Fifty Shades of Pay: A Failed Attempt To Get Rich By Writing Erotica

My mother has recently begun urging me to read some erotica, and the full strangeness of this only hits me as I’m typing this sentence. Let me explain: as one of those writer types, one must try to keep abreast of the literary scene, yes? And to eschew genre or mass-market pulp, the kind that you and I (O intrepid bastions of Apollo’s Quill!) wouldn’t read unless for the high sport of mockery, must be taken into account. After all, can we actually just read Proust and Stein every single day? Let’s relax with some trash, or a guilty pleasure, or something lightweight.

Actually, my mother’s insistence is not predicated on the author’s need to stay connected to what the majority of people want to read. It’s because there’s gold in them thar bodice-rippers, and her son deserves a seam as much as the next smut prospector. Despite my high-mindedness (I’ve got a degree for God’s sake! I’ve skim-read Ulysses and own the selected poems of Ezra Pound) her words did appeal to one of my instincts: greed. So I made the plunge and bought Fifty Shades of Grey, E.L. James’s chronicle of the BDSM-flavored relationship between Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey. Where James has walked, so could I. From her works, I attempted to draw inspiration.

Writing sex often goes very wrong. In the UK, the magazine Literary Review has an annual Bad Sex in Fiction award; past winners include Tom Wolfe, Norman Mailer, and David Guterson. Their mission statement is to "to draw attention to the crude, tasteless, often perfunctory use of redundant passages of sexual description in the modern novel, and to discourage it". Noble it may be, but what of the great many people for whom crude, tasteless and perfunctory sex is the norm? Are they not to be granted literary reflection?

Differ as we might in our aims and ideas, E.L. James has done something I’m unable to do, and for that she has my respect.

I tease out a few sentences, testing the water. Without forethought, I automatically assume a female POV. I question this later and realise I’m afraid that a male protagonist would be considered a reflection of the author, his perversions a printed echo of mine. Not that I have perversions. Steele’s attraction to Grey is done in such a way that her desire is clear . . . but what is it? Sexiness is a protean concept, signifying different ideas for each person. Perhaps blandness is the way to go? Grey is described as handsome, sure, and copper hair is specified. The recurring imagery, at least what I noticed, was his tendency to smile mysteriously and tilt his head like a curious dog. Here we encounter the first of my hurdles: how to convincingly convey attraction that is both specific enough to convincing, while vague enough for the reader to project their own fantasies.

Do not think me completely inexperienced in writing sex scenes. At university, I wrote an intentionally bad trilogy of detective novels, filled with cliches, plot holes and grammatical errors. What follows is intended to be satire. Honestly. Detective Tarrigan seduces his latest client, a femme fatale called Lacey Bombshell (Remember: not serious. Please, please remember.) Here is the scene in all its gloriousness:

“My name is Lacey Bombshell, Inspector Tarrigan, and I need your help, Inspector Tarrigan.” She smiled her eyes and her teeth were white but NOT UNPLEASANTLY.

“Nice to meet you, Miss Lacey. What can I help you with? Do you perhaps need someone to teach you the art of loving?”

He leaned in and flashed a smile. Lacey was aroused, and looked down from the rippling muscles of his body to the bulge in his trousers.
They had sex, and he tore all her clothes off easily. Her brassiere fell off and plopped on the floor, as Tarrigan frantically began to grope her breasts. She moaned and said “Oooh” as he did it, and felt how erotic the moment was. Her nipples were pointy like the top of chess pieces, but pink, and he did not play chess. Knowing the art of women, he began to lick her left elbow. She moaned again, and had four orgasms.
Now it was his turn, she took his “weapon” (penis) into her mouth like a marshmallow twizzle, and began to pleasure him. He grunted like a gorilla, and sexily began to slap the back of her head faster and faster. She had trouble, because his “penis” (weapon) was very long, and hard as a paperweight.

Once you’ve had a taste of Tarrigan, you never go back.

“By the way, what was it you wanted?” he remembered.

Undeniable as the quality of the above is (unavailable for purchase; picket your local bookstore) there’s probably not going to be any resonance with the public’s sexual imagination, stretching as it is. People of all walks of life, reading BDSM fantasies on the train, in public, talking about it with each other. I want in. Fingertips hovering, cursor blinking, I try to dredge up an idea.

Does the prose matter? Maybe not. Sniff all you like at the legion of clangers in Fifty Shades of Grey, it doesn’t ruin the book. Some of the sentences are charming in their unevenness, like: “Honestly, his surname should be Cryptic, not Grey.” E.L. Wood doesn’t present herself as high art. She’s even said she’s not a very good writer. This is very humble and charming of her. It fills me with misery.

I have a problem. It’s more specific to me as I’m the one sitting here, trying and failing to experiment with erotica, but might needle you as well. So many people, including her, knock E.L. James’s abilities as a writer, calling her books complete garbage. Yet, for the life of me, I’m completely unable to do what she’s done. I’m not even sure what word to use for “penis” (it sounds too clinical, “cock” too asinine, “manhood” too medieval) but E.L. James has captured the sexual unconscious of millions, without even trying to. Twilight fan-fiction bests my serious attempts.

Modern art = “I could have done that” + “Yeah, but you didn’t”

Fifty Shades of Grey = “I could have done that” + “Christ, no I couldn’t”

Now, I’m not claiming the book to achieve any level of genius. Though, on a separate note,  there’s a very sterile and menacing air to the book that may be entirely in my head; steel and glass pervades the novel’s atmosphere, and I’m unable to shake the association between Christian Grey’s surname and decaying meat. This may say more about my psychological welfare than the novel, but sometimes artworks can be mass-market “trash” and have deeper wells of meaning that the author may not have consciously intended.

E.L. James has taken her fair share of knocks. Criticisms from members of the BDSM community and feminists are valid and necessary for the dialogue surrounding this book. Snobs sneering at trash are not. Just don’t read it. Unless you think it contributes to a vast and harmful illness of society, why raise hell? There’s plenty of room for disciples of Marguerite Duras and Georges Bataille. Redefine the structures and paradigms of sexuality, fantastic. May more writers endeavor to do so. Yet so many criticisms do not pick  on harmful sexual ideas, misrepresentation of BDSM, reinforcement of gender stereotypes, but on a simple crude thought that goes thus: “You’re reading that? What a load of crap. It’s not good writing. Not like I read. Not like I write.”

Yeah? Go ahead and try it. Differ as we might in our aims and ideas, E.L. James has done something I’m unable to do, and for that she has my respect. Attack the book if you must, but don’t assume erotica’s an easy path. I wish it were. Wistfully I shall dream of an alternate reality where The Erotic Adventures of Detective Tarrigan has set me for life. I’ll never be a master of erotica. To my mother, I can only apologize.

Part Number:
Jack Joslin

Column by Jack Joslin

Jack is a graduate of the University of Warwick. His current project is a surreal biography of the band Paris and the Hiltons. He lives in the UK, where he founded the netlabel Portnoy Records. He can't juggle yet, but really is trying very hard. Often he tells people he's ten feet tall, even when they're standing in front of him, which makes for awkward pauses. He writes incoherent thoughts and opinions at the International Society of Ontolinguists.

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ReneeAPickup's picture
Class Facilitator
ReneeAPickup from Southern California is reading Wanderers by Chuck Wendig June 28, 2012 - 12:42pm

I can admit that the biggest problem I have with Fifty Shades of Grey is that it is successful. Why not? We're all writers here. But I've read large chunks of it, and worse than the poor writing is the unsexy sex. Am I the only one who feels that way? It doesn't make me angry at EL James, but it does make me angry at all the people licking their lips and sighing heavily over the book...are we honestly so Puritanical that all someone has to do is write about sex and we get excited? There is nothing sexy about stuffing a used condom into the trousers of your expensive suit. There is nothing sexy about pretending to fellate a spear of asparagus! 

There is good sex in literature out there...but somehow this one became the socially acceptable dirty book. Whatever EL James did right, she deserves credit...but it makes me sad to think that the reason people find the sex scenes so breathtaking is because they simply exist.

jyh's picture
jyh from VA is reading whatever he feels like June 28, 2012 - 12:43pm

I might make this analogy:

You're engaged in different sports.  Let's call ELJ a track-runner and you a competitive archer.  We can say, "The two sports involve different abilities, therefore each athlete may hold the other in respect." 

Now let's say she's found to use performance-enhancing drugs.  Being an archer, untrained for long runs, you remain unable to run a marathon, but you can reasonably hold her accomplishments in doubt, which doesn't make you a snob or sour-grapist.

Then, if I was less egalitarian, I might say this:

Let's say she lost her legs and competes in the paralympics.  You are unable to do so unless you cut off your own arm.  You imagine what it would be like to have to re-learn everything and realize it would be hard, instilling in you a sense of respect for her work.

Or, if I was a total jerk, I might say this:

Let's say she's mentally deficient.  You can still find her works remarkable (i.e. worth remarking upon,) but you could never produce the same thing without drinking lead paint or drilling a hole in your head or something.  That thing is then probably not something to hold in respect, even if you do acknowledge your own inability to produce something comparable.

Heidi Ash's picture
Heidi Ash from Dallas/Fort Worth area is reading 1Q84, Bloodfire Quest, Anathem June 28, 2012 - 1:15pm

Thank you so much for sharing the scene from your "intentionally bad" book! I definitely think that there is a market for this work, since it gave me the best laugh that I've had all week! You had me at the idea of "unpleasantly" white teeth, but I especially like the part where he tears all of her clothes off "easily". (Perhaps this is only funny to those who have actually had sex starting from a fully clothed situation.)

I have been avoiding this latest sensation on the self-published scene, but now I think I may have to give E.L. a look (ahem, for professional reasons, of course). Seriously, though, finding the right words to describe sex realistically is a valid topic. I don't think I've seen it done exceptionally well, either, but then maybe it can't be. Or, what's more likely, there may just not be a particular style of description that the majority of people could agree upon as being "well done".  

shellypeligre's picture
shellypeligre from New York, United States is reading Faces of Fear June 28, 2012 - 2:51pm

What makes for great erotica prose? Any recommendations for reading(particularly for women and even more particularly for queer women)?

Joshua Chaplinsky's picture
Joshua Chaplinsky from New York is reading Library Books June 28, 2012 - 3:33pm

I've already proven myself adept at writing erotic prose once on this site:

MegofMetal's picture
MegofMetal from Swampland is reading Tentacle Dreams June 28, 2012 - 6:22pm

I am an erotica writer. Yes, it is difficult to write erotica well. Basically, you're writing an action scene: stimulus, physical reaction, sensation, perception, emotional reaction, deliberate reaction. That's the basics of physical interaction. Deliberately trying to get around what you're describing is usually the biggest problem erotica writers have. In other words, use the word cock. Use the word pussy, or cunt. It's fine, really. Humor is a big no-no. No one wants to read funny erotica because humor takes away from the intensity of the interaction (doesn't mean it can't be fun, though). That's another rule: scene, anticipation, fulfillment. Great erotic prose comes from a writer who can make the interaction very personal. Some classics in the genre: Raw Silk by Lisabet Sarai, The Waiting Room by Remittance Girl, Asking for Trouble by Kristina Lloyd. Amazing novels. Sexuality is a valid topic and one women are desperate to immerse themselves in because it has been so long denied as a valid source of self-exploration. Other great authors include Kitty Thomas, KD Grace, Janine Ashbless, Monocle. Also, gay and lesbian erotica is a burgeoning genre, check out Cleis Press for top titles. And then there's a whole range of paranormal, fantasy and sci-fi erotica. Steampunk erotica is also up and coming. Anthologies are a great way to get acquainted with some excellent erotic writing, too.

Pretty Spry for a Dead Guy's picture
Pretty Spry for... June 28, 2012 - 7:15pm

I am prepared to lay down seven dollars to read The Erotic Adventures of Detective Tarrigan right now. Jack's prose is profoundly hilarious.

Fylh's picture
Fylh from from from is reading is from is reading is reading is reading reading is reading June 28, 2012 - 7:27pm

I lived with Jack for 3 years and I can tell you he's legit.

Jathan Clark's picture
Jathan Clark June 29, 2012 - 1:37am

More of Jack!! Easily ranks among the best comedrotica!

adam_bowman's picture
adam_bowman from England is reading Love in the Time of Cholera June 29, 2012 - 8:59am

You call her E.L. Wood at one point, she really did get you hot under the collar!

Robert Alexander II's picture
Robert Alexander II is reading nothing because he just finished a book, but he very well may start another one today July 4, 2012 - 4:57pm

@ J.Y. Hopkins: I like it.

SammyB's picture
SammyB from Las Vegas is reading currently too many to list July 10, 2012 - 6:04am

I wrote an erotic novella as a gift for one of my friends. Didn't have any money to get her a gift, so I spent several months working on a story to her specifications. It was really hard to pull off. Spent weeks reading erotic short stories to figure out the language, which was different in all of them! but she shared it and I got a lot of positive feedback from the people she let read it. Sex is awkward, even if it is good. This is probably why it is difficult to write sex scenes well.

SammyB's picture
SammyB from Las Vegas is reading currently too many to list July 10, 2012 - 6:05am

Oops, it posted twice and I don't know how to delete. So, I'm editing instead haha

Cameron Lawrence Merker's picture
Cameron Lawrenc... from Twin Cities is reading Watership Down January 23, 2013 - 6:57am

Erotica is about honesty. I think if you convey desires romantically, passionately or at least lustfully it can be read as authentic. I started writing small erotic poems for my girlfriend after she recommended me the book The secret gardens of Mogador by Alberto Ruy Sanchez. He does a great job of combining love, passion, and sex. There's nothing wrong with reading 50 shades of grey. E.L. James wrote honestly from where she was at that time. Maybe she didn't portray BDSM in an authentic way, but most people have no idea what BDSM really is, so it works in that way. Writers should read everything that interests them for whatever reason. I've learned a lot from literary genres as much as I've learned from reading Dear Abby. You learn what you like and dislike as you go along.