Fifty Shades of Boneheaded or WTF is Wrong with Erotica Reviewing?
So this summer, one of those dear, article-sending friends we all have, knowing of my interest in erotica, forwarded me a review from The New Republic of Alicia Nutting's novel, Tampa, entitled, “The Phony Transgressiveness of Tampa” which caused a bit of a personal kerfuffle. Here is the author, Maggie Shipstead’s, opening paragraph:
What makes a piece of fiction erotica? I’d say that erotic fiction is defined by explicit sexual content included for its own sake (not necessarily in service of a story) and an intent to arouse. Since as far back as John Cleland’s Fanny Hill: Or, Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure (published in England in 1748), erotic fiction has tended to have a cyclical, masturbation-friendly structure. Flimsy, ostensibly plot-advancing sequences segue into sexual encounters much in the way pizza deliveries and doctor appointments perfunctorily frame pornographic movies, providing a bit of context and loosely situating the observed participants.
Shipstead then goes on to muse about books by Philip Roth or Nabokov that “transcend” the genre with their stunning literary style, and conclusively demonstrates why Tampa fails to do that.
I spent several hours composing a comment, which I imagined was so magisterial it would generate lots of responses and debate. Ha Ha. Anyway, not able to let its stupendous brilliance rest in obscurity, I will reprint it here:
Obviously Shipstead is perfectly free to define “erotica” using the same criteria usually used for pornography. However, for those who actually read and write in this genre, “erotica” is fully a subgenre of romance, but without the old publishers’ injunctions against explicit terms and descriptions. Shipstead’s general dismissiveness towards the genre is only reinforced by her use of Lolita, one of the most acclaimed novels of the twentieth-century, as her standard. I heartily concede most erotica published (at any time in history) does not “transcend” the genre like Nabokov’s masterpiece does. But could we find a more loaded comparison? Do we usually evaluate Tom Clancy novels by the same standards as Joseph Conrad’s? Romance, erotic or not, is genre fiction, just like thrillers, mysteries, or sword-and-sorcery novels. It’s not trying to transcend anything, but that does not make it the same as pornography in either content or purpose.
Based on Shipstead’s review and the blurb, I would characterize Tampa (like American Psycho) completely as satire, specifically of the most aggressive Swiftian mode that pulls readers in with its shocking material in order to leave them feeling compromised and implicated. Any arousal you feel reading Tampa is designed to make you feel guilty and filthy, which is a legitimate authorial goal, but could not be further from the governing logic of romance, no matter how much sex is depicted.
Obviously, erotica is supposed to be hot, but it’s about fantasy and wish-fulfillment and cutting loose your inhibitions. Above all it’s about pleasure. Sometimes that pleasure can feel quite transgressive, or at least forbidden, but most romance writers and readers would agree that the sole unifying convention of romance is the Happily Ever After (HEA). The HEA almost by definition precludes a story featuring a sociopathic pedophile as its heroine. For those interested in reading books that show more of the range of erotica today, I would recommend the hilarious and intelligent Control by Charlotte Stein or Out of the Woods by Syd McGinley (click here for my review), a genuinely transgressive and sometimes disturbing book, but one that ultimately falls within the conventions of romance.
Rereading my comment now, I don’t find it particularly harsh, but I fully admit to being in a full-on conniption when I wrote it. Shipstead’s piece raised some bad memories from the “reviews” of Fifty Shades of Grey (FSoG) that journals like the New York Times and Newsweek felt obliged to publish when the trilogy sold 70 MILLION EFFING COPIES. Needless to say, major journals that cover culture do not usually review romance, but I was still pretty appalled at what they managed to say about the book. Here is a run-down of what I see as the main problems.
1. Endless condescension towards people (the vast majority of whom are women) who liked the book, commonly epitomized by references to mothers—mommy-porn, mom-friendly, etc. Here is a typical quote from an early piece on the “phenomenon” from the Times:
“Fifty Shades of Grey,” an erotic novel by an obscure author that has been described as “Mommy porn” and “Twilight” for grown-ups, has electrified women across the country, who have spread the word like gospel on Facebook pages, at school functions and in spin classes.
2. The discussion of the sex itself, usually either winking references to the book’s naughty pictures of nekkid girls—in handcuffs! or patronizing dismissals on the grounds that the books aren’t depicting authentic hard-core kink. Here’s Newsweek:
To a certain, I guess, rather large, population, it has a semipornographic glamour, a dangerous frisson of boundary crossing, but at the same time is delivering reassuringly safe, old-fashioned romantic roles. Reading Fifty Shades of Grey is no more risqué or rebellious or disturbing than, say, shopping for a pair of black boots or an arty asymmetrical dress at Barneys.
3. Appalled indignation at the book’s anti-feminist relationship dynamics. Typical example: “Women Falling For Fifty Shades Of Degradation” from The Courant, or "Shades of Red" in The Huffington Post.
4. And finally, endless, ENDLESS complaints about how horrible the writing is. Here’s the Tribune:
The book is classified as erotic fiction, where I am sure the word ‘erotic’ is used in the loosest sense of the word. If erotic passages are meant to induce an almost impossible combination of disbelief, cringing and inadvertent hilarity then, by all means, Fifty Shades of Grey is the most erotic novel ever written. Frankly, until now, I did not think it was possible to wince, laugh, and grind my teeth at same time.
Here’s Vulture on the "Thinking Woman's Guide To Fifty Shades of Grey":
So even though I'm late to the phenomenon, I felt compelled to pick it up. After reading it, there are just a few things I don't understand. Namely, how it's possible that anybody is turned on by this.
I'm sorry. I know, it's soft porn, and it's not there to better us. But the advantage of erotic fiction over a DVD of I Can't Believe I Ate the Whole Team is that books will always at least FEEL more high-minded than movies.
I'm not going to spend more time on the fundamental problem with assuming that millions of women who liked FSoG somehow can't think, but the Vulture example is helpful in that the writer explicitly states what is obviously true of all of the reviews: that the critic would never have read the book if it hadn’t become the focus of a media storm. A lot of them admit to forcing themselves to finish it. The other thing they all have in common is that none of them read contemporary romance or erotica—why else would they pepper their reviews with references to Philip Roth, Harold Robbins, Danielle Steel, or Lolita? (Fanny Hill? Seriously WTF!). They know nothing at all about it.
None of these reactions are surprising when you ask a critic who spends his or her life writing scintillating essays assessing the latest candidates for the Booker Prize to read Fifty Shades of Grey. But they expose the fallacy that expertise in contemporary literary fiction somehow confers competence to review any contemporary novel. Discussing an influential work of genre fiction requires at a bare minimum familiarity with that genre. I would also argue that it requires a basic appreciation of that genre, including the capacity to enjoy works in it. Here is a critic from the London Review of Books:
When it comes to erotic writing, the more explicit it gets – the more heaving, the more panting – the more I want to laugh. Erotic writing is said to have a noble pedigree: the goings-on in Ovid, the whipping in Sade, the bare-arsed wrestling in Lawrence, the garter-snapping in Anaïs Nin, the wife-swapping in Updike, the arcs of semen hither and yon. But it’s so much sexier when people don’t have sex on the page.
Do I have to point out the inherent limitations of a critic attempting to assess the significance of FSoG who admits in the first paragraph that he does not find written descriptions of sex to be the least arousing?
Ultimately, my problem is not really with the critics, who are just stating their opinions. But I cannot let the journals themselves off the hook. Why on earth can’t the Times farm that review out to someone who reads hundreds of erotic novels, and preferably dozens of fanfics also, who is familiar with the conventions, politics, levels of sexual intensity, anything at all about this genre?
Please be clear: we do not see this in other aspects of popular culture reviewing. The New York Times does not send their opera guy who can’t stand Rap to review Jay-Z. My generation (X) does not respect lines between high- and low-brow culture. We watch Jersey Shore and then write about it for the Times Magazine. We have “experts” on Manga and Anime and X-Box games who are capable of writing lucid, engaging, and persuasively authoritative essays on specific examples. (I will discuss in another essay why I think why organs like the Times are guilty of this staggering incompetence with erotica when they would never be guilty of it with Rap.)
I am not trying with this to defend FSoG. But as I said in Part 1 of this series, if you wish to understand changes in the publishing industry, you need to make sense of what is happening in romance and erotica. You need critics of the genre—thoughtful, articulate, knowledgeable readers who are familiar with its conventions and thus capable of evaluating specific examples. The problem is that editors and literary critics who are already dismissive of the genre will have to face the uncomfortable fact that these potential critics are first and foremost fans—this is true of Manga and it’s true of erotica. Reading through the reactions to FSoG, it will be a huge step for many of them to admit that such critical, intelligent reader/fans of erotica can even exist.