I just finished reading Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James and, try as I might, I couldn’t learn to like it. Like Twilight before it, I’m having a difficult time understanding how so many people (ok, mostly women, but I could be wrong) can read it without their suspension of disbelief crashing to the floor on every other page. I had to keep scooping mine up, glueing it back together, and forcing it back into the story.
Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy a good sex scene as much as the next consenting adult, and it’s a rare pleasure to read a book that mixes a good story with tantalizing glimpses of candid intimate couplings (particularly some flavor I haven’t experienced before), but this isn’t one of them.
For example, one of my favorite sex scenes (in print) is in the sci-fi thriller Thirteen by Richard Morgan: The main character finally gets his chance with the smart, sexy, powerful woman he’s been lusting after for the last 200 pages, but as he’s going down on her, she accidentally jams him in the chin with her knee. The scene feels real because of that one mishap: it could happen. And, hey, he still manages to make her happy. But I digress.
There are parts of Fifty Shades that are very good: the scene where she describes Mr. Grey’s hard-on as steel encased in velvet, for instance, and the clever word-play in some of the email exchanges (and that they use contraception every single time). But overall, I found the writing to be careless: there’s only so many times a character can say “jeez” before I get annoyed. Thirty-seven is too many. (Where was the editor?) And not just one character, but ALL the characters say it. Jeez.
And the author wants me to believe that an intelligent, 22-year-old woman graduating from college with a degree in literature (and hoping to get a job in publishing) doesn’t have her own computer or smart phone? Right. Don’t even get me started on a twenty-something that has NEVER masturbated, never been touched by a man, and doesn’t kiss using her tongue (but is drop-dead beautiful). This woman is not naïve, she’s blind, deaf, dumb, and painfully unimaginative. Mr. Unbelievably Gorgeous, Smart, Generous, Well-Mannered, Pilot, Pianist, Painter, Sailor, Dancer, Chef, Art Critic, Wine Snob (white wine?), Computer Expert, and Self-Made Billionaire CEO isn’t going to believe she’s for real (a clumsy, computer illiterate, hardware store clerk, moocher?)
Of course, he can come three or four times in quick succession, knows when she’s going to (very quickly) orgasm (and controls it with nothing but his penis), loves to spend hours watching her sleep, and can easily carry her around when she’s bad (or drunk). Does this sound like Twilight to you, too? What is it with women wanting that sort of fawning pabulum from a man? This isn’t fantasy, it’s daycare.
I also found the book to be poorly edited. But I’m a writer, so maybe I’m pickier than most. Still, no one likes to fall out of the story because the author (and the copyeditor, damnit) left a prepositional phrase hanging at the end of a sentence: “Therefore, she cannot attend the interview she’d arranged to do, with some mega-industrialist tycoon I’ve never heard of, for the student newspaper.” But I digress, again. Sorry. 🙂
Okay. So it’s fantasy. Doesn’t have to be true. Or even possible. I get that. But for me, it has to be believable. Just like watching porn on the internet, the goal of an erotic book is to grab you at a gut level and make you want to participate: The characters are gorgeous, the setting exciting, the props enticingly dangerous. Most of us lead pretty regular, predictable lives and a little teasing is nice. (Don’t you agree, Will?) No one gets hurt or fired or divorced because they read about sex, so what’s the harm?
Maybe nothing. Maybe a lot.
I could be wrong, but I think the reason the books have sold so well is that most women have NO REAL EXPERIENCE to compare the book sex to (and the men don’t have much either, for that matter, so we have faked sex with mindless, reluctant women who come when you flick one of their nipples, and men who are rich, gorgeous, sex gods). Why is that?
Women (and a lot of men) are told their whole lives that sex is bad (and dirty), that men are raging, lustful beasts (who can’t control themselves, and can’t be expected to), and that women don’t enjoy (and most definitely do not crave) experimental sex. In fact, they submit to sex (as little as possible) to keep their husbands from running off with a more-attractive younger woman and leaving them with the kids and house payments.
It’s what young women (and men!) see in movies, read in books, are taught in school, preached about in church, and warned about by their equally frustrated and inexperienced mothers: sex is evil, demeaning, dirty, embarrassing, and not something “good girls” want (or should enjoy.) Then all of a sudden (or perhaps after years of frustration over doing laundry and dishes with no gorgeous billionaire in sight), women discover that hot, exciting, on-the-edge sex IS what they want, but the only way to get it is in poorly written books where the women are forced into sex acts they fear, and the men never get inconveniently soft. So we have middle-aged women, with saggy butts and slumping breasts (and husbands that aren’t looking so good either) who realize they’re never going to get what they want: it’s too late (and too dangerous) to be sowing wild oats once you have a husband, kids, a house, a dog, and soccer snacks to deliver. Now what?
Here’s the good news: A bunch of new research seems to support the controversial idea that women actually want and need sex (maybe more than men), and what we need to do now is figure out how to make it culturally acceptable for women to enjoy (and experiment with) sex before they commit to buying little bags of chips and gatorade.
Throughout history, instead of experimenting when they are young and uncommitted, young women are expected to button up all those “antisocial” desires and act like a lady (except when they’re in bed with their inexperienced and naïve husband who doesn’t have a clue how to satisfy them. Is there any woman out there who hasn’t faked an orgasm?) Even now, a young woman who admits to craving sexual diversity is a dangerous, family-destroying misfit (and up until very recently, was considered to be in need of psychological treatment.) Houston, we have a problem.
For those who haven’t read Fifty Shades of Gray, the sexual tension (i.e. relationship) is all about dominance and submission. The man is the Dominant and wants the women to be the Submissive (including kneeling on the floor in front of him for hours). Once again, I don’t have a problem with consenting adults, but it doesn’t feel right to me. So I wonder: Why are rape fantasies such a common female turn-on? Because most women don’t have enough experience to separate the fantasy from the reality. If they had ever been in a situation where a man they despised forced himself on them (or hit them), I think their fantasies might be different. Mine are.
So here’s the rub: It’s not the getting “taken” that’s so attractive, it’s the having great, forbidden sex (with a man you find unbearably attractive, rich, and talented in bed) and not being forced to admit that you wanted it all along. (Good girls don’t have sex with strangers unless forced to do so.) The man takes sexual pleasure from you against your will (so we don’t have to admit we want sex), and he is insatiable (so we don’t have to be). How convenient. Couldn’t we just be honest here and say that sex is natural, normal, and necessary for both men AND women? No rape needed.
My real problem with the book has nothing to do with the author’s spotty writing ability and everything to do with what the novel’s success has to say about What Women Want (and why they’re not getting it in Real Life.) Some people may prefer two score and ten shades of gray, but I prefer millions of colors — not all of which are gorgeous, rich, or sexy, but taken together, make something satisfying, genuine, and seductive.
But it would still be nice to have the helicopter to get to the soccer games.