May 30, 2014

Fifty Shades of Grey is really a self-help book, didn’t you know?


Fifty Shades of Self-help

Fifty Shades of Self-help

A sociology professor in Jerusalem has produced the first-ever academic study of Fifty Shades of Grey, and revealed that the book isn’t just a smutty freak bestseller, but actually a self-help book, which encodes “problematic social conditions”.

Eva Illouz included Fifty Shades of Grey in her new book Hard-Core Romance, which she’s publishing with the University of Chicago Press. In the book, she argues that the Fifty Shades phenomenon was incorrectly interpreted. She believes that the books do not function as soft-core porn to titillate readers, but are actually self-help books which can guide readers to “a happier romantic life”.

Writing for the Guardian, Alison Flood shows how Illouz makes this argument in her book:

At one point, for example, Christian insists Ana refrain from using the bathroom. She asks him why. “I gaze at him through my lashes as I take a sip of my wine. ‘The fuller your bladder, the more intense your orgasm, Ana,'” she is told. “This rather unarousing explanation suggests that what distinguishes this book from conventional erotic novels is that its purpose is not to arouse the solitary reader; rather, it is to invite women to ‘carry away something’ … and this ‘something’ is a greater fluency in the art of making love,” writes Illouz.

In an amazing feat of academia, Illouz manages to bypasses this preposterous novelistic moment to analyze what’s really going on in the text. For her, Fifty Shades “stages many of the aporias of the sexual relationships between men and women” but the novel’s sadomasochistic relationship is “both a symbolic solution for and a practical technique to overcome these aporias”.

She may be right, and Fifty Shades of Grey might be read as a list of scenarios and tips for a better sex life, but can we trust these tips? Is a sadomasochistic relationship really a practical solution to ameliorating difficulties between men and women? And isn’t it bad for your bladder to not use the toilet when you need to go?

Still, Illouz does much to reconfigure Fifty Shades for a new audience, stating that the books are “a gothic romance adapted to modern times in which sexuality is both a source of division between men and women and a site to orchestrate their reconciliation” She compares it to Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, one of the titles in our Art of the Novella series. We can now proudly say that it serves as the ideal companion title to Fifty Shades. Illouz writes:

That a soft pornographic novel dealing with the intense absorption of two individuals in sadomasochistic sexuality could become such a worldwide bestseller a mere 100 years after The Awakening gives us a glimpse at the immense change in values that must have occurred in western culture – as dramatic a change, one might say, as electricity and indoor plumbing.

EL James would be proud, her million-seller books now have a new blurb that could attract the literary community. According to Illouz, the books are

A “caricatural version of a gothic romance… a commentary on the deprived condition of love and sexuality, a romantic fantasy, and self- help instructions on how to improve that life.

And what about the quality of the writing, is it as arresting, frightening and all-consuming as the canonical gothic novels?

I was speechless. It contained some of the worst writing I have ever seen and a plot that made my toenails curl.


Zeljka Marosevic is the managing director of Melville House UK.