No, arguing the case for quality is not elitist!

Thurs. 05 Mar. 2015

With the commotion over the release of the film version of Fifty Shades of Grey there was much reflection on the original books, including by yours truly. In the process, suggestions have been made, including by people I respect but also think should know better, that criticising the books for their total lack of any literary merit is “elitist”.

Now, there are such things as good writing, mediocre writing, and poor writing: surely no thinking person would claim every work of fiction published is somehow “equal” and deserves accolades – or that a book simply must be well written because lots of people buy it and some profess to have enjoyed it. I know we’re talking about extremes here, of sales figures, that is, but the principle doesn’t change: a popular product is not necessarily a quality product just because it sells. There are other factors involved, as we shall see.

Firstly, Fifty Shades has apparently given rise to the genre of so-called “mummy porn”. Everything has to be categorised and given a name, it seems, whereas I’m content to assess on terms of quality compared with competing or pre-existing “products”, and accept or reject on that basis alone – no other categorisation necessary.

I admit I have been somewhat strident in my criticisms of Fifty Shades, so here I will be more focussed. The protagonists are caricatures and the entire book is a procession of clichés. The topics and themes have been explored a multitude of times in a multitude of ways – far more innovatively and expressively – at least since Leopold von Sacher-Masoch published Venus in Furs in 1870 (for those who didn’t know, the word masochism is derived from the author’s name). Those who don’t know what I mean, and especially those who claim to have enjoyed Fifty Shades, should read the Story of O by Pauline Réage, first published in 1954, or Anaïs Nin’s Delta of Venus (a collection of short stories written in the 1940s but only published in 1977). Or, if the styles of accomplished writing demonstrated in those classics of erotic literature come across as just a little dated more than 60 years later, then they could try contemporary erotic authors such as Marilyn Jaye Lewis, Anne Tourney, Alison Tyler, Pat (Patrick) Califia or Raven Kaldera: all of them women writers, with the exception of Califia and Kaldera who used to be women before gender reassignment.

Then there is the controversy over the possibility that the Fifty Shades books, which began as online fan-fiction writing based on Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series of books, were acts of plagiarism and copyright violation. I say “were” because all this seems to have been quietly smoothed over: see The lost history of Fifty Shades of Grey; ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ history excluded from Wayback Machine archives; and The origins of ‘50 Shades of Grey’ go missing. After all, there would be no lack of funds available from the Fifty Shades publishers to do any “smoothing”.

So who are the publishers? The main publisher is Vintage Books, and Arrow books in the UK, both subsidiaries – or an “imprint” as it’s known in the publishing industry – ultimately owned by Penguin Random House. It’s a complicated trail of publishing companies, imprints, subdivisions, and acquisitions and mergers over the last 60 years or so. To cut this particular aspect of the story short, the Fifty Shades publishers are part of a global publishing empire that was created in 2013 with the merger of two already-major publishers, Penguin Group and Random House, a mega-corporation driven by marketing, sales and big profits (Vintage and Arrow were imprints of Random House when they bought the “mainstream” publishing rights to Fifty Shades).

Now, I know that marketing, sales and big profits are the way of the world: mainstream publishing is no different. This is the relevant point: Fifty Shades is a corporate marketing success, picked up by savvy publishing scouts who saw the online offerings of E.L. James were popular in the fan-fiction community and who realised the time had come for pushing some sexual boundaries in the mass market. To see where this logic has its roots, and where it leads, take a look at Asda hopes to capitalise on popularity of ‘mummy porn’ with fifty shades of loo roll.

So when people buy a Fifty Shades book, they are not only spending their hard-earned on third-rate (i.e. poor) writing with a dubious background in terms of originality in every respect, they are buying into the marketing campaigns of multiple industries that are cashing in big time on “mummy-porn” fashion. I prefer to side step fashions and read books by people who have worked hard to become good writers (and who probably had some natural talent to begin with) and who write books for people who take pleasure in, and learn from, good or even excellent writing.

Gone are the days when, in 1960, Penguin Books flew in the face of UK obscenity laws to publish a genuine work of literature, D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, that was then deemed too shocking for the general public’s own good. Literary merit was written into the law to defeat the overly censorious. A similar saga, a similar process of banning, censorship and obscenity trials attended James Joyce’s Ulysses in the United States where it, too, was finally raised above ban and censorship on literary merit – only that was in 1933. Anyway, since 1960, but not for want of trying, the British state has continually failed to ban works of writing as obscene and the written word here is now mostly accepted as protected. If not for such previous struggles, led and won by literary works, the likes of Fifty Shades would not have a hope of being published.

However, as I mentioned in my previous News item on the film adaptation of E.L James’ novel, there have, despite protests from traditional moralists and feminists, been some positive social results from the popularity of this potboiler. For example, according to Backlash, the UK BDSM-rights campaign organisation, people who are outed to their employer are now less likely to be sacked (see my Fifty Shades and B&Q: the cat’s out the bag). And in a Daily Mirror article on “mummy porn”, a seemingly random mum is quoted saying of Fifty Shades: “But the good thing is that it has made everybody talk about something that has pretty much been a taboo subject.” (See ‘Mummy porn’ hitting the spot: Why erotic novels like 50 Shades of Grey are topping book charts.)

Although I must say I also agree with the Daily Mirror’s second-quoted mum, which I think sums up Fifty Shades, and its face-value popularity, in a nice little nutshell: “It’s best described as Mills & Bang, a modern-day version of Mills & Boon – just as corny and predictable but a whole lot racier”.

Indeed. But I will finish with these thoughts: that E.L. James’ embarrassingly immature attempt at writing, through the mainstreaming of its subject matter, provides evidence that our society is at least ready to consider transcending ancient tribal morality systems and to explore greater sexual, psychological and emotional freedoms. Another barrier to transcend is the apparent inability to distinguish between low-quality, mass-produced and mass-marketed entertainment on the one hand, and genuine artistry on the other hand; that is, when it comes to books, to be able to distinguish between good writing, mediocre writing, and poor writing. Transcending this latter barrier also represents a new freedom, freedom from the insidious effects of corporate marketing and exploitation. We all deserve better, so we owe it to ourselves, we have a responsibility, to achieve these heights – the rest is a matter of personal taste, and has nothing whatsoever to do with “elitism”.

Mistress Geo

PS: Magpie Corvid, fellow South-West-based pro domme and writer, had this review of the first Fifty Shades movie published online yesterday, and I endorse her perspective: Nobody need see Fifty Shades of Grey for fun.

Updates: My other Fifty Shades-themed News items:

I comment on how Los Angeles-based dominatrix, Mistress Trinity, has added her knowing voice to those who debunk fifty shades of codswallop: A dominatrix writes for mainstream media.

I review a film treating BDSM that is worth watching, unlike the Fifty Shades movie (see the Magpie Corvid review of the latter, link above in the “PS”): Now for a film worth seeing: The Duke of Burgundy.

While Fifty Shades everything may be an affront to good taste, not all of its influence has been bad, and I discuss this aspect of its effect in the B&Q article (link above in the text of this current article) as well as in these items: Didn’t you know BDSM is akin to yoga? Well, it is!; and, ‘Dr Geo’ (part 2): New Year ‘relationship therapy’.

In other items I have playful digs at everything Fifty Shades: Who needs to wait for crime before reaching for the cuffs?; and, And now for ‘Fifty Shades of Green’; and, Fifty drops of candles.