Sunday, 8 July 2012


My mate and pulp fiction supremo, mr pulp curry, recently tweeted that people's surprise over the success of 50 shades of grey showed how much we'd lost touch with the pulp genre that used to be such a big part of the book industry. It was a new angle for thinking about this book phenomenon.

Ok, I'll confess to having read 50 shades of grey, and the second book, 50 shades darker. I've also read a summary of the third book, 50 shades freed. I found them both enjoyable and interesting and I find the number of people who thoroughly dislike this book, are shocked by its success or who are utterly repulsed by stories of marginal sexual practices surprising (especially given how few of them have read it).

Granted, the 50 shades books are explicit, and explicit descriptions of sex are not to everyone's tastes so before we begin there's people who aren't going to want to read this stuff. Fair enough.

And there's people for whom the notion of dominant/submissive relationships and bondage/discipline sexual practices are shocking, repulsive, misogynistic or otherwise unacceptable, so fair cop if they'd like to leave the table also.

[though it's very hard not to interject here in a kind of ranty way to say dominant/submissive relationships are not about gender, and while in this particular story most of the d/s action takes place with a male d and female s, not all the action does and it doesn't in real life either. I think possibly the most underrated aspect of the books is the way they explore d/s issues through the way the characters change over time and face challenges to their assumptions - both about the 'straight' world and the 'kinky' one. The books are actually about the 'taming' of a dominant, not a celebration of his practices, complete with abusive traumatic childhood and the old healing power of love cure. The idea that any kind of sexual practice between two consenting sane adults which doesn't break the law is inherently wrong or sick doesn't resonate with me, especially when that conclusion is reached without understanding what the whole d/s thing is about. I don't have to do it but why should I care if others want to? It's a bit like gay marriage (or actually even less socially significant since this doesn't affect public institutions) why do non gay people get so het up about it? I know that doesn't mean they have to read or enjoy books about it but I don't see why others shouldn't be able to. What's the hating about?]

And there are many others who will similarly sniff at the the quality of the prose, the repetitive adjectives, the simplistic structure, the annoying dialogue and the overuse of the phrase oh my! to name but one. And I can but agree that as an entrant for the Booker it doesn't stand a chance. It won't win awards and in a few years time even those who have read and enjoyed them may struggle to bring the story to mind. Absolutely agree.

But there was a time when pulp fiction - cheaply printed stories across a range of genres - made reading accessible to a range of people who could not afford, were not interested in or were unable to appreciate high brow literature. They were books that opened the world of reading to working class people, and the world of writing to beginner writers unable to pump out a full length novel and even less likely to get a publishing contract.

So the 50 shades trilogy began life as a free online serial story based on the characters that appeared in the best selling twilight young adult books and films. Disposable, cheap, widely available, an introduction to writing for someone without a publishing contract. And let's not forget the absolute killer - unbelievably popular. In the digital age is there a better parallel for pulp?

In a genre sense this is not just porn either - there's thriller subplots involving a crazed gun toting ex girlfriend and a vengeful ex employee, attempted murder, helicopter crash and car chases. And while the sex has grabbed all the headlines and people love to call the books mummy porn (the twilight equivalent for the mothers of all those teen girls), I don't think the book can be classified as porn simply because there is a lot of explicit sex in it. I think porn by definition only contains plot sufficient to justify sex scenes and 50 shades has many plot lines that involve no sex at all.

What struck me as I was reading these books was much the same as the stuff as struck me when I was reading twilight. How do two people who have significant differences (sexual preferences, vampire teeth) negotiate a relationship? If their desire to be together outweighs their fear, revulsion, desire to control, danger, intervention of family and friends and so on, what then? And more importantly how does the dance of compromise transform people without making them lose themselves? Don't these questions apply to every relationship?

In twilight this central issue is played out quite literally - Bella will surrender her humanity to join Edward's vampire world, but Edward thinks she doesn't understand the commitment she's making and her compromise is too much. In 50 shades Christian inches away from his SM world towards Ana's 'hearts and flowers' world but she worries his 'real' desires will resurface. But as they both progress towards their transformations, their counterpoints make concessions too. Edward relaxes his controlling grip over Bella in relation to Jacob, Ana owns up to her own pleasure in relation to some of Christian's milder practices.

I'm not trying to spin some line that these are great books, or that they are particularly sophisticated, or even best in class. I'm not saying in your busy schedule with limited reading time you should eek out time to read them. They are what they are. But their popularity indicates that they 'work' for a lot of people. And, on some level they work for me. Perhaps my mind is still on slow after a month of illness and too many painkillers, perhaps it's something about my stage of life.

I think what Andrew's comment about pulp made me realise is that pulp feeds a love of story, pure and simple. That the act of engaging in stories, no matter how far removed from one's own life, no matter if poorly written, no matter the potential for repulsion, is itself a pleasurable and wonderous thing. It offers a break from the real world need to constantly be evaluating, to be right, to have an opinion and avoid consequences. I can't hate any book that opens that door to me or anyone else. And perhaps a great book pushes me harder to explore, learn and reflect but any story at all can be the springboard for imagining and contemplating something of worth.

Sunday, 1 July 2012

50 shades of boredom

I'm in that slump that happens after the worst is over and then the euphoria of knowing the worst is over has passed. Now it's all long haul rehab, discomfort and a growing intolerance for my restrictions, frustrations and boredom.

Surviving the pain is no longer a full time occupation and I have returned to work, a bit of food shopping, attempts at cooking (largely disastrous and totally exhausting) and walks in the real world.

But really, everything I would like to be doing is still out of the question. From the mundane acts of changing bedsheets and packing away craft camp supplies (from over a month ago!), to driving and visiting, right through to machine knitting that midnight cashmere silk merino cardi I really wish I had.

I'm so bored I'm thinking about 50 shades of grey and why every single person I have spoken to or seen quoted is utterly derisive and yet it made the NY Times best-seller list before it was even published based on its massive popularity as an online serial of Twilight based porn. What does that mean? I still don't get why Twilight worked when it was so wrong on so many levels, but this? Luckily I've managed to conscript a few good folk to help me try and work it out...

You see? I don't do boredom well. I'm bored of myself and finding it hard to imagine why anyone is still reading.

At least the bloke is home at last, an arrangement that should hold for a couple of months. So I can stop leaching off the army of wonderful devoted friends who have kept me in delicious meals, shopped, visited, driven, opened jar lids and put things on and off high shelves for me in the last few weeks. You guys have kept me going, both materially and spiritually and I am deeply, deeply appreciative.