Have you read Fifty Shades of Grey?
I've only read the first few chapters and flicked through the rest, but like nearly everyone else in the English-speaking world, I've been caught in the hurricane of hype. The book has, we are told, defined a new genre – "mummy porn" – and features a doe-eyed 21-year-old virgin called Ana who is inducted by a handsome, older man into a sexual life of BDSM. (That's bondage, discipline, dominance and submission, sadism and masochism. Yes, of course you knew. So did I, obviously.)
Fifty Shades, you have probably also heard, is the fastest-selling paperback in publishing history, being consumed at a feverish rate by armies of mainly female readers – 20 million of them at the last count. That's officially an awful lot; even JK Rowling would think so, as Fifty Shades has sold faster than Harry Potter.
How should we interpret this? That we women are all secretly dying to be wrapped in cellophane, suspended from the dado rail and spanked with a spatula, only we don't know how to ask? Unlikely, though I couldn't say for sure.
Could it be that, given the book's dominant older man/naive virgin dynamic, its success reveals that, in some part of our psyches, we women long to be submissive (or as American journalist Katie Roiphe puts it, that working women want an escape from "the hard work of equality")?
Er, I doubt it. This is, after all, just a book.
Or has its popularity disquieted social commentators so much because it reveals an embarrassing truth about the modern woman: namely that we're not the serious-minded individuals we'd like others to see us as?
By this interpretation, the fact so many women have gone out and bought Fifty Shades of Grey shows there is a disconnect between the image modern females want to present to the world (intelligent, independent, strong-minded devourers of serious literature and high-brow documentaries) and the people we really are (airhead fans of trash like Sex and the City, and avid consumers of low-brow erotica). It suggests that we are letting ourselves down, asking not to be taken seriously, allowing our focused, aspirational sides to be overcome by the lazy, superficial reality of who we really are.
Yes, that would be worrying. Luckily, though, it's a load of cobblers. You can, in fact, read silly books, buy fashion magazines and watch all episodes of Desperate Housewives without it affecting your ability to understand leaders in The Economist or chair meetings authoritatively.
In fact, for all the angsty hours that have been expended trying to interpret the meaning of this book's success, the most that can be said is that a) the book has been very cleverly marketed and b) a lot of women like reading a bit of erotica.
Buying the book, in any case, isn't the same as thinking it's any good when you actually read it. At time of writing, the top three reader reviews on the Amazon site all award the book one star out of five and describe it variously as "bilge", "a pile of discarded panties" and, more prosaically "absolute rubbish". "I succumbed to the hype surrounding this book," writes one reader, "then got half-way through before realising that I had been conned."
I bought Fifty Shades Of Grey for the sake of this article. I admit that I did not really want to, as the book snob in me had the upper hand.Having conspicuously asked the shop assistant if I could have a gift receipt, in case he thought I was buying it for myself, I realised at the last moment that I'd picked up Fifty Shades of something else by accident (there are two sequels) and he had to go and change it for me in full view of the waiting shoppers. That was my karmic punishment for being so sniffy.
Without meaning to jump on any critical bandwagons, I have to say that it really is a bit pants, and not in a good way.
Ana is forever "flushing deeply" and feeling an "exhilarating current" when she touches the dangerous older-man love interest (who's called Christian). Tediously, he's as rich as a Russian oligarch and impossibly handsome.
What the hell, here's a little extract of Ana's breathless internal monologue so you get where I'm coming from: "Why does he have such an unnerving effect on me? His overwhelming good looks maybe? The way his eyes blaze at me?"
Understandably, Ana's many orgasms stretch the author's powers of description: one moment she's "convulsing and shattering into a thousand pieces" and two pages later she's "exploding ... I splinter into a million pieces".
There are places where it's unintentionally laugh-out-loud funny, but why the book has become such a sensation, I have no idea.
The point is that people like a bit of trash sometimes. Yes, even serious people enjoy untaxing flim-flam that can be relished for its camp naffness, or that simply offers a way to unwind.
Fifty Shades Of Grey isn't much cop, if you ask me. But it's not a blight on womankind, either.
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