Lie back and think of James
13.08.12 | Martin Latham
Last week I cycled up the hill, away from Canterbury’s teeming medieval streets with their sweat and toil, to the austere modernist campus of the University of Kent (UKC).
The campus, with its shaven lawns and banal sculptures, overlooks the city that spawned the profanities of Chaucer and Marlowe. The Nehru-suited head of communications (Orwellian title) proudly showed me the slick UKC magazine, an attempt to reach the outside world. The mag boasted of UKC stem cell experts being interviewed on the World Service at 3 a.m., and of ex-students setting up IT businesses. My suggestion, that they might mention E L James, a UKC graduate who has sold 10 million books, was frostily received: “I hardly think that would help our reputation.” James will not, I presume, be joining such alumni as comedian Alan Davis in getting an honorary degree.
Is it the porn, or the “poor writing” that the university shuns? Whatever the answer, it’s a very pre-postmodern snobbery, reminiscent of the many who sneered at Enid Blyton and Harry Potter as being “badly written”. Literary pundits, let’s face it, are jealous of writers who succeed by catching the public imagination. The casual observer might think that this is exactly what writers are for. And, for some reason, poorly written porn is more unforgiveable than poorly written fiction, or impenetrable academic gobbledegook. The same hauteur possessed Random House in 2009 when they dropped the erotica imprint Black Lace. “Erotica is not a strategic priority,” a spokesman simpered.
There are three good things, unprecedented in my experience, about the E L James trilogy. Firstly, it attracts customers of all classes and ages, including “non-traditional book-buyers,” an untapped demographic. Secondly, many buyers are saying: “I don’t want to buy it, but I have to see what all the fuss is about.” This shows the continuing power of books to enter everyone’s conversation. And thirdly, women finally feel able to buy erotica without embarrassment. Indeed, it is refreshing to cater for carnal tastes without a snigger-fest. In 1998 my lurid erotica window, featuring a panoply of perversions, drew so much opposition that it took up two pages in a Routledge sociology book by situationist Mike Presdee. We need to relax about erotica. It is a classification, like Transport or EFL, that booksellers have neglected out of fear.
Back to the bad writing issue. Haruki Murakami’s IQ84 was shortlisted for the Literary Review Bad Sex Award, as Norman Mailer and Sebastian Faulks have been. Some of the worst-written porn passages have been by literary authors. The only problem with porn is its potential harmfulness, so why is the abusive violence of De Sade revered as “classic literature”, but James’ oeuvre is seen as a sign that the world is going to hell in a handcart? Why was the tedious and hard-core Vox greeted by the chatterati as “a novel that re-maps the territory of sex”?
Since the 18th century, Western society has acquired a prurience about erotica. Catullus and Ovid, Boccaccio and Chaucer, Shakespeare and Donne, all these great writers revelled in writing erotic passages. The founder of the Cistercian order, St Bernard (1090–1153), wrote beautifully explicit letters. In 1444, a future pope wrote the steamy Tale of Two Lovers. But in Victorian times Bowdler cleaned up the Bard, Ruskin destroyed Turner’s erotica, and Lady Burton burnt her husband Richard’s Perfumed Garden (“Pure filth!”, she fumed). Notoriously, piano legs were covered and the Achilles statue in Hyde Park was given a fig leaf.
These were left-brain times, when the body was seen as a problem by both Utilitarians and Evangelicals. Literati who scorn James are rooted in that past. I prescribe a nightly chapter of John Cleland’s outrageous sex romp, Fanny Hill (1748). It’s a Penguin Classic, so it must be art.