That book

Aug. 2nd, 2012 11:19 am
liv: cartoon of me with long plait, teapot and purple outfit (mini-me)
[personal profile] liv
So everybody's talking about Fifty shades of Grey. Lots of journalists are saying amazingly stupid things about it. OMG women are buying and reading books which have explicit sex scenes, OMG the sky is falling! If this is when you get the memo that women are interested in sex, you've been living way too far under a rock to call yourself a journalist.

And there's a fair amount of snark about how badly it's written. Everything from detailed fiskings of every scene, to an image macro that's doing the rounds showing the shelf of a book shop with Fifty shades covered over by a typed notice saying "Please don't spend money on this, you can find better smut on the internet for free!" Some of this I'm sure is justified, some of it is snobbery because the snarker is far too cool and far too elite to read anything, you know, popular. And some of it is sexism, because it's marketed at women and it's based on Twilight which was marketed at teenage girls. Because erotica aimed at middle-aged men is by default assumed to be high quality literature and erotica aimed at middle-aged women is by default assumed to be trashy "Mummy porn".

There's a slightly more interesting conversation going on about what this means for publishing, since it's essentially a self-published fanfic that has gone absolutely viral and become a commercial success, but I don't know very much about that topic. Plenty out there if you're interested. I've seen rather a cute argument that it's the modern day equivalent of Pamela.

It seems very likely that the relationship portrayed in Fifty Shades is, in fact, abusive, but lots and lots and lots of fiction in all media portrays as romantic relationships that would be abusive if they really happened. I think part of the problem here is that Fifty Shades is essentially using fanfic-derived conventions to portray, for example, what one might categorize as dubcon, but people are used to Hollywood conventions and romance novel conventions and litfic conventions for portraying power imbalances in a sexy way. In those cases, people accept the convention as a convention and don't get too upset about the realism (unless it's really egregious in promoting abusive, rapey dynamics as "romance"), but in the case of Fifty shades, people who don't come from that context are taking things too literally and not spotting cues that it's supposed to be a fantasy, not an instruction manual.

Then there's the backlash from people who actually know something about contemporary women and are aware of, often members of, alternative sexuality communities, from fanfic to BDSM. They are angry because Fifty shades and the bad reporting about the phenomenon are making their communities look bad. In reference to the "better smut online for free" type of comment, I think there's an access issue here. Fanfic on the internet might be free of financial cost, and some of it is of stunningly high quality. But it requires a whole stacking set of literacies that not everybody possesses. If you want to read Fifty shades, you have to have £5.99 in disposable money. OK, not everybody has that, but a higher proportion of people do than have internet access at home, the ability to switch off or get round filters and censorship, the knowledge that fanfic exists and the ability to search for it, a fairly complex understanding of the conventions and shorthands that fanfic has developed, probably some means of downloading and reading e-texts portably, the knowledge of and ability to use tools and community networks to find the high quality stuff among the completely unfiltered mountain of crap that is the internet. None of that is "free" if you're starting from outside that community.

As for the "negative portrayal of BDSM" side, part of the motivation for posting this was that I happened to find this counterpoint. [personal profile] elialshadowpine points out that Fifty shades completely fails to match the kink community's image of itself, which is all about good communication and respect for boundaries and consent and negotiation and being a lovely supportive community for people with minority sexualities. But in some ways Christian is a realistic portrayal of an abuser who uses BDSM as a cover for his abusive behaviour. Anyway, worth reading her post, though it's a pretty harsh, frank discussion of sexual abuse, so only if you feel strong enough.

And the other motivation was that [personal profile] skibbley linked to a really interestingly balanced post about the book. I'm not totally convinced by this "sex critical" thing; I basically fall on the sex positive side of the debate, and I'm not sure that trying to make a compromise with the kind of radicals who hate sex workers and want to police sexuality from the left is really the best idea. But I like the example this blogger provides of approaching Fifty shades in a sex critical way, noting that there are some good, potentially liberating things about the book and its popularity, but not glossing over the aspects that are problematic.

Also [personal profile] jack wrote a comment on the book-as-phenomenon which I also think is well-balanced and interesting. Not as scholarly as the Rewriting the Rules post, more of a personal response. But while I'm collecting links, I shall link to my husband being clever and interesting.

(no subject)

Date: 2012-08-02 11:10 am (UTC)
jack: (Default)
From: [personal profile] jack
I happened to find this counterpoint

Hm. That's very well written, and I totally agree that's it's inappropriate to pretend that all kink is like the ideal of how kink should be, and that there definitely ARE people like Christian -- I say so in my post that it's plausible.

But I also think that "it happens in real life so it must be ok in fiction" is not magic pixie dust that stops novels being offensive.

It's plausible that an IRA member might think that members of the British police or army are not people and that gunning them down is morally positive.

It's plausible that if ancient history had happened differently, there might not be any Native American culture[1] in North America.

It's plausible that someone might think they were gay/bisexual/asexual for various social/medical reasons and it later turned out they mostly weren't.

But novels are not pure fiction, they contain extra-textual cues of the sort you describe to say which bits you're supposed to take seriously and which bits you're not.

Dan Brown is an especially egregious example because he doesn't beat around the bush implying that he believes all the Holy Blood, Holy Stone bullshit is true in real life -- he explicitly comes out and says it in the forward.

But it's true of other books. If you read an obscure and intricate literary novel where the characters all have complicated prejudices and misconceptions, you may well expect that one character's representation is intended to be taken critically.

But if you read an accessible fun ride, and the villain is an evil Muslim, and you read several other books the author wrote and recommended, and they ALL have evil Muslims, you start to say "Is this just coincidence? Or does this book actually have a GIANT HONKING EXTRATEXTUAL STICKER SAYING 'ALL MUSLIMS ARE EVIL'?"

And sometimes you genuinely can't tell -- this was rysmiel's problem, it wasn't clear how to signal to the reader that the main character's bigoted view of an alien race was non-realistic, when in most similar novels it WOULD be representative of how the aliens really are. But most of the time you can tell.

So, I don't think it's implausible to write about a fucked-up abusive dom, or a gay/bisexual/asexual person who gets "cured", etc. But I think it's inadvertantly offensive not to suggest in the text that this isn't representative of the wider culture of bdsm people/gay people/bisexual people/etc.

Does that make sense, or have I hared away on completely the wrong track again?

[1] American Americans? non-European Americans?

(no subject)

Date: 2012-08-02 11:11 am (UTC)
jack: (Default)
From: [personal profile] jack
But sorry, yes, in general, I agree very much and that was very educational.

(no subject)

Date: 2012-08-02 11:39 am (UTC)
ptc24: (Default)
From: [personal profile] ptc24
Real life/fiction: I've certainly heard it said that on a purely aesthetic level, things that are jarringly unrealistic can't be justified by "but this actually happened in real life".

(no subject)

Date: 2012-08-13 05:41 pm (UTC)
atreic: (Default)
From: [personal profile] atreic
I really like the quote 'using co-incidences to get your characters into difficult situations can be good writing, using co-incidence to get them out is just laziness'

Having made it through 2/3 books now, I think (a) is mildly true - in that it succumbs hugely to the 'he only wants to beat women because of his Tragic Childhood trope - although I think it does quite well at the portrayal of _Ana_ as discovering she likes some kinky fuckery and isn't abusive. The book is deeply inconsistent on (b). I think by the end of book 2 / start of book 3 there is a pretty consistent theme of 'Christian does something abusive and controlling and Ana says 'oh, come on, this is mad and just you being fucked up again', and is genuinely annoyed by it, not pleased by it'. But there are definitely lots of points in the books where he does something controlling and she does find it sexy and hot.

[Oh, I just realised my LJ filters were out of date, and you weren't on the one where I wibbled about this. Fixed now, if you're interested]

(no subject)

Date: 2012-08-13 09:08 pm (UTC)
atreic: (Default)
From: [personal profile] atreic
I think you're right, it's a genre with its own conventions, and we should understand and accommodate that when judging it. But those conventions aren't written in the laws of the universe for fan fic writers to follow - they are coming from the brains of intelligent writers, mostly women, who can chose to lazily propagate tropes or think how to write hot erotica that is less problematic.

I watched Secretary about 5 years ago, hoped to find it hot, was a bit underwhelmed, and have now mostly forgotten it. We probably have the DVD somewhere if you want to borrow (although 'somewhere' might be Inverness :-) )

(no subject)

Date: 2012-08-02 12:21 pm (UTC)
jack: (Default)
From: [personal profile] jack
You're right, I think I got that idea from you.

Yeah, I think I reacted wrongly to what they were saying: I assumed that they were reacting to the same criticisms as I'd seen, and I assumed that the critcisms I'd seen really meant "don't portray our culture as if it's ALL like that" even if it came off a bit like "don't portray our culture as if it's like that when it isn't ever". And I reacted as if that's what they meant. But both of those assumptions are likey to be wrong.

(no subject)

Date: 2012-08-02 03:51 pm (UTC)
rysmiel: (Default)
From: [personal profile] rysmiel
rysmiel's problem, it wasn't clear how to signal to the reader that the main character's bigoted view of an alien race was non-realistic, when in most similar novels it WOULD be representative of how the aliens really are. But most of the time you can tell.

At that level, it seems that having human characters arguing about how the aliens are made some impact on the problem; the bigger issue of how to get the aliens in as not-funny-shaped-humans-but-genuinely-alien while not making them read as a metaphor for negatively othering subsets of humanity remains one I am wrestling with.

Also, I am charmed with Umberto Eco's remark that Dan Brown is clearly a character who escaped from Foucault's Pendulum into the real world.
Edited Date: 2012-08-02 03:52 pm (UTC)

(no subject)

Date: 2012-08-02 04:15 pm (UTC)
jack: (Default)
From: [personal profile] jack
At that level, it seems that having human characters arguing about how the aliens are made some impact on the problem; the bigger issue of how to get the aliens in as not-funny-shaped-humans-but-genuinely-alien while not making them read as a metaphor for negatively othering subsets of humanity remains one I am wrestling with.

That makes sense. I was musing on it, but didn't really have anything helpful to say.

FWIW, I don't think I replied to your email before the wedding, I'd enjoy looking at either or both of the first books in the series if you'd still like to show me (though I can't guarantee a level of crique).

Also, I am charmed with Umberto Eco's remark that Dan Brown is clearly a character who escaped from Foucault's Pendulum into the real world.

That's how I always thought of it. Many parodies are limp, insipid things taking on superficial characteristics of their host and exaggerating their badness. But the best take the weakest points and show how good a book could be if it did them well.

This is what I was conflicted about with Lev Grossman's magicians: the first half seemed to take Harry Potter and show what it would be like if it had been written with a much greater eye to consistency and detail; the second half seemed to take Narnia and show what it would be like if it had been written with much less of an eye to consistency and detail. So I loved the first half (apart from the annoyance of the main character) and was really disappointed in the second half. Not least because I always thought that Lewis did a good job of making the books hang together, even if you can't form accurate generalisations about the underlying world. (No-one knows "can you do X magic in Narnia". But I think people could predict "What might Aslan tell me to do in this situation", even if they think it's stupid.)

Maybe "parody" is a too insulting term for the good sort. I'm thinking of people who took the bad points of a good book and built something awesome out of them.

But anyway, Dan Brown seems to have done the unfortunate and written Da Vinci Code some years after Foucault's Pendulum, which was (a) much better and (b) incidentally all about why people are foolish to buy into the Da Vinci Code... :)

(no subject)

Date: 2012-08-02 12:37 pm (UTC)
oursin: My photograph of Praire Buoy sculpture, Meadowbrook Park, Urbana, overwritten with Urgent, Phallic Look (urgent phallic)
From: [personal profile] oursin
erotica aimed at middle-aged men is by default assumed to be high quality literature

Up to the point at which it gets nominated for the Bad Sex Award - which pretty much always goes to some male litfic writer.

I don't actually see anything wrong with that pattern!

(no subject)

Date: 2012-08-02 06:33 pm (UTC)
oursin: Picture of Fotherington-Tomas skipping, with words subversive male added (Subversive male)
From: [personal profile] oursin
I think it may be a little more intense than 'ribbing between mates' (judging by some of the comments by novelists who have been shortlisted) but yes, I guess there is a difference there.

Sometimes the judges themselves seem fairly po-faced and not getting that a scene is meant to be humorous/satirical or that the sex is intended to be bad...

(no subject)

Date: 2015-02-17 03:42 pm (UTC)
crystalpyramid: crystal pyramid suspended in dimensional abnormality (Default)
From: [personal profile] crystalpyramid
One of my friends wrote about how it's as much a classist fantasy as anything else: http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2015/02/16/fifty-shades-of-gilded-cages-the-luxury-branding-of-domestic-abuse.html

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Miscellaneous. Eclectic. Random. Perhaps markedly literate, or at least suffering from the compulsion to read any text that presents itself, including cereal boxes.

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