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Wednesday, 11 July 2012

The Story of $

Mark my words, pseudo-erotica will be the new children's/YA fiction for celebrities. Eager to cash in, they will, in exactly the same way, assume that erotica is an easy genre to cash in on, and if they use 50 Shades of Grey as their benchmark, who can blame them for this assumption? If, however, they pick up any inexpensive omnibus of erotic short fiction, they will surely find the quality within undoubtedly better than that of what has become the best selling book of all time.

As Laurie Penny points out, 50 Shades is not really erotica at all. It's porn. It's being marketed as erotica for a variety of reasons, some spurious, some sensibly mercenary.

1. There's still a huge stigma to women enjoying porn and masturbating. The term 'erotic fiction' suggests high art. Something you can discuss with your seminar group. Nin. Sacher-Masoch. Desclos. But then, The Story of O is genuinely a well-written novel with complex characterisation and masterful tension, development and build-up, as opposed to a series of passively quadorgasmic shag scenes separated by showers. And anyway, the embarrassment of reading porn, as has been endlessly pointed out, is void since the introduction of the clean, anonymous e-reader device. If women who wish to discuss it afterwards are then embarrassed to do so, perhaps they should just get an online pseudonym under which to talk filth like everybody else.

2. Erotica is for women, porn is for men. While most mucky fanfiction stories and erotica compilations are indeed written by, and aimed at, women, laying down an assumption like this, dressed up as fact, yet again segregates the sexes and attempts to file and categorise sexuality based on gender. Aside from the other problems this causes and reinforces, including the exclusion of those individuals caught inbetween, such a situation makes our cultural stash of smut dull, binary and generic. No fun at all.

3. Porn is purely audiovisual, while naughty stories all fall under the erotica banner. Bollocks. A story with the primary aim of titillation can totally be classed as porn, and the more diverse the media types associated with both porn and erotica, surely the more interesting, intertextual and ambitious both genres can become.

The sheep-like response to the success of 50 Shades, while typical for a bestseller of any genre, is pretty depressing. It's like millions of women were meekly waiting for the corporate thumbs-up before rushing out and expressing their sexuality by buying an approved, tastefully packaged set text on (a completely clueless, and at times offensive, take on) BDSM. I don't think we should whale on E.L. James, though. How about we hate on the greedy editors who marketed it as higher up the literary food chain than it is? The same publishing types who shied away from editing the shit out of this messy novel, for fear that the cash cow would walk away into the sunset.

Random House used to publish truly daring and well-crafted erotic work by authors such as Angela Carter, whose work bold and honestly investigated and magicked up real and fantastical sexuality in its many guises (golden showers, genderbending, objectophilia, centaur rape). Now they seem content to peddle tame BDSM tourism like 50 Shades, and only then after it's already gained a hardcore following through its initial run with a small overseas publisher. It's all a bit sanitised, and I think a small part of the backlash towards the book stems from frustration at a lack of courage on the part of the publisher and readers.

So to return to my opening prediction, this kind of lucrative, safe-yet-tamely-edgy market is exactly what celebrities with an idle interest in writing, and an active interest in increasing their brand awareness and income streams, will gravitate towards. Consider Madonna's godawful efforts at children's fiction, then imagine her lighting on James's efforts, a dollar sign in each eye, and shiver. You have been warned.

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