What’s up with “Fifty Shades of Grey?” Why are so many readers — specifically so many women readers — entranced by the story of the dashing sadist Christian Grey and his steamy, troubled affair with the not-quite-submissive Anastasia Steele?
Lots of commentators have been weighing in, trying to explain what the phenomenal popularity of this “mommy porn” tells us about sexual politics and female desire, those perennial battlegrounds of the Great American Culture War. Katie Roiphe took a lot of flak for a Newsweek essay in which she suggested that rape fantasies and an appetite for submission represented a kind of imaginary rebellion against feminism, “a release, a vacation, an escape from the dreariness of hard work of equality.” A writer for Jezebel.com disagreed, finding instead a tale of female sexual empowerment: Anastasia’s willingness to enter Grey’s Red Room of Pain simply reflects a world in which “it’s possible to be the kind of woman who doesn’t don chains and leather but still wants to ‘experiment’ in the bedroom.”
As a fiction writer, though, I’ve been more intrigued by the fact that an erotic novel has taken the world by storm, achieving the kind of scandalous visibility once enjoyed by “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” and “Tropic of Cancer” back in the straitlaced, technologically challenged days before Playboy and adult videos entered our lives, let alone an entire universe of hardcore porn accessible at the click of a mouse. What does it mean that tens of millions of (overwhelmingly) female readers are turning to a book for their erotic thrills? And what kind of book are we talking about?
Opening the first volume of E.L. James’s trilogy, a reader expecting instant kinky thrills will be treated instead to a novelistic cold shower. The pacing is sluggish by porn standards, the setup needlessly elaborate. Due to the illness of her roommate, Kate — the spunky editor of the college paper — Anastasia takes on the onerous task of interviewing Christian Grey, “the enigmatic CEO of Grey Enterprises Holdings, Inc.,” despite the fact that she has no journalistic experience. (Apparently no actual reporters are available to fill in.) Arriving at Grey’s office, Anastasia curses Kate “for not providing me with a brief biography. I know nothing about this man I’m about to interview. He could be ninety or he could be thirty.” Although she’s a college senior, Anastasia seems only vaguely aware of the existence of the Internet; Googling Grey doesn’t even occur to her.
Luckily, the interview subject turns out be a handsome wunderkind billionaire — “If this guy is over thirty,” Anastasia thinks, “then I’m a monkey’s uncle” — but despite the Seattle setting, he’s no Bill Gates. Instead of software or social networking, Grey’s made his fortune in the old-school sectors of manufacturing and farming, while holding on to his humanitarian ideals: “We can’t eat money, Miss Steele, and there are too many people on this planet who don’t have enough to eat.” It goes on and on like this — “I’m a very wealthy man, Miss Steele, and I have expensive and absorbing hobbies” — until Grey finally gets down to the business of seduction, suggesting that Anastasia apply for an internship at his company: “His gaze is intense, all humor gone, and strange muscles in my belly clench suddenly.” Finally, the reader thinks. It’s about time we got this party started.
Kevin Nealon used to do a funny bit on “Saturday Night Live” where he reviewed pornography, and the joke was always the same: Not interested…Kind of interested…interested…really interested….really, really interested…not interested at all. I suspect he’d say something similar about “Fifty Shades of Grey.” After the slow start, the book becomes a lot more intriguing once Grey and Anastasia embark on their sexual relationship. Anastasia’s a virgin at the beginning of the story, so it’s a bit of a shock to her when Grey asks her to sign a contract to be his Submissive (“The Submissive will agree to any sexual activity deemed fit and pleasurable by the Dominant…”). But she loves him, and tries to accommodate him as best she can without actually signing on the dotted line, proving herself to be an open-minded and precociously skilled lover. “This is wrong,” she tells us at one point, “but holy hell is it erotic.” Christian also provides her with an Appendix listing a wide variety of sexual acts and accessories, ranging from “vaginal intercourse” to “vibrators” to “bondage with tape,” seemingly providing a roadmap for the rest of the book.
But that’s not what happens. Just when the book seems to be settling into its new identity as an erotic adventure story, it turns all novelistic again. Christian Grey’s mother stops by for an unexpected visit, Anastasia has second thoughts about being a Submissive, Christian hints that he was abused as a teenager. The promise that porn usually offers — of pleasure liberated from the social, ethical and anatomical realities that normally restrict our sexual lives — never gets fulfilled. The everyday conventions reassert themselves: Anastasia prefers, on second thought, not be gagged or whipped. She wants romance, she wants tenderness, and most of all, she wants to chat.
In the end, “Fifty Shades of Grey” fails both as a novel and as porn (“Double crap,” as Anastasia likes to say). But in a funny way, this dual failure is probably also one of the secrets of the book’s outlandish success. It’s like Razzles — it’s not gum and it’s not candy, it’s kind of both, and maybe just weird enough to make you suspend your judgment. If you’re uncomfortable with the porn, you can always tell yourself you’re reading a novel. And if you’re bored by the novel, you can always just skip ahead to the sex, in the hope that strange muscles will clench suddenly, and you, like Anastasia, will “feel giddy and tingle all over.” At least for a page or two.