The Victorian Sage

"Many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall be increased"

Tag: 50 shades of grey

Lying about Books, and on Trashy Literature

Interesting little quiz on Buzzfeed here asking participants if they’ve read/ not read/ not read but lied about reading certain books. The most lied about books appear to be The Great Gatsby, The Catcher in the Rye, 1984, The Bible and Moby Dick. Moby Dick, with 11% lieds and 16% reads, is the only book where the amount who’ve pretended to read it comes anywhere close to those who have actually read it. Not surprising, it is one hell of a boring novel/ tract on 19th-century whaling. I don’t lie about reading books much, but in seminars I often have to talk about or lead discussions on books that I may not have read in full – just the relevant parts. If it comes to it and a part of the book I hadn’t read comes up, I would usually admit this rather than try to bluff that I had read it.

But what it means to have read a book is a difficult question. In the Buzzfeed quiz, I answered no for The Bible: I haven’t read The Bible in full, but have read excerpts, and of course I’ve also been exposed to sermons, etc., therefrom. So I do feel like I know The Bible, in some ways. On the other hand, I answered yes to some slightly ambiguous ones, namely Ulysses and Atlas Shrugged. Did I read those books? Yes, but there was a lot of skimming going on at times. They are books I couldn’t discuss with any degree of confidence and I feel that I haven’t read them in the way they should be read, according to the reading conventions that surround them. This is especially true with Ulysses: of course I know it’s the great book of the 20th century (in English, at least), and that you can’t just take it to the beach and flick through it. Reading Ulysses means something among different to the people who read Ulysses, so the status of my reading of the book is questionable.

The other interesting inclusion was Twilight: interesting because there the options were read/not read/ read but lied about NOT reading. 9% had lied about it, i.e. pretended they hadn’t read it. I’ve read Twilight (only the first book in the series). Twilight functions as anti-literature: literature apparently so bad that it has a negative cultural cachet. An even better example of this would be 50 Shades of Grey. I’ve read it (again, only the first book in the series). Sadly they didn’t include it, but I suspect the numbers who lied about NOT reading would be far higher than even Twilight. 50 Shades isn’t just notoriously bad literature, its subject matter is also rather questionable in many circles. Thus I would suggest it is the most lied-about book around at the moment – the anti-Moby Dick in that you pretend you haven’t read it. A related point is that its success was enabled by the existence of Kindle and other ereaders. You don’t have to own a physical copy, and nobody has to see you reading it in public or even find it lying around your living-room. Just as Moby Dick and some of the other books on the list are books to own but not to read, 50 Shades is a book to read, but not to own, if one can help it.

Or, recall the Mark Twain quote: “A classic is a book everybody wants to have read, but nobody wants to read”. A decent definition of trashy literature might be: “A book that everybody wants to read, but nobody wants to have read”.

On Looking into 50 Shades of Grey

It behoves the aspirant cultural critic to investigate all significant cultural phenomena, and with this in mind I have lately been looking into E.L. James’s bestselling erotic novel, 50 Shades of Grey, which is the fastest selling book of all time. Suddenly, it’s taken the generally unspeakable topic of sado-masochistic sexual relationships and presented it in a way that has found huge favour in the mainstream. It has provided a new code with which to speak of things which as their uneuphemized selves cannot be spoken of. Yet whether 50 Shades is really about sex and/or sado-masochism is harder to say. Perhaps its popularity is that it is a book nominally about sex that really gives free rein to other fantasies, giving to certain old tropes a veneer of newness by the addition of sado-masochistic content. Here, having read 66% of the novel by Kindle’s calculations, I will take time to reflect on this groundbreaking work, this Sign of the Times, as our old friend Mr C. would say.

The relationship between Christian Grey and the young female narrator Anastasia Steele is about much more than sex. The sexual dominance Grey employs is only an extension of what happens in the rest of their relationship. He follows her, he’s there when she’s about to do something dumb or dangerous, he always knows what she’s thinking, he has the power to give her all the things she wants materially, if she deserves them. He is a sort of secular god, with added powers of providing sexual satisfaction. He doesn’t provide Anastasia with just a good sexual partner, but with a whole metanarrative, a design for life. He motivates her, partly through fear of losing his favour, to change her lifestyle, to eat and drink better, to sleep better, to be fitter and more productive, to exercise – which she has hitherto hated; she is no longer in danger of a standard student life of alcoholic overindulgence whose dangers are highlighted in the early part of the book. She drives more slowly after meeting him, remembering “a stern voice telling me to drive carefully” (loc 312 – Kindle citation). Grey is a convenient construction who provides a personalized motivation to do all of the things she felt she should be doing anyway. He is an all-knowing, all-seeing providence guiding her every movement, and judging it infallibly. The same drives that are behind the creation of a Christian Grey are those hitherto sublimated in the religions of mankind. Religion is, in the words of Dr Freud (in Civilization and its Discontents (1929)):

[A] system of teachings and promises that one the one hand explains to him [i.e. man], with enviable thoroughness, the riddles of this world, and on the other assures him that a careful providence will watch over his life and compensate him in a future existence for any privations he suffers in this. The common man cannot imagine this providence otherwise than as an immensely exalted father.

The good doctor goes on to find this “so patently infantile, so remote from reality, that it pains a philanthropic temperament to think that the great majority of mortals will never be able to rise above such a view of life.”

In 50 Shades, this image of the immensely exalted father is not projected onto a literal god, but onto a real person (diegetically real, that is). It is the feeling of being watched over by a perhaps stern but certainly benevolent omnipotence that provides the attraction for Anastasia Steele. Sex, I would suggest, is a small part of this, and not the most important; only important, perhaps, in that sex is the hardest element of life to reconcile with the religious drives – but, yet, they must be made to reconcile, and this is what James achieves, providing a fantasy of life that has all bases covered. 50 Shades of Grey helps to fill a God-shaped void for many of its readers (and, by God, I mean, mostly, the wish to abdicate intellectuo-moral responsibility); the danger, of course, is in applying the “lessons” of 50 Shades to real life, as this involves the imputation of god-like status to some person. Whether this turns out to be more dangerous than imputing god-like status to an illusory entity, time will tell.

One is not, of course, suggesting that 50 Shades in itself and alone will be responsible for a rerouting of the religious drives onto individuals within a romantic and sexual context, but that it is a Sign of the Times in this regard. This is all based on the supposition that the drives which have hitherto given rise to religions are still operative and as it were searching for a new object.


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