It seems as though everyone forgot that there was such a thing as dirty books. Pornography, of course, has become ubiquitous since the 1970's, but since it seems I need to remind everyone that for many centuries before quick photography, cheap printing and eventually, the internet, erotica used to rely on little more than the written word. Everyone remember the Kama Sutra? Both a wedding of poetry and prose, it is at once a religious guide and sex manual...oh, and it's been around for well over 2, 000 years. Everyone with me? And what about the Marquis de Sade? There's no S&M without "S", and since he spent about half his life in jail, he had plenty of time to write...and one of those books was partially written in his own blood when he had no other way of procuring ink. How's that for kinky?
Since I like to make things personal, I'll bring it back to my own experience. I think I was in the 5th or 6th grade when I snuck a late night peek at Kim Basinger and Mickey Rourke getting frisky and then dark in Adrian Lyne's 9 1/2 Weeks (1986). I think for a lot of folks in my age range, this was often not only our introduction to sex, but also some of the, albeit minor, strange derivations thereof. And as Lyne had made it quite stylish and elegant, it sure beat being introduced to the sexual world by the vision of "pumping hairy man ass", as Bill Hicks would describe porn from the era. Weeks was based on the memoirs of a woman named Elizabeth McNeil, an executive who began a wild relationship with a domineering man she met casually. In the book, the characters have no names, but in the movie, Mickey Rourke's character's name is....wait for it....John Gray.
Have you sighed in minor disgust yet?
I've already mentioned de Sade above. Two of his books, Justine and Juliette, center around the unfortunate adventures of Monsieur de Bertole's daughters. Justine is often set upon and forced into vice, while in her sister's narrative, Juliette runs head first into depravity. Sade's writing is juvenile at best and frequently way over the top. Consider the following:
A) de Sade: "Then do so, my darling, do whatever your heart desires," was Delbene's humble reply; she presented her buttocks. "There," said she, "mark it well. And spare it not."
B) 50 Shades: "I moan loudly. He moves, pounding into me, a fast, intense pace against my sore behind. The feeling is beyond exquisite, raw and debasing and mind-blowing ..."
Are we seeing any difference in the level of discourse here besides the Age difference in vocabulary?
But certainly, there wasn't merely a 200 year gap between the "divine" Marquis and Elizabeth MacNeil. Other infamous examples of erotica filled in the time, and two also got treated in film. Emmanuelle Arsan created a namesake character in her first book that's still with us today in a cheeseball softcore version on late night cable (I, myself, had the distinction of working on the set of the wonderfully awful Emmanuelle 2000 for Cinemax a few years back.) But more in keeping with the thread I've tried weaving through, there was Pauline Réage's Story of O (aka. Histoire d'O, 1954, Réage was the pseudonym for Anne Desclos). Reage's heroine, O, is led on a wild journey through sexual bondage by her lover René who hands her over to the wealthy and domineering Sir Stephen. O made it to the big screen in 1975 with Corinne Cléry and Udo Kier.
However, it's not merely the fact that there are all these forgotten literary precursors to 50 Shades that's got me rankled. It's that this wild bestseller started as badly written fan fiction for an already badly written series, Stephanie Meyer's Twilight. Not that that's without precedent. Literary lifting is nothing new: Terry Southern and Mason Hoffenberg's erotic farce Candy (1958) was a bestseller, also starting out behind shoppe counters, that was liberally lifted from Voltaire's classic, Candide. The major difference being that Southern and Hoffenberg crafted a well-written satire based on what's considered one of the best books ever written. And I suppose with 50 Shades I want more acknowledgment of that origin...and I suppose, I wish the origin was enough to keep people from taking it so damned seriously.
Which brings me to my final point: Naked Came the Stranger by "Penelope Ashe", the once well-known literary hoax that was a past commentary on my current point. Conceived by Newsday columnist Mike McGrady, Naked was written by twenty-four Newsday journalists and editors and was meant to take on the "literary" best-sellers of the 60's, like the works of Harold Robbins and Jacqueline Susann. If you've ever tried to make it through Susann's Valley of the Dolls, you know it's a combo of tripe and trash...hilariously entertaining tripe and trash...but tripe and trash none the less. The plot of Naked centers around a female radio host, who upon finding out her husband is cheating on her, seeks to seduce each and every man in their upscale New England neighborhood in increasingly ridiculous scenarios. The point of Naked's creation was to purposely write an awful book full of sex and violence and when it sold, to expose how pointlessly vulgar popular culture had become. The plan went off without a hitch and McGrady ended up sending his own sister out on the talk show circuit as the non-existent authoress, Ashe.
In the end, though, it's dubious whether they proved anything: the book sold, and once the hoax was revealed, it wasn't as though everyone suddenly changed their pop-culture trash consuming ways. Which I guess brings me back to my own dubious point. I can't change that 50 Shades has sold a depressingly large number of copies, nor that a movie is in the works...but I want more acknowledgement of it for what it is, that it's not innovative but merely another in a long line of trashy books, only sold on the rack beside the shoppe counter rather than behind it. After all, take a close look at the cover: it's perhaps one of the chintziest Photoshop jobs ever conceived for a huge best-seller...and that's totally fitting.