Men who are tough, handsome, and rich, with a hint of violence. Men who shower their women with expensive gifts. Men who put up with caprice and childish behavior by their women. Such are the men of romance novels, as I said in an essay written way back in the 1994 in The Virginian-Pilot.
Reading Fifty Shades of Grey by the woman writer E.L. James, what’s immediately obvious is that this is essentially a romance novel. It fits the genre exactly. (In case anyone has been asleep for the last six months, Fifty Shades of Grey and its companion books have sold a zillion copies and attracted a lot of attention.) Besides the attributes I mention above, Shades of Grey also unspools at a monotonously slow pace, stretching out the moments before the protagonists actually get into bed. Another classic Romance novel technique. Women really do like foreplay, it seems.
What’s different about the book is that after eight chapters, it switches to what Tom Wolfe called a one-handed book, with exact detail of who did what to whom, in pretty graphic detail. This is not usual. At the same time, all this eroticism is wrapped in Bondage, Sadomasochism and Dominant/Submissive games. This is really not new, and not your mom’s romance novel.
What does it all mean? I do not know. I am surprised that millions of women (and it’s 95 percent women buying this book I’m sure) have an appetite for BDSM, as it is called. Perhaps we have reached the end times, where decadence abounds. Perhaps we are like the Roman Empire, rotting from within. Perhaps it’s all simply good fun. We have learned to be less uptight. I do not know.