Fifty shades of bestsellerdom

April 16, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

SECRETI put together some thoughts about the recent erotic bestsellers S.E.C.R.E.T. and Fifty Shades of Grey for The Walrus; the piece is now online. What most interests me about these books is the extent to which they endorse traditional notions of romantic love and an unquestioning acceptance of the capitalist ethos:

Both Fifty Shades of Grey and S.E.C.R.E.T. constitute what novelist Barbara Taylor Bradford identified as “very modern romantic fairytale[s].” The trajectory of S.E.C.R.E.T. involves the heroine, Cassie Robichaud, awakening to the notion that she should not feel ashamed of her carnal desires. As independent women continue to be castigated with such epithets as “loose” or “slut,” this is a powerful message. But far from being progressive, Cassie arrives at her epiphany by way of the same makeover motif celebrated in Pretty Woman and Disney movies, coming out of her shell when she is outfitted for a charity auction in a pink dress, makeup, and glittering pumps, then later decked out in fishnets and a bustier for a burlesque show. “What needs are being tickled in us when the princess dream has not died by the age of 35? ” asks Tamara Faith Berger, quite reasonably, in her recent review of the novel for the National Post.

Berger goes on to bemoan the book’s apolitical aspect, but this seems like a misreading. S.E.C.R.E.T., far from being apolitical – and even more than Fifty Shades – displays a highly conservative world view, first evident in the heroine’s sexual encounters. Cassie becomes utterly flustered at the notion of being intimate with another woman, and the sole lesbian character is only allowed a brief walk-on before fading into the background. The novel’s couplings present a narrow window on human sexuality: the most esoteric encounter involves an instance of anal sex described so coyly it is as though it were being viewed through a thick layer of gauze.

I should make clear the distinction between kink – which is at the heart of the BDSM-inflected Fifty Shades of Grey – and subversion, which to my mind involves a more persistent, pervasive interrogation of conventional ideas and assumptions. It is the political, consumerist aspect of these novels that interests me at least as much as – if not more than – their sex scenes.

Who says CanLit can’t be sexy?

April 10, 2012 by · 1 Comment 

TSR welcomes Myna Wallin as a guest poster on the subject of CanLit’s foray into (relatively) uncharted waters of sex, eroticism, and associated hotness.

Are attitudes changing? Are opinions of what makes “legitimate” literature shifting? Looks like “sexy” themes, usually relegated to chick lit or Harlequin Romance, are becoming fashionable and being taken more seriously as literature in the world of CanLit.

This spring saw the release of Tamara Faith Berger’s Maidenhead, published by Coach House, one of the “most anticipated books of 2012” by the National Post. The novel is as literary as it is steamy, with Berger’s teenaged protagonist bursting with lusty thoughts and having one sex-fuelled fantasy (or experience) after another. This has long been regarded as a difficult feat to pull off. Anaïs Nin did it; Henry Miller did it. D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, written in the twenties, famously combined the two. In Canada, however, it seems that although sex is written about, there’s still a streak of rebelliousness in the act of writing it. Other recent sexually charged novels include: Tightrope Books’ Mount Royal by Basil Papademos (launching this spring), Stacey May Fowles’s Be Good (which has already been optioned for a film), and Danila Botha’s Got No Secrets.

Beyond the erotic terrain of CanLit, booksellers are gushing over the recent success of Fifty Shades of Grey by American author E.L. James, the first in a trilogy centering on a BDSM relationship. The book’s been a wholesale audience success, if not a critical sensation. Think Twilight for a new generation of horny and curious women, mixed in with a little old-fashioned Jacqueline Susann.

Poet friends confide in me, “Oh, I have a sexy poem in my third collection, well just one, but I never read it in public. I’d just be too embarrassed.” Others hide their sexiness in their nature poetry, with a bee poking in the sticky stamen of a flower. There’s been a reluctance, shall we say, to consider sex in literature to be a valid choice or a substantive theme. Let’s hope the erotic zeitgeist continues to heat up and flourish as we plow through this summer reading season.

Myna Wallin is a Toronto author and editor whose book Confessions of a Reluctant Cougar has been called “an act of bravery” by the Globe and Mail. She is teaching a course in erotic writing at the University of Toronto’s School of Continuing Studies, beginning May 3, 2012.