At the height of the moronic craze over Fifty Shades of Grey, I happened upon a newscast showing a “lifestyle” story in which a camera crew had marauded into the home of a painfully white-bread couple from some nook of New England. According to the missus, their sagging sex life had just been buttressed by her embrace of the Fifty Shades trilogy, and the prevailing mood of this piece, I recall, was one of willing but abject exploitation. As the wife read aloud her favorite lines from one of the books—sentences, as you know, of such galactic ineptitude it was hard to believe a primate could have written them—the husband sat beside her on the sofa, blinking at the camera with a look of the most shell-shocked capitulation. It was unclear whether or not the wife had acquired the battery-operated sex utensils employed in the trilogy, but it couldn’t have been clearer that her porcine husband was being put through a nightly, ghastly regimen of sexual aerobics, a regimen for which he was neither physically nor emotionally suited. He was a cardiac catastrophe in waiting, someone who’d been perfectly content to pass his evenings with TV and pizza. But then along came these blasted books and wrecked his American right to glut and sloth.
With their drooling enthusiasm for Fifty Shades, millions of dreamy-hearted women have chaperoned a cultural phenomenon—one that amply shows how far taste can be removed from hunger—just as millions of frail-headed men have made Tom Clancy a household name, Clancy's bestsellers being a breed of poli-sci porn for gruff guys. The numbers Eva Illouz reveals in her new book on this cultural phenom, Hard-Core Romance, are shocking to those of us who can’t quite comprehend how these things happen: The Fifty Shades trilogy has sold in excess of 40 million copies globally, 32 million of which were purchased right here in our America. Illouz writes that “more than ten million copies were sold in the United States in a period of six weeks … and the first volume set the record as the fastest-selling paperback of all time, surpassing even the Harry Potter series.” A great many women indeed have been living it up while dumbing it down, titillated by a charlatan amorist who goes by the nom de plume of E.L. James. I'm made distinctly queasy by uttering that sacral American surname when referring to this empress of inanity, so let’s use her real name, Erika Leonard. She who has done so much to help debase our culture should stand revealed.
This is probably the spot to say that for the sake of this assignment I made a good faith effort to read these books at my city library, but I wasn't self-punishing enough actually to finish them and had to stop the agony halfway into the second volume. Dreck of this stupendous caliber has a particular advantage over literature in that one doesn't have to read all of it to surmise, accurately and eternally, that it is all uniformly awful and awfully uniform—romance novels, like racists, tend to be the same wherever you turn. It's pointless to spend much time impugning these books as writing because they really aren't meant to be considered as actual writing, the same way a Twinkie wasn't meant to be considered as actual food. Books ejaculated this easily have the inverse effect of being extremely difficult to read. Leonard’s creations are the cartoonishly erotic suppurations of a hamstrung, not terribly bright adult trying to navigate a midlife crisis, and you get the feeling that the sentences arrived on the page as if by osmosis, unaided by even a sub-literate serf.
Eva Illouz is an academic at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem who’s authored a book titled Oprah Winfrey and the Glamour of Misery, so she’s accustomed to writing intelligently about the bathetic and bromidic and brain dead. A bacterial bestseller such as Fifty Shades would appear a worthy target of study for a sociologist, except that it isn’t. John Ashbery once quipped that "the worse your art is, the easier it is to talk about," which might help explain why many of Illouz’s conclusions are so obvious, and also why her study is so abbreviated, a scant 80 pages. There simply isn't much to say about Erika Leonard's eighth-grade gurglings, about books this derivative and reductive, wholly barren of a single idea or sophisticated psychological insight.
Illouz contends that Hard-Core Romance “was written with respect and suspicion for popular cultural forms,” and although her grammar means to say respect for and suspicion of, you might yourself begin to suspect that she harbors too much of the former and not nearly enough of the latter. She does admit that when she first picked up Fifty Shades of Grey, “I was speechless. It contained some of the worst writing I have ever seen and a plot that made my toenails curl.” As for analysis that performs the tremendous feat of being both obvious and untrue, here’s a sample:
Fifty Shades of Grey represents the ultimate triumph of a female point of view in culture, preoccupied with love and sexuality, with emotions, with the possibility (or impossibility) of forming enduring loving bonds with a man, and with the intertwining of pain and pleasure in romantic and sexual relationships.
Women everywhere, I hope, will be irked to learn that Fifty Shades “represents the ultimate triumph” of their point of view, and yet we’d have trouble contending that the white middle-class women who made Fifty Shades a commercial godsend were not “preoccupied with love and sexuality.”
If Illouz’s analysis caters to stereotype it’s because Erika Leonard is incapable of an imaginative grasp divorced from stereotype, incapable of apprehensions unpolluted by platitude and cliché. Christian Grey, priapic and untamable, a roué for whom commitment is kryptonite, soon breaks beneath the loving gaze of Anastasia Steele, who on one page flaunts her freight of insecurities and her self-esteem starvation, her readiness to be dragooned, and on the next page is pleased to be assertive, bossy, modern. The books are fantastical precisely because they promise that venery leads to values, thrall to authority—because they are blithely convinced that both ways is the only way to have it. The trilogy’s assembly-line asininity is really a fomentation of the worst that can be believed about both sexes. Romance novels—parochial by definition, ecumenical in ambition—teach a scurvy lesson: enslavement to the passions is a ticket to happiness.
At least people are reading. You’ve no doubt heard that before. But we don’t say of the diabetic obese, At least people are eating.
Illouz discloses more staggering numbers: Romance novels are a billion-dollar-a-year industry and make up 46 percent of all mass-market paperbacks sold in America; the publishing company Harlequin claims that half of its customers buys 30 of its novels every month; it also claims to sell more than four books per second. How did the pabulum of Fifty Shades manage to rise above such a mind-stinging preponderance of crap? Illouz knows it’s impossible to provide a surefire answer to any book this rabidly popular, but she has a theory:
Fifty Shades of Grey became a worldwide bestseller because the Internet made it easily accessible, because it resonated with a long tradition of romance, because BDSM [bondage, discipline, sadism, masochism], the book’s focus, resolved symbolically many of the conundrums of the romantic condition, and finally, because its effect is performative, changing sexual and romantic practices while speaking about them.
That’s probably as close as we’ll ever get to determining a cause for the untethered success of Fifty Shades, though the explanation is itself reductive, since the devil knows how many romance novels mulishly adhere to those very criteria. You might recall that Fifty Shades originated on a “fan fiction” Web site devoted to those other crimes against language, the Twilight books.
The critic Katie Roiphe, in a smart piece on Fifty Shades for Newsweek, asserted that what is
most alarming about the Fifty Shades of Grey phenomena, what gives it its true edge of desperation, and end-of-the-world ambience, is that millions of otherwise intelligent women are willing to tolerate prose on this level. If you are willing to slog through sentences like … “My world is crumbling around me into a sterile pile of ashes, all my hopes and dreams cruelly dashed,” you must really, really, want to get to the submissive sex scene.
The pairing “otherwise intelligent” is up for debate, since some of us find it inconceivable that intelligent readers would participate in the abnegating of their minds and the debauching of English just to feel some twitching in their trousers. But if you were among those who found the books not even a smidgen sexy, that’s because they aren’t. In her 1972 essay “Seduction and Betrayal,” Elizabeth Hardwick, sapient as ever, was clear about this: “Sex can no longer be the germ, the seed of fiction. Sex is an episode, most properly conveyed in an episodic manner, quickly, often ironically.” Put another way: Sex is sexy when it’s suggested, furtive, and not when all the moving parts are acrobatically swung before us.
People apparently want this orgy of reduction, this puerile simplifying of Eros. And what's wrong with some empty entertainment to kick-start the sleepy genitalia? Nothing, unless you believe that a nation’s reading habits have something potent to say about that nation’s character. Tell me the books you read and I’ll tell you who you are; tell me you read no books and I’ll tell you there is no you. What does our battening on Fifty Shades tell us about ourselves then? Illouz rightly tags the trilogy a species of self-help, and if that’s true, and if you consider how lucrative the self-help racket is in our land, then what the commercial coup of Fifty Shades reveals about us is this: We’re an infirm, ineffectual tribe still stuck in some sort of larval stage. Do I really expect Americans to sit down with Adam Bede or Clarissa after all the professional and domestic hurly-burly of their day? Do I expect them to appreciate the sexually terroristic satires of Sade, or the erogenous verse of Sappho and Catullus, or Nicholson Baker’s comical romp Vox? Pardon me, but yes I do.
At least people are reading. You’ve no doubt heard that before. But we don’t say of the diabetic obese, At least people are eating. Anyway, we can expect a resurgence of the Fifty Shades evangelism when the film version is released next year, when middle-class ladies everywhere tug their porcine beaus off the sofa and put them through another 90 minutes of torture.
William Giraldi is author of the novel Busy Monsters and Fiction Editor for the journal AGNI at Boston University.