I Wish I had a Safeword for This

First, let’s all take a moment of silence to bemoan the lack of a Pulitzer Prize awarded in Fiction this year. Especially because Swamplandia! was so chock full of imagination and feeling and such beautiful weirdness, and Karen Russell is my Young Author Hero. I kind of want to be her. No, not kind of. I DO want to be her. Writers like her, who are so brilliantly talented and successful in their 20’s, make me loathe this pitiful husk of a writer I’m trapped in and bang my head against the keyboard repeatedly trying to knock the talent out of wherever it’s lodged, shriveled and desiccating, and onto the page. And then there’s David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King, which although I haven’t read it, is almost assuredly awesome because DFW wrote it. DFW really isn’t my thing a lot of the time, but I recognize that he had talent streaming out of every orifice. And then there’s Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams, which I sadly have also not read, but Johnson’s other work I have felt down to the bone, so I’m positive it is amazing and I’m going to read it soon, even though it didn’t win the Pulitzer. But neither did anyone else.

Ann Patchett has some good thoughts on why this totally sucks over at the New York Times.

And yeah, it’s just some prize, a prize that isn’t nearly as important as all the wonderful literature being created out there every day by people who will only ever receive paltry recognition for their immense creative efforts, but Patchett does have a good point in that the prize is a boost for fiction in general because it makes regular people, for a little while, pay attention to and talk about fiction. And not only that, but it also is a celebration of fiction and fiction authors, and they deserve to be celebrated. And also, it provides the winner a nice chunk of change, and lord knows we writers need that.

But maybe, just maybe, all those Easter-readers (like Easter Christians, who only go to church on Christmas and Easter, these readers only read the big prize winners every year) will read all three of this year’s nominees instead of only reading the winner.

Nah, probably not.

Now that I’ve talked about Good Literature, I will move on to talking about what everybody else has been talking about here recently: Bad and Yet Bestselling Literature. Namely, Fifty Shades of Grey.

Not that I’ve read it yet, or ever will. When my house was broken in December, the thief inexplicably took the charger cord to my Kindle, but not the Kindle, which is what I use to read embarrassing things so other people can’t tell what I’m reading and judge me.  Until I get around to ordering a new cord, I will only be reading high-quality literature that I will be proud to display on my bookshelf later, like the aforementioned Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams, which I’ll probably go get from the bookstore later today.

But all this hype and conversation about Fifty Shades of Grey is interesting me. And I love it when books spark conversation, even if the book is poorly written soft-core porn for housewives, in the case of Fifty Shades of Grey. Or, in the case of another recent Bestseller of dubious merit, The Help, revisionist history to make rich white women feel better about the whole civil rights thing. But that’s a different conversation. And, again, I think we can be grateful that at least these books, if deeply flawed, are starting a conversation of any substance at all.

So, the other day, during my early morning exercise regimen of drinking coffee and surfing the internet in bed, a link on The Rumpus led me to a link on Bookslut led me to several other links in various other places all having to do with the general ridiculousness concerning this book my mother had mentioned recently, Fifty Shades of Grey. I remembered my mother calling me and telling me that all of her friends were reading it and talking about how good it was, but she just couldn’t bring herself to do it because the subject matter, a BDSM relationship between a rich and powerful man and a younger woman, disturbed her. Despite my intense uncomfortableness at discussing anything even peripherally related to BDSM, or sex at all, with my mother, I argued that disturbing books are often some of the best books and it could be worthwhile reading. This was, however, the first mention I’d ever heard of the book, so I didn’t know any better. To my knowledge, she still hasn’t read the book, which I’m pretty happy about.

I can’t speak to the quality of Fifty Shades of Grey, not really, cause I haven’t read any more than the preview pages available on Amazon, and I only did that because it felt wrong talking about it without having even looked at it. However, by those pages alone, I feel comfortable saying that this book is indeed the poorly written soft-core porn people are making it out to be. Let me give you some shiny romance novel nuggets from the first chapter alone:

“I’m confounded and heated by his steady gaze.”

“As our fingers touch, I feel an odd exhilarating shiver run through me.”

“I blink rapidly, my eyelids matching my heart rate.”

“His voice is warm and husky like dark melted chocolate fudge caramel. . . or something.”

Now, the “or something” at the end of that last incredibly trite and over-wrought sentence does tell me that E L James is at least aware that she is writing an erotica novel, and poorly at that, and can’t come up with an original simile to save her life. (She thankfully admitted her self-knowledge that she is “not a great writer” in a Today Show interview on Tuesday.) I am comforted by this. There’s nothing wrong with erotic novels in my opinion, unless you try to pass them off as Good Literature. In fact, I have even thought about churning out some mindless, titillating erotica under a pen name to make some rent money, myself. It couldn’t possibly be that difficult.

But I digress. It is not the book itself I have a problem with, but the crazy ridiculousness that one particular journalist had to say about it.

Not surprisingly, this journalist was the Head Galactic Empress of All Ridiculousness, Katie Roiphe, in her cover piece for Newsweek that you’ve probably already heard about somewhere else on the internet. Basically, Roiphe seems to be suggesting that feminism and partaking in or fantasizing about BDSM situations are diametrically opposed. . . but possibly somehow related? Because the dominance of women in our contemporary culture may somehow be causing the recent interest in sexual submission? Because powerful women need a break from all that stressful power, all that exhausting striving for equality, and so need to have some big man spank us to take a little vacation? And I’m not even paraphrasing that much.

Katie Roiphe say WHAT?!

By way of evidence, Roiphe provides only Fifty Shades of Grey, an episode of HBO’s Girls,and that movie nobody saw where Freud spanks Kiera Knightly.

If you haven’t yet, you should probably never ever read Roiphe’s essay, unless you just have 10 minutes of your day that you’re dying to waste, or if you are a masochist (and also female), in which case Katie Roiphe will suggest it’s because “the more theatrical fantasies of sexual surrender offer a release, a vacation, an escape from the dreariness and hard work of equality.” Because, gosh darn it, isn’t it just so hard for us gals to put all that effort in to being as good as men every day?

This assertion is ridiculous on so many counts that I’m not going to even start to get into them, except to point out the incredibly obvious:

Hey Katie Roiphe! Daily life is always dreary, and any sort of sex is always a release, and it has nothing to do with being male or female, a fry cook or a high-powered business exec, a submissive or a dom or a Furry or whatever freaky or vanilla way you like to do it. And the reason BDSM has apparently become “so popular” in mainstream entertainment (as in, it has appeared in very mild form in one book, a TV show, and a movie), is simply because people are becoming less of total prudes and finally starting to talk about the stuff that’s been going on in people’s bedrooms all along.

So we know what is up with all those female submissives (hard day of achieving gender equality at work), but what about all those men who like to be tied up and lick some black vinyl dominatrix boots once in a while? Oh wait, in Katie Roiphe’s world, there are no male submissives, or at least, she makes no mention of them. Nothing in Roiphe’s essay even hints at the fact that there may be men into submission, too. Which leads me to ask: who’s subscribing to traditional gender roles now, Roiphe?

If Roiphe is aware that there are male submissives (because how can she not be? despite all evidence to the contrary, she does have a brain), she chooses to completely gloss over their existence. The only reason I can see for her doing this is because it was inconvenient to the point she was trying to make about feminists. Feminists who are apparently only allowed to be on top or have incredibly equal sex, which I suppose would be both people laying on their sides and facing each other. Or spooning-style. But maybe not, because if the man is the big spoon, is that giving him power over the little spoon, the woman? WHAT HAVE WE FOUGHT FOR ALL THESE YEARS, SISTERS!?!

Another point Roiphe glaringly ignores is that it is actually the submissive that holds the real power in a BDSM relationship. They are only putting themselves into a submissive position becausethey want to. They allow it. They derive pleasure from it. And it only goes on as long as they permit it to. As soon as the dom starts venturing into territory they’re not okay with, the sub yells out “HIPPOPOTAMUS” or whatever their safeword is, and the game ends. Submissives have the real power, and the lack of power is just a fun charade that gets both parties off.

Did you consider that, Katie Roiphe?

I also find it amusing that people are getting so hot and bothered about the scandalous BDSM in this book, which is about the most vanilla BDSM I’ve ever heard of that still dares claim the title.

Also, just because women are devouring this book on their e-readers doesn’t mean that they are then going out to purchase a riding crop for recreational home use. Maybe some of them are, and good for them opening their minds past missionary and trying to find out what they like. Sadly, though, I suspect a lot of these women are chickening out before they turn off their minivan in the parking lot of the sex shop. Or they’re reading it for the same reason millions of women devour romance novels every year, making romance the top-selling fiction genre in the U.S. even without blockbusters like Fifty Shades of Grey: because it’s porn classed-up in book binding, and Americans–even American ladies–love their porn.

I am also not surprised to find out that this book originated as Twilight fan fiction. Not kidding. That’s a fact. Think about it: set in the moody and overcast Pacific northwest, featuring a suave, powerful, dangerous, how-on-earth-is-he-so-beautiful male protagonist and a clumsy, powerless, whiny, self-depreciating female protagonist with hair that just won’t behave! It’s Twilight except with the fangs taken out and replaced with leather cuffs and spankings. So naturally the same slurpers of mass culture who devoured Twilight would eat up Fifty Shades of Grey. And don’t even get me started on Twilight, that angsty saga that promotes unhealthy, obsessive teenage relationships and also marriage and babies straight out of high school. Cause who needs college when you’re in love (or a vampire)?

But, again, I haven’t read Fifty Shades of Grey. I’m sure it’s a fun read, and there’s nothing wrong with enjoying it, and I’m glad it has stirred up conversation about usually taboo topics. However, I also wish that these thousands of women who are reading Fifty Shades of Grey would take a break from their bedroom experimentation and throw some love toward all the really good books out there, the non-bestselling ones and the non-Pulitzer-Prize-winning ones that are nonetheless freaking excellent and much more worth their time.

And don’t worry, ladies, some of them even have sex scenes.

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4 thoughts on “I Wish I had a Safeword for This

  1. The worst part is that there are people who are decent writers who have taken on similar subject matter and been overlooked… Anne Rice did one combining BDSM with the story of Sleeping Beauty that was well-written (in fact, my frustration when I picked it up thinking it was more fairy tale than pr0n was that I wished that more books would be as well-written/edited as that one). But of course the one that’s a Twilight fan-fic would be the one that would get famous…

    • Yes, Grace! Exactly. That is a source of great annoyance for me, as well. Unfortunately, I’m not sure if the readers of books like Fifty Shades are in it for anything other than the bodice-ripping (or pleather corset ripping, in this case?) and steamy thrills. If a novel was getting too literary on them, if it started making them think about things other than foreplay, I fear they might just flip ahead to the sex scenes. Like you say, there are many well-written works of fiction (or non-fiction) out there that tackle the same or similar subject matter and are worth so much more. Maybe the problem is just that the majority of readers are only in it for more fantasy fodder, and formulaic, mindless speed-reads like Fifty Shades are the most efficient way to get it. And that’s a problem I don’t know how to fix.

      What’s the title of the Anne Rice work you’re talking about? I haven’t read much Rice, which is shameful since I live in New Orleans, but I love it when writers make their own adaptations of fairy tales. Speaking of, have you read the story collection “The Bloody Chamber” by Angela Carter? Pretty amazing.

      • It was called “The Claiming of Sleeping Beauty,” although she wrote it under a pen name. I read it when I was going on a fairy tales retold kick without realizing what it actually was, and only the very beginning really seemed to pay homage to the original fairy tale. At the same time, it seemed like proof that erotica could be well-written when I previously had dismissed the genre.

        I haven’t read “The Bloody Chamber,” but I’ll check it out!

  2. Pingback: I know I am part of the problem, but after this can we have a media storm about a Good Work of Literature already please? « claire writes stories

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