Lucy Mangan

"New bonkbuster novels can only be a good thing"

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So, have you read it yet?

Did it turn you on or turn you off? Turn you fifty shades of red in a good way or fifty shades of red in a bad way? I’m talking, of course, of the latest zeitgeist-crunching, bestselling ebook and now, thanks to a seven-figure publishing deal for pseudonymous author EL James (real name Erika Leonard), book-book Fifty Shades of Grey. It’s the story of 21-year-old literature student and virgin Anastasia Steele (I love a name that causes bonkbuster reads of adolescence past to rush up and greet me – hello again, Lucky/Lace/ Savages/Scruples and Hollywood Everything!) who meets 28-year-old entrepreneur Christian Grey who has billions of pounds, a wounded soul and, it turns out, a predilection for inducting virgin literature students into the fun you can have with a whip, silver neckties and a bit of judiciously applied baby oil. It has been dubbed ‘mommy porn’ because so many of its hundreds of thousands of fans are female readers in their 30s and 40s, able to download it cover- and shame-free onto their Kindles. It’s this decade’s Forever but with added pixels and spanking.

I haven’t read it and I’m not going to. I alas read too much about it beforehand and know that I cannot sustain a state of arousal in the face of lines like “My tongue joins his in a slow erotic dance”. It sounds like a non-Disney fantasia sequence. Nor can I at this point in my life, emotionally invest in a heroine who can find it in her girlish heart to liken performing her first oral service to sucking on her own, special man-flavoured popsicle. I just can’t. I barely made it through Judy Blume’s masterwork after Michael named it Ralph and I was only 14 then.

But I do love this book. Or at least, I love that it exists. I love that a woman in West London sat down one day and, for her own entertainment and entirely of her own volition, wrote a piece of Twilight fan fiction (in which Bella and Edward actually managed to bump uglies), posted it online and found an audience. And then, after re-writing it at greater length and with different names (and what names… Anastasia Steele! This is still delighting me), posting it on her own website and finding an even bigger audience and so on until finding the aforementioned real-world book and real-worldwide attention.

I barely made it through Judy Blume’s '''Forever''' when I was 14

Whatever the content of the book (and there are many, many conversations to be had about it, from a stylistic point of view, from a feminist point of view – is a submissive Anastasia a step forward or back? Is its popularity among women a sign of our continued sexual repression or of liberation? etc etc) its existence is a sign that power is shifting. In its successive forms, Fifty Shades of Grey remains an astonishingly unmediated communication between writer and reader. For all that its pages have outraged library censors in the US, there is a strange purity about the way it has come into existence. Of course we cannot assume that James wrote at all times only from the heart/groin without a thought of publication or popularity but its unillustrious fanfic origins (she wrote and posted it under another pseudonym Snowqueens Icedragon) and publishers’ current delight at the discovery of an apparently new and untapped market for ‘mommy porn’ do suggest that it wasn’t an orchestrated, focus-grouped exercise in demographic-targeting. If it was, of course, then Leonard clearly has one of the most brilliantly Machiavellian business brains of all time and should be airlifted to Harvard for further study forthwith.

What we have then, is something approaching the holy grail – porn for women, by a woman, that women actually want to read. Of course, the story of a sexually submissive woman who longs to make an emotional connection with the strong-yet-oh-so-vulnerable man pronging her six ways from Sunday hasn’t moved a million miles away from traditional tropes but at least the way they got in front of us has. This new model and method of production seems to offer the chance, to those who come after James (or rather for those who don’t come at all as a result of her offerings) greater freedom than ever to supply an alternative.

Now, I must away and type up a little idea I’ve had about a woman who likes to have sex in such a way that it interrupts neither her eating of Creme eggs or watching of Smash on Sky+ so insert your own joke about sisters doing it for themselves [here], and I’ll see you back here, possibly panting lasciviously, next week. Ta.

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