For the last in my series of festive season books, the theme is romance and erotica, and I have some modern hits and old favourites. I’ve reviewed novels with themes of politics and religion. Now it’s the turn of the big money-spinner, the erotic romance, focusing on Fifty Shades of Grey, by E.L. James; contrasted with The Piano, by Jane Campion and Kate Pullinger, and the screenplay of Secretary, by Erin Cressida Wilson. Prepare for a lot of heavin’ & pantin’ in quotes from these books.
Fifty Shades of Grey
The Italian pop hit of 1973 called Prisencolinensinainciusol” [prizeŋkoliˌnensinainˈtʃuːzol] is an ear-worm of a song composed by Adriano Celentano, and performed by Celentano and his wife. The song is meant to sound to its intended Italian audience like English spoken with an American accent, but the lyrics are actually pure gibberish, with the exception of the words “all right” (spelled “oll raigth” in the internet-posted video). When I listen to it, is sounds like English, but it isn’t English, it’s something approximating English.
So that is how I think about the next novel, Fifty Shades of Grey: – it is the Prisencolinensinainciusol of erotic-romance novels. Has all the elements, reads like it, sounds like it, has all the components of it, but is actually Not. Quite. It.
The big business of erotic romances
Erotic romance fiction, as part of the romance genre, is a real money-spinner. The most popular print sub-genres are: romantic suspense (53%); contemporary romance (41%); historical romance (34%); and erotic romance (33%). Women make up 82 percent of romance book buyers, according to Nielsen, as of Q4 2014. The other buyers are men. The estimated annual total sales value of romance novels, in 2013 is $1.08 billion and the unit share of romance novels in the adult fiction market is 13%. (Source: Nielsen Books & Consumer Tracker, BISAC Romance). So those little paperbacks you see in a rack at the till in the shops – they sell.
There is therefore a justifiable award for the worst sex scene in fiction, and the contenders are truly awe-inspiring in their laughable, cringe-factor-100 awkwardness.
The British magazine, The Literary Review, started this “competition” 22 years ago. Each year since 1993, the Bad Sex in Fiction Award has honoured an author who has produced an outstandingly bad scene of sexual description in an otherwise good novel. The purpose of the prize is to draw attention to poorly written, perfunctory or redundant passages of sexual description in modern fiction, and to discourage them. The prize is not intended to cover pornographic or expressly erotic literature. The award was established by Rhoda Koenig, a literary critic, and Auberon Waugh, at that time editor of Literary Review. This year’s finalists include Book of Numbers by Joshua Cohen:
“ Her mouth was intensely ovoid, an almond mouth, of citrus crescents. And under that sling, her breasts were like young fawns, sheep frolicking in hyssop – Psalms were about to pour out of me.
“Josh,” I said.
“Je vais me undressed, clothes off, unhabillé, déshab.”
Eek. Breasts like young fawns? Sheep frolicking? What badly mixed metaphors.
And the top of this year’s list is: List of the Lost by Morrissey (yes, the former lead singer of The Smiths.)
“At this, Eliza and Ezra rolled together into the one giggling snowball of full-figured copulation, screaming and shouting as they playfully bit and pulled at each other in a dangerous and clamorous rollercoaster coil of sexually violent rotation with Eliza’s breasts barrel-rolled across Ezra’s howling mouth and the pained frenzy of his bulbous salutation extenuating his excitement as it whacked and smacked its way into every muscle of Eliza’s body except for the otherwise central zone.”
His “bulbous salutation”? The “otherwise central zone”? Oh no. Groan. Call a spade a spade please.
Of course, every year authors have successfully disappointed us.
Rules for writing good sex scenes
There are rules for writing erotic romance novels, there are even guides for doing so. (I haven’t read them, so I cannot say if they are any good, but they meet a market demand.)
And there are rules for writing good sex scenes. These are from Kim Devereux who has recently published the erotic romance novel Rembrandt’s Mirror:
- If necessary, get into it and do not underplay or omit.
- Don’t be coy, call a spade a spade. If a body part has a name, use it.
- Do describe some truly disappointing sex, by way of contrast.
- Don’t use clichés (avoid waves, oceans, the earth moving, volcanoes erupting, or Morrissey’s “bulbous salutation”.)
I would like to add a few of my own:
- Describe what you know. There are quite a few varieties of sex that the majority of readers will never experience in their lifetimes, nor would they want to. If you write about BDSM, for instance, get it right. Ask the experts. Because the people that have experienced it, can tell the difference between real and not real.
- Make it part of the story, not the story. Sex without a point is porn. Resolution without an obstacle to love means there is no plot. (This is a tip from Mills and Boon, no less.) No plot – back to the porn.
- Leave something to the imagination. Titillate, don’t dictate. Subtlety and suggestion is the way to go. Suggestiveness is sexy, because the human imagination will always conjure up a far sexier and more personalized scene than any author can come up with.
- The strength of the emotions of the characters is what moves the reader, not the act itself, which is in essence, pretty base, and brief.
So, the same rules for any fiction also applies to erotic-romance fiction, as illustrated by writers who write so badly they are good. In the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest (where “www” means “Wretched Writers Welcome”) every year the worst paragraphs are celebrated. Some are bad and funny. Some are just bad. Here’s one I think is rather amusing:
(Dishonorable Mentions, Fantasy) “’My name is Vangir,’ the stout dwarf announced, ‘son of Valdir, son of Tolfdir, son of Torsson, heir to the dwarf kingdom of Darag-Vur, King of the Under-Folk, ring-giver, dragon-slayer, M.D., DDS.’” – Austin Stollhaus, Louisville, Kentucky, USA
Back to Fifty Shades of Grey
Now back to the bad sex. I think Fifty Shades of Grey is famous despite breaking some of the above-mentioned rules, more precisely, leaving something to the imagination, having a good plot, and not using bad imagery.
It is famous primarily because by writing it, E.L. James brought an insalubrious practice, BDSM (bondage, domination, sadism, and masochism), into the mainstream public’s interest and reading fare. And it is successful for the same reason that the Harry Potter series by JK Rowling is successful: It obviously meets a need in readers, it has become a franchise, and the movie version made up for the book in which the writing is not that fabulous. Frankly, If I had a loonie for how often my blood froze when I read in the Harry Potter books about how “Harry’s scar ached”, or any of J.K. Rowling’s favourite, oft-repeated phrases, I would be well off for Christmas.
So here is an extract. The book is full of much of the same – read some of them here.
“Before I know it, he’s got both of my hands in his viselike grip above my head, and he’s pinning me to the wall using his lips… His other hand grabs my hair and yanks down, bringing my face up, and his lips are on mine … My tongue tentatively strokes his and joins his in a slow, erotic dance … His erection is against my belly.” (Page 78)
The whole idea of a hapless, klutzy female (yet called, oh good grief, Anastasia Steele, like a character from The Young and the Restless), who falls for the irresistible Prince of Pain, is just predictable and boring:
“I push open the door and stumble through, tripping over my own feet in the doorway to Mr. Grey’s office, and gentle hands are around me, helping me to stand. I am so embarrassed, damn my clumsiness. I have to steel [uh-oh, unintended pun by ELJ?] myself to glance up. Holy cow, he’s so young.” (p. 7).
Every time Anastasia gets aroused/confused/surprised, she announces it with a “Holy Crap!” or “Holy Shit!” or “Holy Cow!”
I’m sorry, that just doesn’t convince me. Besides, it’s been a while where I had to wade through an entire set of novels where the main thing was just sex – OK then, “mummy porn”. So seriously sex-focused is this book that on the movie set a mock “Red Room” layout was used, and the stunt coordinator worked with a bondage tech advisor (apparently there is such a thing) who instructed the production crew on the tools, devices, and ropes used in regular BDSM practice (and there is that too.) At least the film makers tried not to err on the side of accuracy.
The point is that, ultimately, the novel is not exactly deep. There is hardly any plot, the characterization is simplistic and clichéd – hapless, witless female becomes involved with masterful, dominant hero-millionaire, and finds she doesn’t like his style. The book is, I would say, workmanlike and commonly acceptable. I’m not saying it’s bad. I’m just saying I’ve read better, a lot better, erotic romances, and that in time, the series will probably prove to be only a flash in the pan.
Getting frisky in the workplace: Secretary
Much more unsettling and memorable is Secretary, the 2002 film, written by Erin Cressida Wilson (story adaptation/screenplay), Steven Shainberg (story adaptation), and Mary Gaitskill (short story), in which the reserved secretary gets involved with her boss who is into S&M. Same sort of set-up, but more is achieved while less is said. The film is based on a short story from the book Bad Behavior by Mary Gaitskill (who is, or was, really into S&M). Gaitskill thinks the movie script version of her story is “too nice”. I would not say the movie is nice. I’d call it restrained, or down-beat. Here is an extract from the screenplay (use your imagination):
Edward Grey: Come into my office and bring that letter. Put the letter on my desk.
I want you to bend over the desk so you’re looking directly at it. Get your face very close to the letter and read the letter aloud.
Lee Holloway: I don’t understand.
Edward Grey: There’s nothing to understand. Put your elbows on the desk…bend over…get your face close to the letter and read it aloud.
Lee Holloway: ‘Dear Mr. Garvey, I’m grateful to you for referring…’
Edward Grey: Continue. Ms. Holloway, read.
Lee Holloway: ‘…for referring me to your case. The subject of animal captivity…has been of interest to me for quite a while,…and my secretary has prepared…research material…that I think you will find illuminating. If you would be so kind…as to send me the letter of which we spoke,…my associates and I will review it immediately. Please feel free to call me at your earliest convenience. Yours sincerely, Edward Grey.
Edward Grey: Read it again.
You can read the rest of the script here. (Transcript by Drew’s Script-o-Rama.)
By the time these two characters eventually do the deed, the reader, and viewer, is positively pent up with expectation. Like the decoration of the office in which the characters find themselves, their interaction is spare and controlled, so that the emotion that surfaces eventually shines like a bright spot of blood on a white napkin, remarkable by its contrast. Two people like animals in captivity, neither able to let the world know what they desire. Now there’s a thought. Or is captivity the point?
And that is the definition of good erotic-romance literature – leave something to the imagination. Let the readers make their own inferences. Leaving a bit of intrigue, putting off the moment of consummation, richly depicting emotions and motivations, is what makes a good sex scene.
The power of music – The Piano
Some of the most gripping sex scenes I’ve ever read are from The Piano – A Novel, by Jane Campion and Kate Pullinger. Set during the mid-19th century on the West coast of New Zealand, it revolves around Ada McGrath, who arrives in New Zealand harbouring a passion for playing her piano, but does not speak, and her efforts to get back her piano from one of the locals, George Baines. It’s one of my all-time favourite novels because I understand the motivation of the characters; I have a great love of pianos, especially other people’s pianos. I gravitate towards them like some people do to other people’s cats.
The film of The Piano was written and directed by Jane Campion, and stars Holly Hunter, Harvey Keitel, Sam Neill, and Anna Paquin, in her first acting role. For both lead characters, Ada McGrath and George Baines, the piano becomes a symbol of what they desire but cannot have:
“Ada began to play. She heard George Baines walk up behind her, the floorboards creaking under his weight, and she felt his breath on her neck. He bent low and touched her, running his square, callused fingers along the tender length of her underarm. She stopped playing, raising her hands to the bare skin of her throat. ‘Two keys’, he said, speaking into her ear, escalating the terms of their bargain. Ada played the first few notes of a hesitant melody. George Baines rested his hand under Ada’s wrist – so narrow, the bones so fine. She played and again his hand lingered along the skin of her arm and up into the warm hollow beneath her shoulder. Then he stepped back and Ada, listening closely, heard him discard his undershirt, dropping it on the floor.” (pp. 118, 119)
Just a man who cannot read and write, and woman who cannot speak, and a rosewood piano that provides the music that becomes their means of communication – and the setting for their seduction. This is a novel and a film that will have you as steamy as a hot cuppa coffee in no time at all. It is pure erotica, and what’s more, it is meaningful, dramatic, sweeping, intense and unforgettable.
Big business and big paychecks
Since these books and screenplays are better than Fifty Shades of Grey as far as I am concerned, I don’t recommend any one of the books in the series – not that it matters. There have been enough readers who are greedy for this type of thing, and who have happily plowed their way through the whole series, to have made the author famous and wealthy.
On the list of top-earning authors, E.L. James was the top earning author in the June 2012 to June 2013 ranks (Fifty Shades of Grey was published in May 2011) with a $95 million paycheck. On the June 2013 to June 2014 list, James had dropped to No. 11 with $10 million earned. The trilogy sold a meagre 1.8 million copies in 2013, compared to more than 29 million in 2012, however, the film of the book is expected to boost her earnings.