26 July 2012

Erica Jong on FIFTY SHADES OF GREY: "Her bad writing keeps pulling you out of the fantasy"

Last night I went to a panel on the effect and influence of FIFTY SHADES OF GREY in American culture. At the beginning of the night, moderator Amy Lee of event host McNally Jackson said, "Just to get this off the table, we're not going to be discussing the book's literary merit," whereupon the Blythe Dannerish woman next to me looked up from her iPhone (where she was texting someone named Pity) and called out "There is none!"

Most everyone at the event seemed to agree with her on that count, although perhaps there would have been a few champions who were too cowed to speak out. Though not billed as such, the discussion to me represented a takedown of the book at hand and, simultaneously, a passionate defense of the right to fantasy (though some were more passionate than others).

"It's been helping my backlist, God only knows why," said Erica Jong, who criticized FIFTY SHADES' poor writing and hackneyed premise from her position as the author of the groundbreaking FEAR OF FLYING. While she allowed that "solving a mixed-up guy is something we've all tried to do in our lives" and expressed the hope that FIFTY SHADES would blow open the doors of literature to more writing about sex, Jong questioned the idea that people are really getting ideas for their own sex lives from this book. That cause was taken up primarily by Ian Kerner, a sex therapist who by his own admission had only skimmed the book (and at one point compared it to "True Blood," which was weird) but stressed the difference between transgressive fantasy (in which anything goes) and the reality that most Americans are "extremely bored" in their relationships and find themselves in "sex ruts."  

New York Times contributing writer Daniel Berger described it as a "sex novel in the guise of a romance novel" but also defended it as "giving permission" for people to enjoy erotica, even reading a passage from the book as someone in the audience made a retching noise. He also pointed out that the furor over FIFTY SHADES is less about its fantasy content, which is already readily available, than the perception of threat or damage that comes of walking that "uncomfortable boundary" between pop culture we all talk about and sex we don't all talk about.

This was one of several ways the media was taken to task for how they covered FIFTY SHADES; Febos mentioned a disturbing Newsweek article positioning the book as a threat to feminism (surprise, Katie Roiphe strikes again!), and writer Roxane Gay joked, "Of course the media are always shocked as shit when women have fantasies." She also compared it to "Magic Mike" as a hallmark of the monetization of the female gaze, without dismissing the book's more problematic aspects such as its heroine's near-constant vulnerability and that it "requires a suspension of disbelief that few people are capable of" as it "pretends to empower women."

"People have been writing these fantasies in their journals since the beginning of time," put in Melissa Febos, a former professional dominatrix who was the most open among the panelists about her personal reaction to FIFTY SHADES. "There's always going to be simplistic, poorly written fantasies." Berger concluded to a rumbling of disagreement, "Maybe porn can't be literature. It doesn't lend itself to that language." Yet the panel cited several erotic works that they considered literature including LADY CHATTERLEY'S LOVER, THE STORY OF O, Anne Rice's SLEEPING BEAUTY trilogy, THE UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS OF BEING and A SPORT AND A PASTIME, while laughing over the idea that sales of TESS OF THE D'URBERVILLES are spiking because an early edition of the book is exchanged as a gift in FIFTY SHADES.

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