Monday, October 29, 2012

Fifty Shades of Frustration

With Fifty Shades of Grey, a different reading public has emerged.  Their arrival is timely, interesting, and maybe a bit unsettling.  For the passionate reader, it is easy to be snobbish about Fifty Shades.  It started off as Twilight fan fiction, it’s mommy porn, it needs an editor.  The heroine’s interior monologue is annoying, her vocabulary limited. The hero’s controlling personality and his contract for sexual services would frighten off a na├»ve woman, like our heroine, where, a mature woman would whip out her red pen, negotiate a better deal, and then we would have a real story.  The prose is redundant, the characters are boring and stupid, etc.

Passionate readers have denounced the series with zingers and witticisms to display their superior taste, as well they should.[1]  Criticism is part of the pleasure of reading.  Romance readers have soundly thrashed the series, so to speak.  The sub-culture of romance readers, the bondage/sado-masochism crowd (BDSM to those in the know), have been even more merciless with their denunciation, and will direct you to Anne Rice’s Beauty trilogy, if you are looking for a writer who brings on the pain, which she does.  In summary, Fifty Shades is a waste of 1500 pages of your life you will never get back again.

Yes. Quite right. Absolutely.  But let’s take a closer look.

Think of a woman. She is in her thirties or forties, she has a college education, a job, a husband, or an ex-husband, and children.  She works, probably full-time, and raises her children. Children are the center of parents’ lives.  Their needs dictate the adults’ daily routine and their choices of entertainment –the restaurants, the vacations, the movies, the video games, and the books.  Our woman is not an unhappy person per se, but her life is not entirely hers. 

Her reading life is spare.  She does not have much time for books, and she was never a big reader anyway. She read or skimmed what was assigned in college, and she reads what she needs to for work.  The book club became a movie club because nobody read the books.  When the children were small, she read Harry Potter and Lemony Snicket.  When they got older, she bought Hunger Games, Twilight and other serial books for the children to read on their own.  Maybe they did, or maybe they decided to wait for the movie, too. She read them because she wanted to make sure the books were appropriate before exposing the children to something scary, which is a pity, or because she wanted to have something to discuss during the interminable car rides from one activity to another, or because they were the only books in the house when the cable went out.

For much of her adult life, her reading diet has consisted almost entirely of children’s books and books about child-rearing.  She barely left childhood before she was back to reading children’s books again.

Children’s novels construct a world in which parents are either negligent or dead.  For a successful children’s series, best kill off the parents in volume one, chapter one, page one, sentence one.  It’s absolutely essential because nothing fun, dangerous or naughty happens when parents are around.  Their job is to keep the children clean and safe, which is death to a children’s story.
“Get away from that dirty rabbit hole.”
“No, you may not fly out the window with the fairies. Back to bed.”
“Sorry, pet. We can’t afford the tuition at Hogwarts.  Here is a clarinet instead.”

Children’s literature works best when children rule the world, and its first hook for a young mind is escape. Escape from your dull life into one more desirable and dangerous, without school, soccer practice, or chicken nuggets.  A world where children set off for the Arctic circle and talk to bears and battle evil, or take on wizards and battle evil, or fall in love with vampires and battle evil, or… battle evil.  If the book is set in an ordinary place such as a school, it better be invaded by aliens right away.  In the course of the series, the children grow up, as they will when left to their own devices.  They begin to notice and take an interest in the other sex. They begin to notice and take an interest in sex.  They move through their awkwardness to a shared stare, a brush of the fingertips, a first kiss.  When done well, it’s sweet and lovely and makes for a decent read.

Haven’t we forgotten someone?  Why yes, we have.

Our woman is still with us.  Our woman has been reading over the children’s shoulder all this time. The children are off to the next thing, playing video games, watching movies, imbibing high fructose corn syrup.  She is still with us.  Her husband is a wonderful man[2] with his own tastes in movies and television. She watches what he likes because if she doesn’t, she will never see him.  Or, her ex-husband is a perfect bastard, and she is quite happy never to see him.

For the last decade, children’s serial novels have dominated the bestseller’s list: Harry Potter, Hunger Games, Twilight.  There is a large reading public of adults who read children’s books regularly, and seldom read a book written for adults.  Contemporary children’s literature does not shatter forms, reinvent language, or challenge values.  That arty nonsense can wait until adulthood.  The books are laid out neatly.  The plot is economical, the sentences have proper punctuation and nouns and verbs and adjectives are where they should be. The hero will prevail in the end, one, or three, or seven books later.  The adult does not need to read with great care, her eyes need only pass over the words.  The adult does not struggle to understand the story or grasp the allusions, nor does she need to consult a dictionary.

Contemporary children’s literature has raised a generation of adults who read like children.  We should not be surprised that Fifty Shades is badly written. Of course it is badly written; our woman would not read it otherwise.  Her reading life has been informed by children’s books, and Fifty Shades assumes the form of a bad children’s series.[3]

Our woman is still with us.  When she reads a children’s book, she lingers over the words “fingertips,” “blush,” “kiss.”  If she thinks about it carefully, she can recall the sensation of fingertips on her warm wrist, but when was the last time she blushed?  Did her pulse spike when her husband kissed her?  In that moment when life’s noise is a dull hum, when finally the mind drifts, when she reads, she desires something both familiar and unknown. She too wants an escape from daily life.  She too desires a little danger.  Her book must pick up where the children’s book ends, where she insists it must end.  She has been reading these goddamn things for years, which have brought her to the edge of adult life and left her there.  She wants to walk through that door to her own escape where she battles evil, lives by her wits and wins in the end.  And she wants a glass of wine and a good fuck for her trouble.

Let’s construct the escape for our woman.  As with the children, her escape does not include soccer practice or chicken nuggets.  Please be sure to pitch the children, the husband – that most wonderful of men – the job, the house, the bills, the aging relatives, the competitive parents, the after school activities, the teachers, the bosses, the employees.  Ditto the teeming voices reciting a catalogue aria of the ways she is failing her body, her family, her country and most likely her god as well.  Perhaps, but what of it?  Oh, but rest assured mothers have the most important job in the world and you go, Girl! 

What is left?  Sex and possibly time travel.

It’s time to have fun.  The hero is loverboy handsome. Gorgeous women flirt with him, and he only has eyes for the innocent heroine who thinks she is plain, but isn’t really.  He is rich, but his empire makes little claim on his time.  He is ready for sex round the clock and he has an alarmingly short refractory period.  (He has a gynecologist available for Sunday house calls, but he should probably put an urologist on the payroll, too.) 

He has a discreet and heavily armed domestic staff, a helicopter, a plane, a yacht, and a house in Aspen.  He insists that the heroine does not eat enough, and provides bacon and pancake breakfasts daily.  He plies her with presents and wine.  He would like her to give up her job and stay home, but he also buys a publishing house and so she can have her dream job.  He encourages her to spend money.  He has no other friends, doesn’t care about sports, politics, or television, he has no competing interests.  His family is attractive, loving, devoted, wealthy, and they stay out of the way.  He bathes her, brushes her hair and plays the piano in a nighttime, post-coital mist.  He is a non-smoker.  To the outside world, he is a winner.  In private, when he reveals his true self only to her, the little lamb is wounded.  His outlet for his psychic pain is BDSM and he has a well-appointed room for the purpose.  He is not much of a Dominant, and the Submissive heroine is in control, even when she is in shackles.[4]

Beautiful, rich, randy, monogamous, adoring, attentive, and emotionally shattered: isn’t he too perfect?  Our heroine, armed with her knowledge of British literature, her natural talent for fellatio, and her self-defense training is the only woman who can save him. 

Let’s leave them to it.

When we are children, the adults shape our life, and that includes our reading life.  Teachers, librarians, parents, and other dictators decide which books we may read and when.  They usually make a hash of it.  Some go out of their way to stultify a child’s desire to read.  Who in their right mind hands a fourteen-year old Wuthering Heights?  Some of us are fortunate to have loving or lazy wardens who leave us to read what we like; others realize quickly that the adults will leave you the hell alone when they see you reading, and that is worth the price of admission. 

Once the business of education is over, we are not required to read anymore.  We may claim we read because it enriches the mind, exposes us to new ideas, expands our consciousness and whatnot.  I suppose that’s true for some people, but I doubt self-improvement is the prime motive for reading.  Our time is too precious.  A passionate reader is a hedonist and reads purely for her own pleasure.

It is damn exhausting to be an American sometimes.

You are inundated with information about Things that Are Good for You.  First you are told that everything you like is bad, but then it’s good, but only if you do it in the proper way and by the way, you are doing it all wrong.  It’s not enough that something is pleasurable, it requires a justification to prove that you are not personally tearing holes in the fabric of the universe.  Kissing minimizes the appearance of wrinkles.  Dancing cuts your risk of Alzheimer’s, diabetes and rickets in half.  Cooking for your family reduces the odds that the husband will gamble away the house, or that the children will become spinning ether addicts.  Chocolate simulates the sensation of falling in love, red wine is packed with antioxidants, and sex reduces levels of cortisol in the blood.  For an American mother, the data overload is that much worse because she is held responsible for her family on the molecular level. 

Doing something good because it’s good is all well and good, I’m sure.  Must that be the reason to do everything?  Must it always be nutritious, educational, and beneficent?  Must life be like PBS?  Must we wallow in wellness, whatever the hell that is?  It’s true that apples are full of fiber and phytochemicals, but that’s not what I think about when I sink into a Macoun or a Jonathan, or a Northern Spy.  I taste New England autumn in the cold, crisp flesh.  Please do not remind me of the apple’s nutritional benefits. It doesn’t matter and I don’t care because for a moment, I have claimed a small, private pleasure from the day.  Now be so kind as to leave me alone, and I will pay you the same courtesy.

In these troubled times, an American will not cop to doing something solely because she enjoys it, but because it is good for her.  And for an American mother, it is not enough that something is good only for her, it should also be good for her children, her community, her political party, and the global economy.  One gets rather fed up after a while.

Consider Fifty Shades as an expression of frustration after a decade of God, country, family, and children’s books.  If fan fiction is a loving gesture to the original text, Fifty Shades is the angry hate sex of fan fiction.  I suspect that E.L. James wrote the books out of frustration with Twilight, a rather strange treatise of sexual conservatism.  Its wild success indicates that it speaks to women who are frustrated, too.  They don’t necessarily hate their lives or the choices they have made.  They are tired of doing their best and being told that they are failing all of the time.  How did this group express their frustration?  They didn’t camp out and bang on buckets, or condemn anyone for who they love or how they love, or hurl bricks through shop windows, or question anyone’s birthplace.  This group withdrew from the noise and the nonsense for a spell.  This group read a silly book.  This is admirable.

An adult’s reading life is pure pleasure.  A reader chooses her book and lets it have its wicked way with her.  She may read what she likes when she likes.  If the book does not satisfy her, she tosses it aside and reads another one.  If it does, she reads it again.  Where else in life does she exercise such control?  Where else does she submit to the imagination of another and allow herself to enjoy it?  Fifty Shades offers the reader a tantalizing fantasy: Christian Grey, that perfectly formed male, finds her perfect.  It’s a 1500 page Prince song, unabashed and voluptuous.  Admitting to doing something solely for one’s pleasure is not the way of the world these days.  It is selfish, embarrassing, and, a bit childish.

I am happy to report that Fifty Shades has no redeeming social, economic, educational, nutritional, or moral value, which is quite a feat on its own.  I am glad that the BDSM fans scoff at the books; novels are not meant to be instructional manuals, after all.  And I am pleased as punch that during the vicious Presidential campaign season, when our would-be leaders and pundits decried normative sexual behavior, and proudly demonstrated their ignorance of women’s sexuality and contempt for our personal liberty, that the voters they are so desperate to reach tuned out their palaver and submitted to Christian Grey. 

An astute politician, businessman, or other peddler should be a bit worried by the Fifty Shades phenomenon. What will these new readers do next? I am not sure.  What do these women want?  It’s safe to say that you don’t have it, Baby. 

You go, Girl.

[1] As, no doubt, I am trying to do now.
[2] A strange trope has risen out of the blogosphere.  When blogging women mention their husbands they are frequently described as “the most wonderful man in the world.”  It does not matter what the subject of the blog is – knitting, animal husbandry, cheese-making, archery, necromancy. Every blogging woman is married to the world’s most perfect man.  Strange, dubious, impossible that there be more than one, and a subject for another day.
[3] Not all children’s serials are bad, but Twilight is dreadful.  It was bad enough having read it, I cannot bring myself to write about this ghastly series, too.
[4] This is the point where the BDSM crowd will pipe up with the rejoinder “the submissive is always in control. You don’t know anything about BDSM!” Got that out of your system, did you?  Let’s continue.

Seven Suggestions for your Reading Life During the Period Between The Summer Solstice and the Autumnal Equinox

With the approach of the summer solstice, expect the usual trotting out of the seasonal reading lists. The newspaper, magazine, or revolutionary pamphlet you consult will no doubt title its list “Summer Reads” or “Beach Reads.” Please feel free to a) vomit a little and b) wonder when summers and beaches learned to read. The summer reading list will usually include frothy, light selections, designed to accompany rum, fruit juice, and heat stroke. Although you may not be aware of this fact, and pardon me for pointing it out, you are in need of rescue from this drivel. Your reading life is yours to do with as you please. There is no need for the book to be as soporific as the beverage or as balmy as the weather. If you are fed up with the usual fare of mediocre books that will be turned into bad movies, give my prescription a try.

            1.     Read about someone who is more interesting than you are.

The following people are more interesting than you are: Socrates, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Martha Graham, Spinoza, Martin Luther King (tackle Taylor Branch’s magnificent trilogy), Orson Welles, Robert Oppenheimer, Oscar Wilde, Abraham Lincoln, any subject Antonia Fraser has chosen to write about; Antonia Fraser, John Waters, Christopher Hitchens, Bayard Rustin, Mark Twain, the Mitford sisters (even the fascist ones), Leon Trotsky, Eartha Kitt, Thomas Jefferson, Simon Bolivar, people who were alive in the 1930s.

The following people are not more interesting than you are: Oprah Winfrey, Sarah Palin, any book featuring the author on the cover, with tattoos exposed; Isadora Duncan, Ulysses S. Grant, unfamous people writing about their eccentric childhood; people who were married to presidents; people who became famous because of their heredity, their appearance on reality television, their weight loss/weight gain, or all of the aforementioned; people who left politics to spend more time with their family, the Bushes, the Clintons.

2.     Read a dirty book.

I admit, this one is tricky. Dirty means different things to many people. Here are a few measures for dirtiness: You should be a little embarrassed to be seen reading the book in public – either because of the title, the cover or both -- but it should not plant you on an FBI list as a suspected child pornographer.  If Maurice Girodias published it, you're good to go.

A word of about BDSM fiction.  If you want to read these books, by all means do. There is Anne Rice’s Beauty trilogy if you want to get your fairy tale freak on, but on the whole, the genre is a bit boring.  For every 2 pages of sex, often you have to endure 10 pages of people getting into costume or moving scenery about.  If you find this stimulating, then your next reading selection will be a snap. Find the warranty for your most recently purchased electrical appliance and go to bed early with a glass of wine and some aromatic oils. 

Here are a few good writers who can pen a dirty scene or two: Henry Miller, Kathy Acker, Jim Thompson (if you want some psychosexual/homicidal action, he is your man), Anais Nin, Michel Houllebecq, Philip Roth (overrated, but quite dirty in parts), D.H. Lawrence, Lawrence Durrell, Nicholson Baker, Charles Bukowski, the list goes on.  You don’t really need my help finding dirty books, but I am happy to oblige.

            3.      Avoid books written by happy, well-adjusted people.

I cannot stress this enough. Happy people or worse, people who discover happiness after a personal journey, never write interesting, amusing, insulting, or great books.  A good writer is someone you should be a bit worried to let into your house. At the very least you should want to lock up the prescription drugs and the exciting underwear and check the levels of the booze bottles before admitting entrance to him or her. Frowned-upon authors on this list include but are not limited to: Mitch Albom, the Dalai Lama, whoever writes those insipid Chicken Soup things; Elizabeth Gilbert, any book that includes the word “bucket” in the title, books that tell you how to be a better person.  It should be understood that books about how to obtain happiness are right out. Really, you don’t need to read these books because all of them say the same thing: learn to live with the status quo. Thomas Paine and Che Guevara were not the cheeriest of men, and they cracked the world in half.

            4.      Avoid books about chaste or reluctant vampires.

You really don’t need me to explain this, do you? All right, fine. The whole lure of the vampire genre is the element of suspense. Will he bite her? How freaky will it be? What will happen to her hair? Will someone stop him in time? When will the stabbing commence? The theme of the reluctant vampire has been done to death. Moreover, a reluctant vampire has no respect for the craft of vampiring. This is a fault. If the vampire is not willing to give the comely virgin a great, big, deep… um, “bite”… then what good is he?

            5.     Whenever possible, read books written by authors who have done time.

William Gass in his essay “The Writer and Politics: A Litany” writes: “prison is a splendid place to put authors. It gives them a sense of grievance.” I really must agree with Mr. Gass, a very good writer who did a short stint in the Navy brig. There is something about getting tossed in the clink that really brings out the wordsmith in people. Writers who are jailed solely for their moral or political views are okay, we will let them count for this exercise, but ideally you want someone who got nicked for multiple offenses.

            6.     Re-read a book you liked when you were in high school.

This does not mean read something that was assigned in high school. Read something you remember loving and see how it holds up to your adult mind. Some books you won’t be able to get through for the tedium, and others will be so new and interesting that you will shake your head and wonder what you thought you were reading when you were fifteen.

7.      Heading into the 4th of July, exercise your First Amendment rights and read    something that has been banned, burned, the subject of a precedent-making lawsuit, or all of the above.

The following books fit the bill: Ulysses, Naked Lunch, The Public Burning, Lolita, Tropic of Cancer, Nineteen Eighty-four, Alice in Wonderland, Philip Pullman’s trilogy His Dark Materials, Rights of Man, Madame Bovary, Howl, and the list goes on.

You’re welcome.