I decided to update the header photograph of my blog to celebrate my recent transition to Utica, New York. I never feel truly at home in a new place until all of my books are displayed on their shelves, so the new photograph symbolizes my new identity as a Utican. Also, the previous header photograph depicted a shelf from my poetry bookcase, and I felt it was time to go back to paying homage to my first love, fiction.
I chose a photograph of my P-R shelf because it includes representative texts from my favorite subject areas. There is Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo, one of my favorite African American novels; Alice Randall’s incisive parody of Gone With the Wind, The Wind Done Gone; and a Latino text, Tomás Rivera’s The Earth Did Not Devour Them. There are several queer texts, including John Rechy’s City of Night and Pauline Réage’s Story of O. There is a germinal feminist novel, Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea. Alain Robbe-Grillet’s The Voyeur and two of Thomas Pynchon’s novels represent postmodern fiction while in close proximity with books by one of England’s first novelists, Samuel Richardson. Works by two of my favorite authors from the past, Chaim Potok and Philip Roth, are also present. This shelf would make a lovely autumn reading list for anyone.
I just finished reading E L James’s bestselling romance novel Fifty Shades of Grey because one of my students is writing his senior thesis on it. It isn’t horrible, and is worth reading as sociological research. I had heard that the writing was atrocious, but aside from James’s overuse of the words “jeez” and “crap” and the frequent misstep of having her American characters use English idioms, it’s no worse than any other romance novel.
Fifty Shades has gained notoriety in part because of its depiction of BDSM. While its general description of the BDSM scene (especially the Dom/sub contract) is accurate, I would not classify it as a BDSM novel in the way that Molly Weatherfield’s, Claire Thompson’s, or Pauline Réage’s books are. Rather, BDSM is used to titillate the reader, but the novel’s ultimate view of it is a conventional, close-minded one, as Christian is portrayed as both an ineffective Dom and a demented freak, and the protagonist Anastasia is unable to accept her submissive side. She is a strong character–I don’t see much merit in the criticism of her or the novel as sexist (I think this criticism comes from a misunderstanding of the Dom/sub dynamic, in which it is actually the sub who has all the power, as the novel states. As third-wave feminism teaches us, if a woman gets pleasure from being a sub, there is nothing wrong with or degrading about it. However, this critique is valid in that I don’t think the book would be as successful if it involved a female Dom and a male sub, but this is a problem with sexist readers, not with Fifty Shades itself)–but she isn’t ever able to accept herself; she is too worried about societal conventions. I had hoped that Fifty Shades‘s popularity might be a signal of increasingly liberal attitudes toward sexuality in the general reading public, but there’s nothing that questions the status quo in it.
Aside from being sexually milquetoastish, Fifty Shades is also plagued by homophobic and racist elements. Christian’s reaction to Anastasia’s question of whether he is gay or not and the subsequent references to this exchange clearly imply that there is something that is somehow lesser about being gay. But the treatment of the character José is the most offensive aspect of the book. He is first portrayed as the stereotypical Latino comic relief, and then as a Don Juan-esque sexual predator. The stock nature of the novel’s secondary characters is mostly benign, but in this instance is cringe-worthy.