EL James’s new book Grey has been put thoroughly through the critical wringer. Critics have picked up once again on James’s clumsy use of language and her wooden cringe inducing dialogue. It’s all good fun but also kind of akin to shooting butt plugs in a barrell. Salman Rushdie once famously said of EL James’s series that they “made the Twilight series look like War and Peace” However, should we really be basing Grey on literary merit? There is a reason why it’s sold right next to the viabrators in Ann Summers. It is, let’s face it, porn. The characters are flat one dimensional sex objects, the plot is as flimsy as Christians grey tie and that is absolutely fine. Because its main purpose is to titillate you; just as a nude photograph doesn’t have to have a political context or a pair of fluffy handcuffs a postmodern subtext.
As a former English Literature student, I have known my fair share of book snobbery and know it when I see it. For three years I felt that I had to bury my secret likings for JK Rowling and Stephen King under a pile of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf. I was for a while a complete cultural snob who couldn’t bear to sully myself with the likes of The X Factor or, god forbid, a Michael Bay film. If I’m being honest, I felt a fair bit of inadequacy compared to my more worldly, genuinely intellectual classmates and so I kept myself on a strict and rigid cultural diet. Much like a sort of nun repenting for years of earnestly reading beauty magazines without taking a critical stance. I’ve since gained a slightly healthier perspective and now find that I can enjoy both the poetry of Pushkin and watching people fall over on You’ve Been Framed.
There is a fair amount of gleeful book snobbery with the Fifty Shades of Grey franchise. However, I have also detected something a little nastier. Fifty Shades is undoubtedly complete trash but more pointedly it is aimed at women. Women’s trash culture is sniffed at far more than men’s trash culture, especially when it has erotic themes. Men’s trash culture often becomes prime time fodder, no matter how culturally barren. Just look at Top Gear. This is a programme about three men-children who drive around smashing up cars and making jokes about French people. When Jeremy Clarkson was fired there was a bigger, more emotional petition to keep him on that there ever has been to prevent cuts to the NHS. The man who Clarkson punched in the face received a thunderstorm of abuse on twitter from outraged fans. Clearly men’s trash culture is serious business.
Just look at the wealth of men’s erotic, popular culture. Until very recently it was considered completely normal that a person should open a family newspaper and be greeted by a pair of oversized bosoms. Sure, page 3 has been criticised in terms of supposed morality and its objectifying of women but not once has an Art Historian ever taken a picture of Nikki, 19 from Wolverhampton and made an intellectual comparison with Johannes Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring. Such a comparison would be baffling, albeit interesting. So why do we subject Grey to such fire and brimstone literary scrutiny?
Fifty Shades of Grey has been a trash culture phenomenon which has clearly struck a chord with thousands of women across age groups and social divides. It is the first time in my lifetime that I have known women to be openly reading erotica on the bus or discussing it in public settings. Although it is obviously thematically problematic, It has also become one of the only mainstream platforms through which women can begin to explore and discuss their sexuality as candidly as men. Shouldn’t this be something to be, tentatively, applauded? I am of course completely open to engaging in a literary conversation about the merits, or indeed lack of, within Grey. However, I am open to this only when The Times Literary Supplement runs a scholarly, critical analysis of the latest issue of Playboy magazine.