On Dirty Books: The Fifty Shades of Grey Phenomenon

When I was 12, I really wanted to buy an issue of Barely Legal. I never thought it was a magazine for teenage girls. No, I knew what it was and imagined it would reveal all the secrets of sex to me so that I would never face the humiliation of asking a girl at a bar mitzvah what sixty-nining was ever again. Today you can Wikipedia sixty-nining and find scans of the very issues of Barely Legal I wanted to buy. I never purchased a single porn mag, despite the fact that I bought magazines constantly and desperately wanted to see one. I was too afraid of a clerk carding me, of having it around, of my parents finding it mixed in with my Archie comics. I was convinced nobody would sell it to me because I looked too young. Even when porn started to become more easily available on the Internet, there was something about hard copies that seemed especially seedy; the black barrier protecting you from seeing the full covers of magazines, the curtained-off “adult” section of the video store. Nobody needs a dirty magazine to see nudity now, and there are barely any video stores left. That is how I know I am becoming old, turning into someone who talks about what things used to be like.

So I was pretty stoked to read Fifty Shades of Grey, the erotic novel currently sweeping the nation and breaking e-reader records while turning on “soccer moms” with spanking and light bondage, and fairly disappointed when it turned out to be as poorly written as critics claimed. Set in Seattle and written by a British mum named E L James, Fifty Shades of Grey creates a fictional seducer named Christian Grey to court a plain-looking stand-in for the reader named Anastasia Steele. Like a suspenseless thriller, it lurches from one unarousing sex scene to the next within the frame of a bizarrely retro courtship. (She meets his parents on, like, the third date?) Christian is based on Twilight‘s Edward Cullen, and shares many of that character’s key traits: remoteness, cruelty, blinding handsomeness, an obsession with complete sexual control. That Edward and Bella don’t consummate their love right away is where much of the Twilight books’ appeal lies. Written for teens, they swim in first-crush feelings, with their intensity and ambiguity, their sense of being completely unreal but more important than anything real. Christian Grey is bland and two-dimensional, hardly the roguish Heathcliff he is supposed to be. And narrator Anastasia is a drip whose most-used exclamation, “Holy crap!,” sucks the sexiness out of much of the book. But the appeal is easy to see. It’s a romantic fantasy about a good-looking man picking you over your prettier, more outgoing friend because he sees some special quality in you that no one else does, and then tying you to the bed to look for it.

I didn’t think about Fifty Shades of Grey other than during the times I was reading it, and this is how I know it isn’t any good. The book isn’t bad enough to be funny, but it isn’t hot enough to be truly fun. However, it does tap into the potential of e-readers, specifically serving and highlighting a female customer base often condescended to by the publishing industry despite their extreme willingness to buy things. I was reading yet another scene of Christian and Anastasia having fiery-yet-emotionally-confusing sex about halfway through the book at brunch in a restaurant when I started to get the appeal. Reading is a private activity. Doing it in public is designed to be arousing. Your brain gets turned on by images and ideas alike, but there’s something especially illicit about text. Maybe it’s because it can be flashed more boldly with less chance of being noticed than watching porn-tubes on your smartphone. Or maybe it’s just how text involves you by stimulating your imagination in a way that visual images don’t. Because of the intimacy you share with yourself, the fantasy becomes personalized. Nobody except my table mates knew I was reading smut while I ate my eggs, and that becomes the turn-on.

Secretly reading erotica on a coverless device like the Kindle is the perfect cheap thrill. Like the tactics employed by the dominating Christian in the novel, the power and much of the excitement comes from keeping it a secret. It reminded me of reading horror novels under my desk during class. Also, I looked, and there are Barely Legal e-books, and they look like exactly what I would have imagined. Girls today have access to pornography the moment they get a computer, but maybe there is still some appeal to keeping certain things clandestine, in passing notes and whispering. It could just be for women who wouldn’t or don’t want to consume regular pornography (with its often degrading sex that doesn’t involve a helicopter tour of Seattle afterward) but still need something to get off to. Tess Lynch used to read me the dirty parts from books like Forever and The Godfather over the phone when we were in junior high. I found myself reading particularly ridiculous parts of Fifty Shades of Grey out loud to people a lot, but it was to defuse how weird I felt reading such a long piece of erotica that I didn’t really enjoy. It just made me want to read better erotica and/or Lolita.

It makes sense that a lowbrow/highbrow device like an e-reader would become legitimized by something resembling a penny dreadful. If you can get inside people’s minds, you’re already halfway into their pants. Hopefully this leads to more and better erotica for e-readers being written, and not just a rush of copycat books with the same glaring flaws. The Internet provides a place to cultivate private preferences and fetishes, and portable tech devices allow us a way to bring that private mental home into the larger outside world. There’s so much potential to make art that bridges the two somehow, especially with the lingering discomfort everyone seems to feel about having their inner and outer selves virtually delineated. If you’re looking for something sexy to read on the subway on your way to work, I don’t think I can recommend Fifty Shades of Grey in good faith. Try Mario Puzo’s The Godfather instead. Great sex scenes.

Molly Lambert is a staff writer for Grantland.

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