This is our truth, tell us yours
E L James became something of an internet phenomenon on the back of really clever marketing and a clever premise. The Fifty Shades… series has been hailed as ‘mummy porn’,filling the gap that apparently existed for BDSM that you can read at home and not feel ashamed of reading. Even the Guardian leapt on the bandwagon, although it’s not an elegant leap since they seem to be holding their collective nose and sniffing at the same time.
There is no such thing as BDSM porn. There’s lots of porn that involves BDSM, and there are novels that explicitly set out to tell a story of BDSM, but, once you exclude The Story of O as literature, not porn, then you have no coherent body of work that you can call BDSM porn. There again, I’ve often argued that there is nothing like a coherent body of practice that you can call BDSM, so that’s no surprise.
So what sort of book is Fifty Shades of Grey? First and foremost, if you don’t know anything about where the book came from, the characterization is paper thin and the voice of the heroine is grating, like being stuck in the window seat on a long flight next to an American exchange student devoid of insight or curiosity about anything other than their own experiences. The plot has all the resilience and traction of a soap bubble; you know from the blurb what’s going to happen, and unlss this is the first book you;ve ever read besides the phone directory there’s no creditable sub plot or source of tension to stop you flicking over the pages to the next fuck scene.
There is a half hearted attempt at a romance, and the device of a friend who wants to be more of a friend, but the character drifts in and out of the plot without ever establishing that the heroine is making a choice between the wealthy, urbane Grey and the moody, inconsequential student photographer.
So if the characters are wafer thin, the plot is non-existent and the narrative voice is irritating, is it saved by the sex? Not for me. If you like a kind of BDSM lite, safer than a low fat yogurt and interspersed with chunks of irrelevant detail (Do we need to know what car Grey drives? Or what model of glider he takes her for a flight in?) then this might well be ideal for you. I was hugely bored, and found myself longing for the more honest and, bizarrely, more erotic frisson of a genuine shopping and fucking novel like Pat Booth’s Sparklers – I couldn’t help feeling that S&F was the genre this novel would belong to if its author ever revised it and recognized it for what it is. Mind you, if I was told that even the author didn’t want to read this book more than once I wouldn’t be surprised, but it would make revision impossible.
Lucy Gives It Up For The Boss, on the other hand has less pretentions, less cliches and a lot less clunky prose than Fifty Shades. It’s a classic short porn story that is no better than it ought to be, and immediately engaging and erotic as a result. Of course there’s something cultural about this; I know a lot more people who’ve worked in call centres than I do people who’ve been to American universities who’ve aspired to careers in publishing. So it’s almost inevitable that the voice at the heart of the lucy series rings bells with me, but the sex is also more believable, more immediate and more arousing.
Just as Mills and Boon specialize in romance for people who don’t like real life, so Fifty Shades is porn for people who don’t like BDSM; it’s the literary equivalent of a pair of furry handcuffs and a feather flogger from Anne Summers. Lucy’s adventures on the other hand are more like a one night stand in a council flat in the West end of Newcastle; you may not cherish the moment the morning after, but it’s far more arousing while it’s happening than the synthetic pleasures bought pre-packed.
I’ve no doubt Fifty Shades will sell a lot mroe copies than Jackie White’s books; that says much more about marketing than their relative qualities.