ORGASMS ARE SHORT, unfortunately. Clearly the allure of sex does not reside in its climax alone; sex is a manifold experience constantly nourished by socialized eroticism. As natural and instinctive as sex is, it’s also a highly developed form of human interaction and intimacy, forever in need of reinvention. Much of the sexual experience takes place in our imagination.
The history of sex is also a literary history. From Catulo and Sappho to Candy and Fanny Hill or the Marquis de Sade and Story of O, the way we make love owes a lot to our curiosity, to the voyeuristic side of our nature and the many forms of artistic representation that allow us to peek into the forbidden or daring practices of others. Clothes, movies, porn sites and the like do their part, but books are still unrivaled in their capacity to evoke fantasies and fuel the erotic imagination. A book does not allow the reader to be just an observer; it requires the intrinsic complicity of the mind, which stages a mental production based on the often sparse notes of the author, fantasies woven by words forcing the reader to bring into play his or her own desires or experiences.
Having said this, what are we to infer from the sudden bestseller popularity of Fifty Shades of Grey and the two sequels that compose E.L. James’s trilogy? In spite of their sophomoric tone and less than lucid writing, the story of (the oh, so beautiful) Christian Grey and Anastasia Steel, and their cat and mouse sexual game of sadist predator and virginal prey, has touched a chord in the collective imagination of readers, most of whom are women.
In a country where Danielle Steel and Nora Roberts have such huge followings, we shouldn’t be surprised. Truth be told, to characterize E.L. James’s novels as “soft porn” — in itself a contradictory and porn-defeating word association — is to misrepresent them. The Fifty Shades novels are nothing but erotic romance novels. They lack the kind of passages that elicit the mix of disgust and intense sentiments associated with pornography. All three Fifty Shades read easily, like those many uncomplicated paperbacks read on planes or long train journeys. There are very descriptive sexual scenes, but in their own way they are quite proper, so proper that the first person protagonist often refers to her feelings of arousal as sensations “down there.” Whatever the protagonists are doing, it is never made to sound dirty or vulgar. In fact probably these books owe their success to the way the writer weaves the description of physical pleasure with the emotions they elicit in a woman who is discovering her body and her feelings simultaneously. It is this mix that makes these books stand apart from porn and makes them quite erotic. The sex is narrated in the voice of a protagonist who is experiencing it with intense emotional reactions, as many women do. To top it off, the author has no qualms introducing a number of interesting and different sexual possibilities. No wonder it has sold ten million copies in two months!
It’s hard to reproduce the overall effect with just a few quotes because the writing, in spite of its sometimes unnerving simplicity and predictability, relies on a prolonged build up. But a few random paragraphs can serve as an example:
His touch sends shivers down my spine, waking every nerve ending in my body. He’s standing behind me, so...