Fifty Shades of Grey: Ladies, you could have it so much better!

Before I go any further, I would like to make it clear that I am not a secret porn writer. I have never written porn and I wouldn’t know where to start. Actually, that’s probably not true. I could make a good stab at it, but I just haven’t been arsed (and with turns of phrase like that, you can see I might in fact be a natural). Anyhow, what I wanted to say was, I’m not a porn writer, but if I was, I’d be really pissed off at all the fuss over Fifty Shades of Grey.

In recent years there have been some great porn novels written for women, and Fifty Shades of Grey so obviously isn’t one of them. It’s absolutely rubbish. I only got halfway through it (see half-hearted review here) but everyone I know who’s read it says the same thing: the writing’s dire, the story’s ridiculous but hey, there are some rude bits! As if there have never been rude bits in books for women before! That’s bollocks (and arse and tits and cock etc.).

If I were, say, Juliet Hastings (which I’m not), author of such Black Lace classics as Dreaming Spires and Forbidden Crusade, I’d be furious to read Zoe Williams’s discussion of Fifty Shades in the Guardian. According to Williams,

There is a little light spanking in Jilly Cooper (Octavia, Rivals), and the romance genre (as distinct from chicklit) would be many pages lighter if nobody ever got tied to a bed with a scarf, but this is in a different league. Its popularity has come as a bit of a surprise to publishers, who thought they knew what women wanted. It must be a bit like being married to someone for 20 years, and suddenly finding out they like fisting.

Yes, because there have never been specific sections for women’s erotic literature featuring bondage in bookshops ever before (apart from Borders in Cambridge ten years ago, which is where I acquired my much-loved stash).

By women’s erotic texts, I don’t mean any of the very rude but oddly pretentious stuff by Anais Nin or Pauline Réage, or even the very rude but oddly worthy stuff such as Nancy Friday’s My Secret Garden collection of women’s personal fantasies. I mean stories that are very rude but don’t take themselves too seriously, while also managing to be reasonably well-written and imaginative. I love Dreaming Spires for this reason. It’s set in Cambridge and features Catherine de la Tour (!), who is writer in residence at St Henry’s College.* Although described as an academic, Catherine doesn’t faff around chasing grants, panicking about her publication record and desperately networking with older colleagues whose works she despises. Catherine just shags, lots of people (including, but not just, dominant men), in all sorts of places (including the University Library, suddenly no longer a place of boredom and work panic, but a secret fuck paradise!). It’s ace! I can’t remember the full plot because with these books, any “re-reading” is dipping back to those, ahem, “favourite” bits. There is a sub-plot involving a younger student, Maggie, and her shagging escapades, and I think Chapter One starts off with her taking it merrily up the arse. Anyhow, there’s none of the incredibly boring, pointless delay you get with Fifty Shades; with Dreaming Spires, Hastings launches straight in, straight up the jacksie (and to think Williams claims that unlike other books, Fifty Shades “is a sex book. It is not a book with sex in it”. For goodness sake, Williams, for a sex book, it sure makes you wait a long time in total non-anticipation before anything remotely rude happens).**

So why is it so popular? I think timing, and the ebook factor, are one thing. But you can download other porn novels onto ebooks and read them without anyone knowing, so that can’t be all there is. And besides, Fifty Shades is now there in hard copy in every supermarket you enter. To be honest, I can’t help thinking (and this sounds a weak, cop-out answer) that the success is purely down to media hype, hype being channeled through organisations which are largely conservative and heteronormative, and in which people don’t particularly like women. It’s as though we women have been given permission to like this one trilogy of rude books. This one exceptionally crap and ultimately very conservative trilogy of rude books. And we’re told everyone else is reading it until lo! everyone else is indeed reading it. I mean, that’s why I downloaded it. I thought if everyone else was doing it then there had to be something in it (which again sounds weak but hey, I don’t want to be the one to miss out). I don’t think, precisely, that this is some kind of conspiracy. Hey, let’s allow the ladies some porn, but let’s make sure it’s dire! But porn novels that are polished and witty and fun have been around for quite some time, and no one seems to be reviewing and comparing Fifty Shades in the light of these (unfortunately, Random House pulled the butt-plug on Black Lace three years ago – but they should now really put some effort into pushing their backlist [add your own innuendo]).

Anyhow, that is my view on things. And once more, I am not a porn writer. But if I was, and if I was a good one, I’d be really fucking furious.

* No such Cambridge college exists, but my partner is convinced St Henry’s is based on his old college, King’s. This then leads him to wonder whether Juliet Hastings was a contemporary of his and whether he may even have shagged / inspired her. Well, there’s an added frisson for the two of us.

** Another one I particularly like is Wendy Harris’ The Bitch and the Bastard, which is about shagging, ex-schoolmate rivalry and office politics. But mainly shagging.


9 thoughts on “Fifty Shades of Grey: Ladies, you could have it so much better!

  1. I like this post a lot – I was talking to someone in publishing who was saying the industry is fully baffled by this. Not by the idea that women buy porn (like you say, that’s been long established via Black Lace/Mills and Boon) but by the phenomenal success of something so meritless. They have no idea how to replicate this one.

    1. I don’t see how publishers of good porn can counter this either – what makes it worse is that they’ll now get accused of jumping on the Fifty Shades bandwagon, as though this started it all. And perhaps good writers will now start trying to be rubbish, as that’s what seems to work…

  2. I agree with this post. Louise Bagshawe has been trotting out similar misogynistic shite for donkeys years, but at least not so badly written and with quite interesting story lines.

  3. Glosswitch, you are a pretty special lady!

    In here I see a little discord with reality ‘stories that are very rude but don’t take themselves too seriously’, not in your presented point of view of course. Made up stories can be not serious, but they can constitute sources of inspiration for people who read them, which is rather unfortunate. They may evoke certain needs in people and imho 50 shades is just that. Pity that readers find such book sexual at all, it contains plain cruelty, not sex.

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