Even though we’re just into August, there’s no doubt that 2012 already belongs to E.L.James’ “Fifty Shades” trilogy of books. In just a few short months, the books have gone from Kindle-only erotic “fan-fiction” to topping the best selling lists worldwide. It has flown off the shelves courtesy not of some huge marketing campaign but via good old fashioned “Word Of Mouth” recommendation and has been the talk of every internet social networking site and workplace. And yet, in a world that normally considers mass popularity as a barometer of taste, these books have met with a somewhat mixed reception from the media.
My own ‘personal recommendation’ came in early April, and coincidently enough came from a female who had experienced my own personal ‘fifty shades’, couldn’t deal with ‘the real thing’, reacted accordingly – and ultimately had to be cut loose shortly after. It was, I was told, “a novel about 2 people and BDSM and so much more” and “I really had to read it” – so I purchased “Fifty Shades Of Grey” that week and took to it like a duck to water. Of course it helped that I recognised much of my own personality in the lead male character (as hinted at in the initial recommendation I had received) – sans extreme wealth and childhood neglect – and the trilogy continued to resonate with me throughout partly because of this. What happened since I purchased the first volume, less than four months ago, is something I certainly did not expect in spite of my wholesale approval of these works. It has, through word-of-mouth and recommendation on social networking sites, become an absolute phenomenon.
The reaction of the media has been interesting – one of general disdain and disinterest. The newspapers have been awash with female columnists sneering at this “mummy porn” and wrongfully concluding it encourages the portrayal of females as sexual submissive to horrible beastly men, journalists have been quick to declare the books badly written with “clunky prose” – and yet the phenomenon prevails. Whilst it would easy to take an elitist view and consider this the literary equivalent of, say, the music of Maroon 5 or Rihanna what these jealous journalists are failing to take into account is the impact these books are having on those swept up in the wave of enthusiasm. I could sneer at all the people I consider ‘unworthy’ of such a good read and bemoan it’s “populism”, but I would be failing to take into account how far reaching and possibly life-changing these books could be to some. I have seen these books bought and embraced by the barely literate, people who have never before sat down and read a ‘book’ in their adult lives. People for whom the intense passion, salacious but-never-tacky sex and the incredible relationship depicted in the book will be nothing they’ve ever imagined nor will never probably experience. People who’s very lives are those of adult children, who have sex “cos it’s what you do innit” but never experience passion, who live their lives as they communicate – in meaningless soundbites and minus the vowels, who treat cognitive thinking as “weird”. People for whom “music” is a constant wall of thumping monotone beats, computer-generated distortion and generic autotuned “singing” reading about incredible sex soundtracked by Thomas Tallis’ 16th Century layered complex choral music. All of this and more, in a society where the death knell had been sounded long ago for the artistry & wonder of the English language, with grown adults consistently making the spelling errors of the remedial children of yesteryear. All of whom being totally absorbed now by fictional books depicting seriously discerning lead characters. This impact goes way beyond the sneering contempt of populist hacks or even my own deep cynicism, and it can only be a force for good.
Aside from hypocritical swipes at the authors style of writing, the main issue raised in criticism of these books comes from other, supposedly intellectual. females taking issue with the depiction of BDSM sex and the dominant/submissive relationship between the male and female lead characters. Whether these hackneyed concerns are being raised in denial of the critics own sexual needs and habits, and in some knee-jerk defence of ‘feminism’ is unclear, but the criticism has been transparently uniform enough to barely disguise the true agenda. Aside from creating, outside of the ‘industry’, a literary phenomenon what is irking the female critics the most is the fact E.L.James has effectively let ‘the’ genie out of the bottle in terms of what women, if I may generalise so, really want from a relationship and from sex. That this is indeed just what the author has done is reflected in the incredible popularity of the books with women (and some men) of all ages. It is a fact of life that sex requires one party to be dominant and one submissive, and that generally in the sexual element of most heterosexual relationships the male is sexually dominant and the female submissive – it is completely natural, indisputable and, unfortunately for those in denial of these roles, a given. The male role – both in the bedroom and within relationships – has been diminished in recent years amidst hollow cries of “girl power” and the resultant trail of unhappy people swearing allegiance to broken frameworks and females happy to reduce the role of men to that of unwitting sperm donors and hapless (or reviled) stooges. Sex itself is an animalistic, uncivilised act based on a man fucking a woman, there is no place for ‘political correctness’ in this order as it is the very basis of our being – to put it crudely men are made to ‘fuck’, women made to ‘be fucked’. Whilst no-one is suggesting women exist purely as sexual muses for their men, this is the basic gist of life itself, and in this respect the sexual relationship detailed in the “Fifty Shades” books are just reflecting, from a woman’s perspective, this most carnal of desires. What this reveals, of course, is despite much post-modern posturing this base need is very much alive in women as it always had been and it is this fact that must infuriate the supposed feminist journalistic elite – what they completely fail to realise though is that “Fifty Shades” is not depicting a neanderthal beast dominating a submissive female (as so many columns have attempted to depict), and does not represent the sole reason why the books are so popular. As well as the graphic knicker-wetting descriptions of various fantastic sexual acts, the main point of the book and the true reason it has gripped so many of such varied backgrounds is the emotional relationship between the male and female leads – how they impact on each other, how they bond, how the relationship shifts and develops and how amazingly deep and rewarding that is. Of course, the sad fact is that most people never experience the type of relationship described in the books and never experience the highs (or lows) – but what the popularity of the book and, in particular, the lead character Christian Grey’s popularity reveals is most women – of all classes and walks of life – really want in a man. They want smart, they want slightly vulnerable, they want deep, they want cultured, they want discerning, they want looking after, they even quite like being ‘stalked’ and watched if the stalker is appealing to them – and the certainly want sexually dominating. Most men should be taking note and taking care of their future happiness, but in a sea of indifference, denial and endless distractions, most won’t. Most women too will read these books, get horny over these books, fall in love with these books – and then promptly return to their ‘safe bets’ and passionless, pointless relationships (a fate that seems to have befallen my ‘friend’) whilst spending a lifetime putting up with second or third best and occasionally wondering “what if”.
Of course, the bonus for the few wise “Christians” here is E.L.James has basically handed over an ‘instruction manual for women’. Those of us who already benefit from a “Mr Grey”-esque personality can, instead of channelling our intensity in the wrong directions and suffering for our ‘art’, bask in the glory of knowing we are what they want (what they really really want) and those who can’t handle it – well, it’s their loss isn’t it…..