Saturday, July 7, 2012

Reading trash to understand literature treasure

Firstly I will state that I have not read Fifty Shades of Grey.  I also do not have any desire to read it.  Well, there is a definite curiosity...but only to find out if it is as bad as it appears (and has been reviewed) to be.  I don't want to miss out on being able to be specific in my eye-rolls and criticisms.  However, as one reviewer on warned, I am afraid I will not be able to 'unread it.'  I have the feeling I will only feel dirty and in need of a shower after reading it...and not because I am in any way aroused or excited by the story, but because I will feel like I have soiled my own standards of reading acceptable literature.

Secondly, I am aware of the irony of my writing about my distaste for a novel I have not read and that I am giving it credence just by writing about it.  But everyone seems to be talking about it and I would like to be part of the conversation.  And I am a little obsessed with the topic to be honest.  The whole thing is fascinating and frustrating at the same time.

Thirdly, I will acknowledge that this novel has actually created an interesting conversation about erotica fiction (especially for women) and raised debate on the quality of writing and the importance (or lack) of literary value.  It has opened up a whole new dialogue for discussing books and reading and for that reason I have to give it a little bit of credit.  Just a little bit.

I read about Fifty Shades of Grey many months ago when it was first released as an e-book.  Back then I decided not to read it.  Despite much temptation since (a feeling of reading peer pressure) I have still resisted.  Maybe I am a literary snob.  Or maybe I am just not willing to put aside the many other books on my bedside table waiting to be read to read something that I know will make me cringe and continuously roll my eyes (or annoy my husband by having to read a sentence out and then outline all the things wrong about it).  The mountain of reviews I have read or heard on websites, in newspapers and from my friends (who are the reviewers I most trust) have only confirmed my first fears when I read months ago about this 'new erotic fiction' that was taking over the world, putting erotica fiction out into the open.  
My reservations began when I read that it began as fan-fiction, an erotic adaptation of Twilight.  Then when it started receiving positive reviews (or according to some, negative feedback of the sexual nature of the story) from those on the site, E.L James (real name: Erika Leonard) took it off the site and published on her own site, reworking it so it was no longer 'Twilight'. Then publishing it as an eBook which, through blogs and word of mouth started spreading onto the e-readers of many, many women before being published in hardcopy. 
Don't get me wrong, I have read all, and enjoyed at least the first two, of the Twilight series.  But it was Stephanie Meyer's own creation (with influences obviously from other literature).  What James has done is with Fifty Shades of Grey is to make an already created story, including relationships and 'themes,' put them into a new context and added sex.  The skeleton of the story was already there.  I have heard and read many people, who did not know about the fan-fiction connection, comment on how it felt like an erotica (am using the word 'erotica' loosely here) reworking of Twilight.  Now this is not necessarily what I am frustrated about.  Fan-fiction has a valuable role for lovers of writing and reading.  In fact, in my classroom I often ask students to creatively adapt a short story or novel we've read. But these are used as writing exercises and as a way for students to explore writing in different styles and forms.  It is not about going out and publishing it under a pseudonym and thinly disguised as an original piece.  That is what frustrates me.  That this piece of writing is on the bestsellers lists (including New York Times) everywhere!  My friend Suzanne summed it up perfectly when she said it is about "preserving the integrity of literature." 
While I could focus on the many criticisms around its portrayal of women and the sex, I am most interested in the outcry over the poor quality of the writing.  For me this is the most offensive part of its success.  Not the fact that it's an erotic novel, not even the fact that it's a Twilight reworking, or that it seems to be some sort of way for women to openly read something that is 'naughty.'  I just believe that if something is published it needs to be good writing.  It's as simple as that.  Not every genre or published piece of writing is my 'cup of tea' but I respect the writing.  For example,I have a friend who has had a short story published in a magazine in the fantasy genre. I do not enjoy reading fantasy but I have read his story and I know that it is well written and well constructed.  I also know that he has written successfully in that genre.  
So what is Fifty Shades of Grey?  Erotic fiction?  Steamy romance?  Erotica literature?  By definition it appears to be erotic fiction, focussing on sexual acts with the purpose in creating curiosity and arousing the reader.  Usually dealing with different roles and acts in sexual encounters.  So if that is the purpose of the novel then maybe my criticisms of poor writing are too harsh.  Until I read the following reader reviews (on that highlight that even as an erotic fiction it lacks the ability to arouse or incite sexual curiosity. 

The first one is tolerable but as she goes on, they become so unbelievable that it becomes more laughable than erotic. She orgasms at the drop of a hat. He says her name and she orgasms. He simply touches her and she orgasms. It seems that she's climaxing on every page.

Ana and Christian's interaction and relationship comes across more as domestic abuse than a consensual dominant/subservient one, with her inner goddess urging on these unwanted beatings. 

 I had to suspend disbelief at the social and sexual naivete of this twenty-one year-old, but I guess this implied vulnerability makes her more attractive as a romantic heroine. Yet it doesn't take her long to rectify this situation, and soon she is having orgasm after orgasm at the behest of her "dominant" partner, Mr. Grey.

 My tabby cat could write better sex scenes than this woman.

Add in some clumsily-written sex scenes and a whole lot of mostly inaccurate, overblown information about BDSM. Then couch the sex scenes in a whole lot of very boring dialogue and "plot" (mainly consisting of the main characters' emails to each other - is there anything more boring than reading someone else's emails?) so there can at least be a pretense that there is a story here, and that the book isn't just bad BDSM erotica.

I understand that there are many poorly written sex scenes in well-acclaimed literature however I will argue that that was not the purpose of those novels.  If you are writing in the erotic genre surely the one thing you should be able to do is write well about sex!
There are many erotic fiction novels published (you can even download many free erotic fiction short stories through that may not be Pulitzer prize-winning writing but certainly meets their purpose, so what makes this one the trophy of erotic writing?  I imagine there must be many frustrated erotic fiction writers out there watching this quick rise (and money making) of this piece of writing wondering why.  Or maybe they are thankful because it certainly has made the genre visible and popular.  
However if the erotic is to become popular, why can't it be erotica literature, something that has literary merit - where the arousal is not just from the acts but the words and writing as well?  Turn on the brain as well as the libido.  My aforementioned friend Suzanne opened up my eyes to erotica literature through Anais Nin, often regarded as the one of the finest writers of female erotica.  The French-Cuban wrote erotic narratives in the 1940s (many in her collection Delta of Venus) that explore many cultural and sexual taboos with beautiful language and descriptions.  And it can shock you!  

There is a danger in a novel becoming much like a 'blockbuster' movie, when the hype around it is valued more than the its quality.  It's great that women are reading and talking about a book.  It's also great that women can read and talk about erotica in an open forum.  Maybe it says more about the need for there to be better novels that address women's sexuality - how else do we explain how something poorly written becomes a 'must-read?'  But - at risk of totally contradicting this whole piece - it has stimulated positive discussion around the importance of good writing.  Unfortunately this conversation has developed at expense of actually reading good writing.  We've had to read trash to understand literature treasure.

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