Thursday, July 19, 2012

Fifty Shades of Grey? We have been here before...

Here in the UK, sales of Fifty Shades of Grey have begun to tail off. A bit. Two weeks ago, Grey sold 1.4 million. In a week. But last week purchases of the so-called mommy-porn (or mummy-porn) novel were down. Even so, the book still managed to sell 534,000 copies. Next biggest seller was Kathy Reichs, whose Flesh and Bones sold 23,871. (Figures from The Bookseller, as reported by the BBC.)

Well now, let's have a little think about this.

What we have here, apparently, is a novel which features a highly submissive woman and a dominant man. (I say apparently because you'd never know much about it from the Kindle sales page on The publisher provides absolutely zero info about the content.) However, going by vague bits and pieces that I've picked up over the past few months, the plot is, basically, that our heroine is into being tied up and beaten and stuff. So it's a kinky, pervy, ooh-missis kind of story (think what Frankie Howerd would have made of it); and it's all stretched out over three volumes.

Well, the best of luck to all who sail in her. I don't begrudge anybody connected with Grey a single penny of their profits. And if I sound a little snobby about the E.L. James trilogy, believe me it's not because I am anti-porn. Far from it. I have, in my time, researched widely in the field of Victorian erotica, and I have fond memories of such classics as Lady Bumticklers Revels. Furthermore, I would buy Ms James's three books instantly if I thought they would put lead in my elderly pencil. But it doesn't seem likely that they would. On, the first book in the series has 2593 reviews, and 835 of them give it one star. With such encouraging headings as 'Absolute, unashamed, utter drivel'.

What I really want to draw your attention to, because many of today's readers are far too young to remember, is that we have witnessed (some of us) this kind of event before. And, I would venture, we've seen it done rather better.

In the early 1950s there was a French woman who was having an affair with a married man, Jean Paulhan. M. Paulhan's mistress was christened, it seems, Anne Desclos, but in her early thirties she became known as Dominique Aury. As Aury herself acknowledged about the affair with Paulhan, she was no longer young (47) and she was not pretty, so she had to find some other means of binding him to her. The solution was found when her lover expressed an admiration for the work of the Marquis de Sade, and said that no woman could possibly write like that. So Dominique Aury wrote a novel which would test the truth of that proposition.

In three months she had completed an explicit erotic novel which she called Histoire d'O (Story of O in English). It is an account of how a beautiful Parisian woman is subjected to brutal humiliation by being whipped, chained, branded, pierced, and penetrated violently in all the obvious orifices. She is asked for, and readily gives, her consent to these activities.

Dominique Aury's lover was sufficiently intrigued by this novel to arrange for it to be published in 1954. The author chose the pen-name Pauline Reage, and worked hard to maintain her anonymity.

From the beginning, the novel attracted much attention. Various attempts were made to ban it; it won the Prix des Deux Magots; Susan Sontag (inevitably) had things to say about it, and so on and so forth. Over the years it was translated into more than twenty languages, became a bestseller in several countries, and sold millions of copies.

In real life, Dominique Aury was a respected figure on the French literary scene, and her authorship of the notorious Histoire d'O was known only to a few. She was a member of the Legion d'Honneur, i.e. highly respectable. Her anonymity was maintained largely by the fact that all sorts of respectable Frenchmen and women were quite happy to have it 'known' that actually they had written her novel themselves.

When Paulhan lay dying, aged 83, Dominique Aury/Pauline Reage/Anne Desclos slept in his room for the last three months.

And fifty years after its first publication, the French government announced that Histoire d'O would be included on a list of 'national triumphs' to be celebrated that year.

I once had a copy of Story of O, and tried diligently to read it. But failed.

If you want to know more about this extraordinary author, start with Wikipedia. And there's a good chapter in Nom de Plume by Carmela Ciuraru (2011, HarperCollins).

PS. Tim Worstall reminds me that Tom Sharpe wrote a satirical novel about publishing, The Great Pursuit, in which a dodgy firm of literary agents hires a young man to pretend to be the author of a rather racy novel. Well, I say satirical. All too easy to believe, actually. And of course it happens all the time with celebrity authors.