What "Fifty Shades of Grey is badly written" is really code for

Laurie Penny has a spirited defense of Fifty Shades of Grey, a bestselling pornographic novel that started out as Twilight fanfic ("quite good, quite detailed descriptions of fucking written from the point of view of a woman who seemed to be really enjoying herself") and looks at the gender issues and double standards lurking in the widespread condemnation of the book:

Similarly, I can't recall Page Three of the Sun ever getting taken to pieces for its lack of artistic imagination. The point, the only point, is to show three million men some tits in the morning, and they've been happily ogling those pixellated teenage breasts on public transport for thirty years. That's understood. Exactly the same basic principle applies to the Fifty Shades series, which has the added bonus that no actual nubile, desperate postpubescents were harmed in its production – but somehow the idea that women might gobble down a poorly-written book in their tens of millions just because they've heard there might be some fucking in it is uncomfortable for the sort of snobbish commentators who have absolutely never themselves bashed out a cheeky one over FHM magazine.

When you get down to it, the problem most people seem to have with Fifty Shades of Grey is that it's for girls. Even worse - it's "mommy porn", porn for mommies, for older women to read and get excited about, and that dangerous nonsense really needs to be stopped right now. Everyone knows that the only women who are allowed to actually have sexuality are slender, high-breasted twenty-one year old virgins – rather like, it has to be said, the heroine of "Fifty Shades of Grey".

In defence of Fifty Shades of Grey


    1. Those points would depend on whether it’s being used as a how-to manual or as a masturbatory aid.

    2. You know what else is unrealistic? When I deliver a pizza, it’s never to a bunch of half-dressed coeds who can’t find their purses, and wonder aloud if there isn’t some other way they could pay for the pizza?

      1. Did you RTFA that was linked in that comment?  I don’t want to be an ass because this comment seems so off-topic that it might be stuck in the wrong place but…

        It wasn’t really complaining about lack of realism.  Unfortunately, lack of consent and abusive relationships are often all too real.  This is what I find troubling.  Yes, if you are someone who is aware that this type of behavior should stay purely within the realm of fantasy, then it isn’t worrying.  But obviously, abusive relationships exist and books like Twilight and 50SOG might have some influence in normalizing it or condoning it.  So I say let the critiques be heard.  I don’t want to ban fantasies but I do want people to be aware of the troubling aspects of current popular books and movies.

        And to people who are wondering, at the very end of the article the author makes the very point that Ashley Yakelely made above.

        ETA: I am not conflating BDSM with abuse. I was talking about the abusive aspects I read in the critique NOT the BDSM aspects which I realize are totally different things.

        1. I did RTFA, and I was alluding to the difference between fantasy and reality.  Abusive relationships are not caused by BDSM porn.  Do you think violent video games cause kids to act violently?

          1. “Abusive relationships are not caused by BDSM porn.”

             Right.  But the BDSM porn part of the book wasn’t what the author was criticizing.  It was the fact that the relationship portrayed in the book was abusive.  Which is a separate issue.

            To take your example, if the co-eds are totally into getting down with the pizza delivery person then you’ve got a fantasy that would be totally fine even if it came to fruition.  No one is harmed.  But if the co-eds are coerced, it’s not so great if that fantasy comes to fruition.   And I’m defending the people who would like to point out the scenario that includes the coercion.  Not to stop people from consuming whatever fantasy they like but just to bring it to light.

      2. I’m pretty sure that if that was the basic premise of an erotic book written by a man for men, that would be called bad just as well. Gonzo porn is not a literary discipline.

    3.  Exactly. The majority of blog posts I’ve seen criticising the book have gone after the style, method and themes, not the fact that the author and characters like sex, (I Love books about sex, I have quite a few, I love strong women in books having sex with people of their choice). Many of the bloggers themselves author and edit works of adult sexual fiction, and provide examples of other very sexual books (some involving BDSM) that don’t portray such unhealthy relationships. Although perhaps many readers are enjoying the book Because of the taboo portrayal of unequal power relationships.

      An ex-partner of mine once sent me an erotic story involving a teen girl being sent by her mother to the older (married) neighbor’s house to be initiated into the world of sex, and everyone in the situation being okay with it. She asked me to write her some stories like that, which I was unable to do because of my own hangups about unequal power relationships in sex.

      A good friend of mine read the book and enjoyed it In Spite of the shortcomings, which is perhaps where many of the books fans end up, although she’s been unhappy that most people either love the book and defend it come hell or high water, or hate the book and refuse to give it any credit for doing anything at all right.

  1. Wait. No one ever criticizes porn addressed to men? How many posts on boingboing alone decrying the sexualization of comic book heroines?

    1. Different kinds of critiques i suspect.

      Porn and comic book heroines gets attacked for their objectification of females.

      Said book appears to no do so, instead being written from the female POV as a complete person.

      So this is a critique of what can be summed up as reviewer snobbery. That because it do not paint over the sex with artsy euphemisms and such it gets panned by reviewers as childish and poor artistry.

      Some of the same shows up in movie reviews btw. If reviewers praise a movie in their columns, it will likely go on to bomb. But if they pan it, it may well become the next action blockbuster.

      1. Except that her critique specifically compares porn for men (the page 3 girl) with porn for women (50 shades of grey) in aesthetic terms, not in moral terms. And the boingboing critiques of superheroine portrayals specifically focus on aesthetics: on the ridiculous boobage, poses, costumes, etc.

    2. BoingBoing doesn’t criticize porn (at least, not the gender politics of porn). BoingBoing criticizes double standards in superhero comic books: the phenomenon that female characters in these comics are disproportionally sexualized (compared to their male counterparts), which creates the impression that females are only valued for how much the male reader wants to fuck them.

        1. I know, I know. Subtlety is hard. Learning it means you can no longer accuse your rivals of being hypocritical prudes. 

          It’s a terrible burden. :(

        2. Ah, sorry. Thought you were being flippant.

          To elaborate, Boing Boing and other feminist critics tend to criticize sexualized heroines in superhero comics because the comics *aren’t* porn. They’re stories about heroism and empowerment. There’s no reason for them to sexualize female art, but they do anyway because it appeals to a small, vocal band of straight male nerds.

          Criticizing this trend doesn’t mean that you’re against sexuality; it just means you think women shouldn’t be objectified in comics.

          (replying to this post because disqus won’t let me reply to the other one for some reason)

        1. What an odd thing to say, given that I have made no actual claims as to such nor anything that might reasonably be construed as a claim for or against that.

          What I actually said is pretty easy to figure out given the relatively short length of my comment. I recommend reading it again.

        2. And the physique of male superheroes isn’t ridiculously exaggerated?

          Men’s physiques are exaggerated to make them appear powerful.  Women’s are exaggerated to make them appear attractive to boys who have never seen an actual naked woman.

  2. It’s also pretty roundly criticized within the kink community for its horrible representation of kink.  Unsafe practices, barely consensual play, ugly stereotypes of both dominants and submissives…   It’s poor writing is just the first step.

    1.  You get quite a lot of this in other porn of the genre, though. It’s not a how-to manual, it’s a masturbatory aid.

      1.  Yes, but given the broad mainstream consumption of 50 Shades, it’s a bad “advertisement” for BDSM and a really bad introduction for someone who’s curiosity is piqued by the idea.

        I saw someone comment (don’t remember where) that the Twilight origins of 50 Shades made sense, because, as the abusive relationships of Twilight are to romance, the dangerous behaviors of 50 Shades are to kink.

        1. Well I don’t know, BDSM porn has been getting people interested in BDSM for decades. Having their interest piqued is the very first step on a journey that’ll hopefully include learning the important facts about how it can be applied to real life. Much like the rest of porn.

          That is a great analogy, though!

        2. I feel the same way when I see dance clubs and DJs depicted in movies and TV. Also: skateboarding.

          Face it, all subcultures are caricatured within the mainstream.

        3. I think you’re right about the Twilight connection. But it’s not wrong or unhealthy to fantasize about being controlled, manipulated, abused or even raped for that matter, is it?

          There’s often an element of “supernatural” power imbalance in vampire fiction, for instance. The vampire is so much more powerful than his human lover, and utterly unbound by legal and social sanctions. He can do anything he wants with her, regardless of what she wants, and that can be a very exciting fantasy.

          1.  I never said there was anything wrong or unhealthy with fantasizing about power exchange of some variety.  That’s kind of the point of kink.

            My issue, and those of others in the community, is how this impacts the mainstream perception of kink, and how it introduces kink to the curious.

            Kink is already a misrepresented sexual behavior.  Consider how it’s portrayed in film.  There are some beautiful exceptions, but generally: submissives of either gender were abused as children, dominant men are just this side of rapists, and dominant women “just need the right man.”  For comparison, look at how homosexuality is portrayed on screen.  The portrayal of gay people as lisping sissies, man-hating lesbians or closet pedophiles have (largely) been pushed out because of their horrible stereotypes.  But kink?  We’re still the gimp mask-wearing kidnappers.

            And this book is just another example, in a lot of ways.  It may not have been written with that intention, and I’m sure a lot of people enjoy it for what it is (there are plenty of kinky people who enjoy the dark and evil portrayal of film dominants too).  But it’s bad representation of kink is still fair criticism.

          2. So here’s the distinction. There’s erotic fiction about domination, abuse, and non-consent. This is porn. It’s not unhealthy.

            Then there’s risk-aware consensual role-playing of domination, abuse, and non-consent. This is BDSM. It’s also not unhealthy.

            What happens when you combine those two things? You might get erotic fiction about sensible risk-aware consensual role-play, which would be instructive as well as erotic. This is what a lot of folks seem to think 50SoG ought to be. But the kinky eroticism has now been pushed down a level.

            Instead, if you’re writing fiction, why not double down? Why not write fiction about abusive non-consensual role-playing of abuse and non-consent? It’s extra exciting when the non-consent is present at both levels: you have the kinky sex structure provided by the BDSM play, plus the excitement when it “gets real”.

            Mind you, I haven’t read the thing, so I have no idea whether it succeeds at this.

    2.  This. Now I’m fairly vanilla, no major kinks, but even to me it was this progression out of kinkiness that bothered me the most (both as a reader who wanted more of it in the books, and as a human who doesn’t think that kinkiness is something you need to be “saved” from).

      I don’t care if it’s a fantastic read or if it accurately represents bdsm or whatever, but the transition to absolute blandness by the end of the books drove me bonkers. Kind of skimmed the last few chapters.

      1. Maybe the transition to blandness at the end of the book reflects the unlikelihood of the reader participating in the behaviors the sex-nerds are criticizing.

    3.  Exactly this.  Women spend so much time and effort complaining about how porn targeted at men denigrates and objectifies women, and then they turn around and eat this stuff up when it’s full of nonconsensual abuse of women (and yes, I’m calling it abuse from the standpoint of someone well-versed in kink and BDSM).

      1. Women aren’t a monolithic group. Some women really liked 50 Shades of Gray. Some women criticize the sexual objectification of women. Some women are both or neither.

  3.  I agree with the thrust (aha) of the article’s argument about the book being porn and it being a good thing. Equal access to porn is a fantastic idea.

    However, I do think some of the feminist rhetoric is talking it a bit far. I saw one post (unfortunately can’t find it now) that was arguing that the popularity of the book was allowing women to talk about porn with one another, and that that was a great feminist victory. I’m not sure how much time they think guys spend talking about porn with one another, but in my culture it isn’t very much, and when it is it’s in hushed tones.

    I guess my point is that there’s a difference between sexist attitudes and gender-neutrally prudish attitudes, and if we’re talking about relaxing some of the former then brilliant, and if we’re talking about the latter then 1) we’d better make sure it’s actually a good idea, and 2) let’s make sure the men get an equal helping if it is.

    1. Why is the rate of porn-conversation among men the measuring stick you use to establish the value of porn-conversation among women? Can’t women grow without their desires being tied to the accomplishments of men? It’s not a zero-sum game.

      1.  Maybe if women were able to more freely express themselves, men would feel more free as well… and then it’s definitely not zero sum.

        1. Yet when they freely express themselves by liking a porny book, they’re shouted down as not liking the right kind of porny book. Maybe they could more freely express themselves if they didn’t talk about stupid stuff.

      2. Because if we’re going to have any hope of egalitarianism, then having double standards are pretty out of the question.

    2. How many the boys have laid however gets shouted from the rooftops…

      The social/cultural handling of sex is downright weird. So filled with paradoxes…

      1. i’ve known a few men who might shout their sexual conquests from the rooftops or around the bar. but not very many. in fact, most of them seem much less willing to have open discussions about sex than the women around them.

        1. Same here, and funnily enough given the context of this conversation, I think it’s popular media that gives people the impression that men are like that (bragging about who they have sex with). Yes, there are men like that, but not anywhere near as many as there are in the movies.

          Of course… within close groups of friends it will sometimes come up, but typically only after the group goads someone on about it and I suspect it is the same for females.

    3. I think it’s less about “equal opportunity for females” and more about breaking taboos that oppress both men and women. 

      I also think it’s sad that it’s basically taken 50 years from the “free love” era before we could have even a highly chaotic, problematic public conversation on these matters.

    1. That’s not exactly the Fundamental Attribution Error at all. But your point is still valid: don’t ascribe motivations to others to fit your own worldview.

      1. Yeah, maybe. I do see your point.

        However, I meant specifically that my paraphrase of the article, “People don’t mock it because it’s bad [a situational explanation], they mock it because they want to keep women down [a personality-based explanation]” was a fundamental attribution error.

  4. I have not read Fifty Shades of Grey, and honestly I don’t care if anybody likes it or not.  What astonishes me is that everybody thinks this is the first book created that’s porn for women.  THIS IS NOTHING NEW!!  Anne Rice wrote “The Sleeping Beauty Trilogy” back in 1983 under the pseudonym of A. N. Roquelaure.

    1. Not to mention The Story of O, which came out in 1954.  Which was itself based on some of the works of the Marquis de Sade, who wrote in the 18th century.  And probably stuff before that.  Bottom line: People have been masturbating a long time.  Women most certainly included.

    2.  They just re-issued the Sleeping Beauty Trilogy with new, nondescript covers :)

      But Anne Rice makes Shades of Grey look positively tame.

    3. Not to mention the entire romance section of the library or bookstore.  Porn for women is as old as publishing itself, they just don’t call it porn.

  5. The loudest voices I’ve heard criticizing the book’s prose (at least among people I know in the real world) have been women who are already familiar with erotica. (I have a coworker who writes it, even.)

    Their argument boils down to the fact that there are scores of erotic novels far more deserving of the attention 50 Shades is getting, and they worry that the genre will now be defined to the mainstream by a middling-at-best example.

    1.  Pretty much dead on what I’ve heard and think (though I haven’t read it myself). The problem isn’t that it’s porn — the problem is that it’s somewhere between mediocre and downright bad porn.

      1. And that’s worse than none at all? This is the mainstream we’re talking about here, not porn-fan preferences.

        1.  Let’s see if I can draw a reasonable analogy:  BDSM porn fans feel about this book the same way that historical-conspiracy-novel fans feel about Dan Brown.  I don’t object to the fact that it exists as such, or to a novel of the genre being popular.  But I resent that the novel which, to the public, defines the genre is such a fracking awful example of it, while far better authors go unread for lack of publicity.

          1. The Dan Brown comparison seems extremely apt. Though I don’t think you have be a fan of BDSM porn or erotica to recognize it as such.  I think it transcends genre, actually. Well, at least when it comes to the quality of the prose and the mass popularity and the way that people who know more about the subject tend to go on rants any time the book in question is brought up.

            ETA: And the level of sincerity and enthusiasm displayed by those of my acquaintance who say they hate reading when they assure me that book XYZ is honest to god the best book ever and how they LEARNED SO MUCH.

    2. This. This a thousand times. There are good women writers out there too! Maybe everything just has to suck to be mainstream. Oh god… I’m a porn hipster aren’t I!?

      1. It doesn’t have to suck to be mainstream, but the mainstream will latch onto less-authentic versions of a subculture simply as an effect of their unfamiliarity with the landscape, and this goes for anything. Did your music fandom start with Parmegiani and Zappa? Did you eschew “Janet and Mark” for Nabokov when you were 6?

        1. I’m a bad person to ask, because my parents got me into Zappa and Tom Waits when  I really was 6 :/ But  I think my music fandom probably started with classical music… particularly moody post romantic era pianists. I don’t know if that makes me *worse* some how or not. Still, I catch your drift.

          But being the first thing some people get hold of doesn’t really make it great, or render criticism pointless.

          1. It also doesn’t make it bad. It just makes it “the first thing some people get hold of.”

            Also, no Parmegiani? Then shut up about music until you have some small idea of what real music is. Furthermore, unless you’ve eschewed Zappa for his influences, you’re just wallowing in the mainstream the same as the readers of this book are criticized for doing.

        2. I’ve always thought mainstream representations of niche subjects played toward caricature because understanding the niche isn’t the point most of the time. Instead, painting a recognizable broad-strokes picture that fits into your existing or emerging narrative that makes sense of your world.

          1. That’s more plausible than them simply not being initiates, that the broad strokes are a result of not “understanding?”

        3.  Dunno, when I was six, my favourite records were Holst’s Planet Suite, Revolver, the Clash’s eponymous 1st album, and the Goon Show’s Ying Tong Song. I liked Biggles books a lot as well.

    3. Right: snobbery. Too bad this line of thinking is given to a No True Scotsman death spiral. Shall we delve into the sector of “better erotica” to see what kind of critical backbiting lies therein? I’m sure there are some authors of “better erotica” that not everybody thinks are all that great.

      1. It’s literally the nature of art (word lacking here… consumption/appreciation?) to become critical. People become critical of things they have invested time in. And some things will always be poorly executed. Frankly, I’m not sure the assumption that all these readers of this book are somehow ignorant naifs is fair either.  The best thing, IMO, is when the lack of what you want to see inspires you to create it… which could be an argument for everything terrible being wonderful. But I don’t really think that makes so much sense.

        1. which could be an argument for everything terrible being wonderful. But I don’t really think that makes so much sense.

          Ever heard of camp?

          Frankly, I’m not sure the assumption that all these readers of this book are somehow ignorant naifs is fair either.

          From what I’ve been able to gather, all of the criticism so far involves a fair degree of condescension.

    4. “…they worry that the genre will now be defined to the mainstream by a middling-at-best example.”

      Fortunately, that could never happen in any other genre or art form.  Unfortunately for people on Earth, I hear that it doesn’t just happen, it’s the rule.

  6. I have problems with it because it’s poorly written, and is a really poor representation of kink. Really, there’s much better stuff out there…

    This book is like the DiVinci Code of BDSM erotica.

  7. Not that I have anything against the book, but…

    “Exactly the same basic principle applies…”

    …I was previously unaware that either page three of The Sun or FHM magazine were being marketed as literature, or that they had a chance on the New York Times bestseller list.

    “But in fact, there are barely two spanking scenes in the whole of the first book”  “The watered-down approximation of sadomasochistic sex in the first book”

    This is supposed to be defending the book?

  8. I haven’t read 50SoG. Maybe it’s crap. Maybe it’s the best thing since sliced bread. But it’s not like it’s the first erotic novel ever written by a woman. There is, for example, Kushiel’s Dart, a fantasy novel whose protagonist is a submissive prostitute with a penchant for pain. It is beautifully written and was unanimously praised in reviews. Not everything is a part of the gender wars people!

    1. But that’s exactly the problem I have – the mass press attention. As you say, Kushiel’s Dart is so much better. (Although there are some people I don’t recommend it to, mostly ones who I feel aren’t ready for the concept of sacred neo-Christian bondage prostitution.)

      If anyone wants to start giving the same kind of mass free publicity to Carey, I’ll feel much better about the standard of our journalistic culture.

    2. Just because other woman-focused submissive lit didn’t get that kind of panning 50SoG did doesn’t mean that gender politics isn’t a factor here.

      Mostly because, and I hate to be blunt about something you obviously like, but no one actually cares about niche stuff like Kushiel’s Dart.

      The reason why people are panicking about 50SoG and making wide sweeping statements about what it means for “feminism” and “sexual attitudes” is because it’s *wildly popular* and can’t be swept under the rug as “freaky subculture stuff.” So instead it’s condemned.

        1. No, in general only geeks and hipsters think that something being bad is enough reason to hate it. Normal people generally don’t get their panties in a twist unless they think something is actually offensive.

      1. Or the “better BDSM authors” that people are hailing in this thread are jealous that crap made so much money.

  9. Hmmm… except it’s not porn I like. Mommy porn? Maybe some people criticize it because it’s boring porn. 

  10. I was previously unaware that either page three of The Sun or FHM magazine were being marketed as literature and This book is like the DiVince Code of BDSM erotica

    Exactly what I was about to say.  No one is defending the right of 50SoG to exist, it’s just that it’s not very good and it’s being pushed heavily in bookstores all over.  Get the good stuff out there.

  11. Bitch and moan much?

    We KNOW guy porn is crappily done. That is of course not the point. But we’ll freely admit it. It’s a guilty pleasure, not (usually) an artistic masterpiece.

    You can pick on porn films all you want for their low quality and we’ll be more than willing to agree. We won’t complain about you pointing it out. (We will complain about you blaming it for every human ill on the planet.)

    50 Shades is to women what most porn is to men.

    And besides, we’ve been saying the exact same thing about all those books with Fabio on the cover that we do about 50 Shades. That this one is more “hardcore” within that realm changes little.

    1. I admit I settle for crappily done guy porn in images, but when I’m reading my porn I prefer to stick to well-told fiction.  It’s perfectly possible to get both.

  12. the problems with that book have already been talked about, but here’s some more, touching on both content (shitty representation of bdsm is shitty)  and style (shitty writing is shitty):


    i can Kind Of see the author’s point in that the term “mommy porn” seems to mock the idea that older women have sex drives and needs, too — but i personally never took it that way.  i thought it was referring to “twimoms.”

    1. I actually do find the term mommy porn problematic, but maybe because it seems to relegate women to a porn ghetto. 

    2. But even that term- and all the rest- are kind of dismissive and derogatory. Like “mommy blogger” or “mommy wars” or any of those kind of terms applied to women. It’s a way of saying, “things women care about are superficial, stupid, and not to be taken seriously.”

      1. Whoa, not all women are moms. I know quite a few women who have made a deliberate choice not to have children and they detest the lifestyles of moms (admittedly a generalisation of mothers, but still).

        The term doesn’t imply anything about the femaleness of motherhood, rather about the blandness (of the suburban variety).

        1. I’m aware that not all women are moms. In the most personal sense possible. Perhaps I was too specific sticking with the “mommy” example but there are a lot of other ways female-designations are used to denigrate “stuff women like”. Secondly? Doesn’t imply the femaleness of motherhood? What? I can’t even begin to parse that one. Third? Detesting the lifestyles of moms? That goes beyond generalization, especially when you’re talking about a life experience that applies to the huge majority of women. Denigrating motherhood *is* denigrating women, especially because ‘motherhood’ is such an implicitly and profoundly gendered idea and to detest ‘mothers’ is an intrinsically misogynistic notion. An internalized one, maybe, but still as problematic.

  13. “When you get down to it, the problem most people seem to have with Fifty Shades of Grey is that it’s for girls. Even worse – it’s “mommy porn”, porn for mommies, for older women to read and get excited about, and that dangerous nonsense really needs to be stopped right now.”
    None of this is what I have heard is wrong with 50 Shades. 

  14. As others have said, “poorly written” is a charge levelled at it far more often by readers who are totally comfortable and familiar with women’s porn than by anyone using it as a code, as Laurie Penny suggests. 

    But for those of us in the bookstore & library trades, the fact that it’s not particularly well-written fan-fic porn for women is unremarkable.  The mystery is how did *this* poorly written fan-fic porn for women take off to become such a runaway success, without any (apparent) initial marketing push?
    I think the answer is: Amazon’s recommendation algorithim + previous success of Twilight + free chapter downloads to Kindle.  That’s where the story is, IMO.  Here’s this high tech handheld devise that comes along to change everything about how we engage in long form narrative fiction and OMG PORN!(Also: the public library is chock full of porn for women, and I thank Laurie Penny for pointing out its equivalence to video porn for men.  Can we all remember this the next time local news runs a “men on computers looking at porn in the library!” scare story during ratings week?)

  15. I’m sure this will put a big target on me here but I am a member of the Twilight fandom. I’ve met some amazing women and read some amazing stories there. “Fifty Shades” was derided in our fandom as poorly written, and there are many in the fandom that dislike both that story and the author who exploited the fandom for every cent she could get.

    All that aside, what makes us most angry is that the story we’re most famous for spawning is so god-awfully bad. E. L. James based her story on a story by Tara Sue Me called “The Submissive”. Tara’s story is very well-written, shows a healthy relationship between two smart (though somewhat angsty) equals, and was the most popular story in the fandom when E. L. showed up. Tara refused to pull to publish, though, so it’s still available free as fanfiction. http://www.fanfiction.net/s/4764216/1/The_Submissive

    As a reader of erotica I’m also dismayed by the character of “Fifty”. I was an early reader of the story as fanfiction, and had words with the author about the fact that I felt her male lead was an abuser, using BDSM as an excuse to abuse women who looked like his “crack whore” mother.

    Finally, E. L. and her original “house” did not do anything to “Fifty” but change the names. http://dearauthor.com/features/industry-news/master-of-the-universe-versus-fifty-shades-by-e-l-james-comparison/ The original typos and grammatical errors are still intact in the Random House version. If you were so “in love” with your work that you wanted to share it with the masses, wouldn’t you clean it up first? This was just a slimy cash-grab by a woman who sought to exploit the Twilight community. Unfortunately now she’s exploiting a whole lot more people, some of whom will never understand just how badly that book was created.

  16. The BDSM community has entirely different problems with it – many of which are safety related.

    1. Yeah. I understand it’s a fantasy and I think its great that people have fantasies, but sometimes people want to actually live out their fantasies. So when this book tells people that consent isn’t a big deal or that it’s hotter without safe words, then it’s setting them up for some real disappointment, not to mention potentially putting them in danger.

  17. But I’m kind of guessing that the incredible popularity of sexist/misogynistic stuff like 50 Shades or the Twilight books among middle-aged women will be grist for the mills of  women’s studies for a long time.

    Me, I just think it’s pretty amazing how many women I’ve seen reading hard core porn in public.

    1. We live in a sexist culture. Why would anyone be surprised that women living in a sexist culture who conform to many other social norms, would consume fiction that fits into their paradigm while allowing them to sexualize it? Turning things into sexual fantasies is a way of taking control, even if in the fantasy you play a submissive role. It’s really interesting no matter what, but it doesn’t seem to surprising to me just the simple fact that women like it. It’s not like women are some neutral matter waiting to be freed. They’re active participants in their culture, no matter what role they are in.

      1. The alternative interpretation is that fantasy acts as an escape valve for sexual desires suppressed or disapproved of by culture. Thus in Victorian times, female domination porn was very popular. In today’s more feminist culture, male-dom seems to be more popular.

  18. “…but somehow the idea that women might gobble down a poorly-written book in their tens of millions just because they’ve heard there might be some fucking in it is uncomfortable for the sort of snobbish commentators …”

    Of course there are snobbish, hypocritical, and just bad critics and reviewers around.
    But, you also state that it is “poorly-written”. 
    I’m confused. Is this a championing of the sexual rights of the middle-aged woman, or a defense of the book’s literary quality?
    Is saying “this is pretty awful writing” code for “ew! Women like sex!” or just stating a fact.
    I think there is plenty of booty being shaken in public these days to make it quite clear that women have healthy libidoes.

  19. I have to say seeing this article get some endorsement by boingboing is kinda troubling for me. Perhaps Cory simply meant to provoke discussion?

    Let me echo some things here. There’s plenty of porn for women that’s much more deserving of attention than some upjumped Twilight fanfic. And like Twilight, we should be extremely skeptical of the gender-binary message that’s encoded therein. 

    As aselizabethmolin pointed out through the linked article above, issues such as “ignoring consent” and not employing well-known S&M safety procedures such as safewords, and the type of restraints used (unsafe ones can cause permanent scarring and nerve damage) are extremely problematic. Because unless we discuss why it is complete fantasy and bullshit, some people might be tempted to live out their fantasy. Hey, there’s nothing wrong with being tied up and whipped and fucked and being made to say “Yes, sir/no,sir”, but the person doing the domination should care about their sub’s limits and well-being. Psychopathic sadists do not make good sex partners. Please review American Psycho and get back to us.

    Laurie Penny can say what she wants about 50 Shades. But the rest of us are simillarly entitled to criticize. And I think it’s pretty important that we do so.

  20. Is it too long of a shot to say that people hate it because it’s actually terrible? No? Then it must be because of a battle-of-the-sexes agenda that won’t allow women into erotica (please pause for the complete idiocy of this to settle in as women are the major consumers of erotic fiction).

    Sure, you can classify it as snobbery because it’s the exercising of literary taste. Any time you exclude things based on arbitrary analyses of good and bad, you’re practicing some level of snobbery. Is it bad? Certainly not as bad as the prose in 50 Shades of Grey.

    Also, we’re perfectly okay with the “freedom” that it espouses for women, but we’re going to vilify Twilight for the twisted relationships dynamic that spawns in it. I fail to understand how suddenly adding in erotic content somehow resolves how bad it is for the audience.

  21. I think what’s happening here is that most women don’t spend time seriously examining their own internalized misogyny or how deeply they buy into the cultural systems that they decry, so they can read this absolutely revolting concept and think it’s great instead of exactly the same denigration they hate when it’s in Hustler.

    This is the natural point for someone to say “Somebody ought to do better,” but that isn’t me. 

  22. When *I* criticize the shitty writing in FSOG, what I’m really saying (and I bet I’m not alone in this) is that I’m jealous of its commercial success.

  23. Women read it because the adverts on the tube tell them to.

    People dislike it because it’s badly written.

    I don’t think there’s much more to say on the issue.

  24. This defense may be “spirited”, but it’s not very good–no straw man is spared in the writer’s attempt to defend it, from the notion that the Sun’s Page 3 gets some sort of implicit pass for its daily servings of tit to the premise that there’s some sort of intrinsic male horror aimed at porn written for women. It can be difficult sometimes to reconcile the aspects of certain works of erotica that get us hot with the parts that we find truly reprehensible, but to simply issue a blanket edict that anyone who doesn’t give the latter parts a pass doesn’t want women to get off is a cop-out.

  25. The brilliant readers here have changed my mind. This is the BEST BOOK EVER. Women are ignorant consuming sheep, incapable of thinking, and most are mommies. That is why they like this, and anyone who criticizes it is a misogynist. Also, women should not have better options in porn. Yay! Writers who waste time trying to get good at writing are pretentious and don’t deserve credit for their work. This book is groundbreaking because it’s on TV and other books aren’t. Only idiots care about the effort people put into things. If it isn’t the smell and consistency of cheese in a can, I won’t touch it! I feel so special now, like I’m finally one of the cool kids!!!

  26. Yeah, wow, Page 3? I don’t even live in the UK and I know The Sun is a rag and Page 3 is a disgrace.

    … and also, 50 Shades is a piece of shit. 

    At least Ms. Penny acknowledges that it’s porn, not literature.

  27. Hey, I’mma come out and say it.  In all honesty I think the idea of women enjoying porn is freaking excellent.  It’s kind of frustrating as a male to be given disparaging and awkward looks for admitting to enjoying it myself by the supposedly fairer sex.  It’s a nice reassurance for guys, that in fact, girls are likely just as into sex as they are.  The more even a playing field we have, and the more understanding we have of each other as genders the better.  We’ll probably get on better, have better sex lives, understand each other better.

    That said, that’s also kind of the reason I really hate 50 Shades.  Because it’s not porn.  It’s a Mills and Boon romance novel with anal fisting references.  That, and like the book that inspired it, in spite of having somewhat novel and fantastical ideas, actually reinforces some pretty negative stereotypes of gender roles and relationships in general.  Like others in this thread, I have real problems with the way D/s relationships are portrayed in the book, not just in the ‘erotic’ scenes, but the whole damn narrative.  Christian is truly a pretty nasty piece of shit all the way through, and Anastasia laps it up right up til the final chapter.

    Personally I think if a not inconsiderable number of people vocally denounce all of porn as harmful and exploitative towards women through its portrayal of gender roles and one-sided sexuality (which is only partly true – there is plenty of porn out there that does that, but there is a whole lot that doesn’t); then I think it’s only fair that the same criticism could be leveled at one piece of erotic literature out of thousands.

  28. Referring to it as “mommy porn” offends you, and makes you feel persecuted? Oh deary me. It really is such a shame, because old men and their porn are universally accepted. Yes, “dirty old men” is definitely not a common thing to hear about!

    Welcome to the world of equality, where people can think women are gross for enjoying porn, too (while of course secretly partaking themselves.)

  29. The problem I have with the book is that it’s just poorly done.  I’m a fan of underground, alternative, cult things which frequently have little going for them except “heart”.  But this book didn’t even have that,  your page 3 of the Sun at least has nice tits to look at, this story wasn’t even the nice-tits-equivalent for females, it’s not a naughty pleasure like fast food, it’s just trash without the pleasure.

  30. Sometimes saying something is poorly written is just that.

    Fifty Shades of Grey was poorly written when it was fanfiction (I know, I ran across it and laughed!) and it’s still bad as a mainstream book. The vocabulary is repetitive and vapid, the characters are flat and the only thing it has going for it is the novelty for many of including lots and lots of fantastical BDSM in such a way that the heroine can disavow the sexuality in play (it’s just his tortured past and not really him or her!).

    It’s hardly alone in being poorly written – I can and do point to books in all sorts of genres that I’d paste with that label, including literary fiction. I can also point to some extremely well-written erotica which I’d much rather see people picking up and reading. That’s what makes me sad: people will assume that this is what you get when you pick up erotica and they don’t have to settle for something so poorly written if they knew where else to look.

    I don’t give a pass for badly written erotica just because of the genre. And I don’t give a pass to bad porn, either, but at least no one’s plastering my news sites and bookstore tables with copies of those while this book is everywhere. Bah!

  31. Calling something badly written does not mean that it should not be read. It does mean, as Penny herself points out, that it is the literary equivalent of Sun’s Page 3… or Jersey Shore… or Taco Bell… There’s nothing wrong with enjoying junk (hopefully just as one part of a more varied diet). But it is usually bad for one’s health to convince oneself that one’s preferred junk snack is actually rich and nourishing.

  32. Why is it that Cory’s previous post on Canada and Copyright had one comment, yet a post about a badly written pulp novel for Moms gets a hundred comments (including this one)?

    1.  People usually respond to things they care about.

      Cory tries to change some of those things.

      OTOH, “you don’t applaud after a prayer.”

      OTOH: pictures of cats with witty sayings!

    2. Cause the entire linked and quoted story here (including the headline) is just bullshit; this literary masterpiece trilogy is incredibly repetitive and just plain badly written.

      If you allow, my inner god is pursing his lips, flushing and falling into a thousand pieces (150 times over, seriously, that’s how repetitive the book is!) at the thought of somebody defending it for its quality.

      It still has its place, can be entertaining and serves a purpose for a great many people but really, people say it’s badly written because it’s badly written. That’s just an undeniable fact.

    3. Because Cory’s position on copyright is not controversial on boingboing.net, duh, while this shit post is both stupid and insulting (calling anyone with a modicum of literary taste a mysogynist …)

  33. What if I think it’s ok for women to express their sexuality and like porn, including this “novel,” but still think it’s poorly written?

    Fifty Shades of Grey is badly written.

  34. Actually, its code for “I would really like to share in this mass culture, sex positive moment by reading this explicit book that thousands of people are also reading – but holy crap its wayyy worse than trying to read Dan Brown’s garbage and I can’t even get through the free sample to get to the hot parts”. 

    1. Good point. If I mention that I really hate Dan Brown’s shite, do I get a free pass to call 50 shades shite without being called a misogynist?

  35. I’ll read just about anything — but I couldn’t make it past the first couple chapters.   It really IS horrible writing!

  36. I like how everyone is saying “but 50 Shades of Grey IS badly written!” like this is some sort of monumentous revelation.

    I mean, it’s not like the author of this article doesn’t acknowledge that it’s badly written. Like, especially not four times or anything.

    …Oh, wait.

  37.  “I fail to understand why this record-pounding paperback has come in for extra-special derision all over the world, other than the fact that some people are appalled at the idea that somewhere out there, well over ten million women might be – whisper it – masturbating.”
    I understand statement A (paperback has come in for extra-special derision) and I understand statement B (women masturbating), but I completely fail to see how these things are coorelated.

  38. Oh for fuck’s sake, enough already with the women-are-victims mindset! There is plenty of erotic fiction that’s a million times better written than that shite. If you want one written by a woman, just read “Story of O” by Pauline Réage. I don’t think anyone’s seriously argued it was badly written. It’s awesome. And way more hardcore than 50 shades. 

    “Fifty shades of grey is badly written” is code for “it’s so fucking badly written that I can’t believe anyone can even jerk off to that shit.” You know even gonzo porn can be so bad in the dialog department that it turns you off. But at least you have the option of turning down the volume. That’s just not possible with 50 shades. The dialog is bad, the style is bad (how many sentences start with “wow” like a 14 year old’s facebook status?), the plot elements are simply nonsensical (self-made billionaire at 25? that’s just idiotic), the clichés, the clichés, the superficial characters, everything’s over the top … I mean seriously. If everybody tells you a woman suck at something, it could be because they’re all in a conspiracy of sekreet mysogynists. Or it could just be that that particular woman sucks at whatever she’s accused of sucking. And spare the argument from popularity. Stoning women used to be real popular. 

  39. I don’t know what to think. I’m still trying to figure out what “bashed out a cheeky one” means.

  40. Just to dishearten all the struggling novelists out there who are actually talented, I read somewhere recently that the author of 50 Shades is earning over a million a week now. :/

    And furthermore, I usually applaud everything Laurie writes, but I think she’s barking up the wrong tree here. Shit that is marketed towards women is criticized because, well, it is usually shit. Sorry but I’d rather press thumbtacks into my face than watch a Katherine Heigl film or listen to One Direction. But don’t hold me to that! :p

  41. Illustrates well the reverse sexism prevalent in American public libraries.  Mommy porn like this gets put on the shelves and promoted, while Daddy porn is avoided and shunned by Americas public libraries.  The messages, from this female dominated profession is, porn for us is good enough for taxpayers money.  Porn for males is not.

  42. Actually, my problem with it (as a woman) is that it was *bad*. Poorly written, repetitive, stupid. There’s way way better erotica out there that’s actually *erotic* and has a well written, well-paced story.

    And regarding the idea that lady-porn is ok while man-porn is not:

    – Women like porn too.
    – Romance novels and erotica is words on a page. No actual humans were abused or objectified in it’s creation
    – Women generally enjoy erotica because, and I’ma be blunt here… real life sex is just soooo rarely that good. Try reading some, it’s really funny. Sadly, vast swathes of lady-persons still report they’ve never actually even HAD an orgasm. Man-porn is frequently degrading and negative, with the sex act being the device used to disempower a woman (especially the gonzo garbage).

  43. I’d like to contribute with the besides-the-point remark that The Sun’s Page Three breasts are not pixellated, at least not in the censorious sense of the word.

  44. Seems like people are really blowing this out of proportion. Plenty of awful books have made millions.
    Yes it’s great that this is getting more women to read smut (everyone should read smut!) and conversley, yes it’s bad that the main charachters mistrepresent the entire subculture and share a truly abusive relationship- but whatever.
    I’m sure there’s plenty of better bsdm porn out there and people *should* be reading that instead, but you know what, they’re NOT. They’re reading this. I wanted to buy some porn, so I bought this. Honestly, I didn’t even know where else to start. I’m sure there’s all sorts of other literary porn that I’d enjoy more, but I was curious to see what all the fuss was about. I’m about halfway through, and it’s pretty engaging. Not the best or worst thing I’ve ever read. But it’s got lots of dirty, dirty sex, and that’s pretty fun. I know their relationship is fucked up- you’d have to be a moron not to see that- but who cares? I’m not going to make decisions about my life based on this book, it’s just a story.
    The fact that people are hanging all this extra baggage on it is absurd. I keep telling my man (who keeps asking me wtf?) that’s it’s awful, and wonderful- both! It’s like watching Final Destination or something.
    It’s a guilty pleasure, not a feminist landmark or the harbinger of doom for the bsdm community.
    Also, so far- 2 and a half stars.

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