginald's Flogging' which has to be read to be disbelieved. It's that morbid pedantry again - the (self-imposed) requirement to use something as cumbersome as words to describe elaborate physical activities, and to do so in a forward-moving narrative that speaks to the sensual imagination. Larkin's schoolgirl spanking fantasies are also doggedly unexciting as prose (although for him they clearly met a need), There's never really much of a temporal sense to pornographic writing - there's a how and a where (often scrupulously evoked) but never a when. The encounters are subject to duration (of course) but not of chronology.

Am I wrong to expect, when presented with Shades something more stimulating, more sexy, more fetishistic even? As it is I feel gypped, like I've been hustled into a pricy night club to find the place is deserted, the bar is shut, the chairs on the tables and the cleaners mopping the floor.

Leonard's characters, needless to say, entirely lack sensuality - there is no erotic charge derived from fabrics, food or fragrance, from body heat, the smell of hair and taste of skin. Lips are repeatedly nibbled and blood is on one occasion drawn, but Leonard is as adept at evoking passion as she is at writing an elegant or memorable sentence. I'm not against pornographic writing at all - but I can't stand bad writing. It's not precious or elitist to condemn trash - whether it's by good writers (Auden's 'The Platonic Blow' comes to mind) or the sub-literate - because trash is trash and no amount of post-modern irony will alter the fact. The odd ignoble frisson is always welcome, and is the sort of thing one finds in all the serious writers I've mentioned above, as well as others including John Wilmot, Anaïs Nin, William Burroughs, Lawrence Durrell, D. H. Lawrence and Vladimir Nabokov. Fifty Shades of Grey is so atrociously written that what the Victorians called an act of self-pollution would be a more rewarding way to spend the evening than reading it. Leonard's writing doesn't just put you off sex. It shares with Norman Manea's The Lair an even more malign accomplishment -  it puts you off reading. 

Extracts from Norman Manea and E. L. James © Yale University Press and Random House

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