Erica Jong and others discuss the erotic potential and literary crimes of ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’

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The panelists weigh in. (Yvonne Brooks)
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Of the five panelists McNally Jackson invited to discuss Fifty Shades of Grey on Wednesday night, only Roxane Gay actually read all three books.

The writer and editor—who appeared via video chat, as a laptop balanced on a podium—said she’d made it through the trilogy “more than once.”

Fear of Flying author Erica Jong had finished only the first, which she called “a tough slog.”

Melissa Febos, a writer and former dominatrix (author of the memoir Whip Smart), read most of the first but had to stop.

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“I’m in the middle of trying to revise my own novel,” she said, “and I’m very susceptible to influence.”

Sex counselor Ian Kerner (author of She Comes First) “frankly [hadn’t] really read much of the book”; journalist Daniel Bergner (New York Times Magazine contributor and author of The Other Side of Desire) said he “only finished one third of my assignment.”

Fortunately, prose and narrative were sort of beside the point.

“We’re not going to be discussing its literary merit or anything like that,” began moderator and McNally events coordinator Amy Lee, setting the parameters for the evening. But sticking to this rule proved tricky, as did maintaining order among the large, mostly female, and eagerly chatty crowd that spilled up the steps leading to the store’s basement event space. The panelists barely needed questions to keep the conversation moving, and the audience barely needed permission to join in.

Jong kicked things off.

“I know we’re not supposed to discuss literary quality, but what possessed that publisher not to even edit the book?” asked Jong. “Anastasia says ‘holy cow’ … I would have had a copy editor who said, ‘Did anyone ever say 'holy cow'?’” She speculated that the book had succeeded because it had “the heart of a romance novel”: the story of a rich man showering a virgin with gifts.

“Whatever E.L. James’s unconscious is doing, she understands this need for women to want to be taken care of and to trade gifts for abuse,” Jong continued. “So on that level, there’s something psychologically true here, even though the book is a piece of shit.”

Further cause for ambivalence: in addition to spurring sales of sex toys and classical music, the Fifty Shades phenomenon has “also helped my backlist,” she said. “God only knows why.”

Gay has written critically of the book’s politics, but she couldn’t resist the forbidden topic of literary merit either.

“What did I think of the book? Oh, the book. Um, well, I think to call it a book is a stretch, but we’ll call it a book,” she said. “It’s terrible; it’s lazy; it’s derivative; it’s pathetic. I mean, I understand why people love it. But I also think it’s insulting that this is the best they could come up with.” She said she had read it at the gym and regularly fallen off her treadmill laughing.

The real subject of debate was less Fifty Shades itself than the way people talk about Fifty Shades, and erotic fantasy more broadly.

“It’s pretty irrefutable that it has tapped into something in the erotic fantasy life of American women, and that doesn’t worry me at all,” Febos said. “What I find disturbing and actually more interesting is the American media’s reaction to that phenomenon.… The suggestion in the media that that book and its success, and particularly this fantasy of American women, a submissive fantasy, is a threat to feminism I find actually the biggest evidence of a sexist mentality in our culture.”

While the media gnaws on what it all means, readers are getting off—and orgasms are hard to argue with.

“There are 40 million who are in relationships but identify themselves as being sex-starved,” Kerner said. “Sexless relationships are somewhat epidemic, and I talk to a lot of women in particular who say, ‘I want to want sex, I just don’t want it.’”

The panel’s general consensus was that sex was good, and that fantasies were good, and that probably it would be better if better fantasies than Fifty Shades of Grey could find a large audience. Although the evening’s ostensible purpose was to discuss the cultural significance of Fifty Shades of Grey and ignore the quality of its writing, the panelists were writers. They couldn’t help talking about writing, especially writing they liked better than Fifty Shades of Grey.

Kerner said he loved erotica, and offered up a list of favorite books that included Jong’s Fear of Flying, as well as Delta of Venus, Tropic of Cancer, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, A Sport and a Pastime, and Lolita.

Jong called The Story of O “tremendously on-turning.”

“There are things you never forget from The Story of O,” Jong said. “Like, she has these chains implanted in her labia that rattle when she walks around. That’s really kind of arousing.” The audience laughed a little hesitantly. “I mean, not that I would do it,” she said. “But in fantasy, it’s kind of cute.”

Jong also suggested re-reading Lady Chatterley’s Lover, a recommendation Bergner endorsed.

Febos stood up for the sexiness of Fifty Shades (“I whacked off to it, OK?”) but spoke more ardently of Mary Gaitskill’s “Secretary.”

“I love both that story and that film,” she said. “I mean, she calls him on the phone and he tells her what to have for dinner, right? Which I found incredibly sexy. Because to have someone rescue you from your own compulsion or indirection—it makes me swoon.”

Does erotic reading material create new fantasies or give form to existing impulses? And how does fantasy translates into behavior?

“This is not safely packaged or being safely received,” Bergner said of the book. “We’re here because it sits right on this uncomfortable boundary.” He wondered whether, if we confined ourselves to applauding fantasy, we made the conversation around Fifty Shades “too safe.”

“Fantasy doesn’t originate in a vacuum,” Febos agreed. “If there isn’t a real menace, then there is no catharsis.”

Audience member and activist Sunsara Taylor objected to eroticized menace as raw material for fantasy.

“I guess I would argue that Fifty Shades of Grey is bad for women and bad for sex,” she said during the raucous Q&A. “This isn’t a book that’s just reflecting fantasy, it’s shaping fantasy,” she added, saying that it conditioned readers to “accept a different level of abuse and degradation in actual sexual relations.”

After the panel, Taylor and a companion handed out leaflets calling to “End Pornography and Patriarchy,” and directing readers to stoppatriarchy.tumblr.com.

The site includes an announcement for another recent bookstore discussion, this one hosted by Taylor at Revolution Books and titled “Fifty Shades of Grey: Bad for Women! Bad for Sex!” And on one point, at least, its sponsors agreed with McNally’s panelists.

“NOTE,” read an addendum at the bottom of the announcement: “You do not have to have read the book to participate!”

All photos by Yvonne Brooks.