50 Shades of Bad (And Good)

Catherine Deveny explains why 50 Shades of Grey is one of the worst books she’s ever read, with terrible writing and sexual politics alike – but she’s still really glad that people are reading, talking about and being turned on by it.

A few hours after I finished Fifty Shades, I found myself at Costco.

I’m not proud of it, I was there for research. (Okay I was there for toilet paper. WHATEVER. I don’t judge your happy place.)

Image: the author

As soon as I walked into Costco, I was faced with 200 copies of Fifty Shades Of Grey, plus similar amounts of other two – Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed – all at the mass-produced price of $9.97 each. A wall of porn.

Finding porn in between caterer packs of Cling Film and one kilo buckets of Vegemite in a warehouse can only be a good thing … (even if it is a badly-written book, being sold at a cathedral of corporate maggotry, environmental vandalism and competition consumerism).

Things you need to know before I flesh out my Fifty Shades Of Grey experience.

  1. I don’t read much. I am profoundly dyslexic and I’m a very slow reader. It’s faster for me to write a book than read one.

  2. I do buy heaps of books. Because they are beautiful and I intend to read them and I want to support the writers, publishers and the industry.

  3. I do not ‘Hate Read’ like some people do. You know what I mean, when people say, ‘I’m reading this book at the moment and I just hate it.’ ‘Why don’t you just bail and read something else?’ ‘Oh I can’t do that! I have to finish a book when I start it.’ That’s a Hate Read. Dev doesn’t Hate Read and neither should you. Life is too short to Hate Read. I’m happy to bail. 

When I got to the end, I felt like I should be running through a crepe paper banner.

I went away to a beach house over the school holidays and brought All That I Am. (I was rapt when Anna Funder won the Miles Franklin Award. Melbourne girl, brilliant woman. I LOVED Stasiland.) So, I’m 100 pages in, and I just can’t get into it. It’s brilliantly written, every sentence is a masterpiece; I’m just not smart enough to keep up. So I reluctantly bail after giving it a red-hot go.

Next book: Fifty Shades of Grey. As I’ve illustrated, I’m VERY happy to pull the plug on a book if I’m not getting into it. But I don’t. Despite it being the worst written book I have ever read, I could not put it down.

I hated Christian, I hated Ana, I particularly hated Katherine Kavanagh. The sex was contrived; the writing was clunky and ‘trying to sound grown up’. The naive virgin good girl being flowered by the troubled stud made my hair stand on end. There is nothing believable about Christian’s attraction to Anastasia. She’s just a boring, colorless nothing. A narrative service provider. (We do NOT need any more female characters like this. Literature, theatre, film, television and history are full of them.) Plus, the book romanticises dysfunctional relationships and the traditional male–female hetero power dynamic and portrays clichéd BDSM.

Reading the book was like stinky cheese. ‘Oh my GOD! (smells and repels) this cheese is so stinky (smells and repels) you gotta smell it (smells and repels cheese and then forces companion to smell). Isn’t it disgusting?’

Images: Book Covers

Catherine Deveny on Fifty Shades: 'As clichéd, badly written, problematic and at times cringeworthy Fifty Shades Of Grey is, it's positive.'

The story is about a dysfunctional, co-dependent relationship between a wide-eyed, inexperienced virgin and a wealthy narcissistic creep. The relationship is not dysfunctional because of the BDSM. The BDSM and the diverse sex-play and pleasure described are the only positives in the book. (The relationship is dysfunctional because the emotional transaction is hollow, unsatisfying and way out of whack, and the characters are caricatures.)

The cringey mentions of him ‘stroking his impressive length’, ‘breath hitching’, her ‘inner goddess dancing’ – and particularly all the ‘Stop biting your lip Anastasia’. I could go on … ARGGGH! I was sharing with all. ‘Stinky cheese. You gotta smell. Is sooo stinky.’

When I got to the end, I felt like I should be running through a crepe paper banner.

But I’m very happy this book is out there – and I think everyone should read it, or at least get across the sexual content. I’m constantly appalled by the media-approved, clichéd assertions of what people find attractive and what they are turned on by. (See Packed To The Rafters, Underbelly or The Footy Show for more information.)

If you read most women’s mags or blogs, it’s all ‘Biggest turn on? A man. Turning on the vacuum.’ Sorry, but I’m NOT aroused by a man cleaning, cooking or looking after the kids. I am turned on by a man flirting/charming/seducing or fucking me or vice-versa. And I am not alone. GROW UP! Stop infantilising women and telling them this is what turns them on. (I’m talking to you, Bettina Arndt.) 

As far as the literary snobbery is concerned, I’m not sure what’s worse. The sexual snobbery about what is ‘respectable’ for people to be turned on by or what is ‘respectable for people to read.

What about ‘women are too classy to watch porn, but they’ll read the bejesus out of it’? Current figures suggest one in three Australian women regularly consume pornographic images. We do both. Read and watch.

The truth, is my happy place is not Costco. It’s having sex with my boyfriend. Or shagging. Or fucking. Or rooting. Or making love. This was not how I was raised. I was raised to be encouraged to get my pleasure from being a mum, cooking meals, going to church and making other people happy. And to fine desire in food, new curtains and a ‘smart outfit’ that I had whipped up myself that did not make me look cheap.

I was never once encouraged to ask myself what I like, what I wanted, what turned me on.

If you can’t see it, you can’t be it. Perhaps, even more importantly, if you have never come across it, how do you know how to imagine it or desire it?'

If you can’t see it, you can’t be it. Perhaps, even more importantly, if you have never come across it, how do you know how to imagine it or desire it?'

So as clichéd, badly written, problematic and at times cringeworthy Fifty Shades Of Grey is, it’s positive. Particularly for the less liberated among us. As much as people should feel fine about erotica, porn, toys, and any other kind of pleasure that is safe and consensual, most people feel some level of shame and guilt. Pleasure is demonised and desire is enemy number one.

Now, all those people are not only buying Fifty Shades Of Grey, but also reading it, talking about it and suggesting it to friends. It’s loosened the knot a little on what people consider acceptable. Spanking, anal, fisting, toys and role-play are now becoming a mainstream option for those interested. (If only in conversation. The popular interest in this book suggests to people who are turned on by the descriptions of these practices that they’re not alone. It makes them feel okay where they once may have not. Safety in numbers.

And as far as the literary snobbery is concerned, I’m not sure what’s worse. The sexual snobbery about what is ‘respectable’ for people to be turned on by or what is ‘respectable for people to read. (The whole ‘I cannot believe that adults are reading Harry Potter! It’s a children’s book!’ brigade. Remember them?) Get over yourselves wowsers, haters and bores. Who died and made you chalk monitor?

Fifty Shades Of Grey may be a steaming pile of dog food. But there is a pill in that dog food, a supplement, that has led to conversations that may result in more and deeper pleasure and authenticity in people’s sex lives – and that makes my heart sing.

If you can’t see it, you can’t be it. Perhaps, even more importantly, if you have never come across it, how do you know how to imagine it or desire it?

I never ordered humus until I knew what it was and saw it on the menu.

I watched a fantastic SBS Insight with Jenny Brockie a few months ago about teens and porn. The audience was filled with their parents, who lamented that the accessibility of porn and erotica is robbing their children of a ‘normal sexual awakening.’ Some said, ‘You don’t need porn, just ask your partner what they want.’ But I learn new stuff from my interest in porn, pleasure, sex, happiness and erotica all the time.

‘Normal sexual awakening’? Are you serious? Normal according to who? Women having fertility control is relatively new. So is legal abortions, and not throwing promiscuous women into asylums, or gay men into jail. No-fault divorce is still an amoeba in the scheme of things.

A healthy sex life expands the mind, the heart, the intellect and people’s creativity and acceptance of others. And who knows, Fifty Shades may even lead to some better-written saucy books to unleash the inner god and goddess in us all. Keep your eye out at Costco.

Portrait of Catherine Deveny

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