I’ve vowed not to write today’s post about the hot new novel Fifty Shades of Grey. My goal this week is to be the only book blogger in America not writing about what Katie Roiphe in a Newsweek cover story calls this “watered-down, skinny-vanilla-latte version of sadomasochism. “ I would have thought not writing about this novel would have been easy. After all, I spent great swathes of my 20s engaged in the activity I thought of as Not Writing My Dissertation.
But for those who follow the seismic rumblings of the Webverse there’s an odd fascination for anything that goes viral; even a proud fossil like myself can feel the pull of the numbers. I first noticed the groundswell a week or two back when one of my Facebook friends, a married woman in her 40s with teenagers to watch over, asked this question of her Facebook friends: “Anyone read Fifty Shades of Grey AND WILLING to discuss it? Perhaps privately?” Within a half-hour she got 33 responses. To an observer it was as if a shy, benevolent school of barracudas had discovered a trawler dumping fish guts overboard. No matter how delicately couched the responses it was a feeding frenzy all the same.
Then, as I often do when I want to examine a book I suspect I do not want to own, I checked my local library. Fifty Shades was headlined on their front page as the #1 New Release. The library had 30 copies available, but when I signed up to reserve it, I was #387 on the list. (As of today, I’ve moved up to #382 of 575 requests.)
The library’s online info was helpful in learning more about 50 Shades, though. Here’s the publisher’s description of the 514-page novel:
When literature student Anastasia Steele is drafted to interview the successful young entrepreneur Christian Grey for her campus magazine, she finds him attractive, enigmatic and intimidating. Convinced their meeting went badly, she tries to put Grey out of her mind – until he happens to turn up at the out-of-town hardware store where she works part-time. Erotic, amusing, and deeply moving, the Fifty Shades Trilogy is a tale that will obsess you, possess you, and stay with you forever.
Hmmm. Given my well-known aversion to romance novels and my strong belief that no novel written in the 21st century should be more than 300 pages, this does not sound like my kind of good read. I decide to give it the one-page test. My theory is that reading the first page of any piece of fiction offers you a surprisingly accurate gauge of whether you’ll be able to stomach the story.
The first page of Fifty Shades is not as bad as I expected it to be. E.L. James writes with a certain fast-moving energy. The level of detail as the protagonist grapples in the first paragraph with how to tame her unruly hair (perhaps some symbolism there) is on the mark. It is not till we get to page 5 that we hit the first truly cringe-inducing sentence as Anastasia waits to meet Mr. Grey in an intimidatingly tall office building.
Beyond that, there is a floor-to-ceiling window with a view of the Seattle skyline that looks out through the city toward the Sound. It’s a stunning vista, and I’m momentarily paralyzed by the view. Wow.
Wow, indeed. There’s no need to belabor the point. Stunning vistas described this way ain’t my kind of writing, and I suddenly remember the money quotes in Katie Roiphe’s piece, which she reserves till her grand conclusion:
In fact, if I were a member of the Christian right, sitting on my front porch decrying the decadent morals of working American women, what would be most alarming about the Fifty Shades of Grey phenomena, what gives it its true edge of desperation, and end-of-the-world ambience, is that millions of otherwise intelligent women are willing to tolerate prose on this level. If you are willing to slog through sentences like “In spite of my poignant sadness, I laugh,” or “My world is crumbling around me into a sterile pile of ashes, all my hopes and dreams cruelly dashed,” you must really, really, want to get to the submissive sex scene.
So I set out NOT to write about this book, and I’ve already given you 700 words’ worth. Very sorry about that. And I haven’t yet come near such vital questions as whether the author has been influenced by William Empson’s Seven Types of Ambiguity, Wallace Stevens’s “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” Paul Simon’s “50 Ways To Leave Your Lover,” and Martin Luther’s 95 Theses.
I also meant to probe the matter of why sadomasochism is ludicrous when depicted tamely to avoid the dreaded NR film rating, as in A Dangerous Method, the recent biopic featuring Jung, Freud, and a crazo Keira Knightley, who has both an obsessive need to be spanked and to become a psychoanalyst, and, conversely, why the old von Sacher-Masoch game of contracting one’s mistress as one’s slave can work in an interesting ways if merely suggested, as in David Ives’s Broadway hit, Venus in Fur. But, really, who cares?