Sunday, September 9, 2012

Book Review: Fifty Shades of Grey

I was driving Donna to the airport early last Saturday when we heard a story on the radio that the sales of a book called Fifty Shades of Grey had reached some astronomical level.  I asked if she had heard of it. She asked me if I had been living under a rock.  The book and its two sequels, apparently, have been the top three books on the New York Times best seller list for quite a while.

I like to go to Harvard Square and just sit and read in an outside cafe that looks out onto Massachusetts Avenue. I'd go there more often if it was easier to find a parking spot in the vicinity. On a Saturday morning at 8 a.m. there is no problem getting a parking spot, so after the trip to the airport I parked near the square, got a coffee and a bagel and watched the world go by.  I decided to take a stroll down to the nearby Harvard Book Store and see if I could get a copy of this hot selling book.

It was there alright--in two separate places. But in both spots the stack was nearly depleted.  I started reading the 500 plus paged book that Saturday and nearly completed it by Labor Day. Work interfered during the week, so I just finished it last evening.

Let me begin this review by commenting that if you removed the steamy scenes from the book, Fifty Shades does not make the best seller list.  The popularity of the book and its sequels has little to do with theme, plot line, or character development.  It is about steam.  Take out the steam and it is an ordinary girl meets boy story.  Bring in the steam and the book sells like hotcakes.

I've often thought that the line between pornography and erotica was difficult to identify and moved this way and that depending on your and a society's attitudes toward sex.  This book is billed as erotica, but I am not sure it is a whole lot different from what people--in the past at least--called pornography.  While I was reading it, I thought that had the author been a male, he might have been lynched by the critical press because of the nature of the erotic scenes that the author describes.  To be sure the public reviews on Amazon have ranged from one extreme to the other and both men and women have weighed in on each end. Still, I think that if the E.L. in E.L James (the author) stood for Edgar Lawrence, the reviews might have been more critical.

Is it worth a read?  I think it depends on (a) your comfort level with reading erotic/pornographic material and (b) how you feel about the particular brand of steam that is described in the book. It is not vanilla.  Since I believe that the popularity of the book is because it is sexually stimulating and not because of its inherent literary merits, one would have to be stimulated by this type of erotica.

Obviously, a whole lot of readers are so stimulated.   A while back I posted a blog about how conservative candidates vying for a primary win were trying to outdo one another by talking about how much they supported abstinence programs.    One might think that their position on this issue was foolish since, judging by sales of Fifty Shades, a whole lot of voters are interested in sex. But there is another point to consider.  Some readers privately thrilled by this book, may be the same people who publically and hypocritically advocate for abstinence programs and moan about the promulgation of sexual themes in films and books.

In sum, Fifty Shades is an erotic novel that may or may not depict what you consider erotic--but judging by the sales, it is a good bet that you will not be disappointed if pornography/erotica is not offensive.

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