It’s been a weird year for publishing, with bad news about plummeting advances, disappearing bookshops and dwindling sales everywhere you turn.
But there’s been the occasional good news too. A couple of Australian authors – Hannah Kent and Graeme Simsion – set for international success (and five figure paydays) with their debut novels in 2013. The potential for small publishers to thrive in a future where adaptability is prized.
And there’s been the phenomenal, world-bestselling success of one author whose sales figures have defied the trends, despite widespread agreement that her books are terrible: E.L. James.
The Fifty Shades of Grey author has been named Publisher’s Weekly’s Publishing Person of the Year 2012 for showing that people will still buy printed books – she’s sold 35 million copies of her trilogy in the US alone.
The decision has sparked derision in many quarters – with reasons ranging from the fact that the books began as Twilight fan fiction, that the prose is bad, and that their success began outside traditional publishing channels, with a tiny e-book publisher.
The best thing about the announcement? It’s sparked another video review from the hilarious Totally Hip Book Reviewer Ron Charles, fiction editor of the Washington Post, with a BDSM flavour and lashings of satire.
Catherine Deveny explains why 50 Shades of Grey is one of the worst books she’s ever read, with terrible writing and sexual politics alike – but she’s still really glad that people are reading, talking about and being turned on by it.
A few hours after I finished 50 Shades, I found myself at Costco.
I’m not proud of it, I was there for research. (Okay I was there for toilet paper. WHATEVER. I don’t judge your happy place.)
As soon as I walked into Costco, I was faced with 200 copies of 50 Shades Of Grey, plus similar amounts of other two – 50 Shades Darker and 50 Shades Freed – all at the mass-produced price of $9.97 each. A wall of porn.
Finding porn in between caterer packs of Cling Film and one kilo buckets of Vegemite in a warehouse can only be a good thing … (even if it is a badly-written book, being sold at a cathedral of corporate maggotry, environmental vandalism and competition consumerism).
Things you need to know before I flesh out my 50 Shades Of Grey experience.
I don’t read much. I am profoundly dyslexic and I’m a very slow reader. It’s faster for me to write a book than read one.
I do buy heaps of books. Because they are beautiful and I intend to read them and I want to support the writers, publishers and the industry.
I do not ‘Hate Read’ like some people do. You know what I mean, when people say, ‘I’m reading this book at the moment and I just hate it.’ ‘Why don’t you just bail and read something else?’ ‘Oh I can’t do that! I have to finish a book when I start it.’ That’s a Hate Read. Dev doesn’t Hate Read and neither should you. Life is too short to Hate Read. I’m happy to bail.
I went away to a beach house over the school holidays and brought All That I Am. (I was rapt when Anna Funder won the Miles Franklin Award. Melbourne girl, brilliant woman. I LOVED Stasiland.) So, I’m 100 pages in, and I just can’t get into it. It’s brilliantly written, every sentence is a masterpiece; I’m just not smart enough to keep up. So I reluctantly bail after giving it a red-hot go.
Next book: 50 Shades of Grey. As I’ve illustrated, I’m VERY happy to pull the plug on a book if I’m not getting into it. But I don’t. Despite it being the worst written book I have ever read, I could not put it down.
I hated Christian, I hated Ana, I particularly hated Katherine Kavanagh. The sex was contrived; the writing was clunky and ‘trying to sound grown up’. The naive virgin good girl being flowered by the troubled stud made my hair stand on end. There is nothing believable about Christian’s attraction to Anastasia. She’s just a boring, colorless nothing. A narrative service provider. (We do NOT need any more female characters like this. Literature, theatre, film, television and history are full of them.) Plus, the book romanticises dysfunctional relationships and the traditional male–female hetero power dynamic and portrays clichéd BDSM.
Reading the book was like stinky cheese. ‘Oh my GOD! (smells and repels) this cheese is so stinky (smells and repels) you gotta smell it (smells and repels cheese and then forces companion to smell). Isn’t it disgusting?’
The story is about a dysfunctional, co-dependent relationship between a wide-eyed, inexperienced virgin and a wealthy narcissistic creep. The relationship is not dysfunctional because of the BDSM. The BDSM and the diverse sex-play and pleasure described are the only positives in the book. (The relationship is dysfunctional because the emotional transaction is hollow, unsatisfying and way out of whack, and the characters are caricatures.)
The cringey mentions of him ‘stroking his impressive length’, ‘breath hitching’, her ‘inner goddess dancing’ – and particularly all the ‘Stop biting your lip Anastasia’. I could go on … ARGGGH! I was sharing with all. ‘Stinky cheese. You gotta smell. Is sooo stinky.’
When I got to the end, I felt like I should be running through a crepe paper banner.
But I’m very happy this book is out there – and I think everyone should read it, or at least get across the sexual content. I’m constantly appalled by the media-approved, clichéd assertions of what people find attractive and what they are turned on by. (See Packed To The Rafters, Underbelly or The Footy Show for more information.)
If you read most women’s mags or blogs, it’s all ‘Biggest turn on? A man. Turning on the vacuum.’ Sorry, but I’m NOT aroused by a man cleaning, cooking or looking after the kids. I am turned on by a man flirting/charming/seducing or fucking me or vice-versa. And I am not alone. GROW UP! Stop infantilising women and telling them this is what turns them on. (I’m talking to you, Bettina Arndt.)
What about ‘women are too classy to watch porn, but they’ll read the bejesus out of it’? Current figures suggest one in three Australian women regularly consume pornographic images. We do both. Read and watch.
The truth, is my happy place is not Costco. It’s having sex with my boyfriend. Or shagging. Or fucking. Or rooting. Or making love. This was not how I was raised. I was raised to be encouraged to get my pleasure from being a mum, cooking meals, going to church and making other people happy. And to fine desire in food, new curtains and a ‘smart outfit’ that I had whipped up myself that did not make me look cheap.
I was never once encouraged to ask myself what I like, what I wanted, what turned me on.
So as clichéd, badly written, problematic and at times cringeworthy 50 Shades Of Grey is, it’s positive. Particularly for the less liberated among us. As much as people should feel fine about erotica, porn, toys, and any other kind of pleasure that is safe and consensual, most people feel some level of shame and guilt. Pleasure is demonised and desire is enemy number one.
Now, all those people are not only buying 50 Shades Of Grey, but also reading it, talking about it and suggesting it to friends. It’s loosened the knot a little on what people consider acceptable. Spanking, anal, fisting, toys and role-play are now becoming a mainstream option for those interested. (If only in conversation. The popular interest in this book suggests to people who are turned on by the descriptions of these practices that they’re not alone. It makes them feel okay where they once may have not. Safety in numbers.
And as far as the literary snobbery is concerned, I’m not sure what’s worse. The sexual snobbery about what is ‘respectable’ for people to be turned on by or what is ‘respectable for people to read. (The whole ‘I cannot believe that adults are reading Harry Potter! It’s a children’s book!’ brigade. Remember them?) Get over yourselves wowsers, haters and bores. Who died and made you chalk monitor?
50 Shades Of Grey may be a steaming pile of dog food. But there is a pill in that dog food, a supplement, that has led to conversations that may result in more and deeper pleasure and authenticity in people’s sex lives – and that makes my heart sing.
If you can’t see it, you can’t be it. Perhaps, even more importantly, if you have never come across it, how do you know how to imagine it or desire it?
I never ordered humus until I knew what it was and saw it on the menu.
I watched a fantastic SBS Insight with Jenny Brockie a few months ago about teens and porn. The audience was filled with their parents, who lamented that the accessibility of porn and erotica is robbing their children of a ‘normal sexual awakening.’ Some said, ‘You don’t need porn, just ask your partner what they want.’ But I learn new stuff from my interest in porn, pleasure, sex, happiness and erotica all the time.
‘Normal sexual awakening’? Are you serious? Normal according to who? Women having fertility control is relatively new. So is legal abortions, and not throwing promiscuous women into asylums, or gay men into jail. No-fault divorce is still an amoeba in the scheme of things.
A healthy sex life expands the mind, the heart, the intellect and people’s creativity and acceptance of others. And who knows, 50 Shades may even lead to some better-written saucy books to unleash the inner god and goddess in us all. Keep your eye out at Costco.
Just when you thought you’d seen and read everything you could possibly handle about The Wire (aka The Best TV Show Ever Made), here comes something you need to watch. It’s The Wire as told in Lego animation, with all your favourite characters: Omar, McNulty, Bunk, Stringer Bell. Watch and enjoy!
So, sports fans (and major event lovers) around the world are fired up with Olympics fever at the moment. And some of them are celebrating in their own unique ways. Australian shooter Lauryn Mark is promoting a positive image of her sport by posing in a green and gold bikini, with a shotgun, for zoo Weekly. Her husband and fellow competitor Russell Mark is complaining that he and his wife are being discriminated against for being heterosexual because they’ve been told they can’t room together in London.
Others have a more genteel, creative response to all the excitement – like one East London lady who knits up a storm to create a garden display for every major event. And right now, her yard is a knitted tribute to the Olympics. The Atlantic has posted a series of gorgeous photographs.
The world is still talking about 50 Shades of Grey, with new views, reviews and movie news posted every day. We highly recommend Andrew O'Hagan’s acerbic review in the London Review of Books, especially the classic line: ‘I suspect the book has taken the world’s mums by storm because there’s no mess on the carpet and there are hot showers afterwards.’
Newsweek has compiled the best 50 Shades parody videos in one handy post – from a musical to a Saturday Night Live satire starring Kristen Wiig (our favourite) and Ellen Degeneres reading the audiobook, complete with unenthusiastic sound effects.
Caitlin Moran’s very funny feminist bestseller, How to Be a Woman, is coming out in the US this week. And to celebrate, there’s a terrific long profile of Moran over at Slate, by Peggy Orenstein. She describes interviewing a Moran dressed in a T-shirt that reads, ‘My feminist Marxist dialectic brings all the boys to the yard’. Here’s a taste of Moran’s feminist approach to parenting:
As toddlers, Moran taught them to shout, ‘Thanks for that, the patriarchy!’ whenever they scraped a knee. At age 8, when Lizzie questioned Barbie’s improbable curves, Moran had her draw pictures of what the doll ought to look like (‘An outline that was kind of representative,’ Moran said, ‘feet big enough to stand on and a mono-brow because Lizzie has a mono-brow. Hair on her legs. And she made one breast slightly larger than the other, so I was like, Thanks.’) For Halloween last year, the girls dressed as suffragettes.
This video of Moran talking about how to apply feminism in your own home (shoes you can walk in! plasma TV bought with proceeds of not having Brazilians!) is completely brilliant:
What do you give the hipster kid who has everything? The latest kids' book only an adult would really enjoy (a genre in itself) is Thrill Murray, a colouring-in book celebration of ‘the great man of cinema’ in some of his most iconic roles and moments, illustrated by 23 different artists. Okay, it’s not really for kids; it’s a cool toy for those who are kids at heart.
We share five of our favourite links to news, reviews or articles that we’ve discovered on the web over the past week.
It’s a bit weird to think that one of the hottest topics of conversation in the literary world, from London to New York, is a book that began as a self-published fan fiction e-book, and is now an international erotic bestseller backed by a multi-million dollar deal.
Katie Roiphe’s Newsweek article, ‘Spanking Goes Mainstream’ on what she diagnoses as a ‘current vogue for domination’ (or, ‘the stylised theatre of female powerlessness’), epitomised by Fifty Shades and explored on HBO’s new zeitgeisty series, Girls. Roiphe says it’s a reaction to feminism, by women who find ‘free will a burden’. The internet has exploded in angry response.
For those wondering what all the fuss is about, The Vulture has produced ‘The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Fifty Shades of Grey’, including reasons why it’s just not sexy:
‘There are ways to write sex well. This is not that. This is like Tom Wolfe–bad sex scenes but punctuated by non-sex scenes that are gut-wrenchingly awful. A passage where we find out what Anastasia Steele looks like via girl-frowning-at-her-appearance-in-a-mirror exposition should be punishment for vehicular manslaughter in some states.’
Novelist, critic and Big Issue books editor Chris Flynn has been blogging a lot for Meanjin recently. This week, he writes about the influence of the Hatchet Job of the Year Award on the kinds of reviews that are being published; wondering if the rewarding of snark promoted by the award might be encouraging reviewers to be gratuitously mean, making it more about them than the work under consideration. ‘As a casual reviewer myself I’m beginning to wonder if I’m just not mean enough to be cut out for the task,’ he writes.
He singles out the infamous New York Times take-down of Elliot Perlman’s The Street Sweeper (‘a textbook on how not to write fiction’) and Neil Genzlinger’s evisceration of television’s Game of Thrones – and its viewers (‘Dungeons and Dragons types [with a] fairly low reward threshold’).
Adam Mansbach (of Go the F**k to Sleep fame) has a very nice little satire in the New Yorker on the art of asking authors to ‘blurb’ (ie. endorse) your book. Here’s an excerpt from his pricing chart:
This is your first book. (+$100)
This is your first book in a decade. (+$150)
You’re still using the author photo from your ‘promising début’. (+$75)
I know you. (–$50)
I met you once. (–$20)
We made out at a party. (+$25)
We got drunk together at a literary festival once, but I could tell you were thinking the whole time about how now you could ask me for a blurb. (+$75)
One of the most popular articles we’ve published this year was our look at the pink-and-pastel hued ‘Lego for girls’, officially branded Lego Friends. This week, Salon reports that Lego executives have agreed to sit down to talk with SPARK, a group who hopes to get the company to include more characters in its standard Lego lines, and improve the Lego Friends line, which Time magazine compared to Disney Princess, ‘with its emphasis on physical appearance and limited career choices’.
Of course, Disney Princess – and Lego Friends – are fantastically successful with consumers, if not commentators. Salon is sceptical, thought its reporter says ‘it would be wise for a company founded nearly 50 years ago with the imperative to create toys for “girls and for boys” to remember that goal doesn’t mean “girl toys and boy toys.”’
The New York Times has launched a new regular series, ‘By the Book’, in which they interview writers about what they’re reading and recommending. They kick off with David Sedaris, who is characteristically entertaining and enlightening.
Among his confessions? ‘I like nonfiction books about people with wretched lives. The worse off the subjects, the more inclined I am to read about them. When it comes to fictional characters, I’m much less picky. Happy, confused, bitter: if I like the writing I’ll take all comers.’
The book that made him want to write? Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. ‘His short, simple sentences and familiar-seeming characters made writing look, if not exactly easy, then at least possible.’
In yesterday’s Age, Michelle Griffin wrote a passionate plea for why we should be exposing teens to more ‘dirty books’. She says that in an age where teens can easily access actual porn over the internet and formal sex education emphasises disease and danger (and is often awkwardly delivered by well-meaning but reluctant teachers), dirty books are ‘the best chance they have to free their fantasy lives from the shackles of banal commercialised sexuality’.
She reports that only half of Year 10 students have had sex (though ‘surely all of them are thinking about it’) and suggests that it’s far better for them to imagine their own scripts – based on their own desires and fantasies – than to leave them with only the restrictive scripts provided by porn:
We should fill school libraries, family bookshelves and e-readers with all manner of explicit literature: not just copies of The Joy of Sex, but steamy airport novels, raunchy teen lit and straight-up smut.
Controversial feminist Gail Dines, author of Pornland: How Porn Has Hijacked Our Sexuality, spoke at the Wheeler Centre last year about how porn can shape sexuality, particularly for adolescents who are still discovering theirs.
In an essay following Dines’ visit, Rochelle Siemonowicz, publications manager for the Australian Film Institute (and mother of a primary-school-age son) wrote about her own discomfort with the way porn shapes sexuality, in unimaginative ways. Her conclusions weren’t too different from Griffin’s – after reflecting the way erotic films can enhance sexuality, she concluded that she plans to leave such films ‘accidentally’ lying around the house for her son to discover when he’s ready, as a so-sneaky-it-just-might-work way of combating the influence of internet porn.
Writer and bookseller Krissy Kneen – author of erotic memoir, Affection, and erotic novel, Triptych – has also spoken at the Wheeler Centre on the difference between erotica and porn (though she also has no problem with the latter). Kneen, too, is emphatic about the positive effects of ‘dirty books’.
In the (very busy) comments section for Griffin’s article, some have reflected on their own formative erotic reading. Books mentioned ranged from Jean M. Auel’s fantasy series The Earth’s Children to Jackie Collins’ Gino, Judy Blume’s Forever and the Kama Sutra.
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