Every year breeds its own cultural phenomena. Sometimes, it's a film such as 'E.T. The Extra Terrestrial' that serves as the apex of cultural endeavour. Occasionally, it's a book. Well, 2012 marked the year of the Fifty Shades Trilogy. By May last year, any one who hadn't read or heard about these books was not on the planet. The PR push behind these books helped them to top the bestsellers list in most UK bookstore chains. It was a book that you could happily pick up in most supermarkets off of the shelf next to the latest Richard and Judy Book Club selection. Also it was one of those rare books that people actually passed on to one another. In the age of the Kindle, this essential act will soon be relegated to the Forgotten Land of the Laser Disc, Cassette Tape and Typewriter. Personally, I prefer to hold a product that originated from the flesh of a tree rather than binary coding on an electronic simulacrum of the Ten Commandments but that's beside the point. The point is that a trilogy dubbed 'Mummy Porn' had infiltrated the cultural parlance with a degree more virulence than a new strain of bacteria.
Everywhere you looked you spotted references to 'Fifty Shades' this and that. Many conversations were being conducted by people up and down the country, some behind closed doors and some al fresco by brave advocates of sexual experimentation and by other hopefuls desperate for a last injection of passion into otherwise arid sex lives.
Now, why would a trilogy of this nature capture the public attention at this point in history? This largely rhetorical question can be explored with another more obvious question, why did you choose to read part or all of the trilogy or none of it? I would like you to post an answer to one or both of these questions below as I am genuinely interested.
Ironically, although it had been around for paperback form for awhile, it wasn't until March last year or around that time when I attended one of the book groups I frequent that someone spoke about the trilogy. She expressed that although the books were badly written, they were page turners (well, the first two were, I don't think that she got as far as the final book). Shortly after this, I was at work and a colleague had just finished it and chatted about it a little. I expressed an interest in reading the first book and then over time, I read the others.
Now this blog entry is not intended to give a complete narrative rundown of the Fifty Shades Trilogy, but to sum up, it's the story of Christian Grey, a very wealthy chap in his mid twenties and Anastasia Steele, a student who jumps through a series of hoops and ends up with the seriously disturbed young man. He has a predilection for sado-masochism, which I want to explain now is not the reason why I call him a 'seriously disturbed young man' and is at least initially, a control freak. At some point in the first book, Christian Grey suggests that Ana (as she is more commonly known) sign a contract setting out the type of relationship he wants with her. Of course, he perceives her as the 'Submissive' and he as the 'Dominant'. It's the usual patriarchal crap suggesting how he wants her to behave in certain given situations and even how she dress. As the trilogy continues, the reader learns how he was effectively abused as a teenager and then continued as the 'Submissive' party in a relationship with the abuser. The books also explore the families and friends of Christian and Ana. Christian's brother being quite a nice and conventional guy who the author, EL James fails to develop adequately. Indeed, none of the characters is truly rounded. The worst criticism that can be levelled at the trilogy is the fact that it reads like the works of De Sade without the latter's lunacy, philosophy and personal integrity in his pursuit of the promotion of pain and pleasure.
Having read all of the books that make up the Fifty Shades Trilogy, it succeeds in doing something that I would never have thought possible. It sanitises sado-masochism and renders the sexual act so unerotic that upon finishing it, this reader wondered whether he had missed the point. In fact, I have been told by several female readers that it is because of my gender that 'I fail to get it' owing to the fact that they perceive that it is written for a female readership. I would argue that as a trilogy it ultimately fails to be arousing or titillating because stylistically it is too male. It reads like a stereotypical male sexual fantasy. But and this is an essential fact, not all men want to read about women being restrained and beaten. Although, I will add here, that at least in the trilogy it is largely consensual, particularly when they finally define the boundaries of their sexual practises and relationship outside of the terms of reference of a contract. Ana is never raped by Christian. She performs the odd act that she doesn't like very much but Christian does give her the option to opt out of anything that makes her uncomfortable.
Having said all this, I will add that before anyone feels they have the right to attack the Fifty Shades Trilogy, they should read at least one of the books. My pet grievances involved Ana's continual references to her 'Inner Goddess'. Every time, something significant is going to happen to her on an emotional level, she goes on about her 'Inner Goddess smiling' etc etc etc. Also Ana's thoughts are often registered on the page in italics and her thoughts clearly indicate that sometimes, her command of the English language isn't likely to make her the ideal partner in a debating competition. To say that she thinks banal and pointless thoughts at times is an understatement, 'Oh my...' (Page 39 - Fifty Shades of Grey (Arrow Books, 2012) ). I personally found that the trilogy could have been condensed to one book as this blog entry could have been reduced to one paragraph.
But wait! I forgot the Silver Balls... How could I forget the Silver Balls? Basically, at one point in the Fifty Shades Trilogy, Christian inserts these into Ana's nether regions, which she then carries internally clearly becoming more aroused until she can barely walk or speak coherently. Anyhow, if anyone wants to see the kind of thing that EL James probably had in mind, please see below. Apparently, they are very good for the pelvic muscles, although at the moment, they just feel like a bad case of hemorrhoids!
Anyhow, this blog entry has been mildly excited by Fifty Shades of Grey, Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed (Arrow Books 2012) by EL James.
Barry Watt - 1st January 2013