Currently, there are four fiction books sitting open at various pages on my desk, all of which are written by women. All Men Are Mortal by Simone de Beauvoir: my current read, bookmarked around 100 pages from the end. The New Republic, the newest title by Orange Prize winner Lionel Shriver whose earlier work, We Need to Talk About Kevin, is widely considered to be stunning, sensational and a hard-hitting comment on motherhood. Lastly, Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades of Grey, the first and second in the ‘Fifty Shades’ trilogy by E L James (whose real name is Erika Leonard.)
There is a stark difference between these four books, whether it is in quality, substance or content, in particular my last two reads, Fifty Shades of Grey and The New Republic. Working in a bookshop and being the only member of staff who has embarked on the trilogy that everyone is talking about I have found myself defending the “mummy erotica” or “mummy porn” that has now become the fastest selling paperback of all time, knocking Dan Brown’s The De Vinci Code off the top spot. It’s not that Fifty Shades has become one of my favourite books, or that it broke into my subconscious and violently shook up my way of looking at the world like All Men Are Mortal is most certainly doing. In fact, I would go as far as to say it is, in parts, poorly written. Some of the inner turmoil that Ana Steele, the young female protagonist, experiences is excruciating. Ana makes constant references to her ‘inner goddess’ who is either sulking from lack of sex or jumping up and down waving pom-poms at Ana’s pursuit of Christian Grey, the BDSM (bondage, discipline, sadism, masochism) obsessed billionaire and every time she does this I feel a little nauseous. I was intrigued to find out what all the fuss was about and suspiciously dipped my toes into James’ trilogy with my mind practically made up, before I had even read it.
The New Republic, on the other hand, I was excited to read. I had heard about the arrival of Shriver’s book that had trouble finding publication before We Need to Talk About Kevin. I bought it in hardback. I began to read it on the way home from work. It was dull. Unlike Fifty Shades, Shriver’s book took me an age to finish. I kept willing it to get more exciting, or weirder, but the mid-section dragged so much that by the time it did pick up, near the end, I had lost interest. Edgar Kellogg, the American protagonist, is a struggling journalist who chases after the previous holder of his post in Barbra, the charismatic, British Barrington Saddler. True to form Shriver’s newest publication is beautifully written; the vocabulary, punctuation and structure of The New Republic is that of someone who loves and practices writing with joy and vigour. The novel is also clearly well researched, approaching the issue of terrorism in Barbra through the eyes of a wannabe journalist with fascinating authenticity. It promised to be an interesting read, but there was just something missing.
Now I’m not about to suggest that if Shriver had made her protagonist into dominance or at least kinky foreplay that The New Republic may have been a little less dragging, but there definitely was something in Fifty Shades that made me read faster and more eagerly.
I’m getting bored of reading reviews of people slating Fifty Shades or suggesting better, alternative or classic erotic novels to read because I’m not convinced that the ‘erotic’ element is the only part that appeals. Pretty much everyone I have spoken to that has bought into Fifty Shades did so due to recommendations by word of mouth and I would say that most of them haven’t heard more than ‘you should read this book’ or ‘trust me, it’s amazing.’ As with The Da Vinci Code’ the Fifty Shades trilogy owes its fame to hype. James herself claims the popularity is down to the ‘love story’ at the ‘heart’ of the trilogy. It’s almost as if James was writing what she deemed to be every girl’s fantasy: a sexy, steamy, sometimes romantic, sometimes volatile relationship with a handsome billionaire who has no qualms about buying expensive gifts. However, again, I’m bored of hearing that Fifty Shades is unrealistic. Yes, he can drive a helicopter and play the piano and has a driver and a penthouse suite and yes, she gets an editorial job in publishing right after she finishes university, but I just can’t help thinking that being unrealistic is kind of the point. This is unrealistic in the same way that Twilight is unrealistic, and indeed Fifty Shades started life as Twlight fan fiction. It’s that ‘dark and brooding’ thing that women supposedly can’t get enough of. How boring would an erotic novel be if it portrayed a realistic relationship between two people? No ‘red room of pain’ or various expensive sex toys to play with. The unrealism or hyperrealism is the element that makes, what is essentially a regular romance into what it has become: a phenomenon.
Perhaps this is what The New Republic lacked, a little more “unrealism”. Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin had a pin point balance of real and unreal: the emotions were so well expressed that they became realistic; however, because the plot of We need to Talk About Kevin was so unlikely to actually happen, the balance of relatable and unrealistic was perfect . Edgar Kellogg’s story on the other hand, although centred on a realistically unlikable character, isn’t unrealistically anything. I wished Shriver had delved more into the issue that Kellogg’s search for Barrington Saddler approached: the question of what makes a person charismatic and electric. In Shriver’s Author’s Note she purports that the book had trouble with publication because ‘American compatriots largely dismissed terrorism as a Foreigners’ Boring Problem’, but now, the post 9/11 world is obsessed’ Forgive the scepticism but I can’t help thinking that the success of We Need to Talk About Kevin probably helped boost the anticipation for The New Republic.
The difference in content and popularity isn’t the only thing that divides Shriver and James into two different camps. The women themselves are opposite ends of the spectrum. Shriver changed her first name from ‘Margret Ann’ to ‘Lionel’ because she felt a name conventionally used for males fitted her better, and is American born. The New Republic is her eleventh novel. Whereas E L James, who began her writing career with fan fiction under the name ‘Snowqueens Icedragon’ is an English, originally self-published, mother of two. James was named in the Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world, where they state ‘reading may never be the same.’
What the popularity of Fifty Shades and the lack of initial of The New Republic demonstrates is that the public, particularly women en masse want to read a certain type of fiction. Novels can serve so many purposes and escapism from your own day-to-day life is a big one. Fifty Shades fills this criterion nicely and The New Republic, although interesting, is too heavy to be escapist. Above I mention All Men Are Mortal by Simone de Beauvoir. This book is sublime. It’s escapist and it tackles important issues, particularly that of mortality. It gets right to the core of what it means to be human and makes you really think: I sat on a park bench for about half an hour today without doing anything but thinking. Ultimately, Fifty Shades and The New Republic serve two different purposes. As does All Men Are Mortal or Pride and Prejudice, The Lovely Bones or Caitlin Moran’s How to be A Woman, all books written by wonderfully talented women, all covering different topics and serving different purposes. Fifty Shades has exploded because it filled a gap in the women’s fiction market; just like The Story of O or Lady Chatterley’s Lover it has shaken up the romance genre. The New Republic hasn’t exploded but I can see how those interested in terrorism and love Shriver’s (sometimes a little word-heavy) writing would greatly enjoy it.
The fourth book on my desk is the only one I haven’t directly mentioned: the second in the series of the Fifty Shades trilogy: Fifty Shades Darker. I have to confess something. After I finish All Men Are Mortal, (and recover from the existential crisis it is bound to impose on me) I am going to read Darker. I have no shame in this; my bookcase is filled with great literary works from influential women (and men) but sometimes the purpose of a book is to fill a gap in your bookshelf and your day, and be they a little dull or cringe-worthy, but both Fifty Shades of Grey and The New Republic certainly do fit untapped realms in our bookshelves.