Well, that was not really what I had planned for the last week or two, but it is what happened. I just scored three Books points, one after another.
First I read Fifty Writers on Fifty Shades, which is a collection of essays by writers, editors and publishers on the phenomenon of Fifty Shades of Grey, which, as we all know, is the worst book of all time but also a book that has sold 100m copies. It gives an interesting perspective from inside publishing, where there are distinctions between erotica and erotic romance, for instance. My favourite essay in the volume was The History of BDSM Fiction and Romance, by Sarah Frantz, which surveys Fanny Hill (John Cleland, 1748), Justine and Juliette (Marquis de Sade, 1791, 1797), Venus in Furs (Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, 1869), The Whippingham Papers (anonymous, 1887), Story of O (Pauline Reage, 1954), Tarnsman of Gor (John Norman, 1966), The Flame and the Flower (Kathleen Woodiwiss, 1972), Sweet, Savage Love (Rosemary Rogers, 1974), Nine and a Half Weeks (Elizabeth McNeill, 1978), Mr Benson (John Preston, 1979/80), Exit to Eden and The Claiming of Sleeping Beauty (Anne Rampling aka AN Roquelaure aka Anne Rice, 1983), The Marketplace (Laura Antoniou, 1993), Carrie’s Story (Pam Rosenthal aka Molly Weatherfield, 1995), Velvet Glove and The Top of Her Game (Emma Holly, 1999), and finally Natural Law (Joey Hill, 2004). This comprehensive review examines not only the content but the narrative structure and moral tone of the works. Sarah Frantz is Associate Professor of English at Fayetteville State University in North Carolina.
While I was reading the book of essays, my interest was aroused enough to read actual Fifty Shades, which I am not going to collect a point for, unless we had points for Patience as it is annoying and dull, the sex is not very hot and the characters are grating. However, I am planning to go and see Sam Taylor-Johnson’s film version with my friend next week, since the Honcho has not tried to move the idea forward and I like STJ’s art, as a general rule.
After that I ploughed my way through all 24 lectures in James Hynes’s excellent series Writing Great Fiction, and took detailed notes, filling almost a whole notebook. I do quite a lot of writing for fun and for work. Some of it is what you might call fictionalised, but I have never tried to write a straight-up novel or even a short story. I do, however, have a lot of interest in the technical aspects of fiction writing. This was a detailed, thoughtful and deeply satisfying series of lectures. I notice from my notes that my favourite lectures concerned setting and pace – how to move your characters through space and time. There was much discussion of Tolkien, esp Lord of the Rings, because Tolkien’s characters travel across a vast landscape, over a long period of time, and Tolkien uses details of setting beautifully to manage the passage of time as well as space and geography. Mountain ranges extend into the distance; the sun rises and falls; spring comes; lush herbs and heather bloom; fronds pierce moss. It’s delicious, evocative description but just as importantly, it moves the story along in the way Tolkien wants. The pace slows down when the characters slow down, and when Tolkien wants the reader to slow down. A sense of time passing during the characters’ long journey is accomplished. I recommend this series of lectures if you are interested in writing. James Hynes is a novelist and a teacher at the famous Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
Finally, newly sensitised to the technical aspects of good writing, including the management of pace, setting, introducing dialogue, ratio of action to exposition, plot, point of view, and so on, I read Hotel Iris by Japanese novelist Yoko Ogawa (2010, translated by Stephen Snyder). Like Fifty Shades, it is the story of an inexperienced young woman’s romantic and sexual encounters with a man who enjoys bondage, whipping and activities known to Anglo-American society as BDSM. It is far better, more subtle and delicate writing than Fifty Shades, characters are complex and nuanced, situations have delicate atmospheres and emotional balances; things are left unsaid. It also highlights how tame Fifty Shades really is and how Mr Grey, as an Anglo-American character, ties himself, and not Ana, up in knots as he struggles to do things correctly. He fusses over contracts and safe words; he seeks permission, he constantly negotiates with Ana over the terms of their relationship. He is consumed with the bureaucracy of Western BDSM. In contrast, Hotel Iris sees seventeen-year-old Mari fall simply and easily into a relationship with an eccentric translator in his seventies who does not mess around with contracts, but ushers her into his pantry, suspends her from the ceiling, whips her with real purpose and makes her put his socks on his feet using only her mouth. This is a far more adult, less anxious and more matter-of-fact novel about the things that sometimes happen in private, in sexual encounters. It is erotic and thrilling without being panicky. At the end, Mari is unharmed. Her hair grows back. She is unharmed by the perverse things this guy has been doing with her. Others around her perceive that she was in danger but she keeps her counsel and savours her understanding of the relationship, keeping it for herself.
3 Books points. Better go and update the Achievements page now. Happy reading.