Not long ago, I decided to crack the spine on the first installment of the publishing sensation 50 Shades of Grey. Now, personally, I should admit that the book perhaps did not have the same mysterious allure that it does for most of its audience, which is to say the inexperienced and uninitiated in the art and world of BDSM. I am, if I may put it mildly, familiar with the stock from which the work is drawn.
I also was ready to have been less than thrilled with its content because, in the interest of full disclosure, my own tastes and interests lie with the opposite dynamic; my preference is for the woman in the scenario to be the dominant one.
My desire to avail myself of the content and form of the work was almost exclusively to determine, being that the book has become such a touchstone of the cultural representation of kink, just what it was that the public at large thought of when they thought of kink, of bondage, of submission, and frankly, not to put too fine a point on it, what they thought of when they thought of people like me. I was also aware of some pronounced criticism from within kinky circles of the relationship dynamics involved between the characters, and I wanted to establish my own opinion on the matter. And yes, why not, I was hoping that somewhere in there there would be something I’d find arousing.
But the truth is I never got that far. The one thing I learned very quickly about 50 Shades of Grey, and I’m sad to say it was the only thing I learned, is that it’s bad. Really bad. Just incredibly really very bad. I mean it. Sincerely poor writing.
Most books, even ones that are fairly poor or that for whatever reason don’t grab me, I will hear out for 50 or 75 pages. I will give the author space, let them establish the form of the book, let them illustrate the finer points of their style and method, and really give it a chance before I start evaluating its merit. But no. Not this one. I really, despite an honest effort in good faith, couldn’t get beyond page 5.
And I suppose, while there may well be other things to address about it, that’s my real problem. That much is enough.
I’ve found routinely in my pornographic excursions that quality isn’t always the watchword, and this much is news to almost no one. Since the 1970s the genre has been almost automatically associated with ham acting, unbelievable plots and circumstances, awful writing, terrible sets, and in the last 15 years or so that high quality equipment has been accessible to the majority of producers it has also, in my mind, developed a reputation for being overproduced– overlit, garish colors, excessive production values, and so on.
It’s almost that pornography can only be called pornography if it’s trash. Anything of value, 2014’s The Duke of Burgundy for example, is “challenging cinema” that won’t exhibit too much for fear of too closely associating itself with that other base, uncouth endeavor, and even efforts like those from pornography studios like Hegre Art and Strapless Dildo flirt exhaustively with having been overthought. Erotic photography is artwork when it looks like anyone who knew what they were doing was behind the camera, and it rarely turns its eye toward anything more torrid than the glorification of certain bodyparts. The bad stuff that at least thinks it’s art, all too often, is made by people who apparently think Robert Mapplethorpe worked with too soft a touch.
And too, it pains me to say, erotic writing is often extremely poor. The published variety tends to fare a bit better, but anyone who’s browsed the laughably (and I should say, purposefully) antiquated Literotica looking to get off has waded through dozens of 400 word snippets, strung together by prose that could be written by a sixth grader, which rattle off incidental facts of setting and character before leaping headlong into the most ‘shocking’ nouns and verbs the author can muster before saying, “To be continued…”
Why should this be? Why should you have to settle just because it’s smutty? Why do we believe that no one with any talent actually stoops to that level? Why do we indulge and perpetuate the assumption that art has no business watching people fuck and that porn has no business taking itself seriously?
To put it another way, in this age that enables to be more discerning than ever, why do we continue to accept mere pornography?
I’m not going to bemoan the fact that it spawned two sequels and a rewrite (bestsellers, all), and a movie franchise, and a line of sex toys, and that “E. L. James” laughed her lazy, inarticulate way to the bank. I don’t even care that it apparently misrepresents kink and kinky people or that it has become synonymous with the more adventurous forms of naughtiness. What bothers me is that it fits right in with what we’re already willing to accept from our smut and, because of that, for all that it’s done to “change the conversation” and “raise awareness” and open people up to new experiences, it won’t do a thing to make them more conscious, more discerning, or more likely to seek out experiences that are worthy of them.
If we all thought better of our pornography, and with good reason, perhaps we’d think better of our sex lives, our sexual preferences, and ultimately ourselves, and if you ask me the first step toward that is making sure that the next time you cum it’s to something that deserves your attention.
Click here for more essays from The SMUT Project!