The act of eating in a story reveals something about the characters. Eve biting the apple. Oliver Twist’s “please sir, I want some more”. We all know what it’s like to feel hunger. We all know the heady, sensual pleasure of tucking into a beautiful meal much like we all know the heady, sensual pleasure of tucking into a beautiful person. The writers that do sex well take advantage of this familiarity. They engage the reader’s imagination through well-developed characters that generate their own tension. They use these key ingredients to take their reader on a journey from rising hunger to satiation (or lack thereof). Sex is powerful, and believable, when it’s the expression of some deeper tension. Good sex can therefore be a commentary on social conditions or an exploration of the vices, virtues, and paradoxes that form humanity.
In the Marquis de Sade’s Philosophy in the Bedroom, written in the middle of the French Revolution, sex, without constraint and free of moral coercion, represents the values of a post-revolutionary state. The cast of characters embody either the new order or the old order. Eugénie and her mother, Madame de Mistival, are the self-righteous and entitled nobility. They are the oppressions of the monarchy. The libertines are the revolutionary masses, fighting for a new order. The corruption (“education”) of young Eugénie is brutal and confronting, much like the act of revolution. Through this corruption the new exerts dominance over the old, and the young girl, who would have grown up in the image of her mother, becomes a victory for the cause.
The infamous quote “let them eat cake” is often attributed to Marie Antoinette, even though there is no proof of her ever uttering it. The anecdote of the great princess who made the reply upon hearing that the peasants had no bread appears in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Confessions, written when Marie Antoinette was a child. These facts do not matter. What does matter is the effectiveness of this myth in illustrating how disconnected the nobility was from the plight of people.
The suggestion to eat cake is, in this context, an indictment of the ruling class. Sex, in Philosophy in the Bedroom, is violent rebellion against the ruling class and oppression.
Our values are reflected in our tastes. Even, or perhaps especially, at the most basic level the things that arouse our appetites can be very telling. Sugar is falling out of favour. There is a slowly rising awareness of the abuse implicit in the mass production of meat. We are turned on by the nutritious and the wholesome. We read food labels. We count calories.
Every now and then we sneak out into the night for a clandestine assignation with a greasy hamburger or piece of fried chicken.
People have complex relationships with food and sex because hunger is vulnerability. Skilled writers understand this power — in good writing eating an apple is not just about eating an apple.
If you are after sex and/or perversion, there are many writers you could turn to. The Marquis de Sade covered the range from titillating to twisted pretty comprehensively. Pauline Réage’s (aka Anne Desclos) The Story of O addresses the topic of female sexual submission, Anaïs Nin explores sexual taboos, and Vladimir Nabokov takes it all one step further into sexual predator territory. There’s also Henry Miller, if you like your porn with a social commentary, and DH Lawrence, if you like it with a pipe and a glass of port.
Bad writing lacks a deeper conflict. People enjoy it, much like junk food, for the easy, quick fix. Over 100 million people (and counting) have turned to 50 Shades of Grey for their kicks. I was recently given a free copy of the novel and after carefully disinfecting (Dettol, holy water), I eventually got to reading it.
Is it good literature? Not so much.
Does it matter? Nope.
It is obviously bad when compared to novels where the prose is a goal in itself. But the only goal of this novel is to turn you on. Not to dazzle with metaphors, or immerse readers in a sense of place, or define a point in time through the experience of one character. Calling this novel out on being badly written is like calling a porn flick out for not having enough character development.
It has also been noted that the bad prose might have contributed to the novel’s success by making it more accessible. It’s the equivalent of attending a lecture on world famine delivered by clowns. Yes, the topic is heavy but Honk! Honk!The words in the book are nothing more than a giant finger meant to get the reader off. You don’t want the reader to have to stop, mid ecstasy, to find their dictionary. The bad prose also adds continual comic relief — hundreds of pages of blatant physical and emotional abuse would be pretty heavy going without the odd “Holy cow! Check out that erection!”
The book is all about kinky sex, for a mainstream audience. While the topic is risqué in theory and while various BDSM paraphernalia is mentioned, the final effect is far less salacious than you’d expect (or want). The topic and the whips and handcuffs are just props meant to hint at darkness and depravity while giving it a wide berth. That’s fair enough. Like many other things in contemporary culture, it’s a watered down approximation of the real thing to suit bourgeoisie tastes. It’s decaf, gluten free perversion, naturally sweetened and surprisingly wholesome.
Ostensibly people are getting off on kinky sex. But the themes that draw attention to themselves are not sexual. The bits that stick out, much more than Mr Grey’s impressive erection, centre on values.
Any fiction that sets up its protagonist as a kind of superhero, whether it is romance or crime, must name their super-powers. Sherlock Holmes has super deductive (or rather inductive) abilities; Elizabeth Bennet has her wit. These are the value-adding qualities that set the characters apart and that make them appealing to both other characters and the reader. Generally, these are qualities that are currently valued by society.
50 Shades of Grey’s Anastasia Steele is a smart, modern, educated young woman. That would make for an interesting character. But the attempt to add value by also making her all things innocent set her up more as a victim than a hero. The novel follows a standard will-she-won’t-she trajectory: will she allow herself to be beaten for somebody else’s sexual gratification? Spoiler alert: yes, she will (but she does draw the line at anal fisting). Her “innocence” only serves the purpose of adding tension by making her a more elusive prey. She is the cartoon chicken drumstick.
A smart, independent female lead that decided she wanted to experiment with BDSM would have been interesting. A smart, independent female lead that really doesn’t, but does anyway, is less so.
Why does she? Because Christian Grey — the dominating and worldly counterpoint to Anastasia’s submissive and naïve — is super wealthy and attractive. These are the value-adding attributes to Christian’s character. It is often mentioned just how wealthy and attractive he is, as if the writer sensed that without this caveat it would be less sexy-time and more 3–5 years’ time, for assault, battery, and breaching restraining orders.
If we substitute all the sexing in the novel with eating, it would equal hundreds of pages of Anastasia forcing down gold-leaf truffles. She doesn’t really want to, but they are just so pretty and opulent.
A version of 50 Shades of Grey where Mr Grey is ugly and poor would be interesting (see Part 2).