Don’t talk to me about Fifty Shades

I was at an excellent symposium recently, and my enjoyment was sharpened when it occurred to me, fifteen minutes in, that we were being addressed by three women and a gay man. The speakers were all scorchingly clever, and prominent in their field, and there wasn’t a straight bloke among them. No big deal, but I did get a little frisson of satisfaction out of it.

A venerable academic from the host institution led off the discussion that followed. His opening gambit was to compare the papers – all four of the papers, mind you – to Fifty Shades of Grey. He actually said, “And, just as porn is tedious because repetitive,…” before launching a thinly-veiled ad hominem attack.

Don’t worry, the speakers handed his arse to him when it was their turn to respond, but I was still pretty stunned on a couple of counts, viz: (1) nobody mentioned Fifty Shades, or erotic fiction, or indeed any post-war prose fiction of any kind in their papers and (2) Fifty Shades is not porn, but mainly (3) would he have made that comparison if he had been addressing a panel of straight men?

The reference was so bizarre, it couldn’t but seem pointed. Like it was hinting at literature straying out of its proper sphere. Like it was to do with belittling critics who didn’t seem, to this chap, entirely the right sort of people. It’s hard not to infer as much, when their work is compared with an amateurish book series with a doubly-disreputable, doubly-feminised provenance in Twilight (yuk!) slashfic (yuk!).

Fifty Shades is popping up all over academic conversation at the moment, in fuzzy analogies and desperate-looking stabs at topicality. I’ll be glad when the fad is over. This is terrible prose – I mean, really bad – with a female writer and a female readership. Every time someone invokes it, I catch an echo of Hawthorne’s sneer about damned mobs of scribbling women. Sure it’s popular, but I’m not sure what singles it out for cultural artifact status among all the other books sold in Target and K-Mart by the pallet-load. I don’t mind that the pundits have got hold of it, because some of the take-downs have been hilarious, but when it turns up in a punning seminar title, I reach for my revolver.

I vote we grant Fifty Shades its own sub-clause of Godwin’s Law, and move on.

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