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Guilty Pleasure of Prosaic Porn: Paige Nick Reads 50 Shades of Grey

This Way UpBy Paige Nick for the Sunday Times:

I hope you can all still respect me in the morning, after I tell you this. I just read Fifty Shades of Grey, by EL James.

For the 25 of you who haven’t yet been assaulted by this book’s presence in the world, it’s basically a good old-fashioned bodice ripper. Also referred to as erotic literature, or if we’re being entirely honest, pornography for chicks. You know it’s chick-porn because it has a hint of a story line between the sex scenes, and in dude-porn those are the bits they edit out.

I read all three of them in quick succession. Much like eating candy floss, it doesn’t take long.

Love it or hate it, it seems everyone has an opinion, whether they only read the back cover, the first 20 pages, or they made it to page 579 of the final book. That’s a lot of opinions and a lot of people. Ten million in about six weeks, if the sales figures are to be believed. That’s almost Bible status, or at the very least back of cornflake box status.

I read them out of sheer curiosity and to try to figure out the hype – and of course wonder how an author such as myself could replicate this kind of frenzy in SA, where selling 3000 books is considered a success. Seriously, who do you have to screw around here to sell more books? Or perhaps I’ve got it all wrong, and it’s who does my heroine have to screw around here to sell more books?

Now people keep asking whether they should read them, and I’m finding it difficult to answer. So my answer would be, “I don’t know”. Yes, nice and decisive.

All three are undoubtedly pornographic and exceptionally badly written, but you didn’t buy this newspaper and turn all these pages to hear that; you knew it already. So aside from the obvious, I found the first one oddly compulsive in a morbid rubber-necking-at-an-accident-and-can’t-believe-I-really-want-to-see-this kind of way.

The second one was rather boring, but still mildly entertaining in a vapid, pure escapism, idle chewing-on-gum kind of way.

And the third was simply very dull and repetitive. Did I mention it was repetitive? By the end I’d developed an allergic reaction to the word “fifty”. The mere sight of it made my kill-me-now muscle swell to the size of a grapefruit. And I rolled my eyeballs so many times, I was worried they were going to pop out of my ears.

Do you have your vomit bag handy? The heroine’s name is Anastasia Steele, and the handsome, super-wealthy hero’s name is Christian Grey. She bites her lip a lot, he stares at her a lot, with varying degrees of intensity. Oh and he spanks her quite a bit too, but then I suppose with a name like Anastasia Steele, she was always asking for a smack.

I certainly wouldn’t read another one, and I have no interest in the movies that will no doubt begin to roll out. There’s talk of Angelina Jolie directing them – Lord, please either give me strength or a razor blade.

But as much as I want to diss them, the truth is that I did buy and read all three, so EL James must be doing something right. And if these books make more people read and have more sex as a natural side-effect, then they can’t be all that bad, can they?

So you decide if you want to read them. It’s the same as deciding to do crack, or watch every episode of all four seasons of a series in a single weekend. You know it’s bad for you, but in some mindless, drooling way, you also know how good it feels to succumb to complete undemanding escapism.

If you decide to give it a go (nudge, nudge), the next big question is where are you going to read it, and whether you’re going to admit to it in public?

A friend read it on her daily commute on the London tube, and found herself blushing and mortified for 500 pages. She felt like everyone around her knew she was reading porn, even though I tried to explain that since she was reading it on her Kindle, chances are it was only her own blushing that gave it away.

I can’t help wonder if these books would have been half as successful in a time before e-books? Amazon saves you the embarrassment of having to pick it up off the shelf, and carry it through the store to the counter and pay for it, while trying to avoid the dirty, knowing smiles of the sales people and other shoppers.

It’s the equivalent of a teenage boy buying a condom 20 years ago, or men buying pornographic magazines and having the shop assistant wrap them in a nondescript brown paper bag.

I realise I’m going to have to follow up by reading something very literary, to offset my porno footprint. Something hefty, important, and full of big words. War and Peace springs to mind. Definitely not Lolita.

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