Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Lecherous, lewd, libidinous: An analysis of Fifty Shades of Grey

The first thing you should know is that I did enjoy this book. I’m a proponent of the idea that enjoyment of a literary or cultural product ≠ the product’s quality. Fifty Shades of Grey reads like it was written; I was rarely unaware of the fact that I was reading a novel. It did not disguise its own artifice and constructedness. Nevertheless, it engrossed me and I wanted to keep reading it, no matter how many times my “inner goddess” said “WTF?”

It is a greatly titillating novel. One of those books you feel naughty reading in the company of others. Like the time I read some of Fanny Hill with my family in the room and felt really embarrassed. E-readers are excellent for improved subject secrecy. Is Fifty Shades “porn?” Yes. By the definition of that it “must have the power to be or be intended to act as an aphrodisiac – that is, to excite sexual passions or desires” it is most certainly pornographic (H. Montgomery Hyde, A History of Pornography).

I finished Fifty Shades of Grey by E L James a few weeks ago and have been stewing ever since. I wanted to let my reactions simmer for a while before attempting to articulate my feelings. This post is only responding to the first book, as I haven’t yet read the next two. I like to know what people are talking about when it comes to new, exceedingly popular books (and book series). I decided to read Fifty Shades very quickly after first hearing the hype, before learning too much about the premise and getting reactions. All I knew about the novel was very basic: my mom had asked me, for instance, “have you heard about this book? The one all about sex?”

All about sex certainly doesn’t cover it, though.

First of all, I wish I had read the book without looking up the gender of the author. More on this later.

Fifty Shades of Grey is to popular conceptions of Bondage Discipline Sadism Masochism (BDSM) practices what Moby-Dick is to whaling. Not a helpful analogy for some of my friends? Fifty Shades basically feels like a dictionary/ textbook of BDSM practices. You still don’t necessary understand the principles, but you’ve learned a lot of jargon. One wonders about the inspiration, and if James gleaned this information from her personal life or from Wikipedia.

The basic premise is about a young, soon-to-be college graduate (of English literature – more on this later) in Washington state named Anastasia (Ana) Steele who, although inexperienced, virginal, generally clumsy and obtuse (or maybe…because?) attracts the attention of a (*deluge of adjectives ahead*) fabulously wealthy, successful, handsome, sexy, well-dressed, intelligent, controlling, confusing, brooding, CEO named Christian Grey. He pursues her, not to be his girlfriend, or even sex friend, but the submissive (sub) to his dominant (dom) in a BDSM relationship.

As Christian is wealthy and famous, he wants Ana to sign a non-disclosure agreement as well as a contract about their agreed upon activities and “arrangement.” The latter isn’t so much having to do with privacy, but because the dom-sub relationship relies upon previously established limits including everything from what kinds of bondage equipment can be used and how, to what kinds of pain punishment, to who can put what where, etc. A large portion of the novel involves negotiation and discussion about limits and recapitulation of the details of the contract...over and over again.

This arrangement isn’t just about getting to whip or spank or bind a submissive sexual partner – it’s about not having to discuss it in the moment. That would break the illusion and compromise the integrity of the arrangement. Who wants to be in the “playroom” and have to ask “can I do this?” There is no asking once the…performance of roles begins.

As a feminist, generally and literarily, I had many automatic reactions to the power dynamic developed in the novel. And very little of these reactions had to do with any prejudice against BDSM sexual practices (because I have none) or the woman playing the submissive sexual role. It’s how the dom-sub roles prevail into every aspect of these characters’ non-sexual lives (if you can even separate them) and how Ana is completely, utterly, enthralled by Christian to the point of witlessness. He tries to control every aspect of her life and often succeeds.

Fifty Shades of Grey is hyperbolic to the point of irritant. This isn’t a sort-of well-to-do young man who is a control freak in every aspect of his life and so, thus, in the bedroom as well – Christian flies helicopters and private jets and buys Ana a laptop, smart phone, and car as part of his control over all aspects of her life and well-being (and his accessibility to her).

Side note: While it’s perfectly plausible that a university student in 2011 can not have a cell phone, and maybe, maybe not even own a laptop (she apparently uses her roommate’s and goes to the library), Ana doesn’t even have an e-mail address before Christian sets one up for her. And this girl wants to go into the publishing industry straight from her four-year undergraduate degree in English – and gets an internship, despite how bumbling, inarticulate, and mediocre we’ve already learned she is. The only evidence we have that Ana has benefited from her literature education is that she knows about Tess of the D’Urbervilles. ANYWAY.

I’ve never been so irritated by a first-person character narrator. James’s writing consists of finding a gimmick and overusing it to the point that it becomes tired and infuriating. Ana’s “inner goddess” descriptions may be the most frustrating narratological creation of all time. We can only assume “inner goddess” is code for “shred of dignity.”

Another overused gimmick is the repetitive e-mail correspondence between Ana and Christian. While a novel written in 2011 can and perhaps should include real life Internet-age communication and technology, certainly for realism, the initially cute transcription of e-mails between them goes too far, recalling writing notes back and forth with your crush in junior high, except these notes include discussion of whether or not to allow fisting.

I’m not into censorship and I’m not against written pornography and erotica (if you read my previous post you’ll know I like to study it). That being said, I do hope that no one without sexual experience reads Fifty Shades of Grey and is wildly mislead in their expectations. A digest of some of my issues:

1.     Anastasia is a virgin before she has sex with Christian; not only is she able to achieve orgasm incredibly early in her sexual career, she is able to do so vaginally. Ana has allegedly never masturbated, either. I suppose Christian is supposed to be that good? (And then every guy felt inadequate).
2.     Christian has virtually no refractory period. None. (And then every guy felt inadequate).
3.     Ana is 21-years-old and seems to have had no real sexual feelings prior to being awakened by Christian. For a novel published in 2011, this sounds rather Victorian to me. The novel perversely reinforces the nineteenth-century view of women as “passionless” until men provoke and arouse their sexual desire. (Nancy Cott, “Passionlessness: An Interpretation of Victorian Sexual Ideology, 1790-1850”).

Anyone with a modicum of feminist leaning will react strongly to the obvious issues of the book. The female is in the submissive role: sexually, intellectually, financially…it goes on. The power gap is extremely exaggerated.

I questioned how I would have reacted if the novel portrayed a rich, powerful woman seeking a naïve young man as the submissive to her dominant. That didn’t really fix anything for me, though. We learn that Christian started his BDSM career as the submissive to an older woman. The dynamic can and does work both ways.

Then I wondered what the book would have been like if Christian had sought Ana to be his dom. That would have been ridiculous as Ana, as she is portrayed, is passive and inexperienced, and it certainly seems more fitting to introduce someone to this world in the passive role. I don’t think the dynamic really works if the dom doesn’t derive great sexual gratification from BDSM.

Then I reprimanded myself for having a knee-jerk response that deems this a misogynistic or anti-feminist creation. Criticizing something based on an obvious, superficial feminist reading is not usually my style.

I questioned: why would I automatically expect a woman writing in 2011, writing a novel that apparently started as a fan fiction response to Twilight, to have a feminist perspective? If I had read the novel under the impression that James was a man, it would have almost (almost) permitted some of the ridiculous depictions of Ana’s sexuality and self-concept. I dont know Jamess intentions or ideologies, but things can be and often are - written to show the world as it is, not as it should be. How do I know James didnt write this book to show a relationship she personally deems ridiculous and unhealthy? To educate young girls about the dangers of hot sex with a sadistic man? I doubt it, but who knows.

And this brings me to a big issue when responding critically to fiction – the disjunctions between “quality,” “success,” and simply what the novel is trying to do.

E L James has clearly written a very successful, well-selling series of novels. I bought it. I read it. I enjoyed it. It frustrated and irritated me immensely, but also provoked a torrent of questions and reflections. The novel may not be well written, but it achieves its desired effect on the reader. It certainly gave me a lot to stew over.

Friday, June 22, 2012

“The eccentricity of her passion, and the singular object of her desires, will excite disgust.”

 So what am I researching for my MA degree, anyway?
Once you’ve become really invested and fascinated by a topic or network of topics and interests it’s hard to remember the period before immersion – un-knowledge and non-interest. In my second undergraduate English course, 1103 – Poetry, taken in 2006, I was enthralled by the depiction of beauty and eroticism – especially, transgressive or illicit eroticism, such as bestiality and pederasty, and the pornographic elements in Marlowe’s long narrative poem Hero and Leander. 
This was the start of a slow and steady growing fixation on literary depictions of sexual “perversity” or strangeness. My growing interest, academically and personally, in feminist and gender studies, queer theory, and most recently, trans studies, has been a great complement to this interest in literature.
This interest has taken me from analyzing the anthropomorphic goblin men of Rossetti’s “Goblin Market” to understand how the goblins, whose masculinity is evident and reinforced, are construed as animals to render the vicious attack on the young Lizzie more of a monstrous fantastical attack by fairy-tale beasts rather than a violent rape sequence by human men, to examining how Irving’s Ichabod Crane in “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” is more interested in the delicious dainties of the Dutch tea table than women, and defers his sexual desire from females to food. I've also worked extensively on the depiction of pseudo-lesbian desire and forms of literal and metaphorical sisterhood in "Goblin Market."
 My current project is exploring the genesis of nineteenth-century American urban gothic fiction in a web of other literary modes and sources. This kind of literature in the 1840s is influenced by and connected to gothic fiction, crime fiction, sensation fiction, and pornography. Also called “city mysteries” fiction, the American urban gothic of the 1840s is horrific, violent, sensational, moralizing, titillating and erotic. Based on a desire to reveal the “mysteries and miseries” of burgeoning metropolises, such as Philadelphia, New York, and Boston, this genre is the gothic transplanted from haunted castles and manors and country sides into the mysterious, confusing, and alienating cityscape. This fiction depicts subterranean spaces, sewers, dark vaults, and secret chambers as the literal seedy underbelly of the city, and the hub of a city's debauched activity.

From this already very blended urban gothic genre comes a further refinement or sub-genre, what critic J. V. Ridgeley has called the porno-gothic – and that’s my interest.
I’m specifically interested in antebellum writer George Thompson, who wrote cheap, pulpy, sensational city mysteries stories and novels revealing the “secret crimes of great cities” and taking the uninitiated reader on a virtual tour of the urban underworld, revealing the twisted lives, schemes, and woes of thieves, murderers, prostitutes, adulteresses, and sinful clergy – to name a few of his stock characters. 
Critic David S. Reynolds suggests that “George Thompson ... has the dubious distinction of having written the most purely disgusting novels in pre-Civil War America (Beneath the American Renaissance). Need I explain how fun and engrossing I find this project?

I’m focusing on Thompson’s novels Venus in Boston and City Crimes (both 1849) and their compelling and fascinating depictions of transgressive female sexuality and its ideological linkage to criminality and depravity.
I’m also drawing upon the paradigmatic urban gothic novel, George Lippard’s The Quaker City; or The Monks of Monk Hall (1845) to help me define the genre and its influences and look at the roles of horror, eroticism, physical (transgressive, hidden, and illicit) space, and narrative dynamic.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Where the books live

This is the Town of Conception Bay South public library.

This is a very important place in my history. If any place has the capacity to give me a full-on nostalgic attack, it is the CBS library. It was a crucial place for the development of my interests and personality as I know myself.

I was always encouraged to read stories (and write my own stories - I had a whole series about Dinosaur families) from a very early age. As much as reading is a cerebral activity, it's also such a physical, tactile, sensory experience. I have so many memories of early, meaningful reads - like the first time I read The Hobbit and The Call of the Wild (age 8 or 9). I remember the rocking chair in my babysitter's living room where I would read after school. I always tend to recall the physical environment where I read and experienced a certain book - what I was wearing, or smelling, or eating, the season. Books and reading experiences act as signposts in our memory.

Borrowing books from a library was pretty essential for fostering my love of reading. I had a lot of hand-me-down books, and those treasured, much anticipated Scholastic book order gems that I was always grateful for, but until I had my own money and could start buying my own books, most of my material came from this place. My mother and I were such frequent patrons of the CBS library that we didn't have library cards - we didn't need library cards. The librarians knew us. I felt like a VIP in that place.

The CBS library was a staple of our weekends. I recall the regularity with which we went there every Saturday morning. The library gave me access to so many ambitious reading opportunities - I loved my Goosebumps and Sweet Valley High (and later Sweet Valley University), but as young as 10 I was also checking out titles like Happiness is a Choice, Self-Defeating Behaviours, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, and an 1000+ pae bad boy entitled A Treasury of Philosophy. If it was dense, and long, and psychological, and beyond my comprehension, I tried to read it. I have a deep seated fascination with the "self-help" genre that is easily traceable to the litany of titles I consumed in adolescence.

All throughout my pre-teens and teens we also borrowed magazines. Everything from People to Seventeen - while I bought many teen and celebrity magazines for keepsakes and for scrapbooking/ collage-making, an interest that occupied me for hours on end in my childhood, we routinely borrowed magazines to read and then return. I was raised with a kind of self-aware frugality that I would never trade.

I seriously took out every book in the Sweet Valley University series several times and read them voraciously. They're actually extremely entertaining and exciting, and my memories of those reading experiences are so vivid that I feel as though I watched a television series of it instead.

I'm doing a Master's degree in English Literature - that means, hopefully, that I like and know a little bit about books. I always think about how valuable every reading experience is. Reading skill and literacy aren't the same thing - you can know how to read and yet not be a good reader. It takes a lot of practice and hours logged. Like any skill or strength, I liken reading to athletic development and muscle conditioning. Even as an avid, non-stop reader from childhood onward, it's amazing how much my reading ability has evolved and developed in the last few years. By the time I was mid-way through university, I figured I would continue to get smarter, better at learning, and better at writing, but I underestimated how much my actual reading abilities would continue to grow vastly with every book read.

With a lot of material to read on a routine basis (I don't differentiate that much between for school and for pleasure - I just read a lot and it's all necessary), I approach books like an athlete approaches training. I like to improve on my time, while ensuring a depth of comprehension and ability to recall is there. And nothing beats a second (or third, or fourth) read. I love finishing a book almost as much as I love starting a new one.

In between

So far, I don't seem to be a very good blogger.

I set up this blog in September 2010 with great ambitions. I love writing - it's not a chore. Between writing academically (for 27 undergraduate and 7 graduate courses in English - thus far), writing journalistically, and writing creatively, it's something I'm rather fond of. But the idea of "blogging" poses a strange challenge for me: something in between. Greater than the short, pithy, quips/observations/statements of a Facebook status, and less than the reviews and papers I've grown accustomed to churning out.

My friend, who is a pretty adept blogger, as far as my meager knowledge permits me to judge, gave me some advice about brevity - writing something short and targeted enough that someone may actually be able to read it. So that's the plan. I'm going to make a summer project of writing some blogs to record and capture my third (and likely final - for now D:) semester in Montreal before I relocate back to the Rock.

I'm very in between right now - in between provinces, in between studenthood and the looming uncertainty of my next move (something I'm not particularly familiar with, being a chronic planner), in between life phases, in between meals.

Back to Montreal on Monday - it's a very exciting time to be a post-secondary student in Quebec and I can't wait to get back there.