Grey Without Matter

Publishing’s white knight is BDSM tarted up as novel

Written by Pratik Kanjilal | Published:June 23, 2012 3:45 am

E.L. James’s Fifty Shades of Grey raises so many questions. Like,why am I writing about it at all? It’s mommy porn,isn’t it? Because you gotta do what you gotta do,so tough titty! After flogging 3 million copies in print and e-ink and dethroning Harry Potter in the UK,Fifty Shades may soon come to a multiplex near you. Bret Easton Ellis of American Psycho fame has threatened to write the screenplay,has a cast in mind and his agents are out canvassing studios. Soon,you could be watching British mommy porn among desi strangers,all relaying steamy scenes to friends and family on their mobiles through a faceful of double-butter popcorn.

Leading question: Does this mean that publishing has turned adventurous,even racy? Nope,quite the opposite. Global publishing in English has turned conservative and seeks safe investments. Fifty Shades marks the cusp of its risk management strategy. New poetry,the riskiest form,was banished to the Web a decade ago. The risk of literary fiction,where duds outnumber hits 500 to one,was offset by promoting nonfiction,especially biographies,which offer a predictable market. And now,the white knight is porn,soft on the inside but with a crunchy crust.

That’s what Fifty Shades is,a regular love story tarted up as a BDSM porn saga in which the players are a virgin college kid (naturally) and an older tycoon (naturally) who gently ushers her into his pleasure dungeon. But is it porn? The industry is selling it as erotica.

What’s the difference? In marketing terms,porn is for pimply youths and scabby working stiffs. Erotica is for the middle-aged,middle-spreaded middle class. By that reckoning,Fifty Shades is erotica. In terms of content,porn shows and tells while erotica leaves much to the imagination. This book falls in the wavering no man’s land in between. Qualitatively,erotica aspires to the condition of literature while porn doesn’t care a fig leaf. To draw a cross-media parallel,Last Tango in Paris is erotica,“butter scene” and all,while Larry Flynt’s relentless exertions have produced only porn. Canvas size and treatment matter.

The crucial difference is structural. The focus of porn is event,not plot,while erotica is bare-naked without plot. To recall E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel,“Yes – oh,dear yes – a novel tells a story. That is the fundamental aspect without which it could not exist.”

An important criterion,because Random House,which bought Fifty Shades off an Australian small press and put it on steroids,classified it as literary fiction — a novel,to cut the crap. However,it has no literary value. It even fails the Forster test for novel-ness. What passes for plot is a power play ritual which the sadomasochistic subculture values for reasons inaccessible to the rest of humanity. And James doesn’t draw a single line on the larger canvas,the home turf of the novel.

Don’t let that put you off the book. Who is a reviewer to prescribe how readers should get their kicks? But if Fifty Shades interests you,look at the whole genre. There are gigabytes of similar texts on the internet,uploaded by specialised writers,lovingly reviewed by their fans,and free to access. The biggest collection is the archive of the newsgroup alt.sex.stories,which is almost as old as the internet. It takes only a few clicks there to find stories of far higher literary quality than E.L. James’s work,which is immature,pedestrian and derivative in comparison.

Literary fiction in this genre lives on the net,not snuggled between the covers of copycat mainstream publishing. The Fifty Shades phenomenon is not only coopting readers into publishers’ risk-averse search for the quick but safe buck,it is also cheating them by exacting a price for what they could always read for free.

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