Fifty shades of pop porn

August 10, 2012

Passing through the maze of lounge chairs at the beach or pool this summer, one best seller and its sequels appear like spots under beach umbrellas; black-sheened paperbacks in the hands of plenty of reclining, rapt women.

Anything that resembles narrative or character in the Fifty Shades series, which starts with the title novel Fifty Shades of Grey, is forgone to get to the meaty stuff; that is, the sex. Our heroine, who is at times compared to the naïve beauty from Tess of the D’Urbervilles (a solitary well-employed allusion in the series), chooses the chiseled, sexy, young Christian Grey for her first, but definitely not her last, sexual experience. Skip to the revelation about Grey’s preferences in the bedroom, and within a hundred pages she is tied up, roped down, spanked, lashed and beaten in the pursuit of Grey’s satisfaction.

 

It is little surprise, then, that in the craze to read Fifty Shades, women have opted for the e-book version almost as often as they have for the paperback. In the U.S., the book has sold about 10 million copies in each category, passing the 20 million sales mark in July. But are people – women, especially – actually enjoying the book, or is the title simply enjoying a short-lived period of wild popularity? Within these questions another, older, question is buried: What makes a woman want to read a novel?

It is difficult to gauge who among the readers of the Fifty Shades novels are actually fans. The bad writing, the transgressive sex, and even the length of the books are points of many casual reviews on the Internet. Others see qualities to like in the novels. Roxane Gay, who wrote about them for The Rumpus, calls the series “a modern fairy tale with a dark, erotic twist.” So much has been said (a cursory search of the Huffington Post for “Fifty Shades of Gray” turns up thousands of pages of content) that it is difficult for anyone not to have a vague notion of the book’s content by now.

This may be part of the anomaly of the book’s success. Sales of the series accounted for 20 percent of adult fiction sold in the spring, according to Nielsen BookScan. One woman I talked to had put the first book down for good after reading a particular line that cannot be reproduced here about what Grey wanted to do to the protagonist’s mouth. For others, the bad writing was a turnoff. “I don’t believe anyone ever said ‘holy cow’ at the moment of her first orgasm,” said author Erica Jong in a recent panel in New York about the book’s effects on sexual culture.

The series’ unique popularity presents an opportunity to view the thousands of (mostly women) readers in the way that women have historically been regarded as readers of novels, and ask a question that academics have been trying to answer for decades, which is not only why do women read novels, but how?

The question has been ripe for academic study. The first consumers of novels in pre-industrial England were women, because they were the gender that was at home, and home is where people read novels. Even after their popularity exploded and crossed gender lines through serialization and the rise of popular fiction through dime novels for boys and men at the turn of the 20th century, women maintained a strong grip on the form. Maxine Rose Schur, in her introduction to the journal accompaniment to The Reading Woman: A Journal, describes women of the 19th century choosing to read popular works to “allow their hearts to beat not only a little more quickly, but also in rhythm with the hearts of others.”

Generally the post-modern woman has eschewed the notion that she needs to read in order to escape the domestic sphere, which is one reason that Fifty Shades has been referred to frequently as “Mommy Porn.” However for much of the previous century, researchers found that more women than men were reading novels, and that a significant reason for this was that it was a form of personal escape.

Janice Radway found that in the 1980s middle-class women were reading romance novels as a “compensatory activity;” in many cases, compensating for a lack of support and affection in their own daily lives.

A 2000 report by researcher Steven J. Tepper says that socially conditioned ideas of gender and leisure are most responsible for more women reading fiction than men. “Not only do men and women have different preferences for the types of books they read, but women, on average, read a greater variety of books and spend more time reading than men,” said Tepper.

 

If socially conditioned notions of leisure time play a big part in women’s reading habits, then the desire to read in a private space is easier to understand. If women read novels more often, then it might be the case that they are spending a larger portion of their leisure time in private spaces. In these spaces racy material like Fifty Shades can be explored and considered outside of the gaze of their spouses, children, or other sober onlookers.

The unclear connections between the books’ merits and the huge readership say something about the trust women place in their curiosity. It is entirely possible that many women are picking up the book after hearing about it from their circle of friends or reading about it, and then putting it down after finding they are not in the market for the sexual content, or they cannot hang on with the substandard writing.

The argument that the books may be re-engaging many women in their sex lives with their partners is a very plausible one. Fifty Shades is in no way comparable to the quick and careful prose of D.H. Lawrence, or even to the 1954 novel about the initiation of a sexual submissive, Story of O. However, some women are finding that the details of role play and submission are making their own bedroom more interesting. The only thing connecting these novels is that women take something from them after engaging with them in private – in the case of Fifty Shades, this is something more practical than spiritual. That can be as meaningful or as pointless as any individual reader makes it.

In the end, many women are simply coming to terms with the fact that they are consuming some pretty intense soft-core porn. Which is fine, if you’re into that. The books may provoke the most interested to seek out more (and better written) pornographic novels to bide their time. It is unlikely, however, that more women who would not previously have crossed the boundary to the S&M sexual world will do so now after reading the Fifty Shades series. The effects of the fandom of the books are likely to fade quickly. Those who see this book on the best-seller shelf at Barnes & Noble or Walmart find themselves making a strange kind of choice: whether to trust the group or not.

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