It is with trembling knees and stomach butterflies that I have decided to offer yet one more analysis of why the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy by E.L. James has become a publishing phenomenon. For those of us in the scribbling trade it cannot be ignored.
It has gained a worldwide audience and garnered more than 7,000 reviews on Amazon with good reviews just edging out bad ones.
Up front, let me offer the disclaimer that I am in the wrong pew, far, far from the target demographic in terms of age, gender and experience of the breathless consumers who have bought and read at least one book of this trilogy.
I read the first, Fifty Shades of Grey, and my comments only refer to that book. My assumption is that the two additional books continue the narrative of the protagonists as they make their way through their domination/submission sexual liaisons.
Essentially, this book purports to be about the search for the holy grail of female sexuality, that illusive pinnacle of pleasure and entitlement for women, achieving orgasm; real, nerve- and bone-shaking ecstasy in the sex act. The irony that pervades this book is that this natural pleasure for females in the physical process of propagation has long been ignored, restricted and surgically banned in some parts of the world, and dismissed by a male-dominated culture from the beginning of time.
While there is some attempt to give the two characters that are the protagonists of this story some rounded dimension, they are essentially stick characters that are manipulated through their paces in the service of the central point the author needs to make to fit the genre. There is nothing unusual in this aspiration. Helping women achieve sexual fulfillment is a worldwide profitable enterprise covering all industries.
Anastasia Steele is a young virgin of 21 about to graduate from college whose dialogue, interests and point of view seem to indicate a much younger female, a teenager on the cusp of womanhood suddenly confronted with the mysterious urges accompanying her entrance into maturity.
For this reason, I would put this book smack into the Young Adult category although it is obvious that the sex descriptions are too raw for such a designation. On the other hand, the female age of so-called consent has gone well below the traditional 18-year-old cutoff.
The male character, Christian Grey, is a fantasy male, gorgeous by every pop standard, a flesh and blood version of Michelangelo’s David, the greatest male specimen on earth. To add to the fantasy, he is a billionaire, captain of industry, master of the universe, the epitome of everything young girls are taught to hunger for; his movements, his smell, the feel of his flesh, the way he dresses. It’s right out of Madison Avenue and TV.
The iteration of these qualities is repetitive and annoying, and it took a great deal of forbearance for this reader to keep plowing ahead.
There is some logic to the Dominance and Subjugation aspects of this story. I’ve researched this activity for a novel of mine in my Fiona FitzGerald mystery series and found that it is a very real subculture whose practitioners believe that such role-playing arouses the depths of sexual pleasure achieved in no other way. What is interesting is that in this story, despite the pain and the weird devices and accouterments of this singular comportment, every aspect of these physical manipulations is depicted in terms of safe sex and healthy living.
Christian Grey insists that his so-called “submissive” eat well, exercise, keep her body in perfect shape, and even offers a legal contract that lists limits to the pain involved in the process. The legal language could make even a lawyer retch. He is careful about the use of condoms and insists on medical supervision and that his “sub” be put on birth control pills. The idea of safe sex for pleasure only, leaving no scars and bad aftereffects is another iteration that grows weary in repetition.
Some have cited the willingness of this young woman to be dominated as the prime reason for the success of the Grey books, theorizing that this is a backlash against the women’s movement that has released the gender from the chains of male domination, meaning that there is a large population of women who would welcome a return to the dynamics of taking the lesser, more subservient role. Baloney. I’ll stand with the most ardent feminists on that one.
Still, despite the mechanical and clichÃ©d plotting and absence of character development, the inane dialogue and the constant repetition, the thematic objective of illustrating the effects and achievement of earth-shattering female orgasms is carefully orchestrated and actually counted. This woman consents to everything suggested by her lover, anything to be able to achieve her orgasmic entitlement. Once she has experienced her first over-the-top experience she will do anything to get to it again and again. Who can blame her?
Indeed, her lover is by any standard superhuman, always ready, with an endless ability to perform.
He is a human vibrator on Viagra, a Satyr on steroids. He is clearly addicted to the dominant role and goes through every manipulation with great skill, enjoyment and unbelievable endurance.
Aside from the callow dialogue and the mechanics of the S and M descriptions of all those weird implements of domination and pain, there is one episode that seems at the very heart of this book’s appeal and perhaps is the flagship scene of its popularity. It describes how Christian takes the virginity of the young woman.
From what I have heard in my long life from women of my acquaintance who dared to offer an opinion, and from what I have read about in books, that first time experience is rarely the height of pleasure. For many young women, so I am told, the rupture of the hymen is a nasty bit of crude surgery, often painful and traumatic, but absolutely necessary for the survival of our species. One has to wonder how the obstacle evolved in the first place. Bible literalists may characterize it as God’s secret message or practical joke.
There seems to be a preponderance of male agreement on this point as well, and I bashfully concur that even for the male it can have its considerable downside.
That said, the scene in which Christian does the deed, skillfully rendered in graphic and explicit terms with no detail left out, resulting in double very deep orgasms for the young woman, is a sexual introduction that has to be every young virgin’s wishful fantasy. This guy knows his business and really revels in the experience. As they say, it may not happen on the stage but it sure as hell happens on the page.
Perhaps it is this scene alone, clinically describing a universal experience in such glowing terms that lies at the heart of the novel’s astounding success.
The book is also ripe for parody and satire, which, for the author, represents a bonus of sorts to keep the books in the public eye. Go figure.
However you judge this genre, which goes by the moniker of erotic romance or “tangy” as the publishers categorize it, there is currently a big appetite for this material. Its popularity tells me that the girls want an equal slice of the pleasure pie. No more faking. They want the real thing. We are in the equal rights era, and why not?
This is the kind of “novel “that plays by its own rules and offers something of obvious value to its mostly female readership. For the uninitiated it can be gloriously instructive and for the more mature it could offer a choice menu of self-help inspiration.
The mystery, of course, is why this particular book has jumped from its genre category into the mainstream. There are surely hundreds of books in this genre and more rolling out every minute. Why this one?
Clearly the moral of this tale for women is: Find your Christian Grey and you’ve won the lottery of a lifetime. Put on your earphones and listen to the drumbeat of the cash register.
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