I’m gonna regret many things about this blog post. I’m gonna regret, for a start, the title, and quite possibly, in a few words time, the content. But! Deep breath, let’s have a go…
So. Fifty Shades of Grey. It’s where this blog post began, and in many ways I resent the fact that I’m talking about it, since the whole world is talking about it and frankly, what’s left to be said? However, as the question is arguably bigger than just this one book, and as I’m getting increasingly annoyed by the whole conversation, let’s give it a go.
I’ve read some of Fifty Shades of Grey, while staying at a friend’s house in between shows. I give this context to make it clear that oh no, I do not own a copy, and thus fall into the first trap of the conversation, towit, people are still embarrassed to be caught reading erotica. Which it is. I was going to write ‘let’s not beat about the bush here’, but frankly once you even begin to think too much about erotica, everything becomes a dirty joke, and blood pressures rise and sentences become twisted and you start going but no, what you meant was, actually, what you were trying to say but oh dear and um is that the time and….
… and so on.
So let’s lay this out in sensible, academic terms. I do not, per se, have any problem with erotica. 90% of the time it’s harmless and if people wanna read it, then that’s fine. I find the idea of banning books far, far more offensive than your average bit of erotica, and would go so far as to say that Mein Kampf should not be banned as it is itself an important, repugnant primary historical document. Will nutters buy and read Mein Kampf? Quite possibly. Will people studying the past, seeking to learn from it and prevent it ever happening again, also read this book? Yes. And in it they will find horrifying ideas that shall be rejected outright, and good job too. The thinking is all. I hasten to add that I am not comparing erotica to the works of Adolf Hitler, because that could get really bad, really fast – merely to point out how much I object to saying flatly ‘this kind of book should not exist’. Books should always exist – we should just be sensible in our reading of them.
I would, however, like to take this opportunity to pick up on a distinction made by a semi-feminist podcast I occasionally listen to for reasons which befuddle me; towit, erotica is not porn. I grant you the line is thin and I haven’t made a personal study, but the fairly sensible definition I heard was this – erotica tends to be consensual, sentimental even, whereas porn tends to be about domination, almost invariably of men dominating women. So while I have no objection to erotica, I do get uneasy at the question of porn. Simply because I am not at all sure that you can put the tag line ‘no one was harmed by, with or from the making of this pornographic feature’ at the bottom of it.
There are those who argue that the rise of erotica in our society is, in many ways, a liberating thing. And certainly, if people feel more able to discuss sex and sexuality in a sensible way, then this could perhaps be a good thing, in that not talking about this stuff tends to cause more trouble than its worth. On the other hand, it’s not just two-people (of any gender) -meet-and-have-exciting-sensual-time erotica that seems to be kicking off at the moment, it’s bondage erotica. Look at any train in London and there’ll be an ad for a sub-Fifty Shades of Grey spin-off where the theme is whips and leather, and I dunno, call me a prude (and I’m sure some will) but I get a little worried by this. Because suddenly the sexuality that’s being discussed stops being about two consenting partners freely discussing their sexuality, but violence gets involved. Domination and subjugation. And not just sexually, but emotionally and physically. So fine, if you’re consenting freely, you’re possibly okay, but actually, the tendency seems to be for naive and diffident female meets dominating powerful male and gets whipped and I dunno, that just sets off alarm bells. As for the use of contracts – one partner signing a legally binding document consenting to various sexual practices – that sets off every alarm bell I have, as we immediately walk out of any sort of sentimentality and into harsh capitalist legalism, possibly the least romantic thing I can think of. And suddenly we’re on the edge of that cliff face where erotica becomes porn, and the consequences cease to be fluffy, empowering or generous to its characters, or readership.
Readers of my books will probably have noticed that I don’t spend much time in the way of romance. Actually, that’s not strictly true – I do tend to build in tension and relationships where I can, and it would be fairer to say that I don’t write sex. This is partially because, generally speaking, I think my characters are usually far too stressed and far too busy to pause for a quick snog and a romantic entanglement. Whenever my characters get a chance to breathe, they tend to spend that opportunity loading up on high-calorie food and catching five minutes of a snooze before the next disaster strikes. (This is a problem I’ve always had with certain types of thrillers – just how the hunky heroes find time to shoot five men and then sleep with the girl before storming into a showdown with a deadly baddie, I do not know. Nor why the girl would be relaxed enough, under these circumstances, to engage, is a mystery beyond me. Anyway…)
It’s also true that I don’t write sex in my books, simply because nine times out of ten, it’s just plain rubbish. Certain words I have a strict ban on ever engaging in the same sentence… ‘gushing’, ‘pulsating’, ‘throbbing’ and heaven help us, ‘manhood’ are all things at which I invariably roll my eyes. The temptation on reading passages where all these feature is either to blush with embarrassment or laugh out loud; certainly there’s no great sense of vibrant passions consummated. Do you truly share a character’s sense of blissful fulfillment after such a scene? I don’t. (And as someone wittier than myself once pointed out – where’s all the ‘ow, my arm’s gone to sleep’?)
Finally, there’s the big bugbear I have as a writer. Naturally, all writers resent the success of others, and I’m no different in this regard – I look at Fifty Shades of Grey‘s sales figures and feel a tug of pure envy. Made all the purer, I have to confess, by the fact that we are taking it seriously and we are having conversations about it. I am by no means a ‘purist’ about books – I think they can raise the mind up to explore new ideas, push the boundaries of imagination and understanding, challenge empathy, question humanity – and they can also be tonnes of good fun and this is absolutely vital and important. But the simple truth is, I would rather people read bigger, better and more exciting books. I would like to hand out copies of George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, to distribute the works of Roger Zelazny to commuters on the underground, to say to strangers, ‘have you tried Raymond Chandler?’ and to invite commuters on the bus to marvel at the foresight of Aldous Huxley. There are amazing books out there – so why are we getting so wound up about this?