Not even fifty
There are many excellent novels written about sex and Fifty Shades of Grey is not one of them.
As is too often the case in literature, the hype around its highly sexualised content outweighs its qualities fifty to one. The writer writes badly is the first problem. But more than that, she writes about the mechanics of sex as though it is those that are titillating and not the excitement or emotion or anticipation of it. Lines like “Orgasm! Another one!” are deemed to be a paragraph in themselves; as though orgasms creep up on people unexpected like dolphin sightings or skylarks (‘Dolphin! Another one!’).
Henry Miller’s modernist classics, Tropic of Capricorn and Tropic of Cancer are two far less book clubbable books because they are brutally explicit and beautifully well written. Other classics, Lady Chatterly’s Lover, or Fanny Hill, Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure or In Praise of Older Women struggled far more in their time than Fifty Shades of Grey has been made to.
Perhaps this is the problem. Fifty Shades of Grey is popular because it has been institutionalised by the media and made acceptable. It is acceptable to read it on the tube in a way that other sexual literature is not. But its value barely rises above the pornographic, the mechanical. In the words of Henry Miller: “obscenity is a cleansing process whereas pornography only adds to the murk.” Perhaps this is also true of too much popular culture today – just adding to the murk.