'He cites me, hard, forcing my footnotes apart...'

The Fifty Shades phenomenon has spawned academic debate, scholarly parodies and now an erotic trilogy starring a dark, brooding, sensual...lecturer. Matthew Reisz reveals all

September 13, 2012

Credit: Kobal

Dominik, the hero of "Vina Jackson's" novel Eighty Days Yellow, is an independently wealthy academic teaching a seminar series on "the recurrence of suicide and the death element in writers of the 1930s and 1940s". For about a year, he has been having an affair with a former student. When they first have sex, he imagines how "he would enjoy clamping (her nipples) with her hairpins and get hard watching the pain and pleasure it caused fly across her watery eyes".

Until, that is, Dominik hears the siren call of a more meaningful kind of sadomasochistic relationship, when he comes across "flame-haired violinist" Summer Zahova playing on the Underground, "the richness of the sound...solely due to the area's acoustics and the vigorous glissando of her bow against the strings". Will they ever - even over the course of a planned three volumes - find true love?

And with that we are off on a journey into the dark heart of sexuality, complete with naked concerts, dominance games, bondage clubs, slave contracts and much else. Not the least of the heroine's humiliations is that she is obliged to listen to repeated lectures about her true self: "The craving you have to be exposed, to be publicly whored, it's part of you. It's the real you. It brings you to life, allows you to experience sensations you have never experienced before."

Not long ago, such material would have been largely confined to the top shelf, but now it has gone so mainstream that every sensible writer and publisher is trying to cash in on the astonishing and unprecedented commercial success of E.L. James' trilogy of novels led by Fifty Shades of Grey. Both the title and cover design of Eighty Days Yellow make this pursuit of a slice of James' sales particularly obvious - with the hot academic hero one of its few distinctive features.

The limp prose and global penetration of the Fifty Shades books have led to endless parodies, from "Fanny Merkin's" book Fifty Shames of Earl Grey to the Twitter phenomenon @FiftyShedsofGrey ("'Prepare to suffer like no other man has,' she said, drawing her razor-sharp fingernail up the cellophane of the Sex and the City box set").

Even academics have got in on the act. The Department of Omnishambles website offers us the short story Fifty Shades of Impact, in which a hero with his own helicopter takes naive heroine Anastasia (who shares a name with James' virginal, Thomas Hardy-loving college graduate) to a place where, she exclaims, she appears to have "time-travelled back to the 16th century and the Spanish Inquisition". But rather than a Red Room of Pain, she is merely in a common room with "the biggest collection of peer-reviewed journals I've ever seen".

"He grabs me suddenly," she continues, "and yanks me up against Textual Practice issues 1-834, one hand at my back holding me to the special issue on Post-Feminist Misogynies and the other fisting in my sheaf of freshly printed graduate dissertations about the sociosexual function of poorly- written sub-pornographic antiprose.

"'You're one challenging woman.' He cites me, hard, forcing my footnotes apart with his MLA style guide, taking no prisoners."

The Fifty Shades phenomenon has also, unsurprisingly, attracted a good deal of rather more serious academic attention. Are the books liberating, regressive, offensive or just silly? Do they give an accurate picture of real-life BDSM (bondage and discipline, sadism and masochism) practices, sanitise and perhaps even celebrate abusive forms of relationship or encourage readers to go out and explore the wilder shores of love? And what might they have to say about current states of fantasy and desire?

Andrea Cremer, assistant professor of history at Macalester College in Minnesota, is also the author of the Nightshade trilogy of fantasy novels. James' books, she believes, "do little more than introduce mainstream readers to a wider array of sexual experiences than has been the norm.

"However, what I think is and I hope will continue to be a positive outcome of Fifty Shades' popularity is that it has acted as a catalyst for discussions outside of academia and/or sexual subcultures about sexual identity and sex that challenges heretofore assumptions of normative sexuality. Though I think it falls short on substance, its success has garnered other works of erotic fiction - two examples would be Sylvia Day's Bared to You and the reissue of Anne Rice's Sleeping Beauty trilogy - that directly engage prescient issues of sexuality: repression, abuse, liberation, the pluralities of desire, and overarching interrogations of sex and power."

In "Spanking goes mainstream", a much-cited and criticised article on the US news and satire website The Daily Beast, Katie Roiphe, assistant director of the Cultural Criticism and Reporting Program at New York University, asks: "Why does this particular, watered-down, skinny-vanilla-latte version of sadomasochism have such cachet right now?...Most likely it's the happy convergence of the superficial transgression with comfortable archetypes, the blushing virgin and the whips. To a certain, I guess rather large, population, it has a semipornographic glamour, a dangerous frisson of boundary crossing, but at the same time is delivering reassuringly safe, old-fashioned romantic roles."

Roiphe goes on to suggest: "We may be especially drawn to this particular romanticized, erotically charged, semipornographic idea of female submission at a moment in history when male dominance is shakier than it has ever been...It may be that, for some, the more theatrical fantasies of sexual surrender offer a release, a vacation, an escape from the dreariness and hard work of equality."

"Predictably and regressively enough," notes Lisa Downing, professor of French discourses of sexuality at the University of Birmingham, "debate [on Fifty Shades] has turned to the question of what its popularity reveals regarding the 'nature' of female desire in the 21st century...It is important and, I would argue, not coincidental that the 'pervert' is Christian Grey and not Anastasia Steele, despite the wealth of wrongheaded debate about the meanings of 'female submissives' that the trilogy has provoked. (Anastasia, crucially, is not a submissive.)"

Furthermore, argues Downing in an unpublished article titled "Safewording!", the books' "focus on the titillating 'wrongness' of power exchange sex and BDSM" is in the service of ensuring that "mainstream beliefs and values" go unchallenged. These include "commonplaces about what male and female sexuality are (asymmetrical; reciprocal; heterosexual), about what produces a BDSM practitioner (childhood abuse; trauma) and about the appropriate antidote to perversion (the love of a 'good' woman; the conversion-cure of marriage and reproduction)."

We can leave it to the demographers of the future to determine whether Fifty Shades has indeed, as Staffordshire University professor of culture, media and sport Ellis Cashmore was quoted in The Sun as saying, sparked a mini-baby boom. But that still leaves one important question unanswered: why did the authors writing under the pen name Vina Jackson (described in publicity material as a male/female duo) adopt as their hero neither a brooding billionaire nor an aristocrat with an ancestral dungeon, but an expert on the novels of F. Scott Fitzgerald? Aren't there good reasons why academics seldom play starring roles in erotic fiction?

"We wanted him literate and we, at least, find academics sexy," "she" responds by email via the Eighty Days trilogy's publisher, Orion Books.

"One out of two female undergraduates will tell you they've had crushes on professors and tutors at some stage. Are intelligence, proper spelling and knowledge no longer sexy?...One of the collaborators who makes up the mysterious Vina Jackson does indeed have an academic background before moving on to more glamorous shores, and there are clues sprinkled throughout the books as to the areas of expertise."

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