What writers can un-learn from 'Fifty Shades of Grey'

The release of a hot trailer for the movie version of Fifty Shades of Grey has stirred up renewed attention to the book trilogy that spawned it, the work of a very lucky British woman named E.L. James.  I very much like the arc of her personal story: from self-publishing the first book to sales of more than 90 million copies worldwide, with translations into more than 50 languages.  So perhaps I should make this a very short essay with this advice to writers everywhere: Sex sells.

But just as there is good food writing and bad food writing; good sports writing and bad sports writing; there is also good sex writing and bad sex writing. To illustrate this, I have chosen a scene – almost at random – from one of James’s book to analyze.  As you will see, it turns out to be much less graphic than the bondage scenes for which the work has become famous and notorious, but the style of writing remains consistent:

Christian nods as he turns and leads me through the double doors into the grandiose foyer. I revel in the feel of his large hand and his long, skilled fingers curled around mine. I feel the familiar pull—I am drawn, Icarus to his sun. I have been burned already, and yet here I am again.

Reaching the elevators, he presses the call button. I peek up at him, and he’s wearing his enigmatic half smile. As the doors open, he releases my hand and ushers me in. The doors close and I risk a second peek. He glances down at me, gray eyes alive, and it’s there in the air between us, that electricity. It’s palpable. I can almost taste it, pulsing between us, drawing us together.

“Oh my,” I gasp as I bask briefly in the intensity of this visceral, primal attraction. “I feel it, too,” he says, his eyes clouded and intense.

Desire pools dark and deadly in my groin.  He clasps my hand and grazes my knuckles with his thumb, and all my muscles clench tightly, deliciously, deep inside me.

Holy cow. How can he still do this to me?

“Please don’t bite your lip, Anastasia,” he whispers.

I gaze up at him, releasing my lip. I want him. Here, now, in the elevator. How could I not?

“You know what it does to me,” he murmurs.

Oh, I still affect him. My inner goddess stirs from her five-day sulk.

Oy.  What I usually call X-ray reading, which I reserve for great works of journalism or literature must briefly descend to SEX-ray reading (and let’s see if I can get through it without revealing anything too weird about myself).

There is nothing original or interesting or even mildly erotic about this passage. We’ve seen or heard it all before:  Icarus flying too close to the sun.  (When I saw it, I blurted out:  Oh, not Icarus, again.  Can’t we find another less abused mythological figure?)  The encounter in the elevator is a staple from everything from porn movies to TV commercials. What follows are those suspiciously large hands and long fingers.  There are those coy glances, and electricity in the air between them.  Can you imagine that?  Electricity in the air between them – in an elevator?  There must be pulsing – don’t forget the pulsing. Add some gasping and basking, and let’s not forget a dash of visceral and primal.  There is clenching, grazing, and clenching.  No mommy porn can be complete without the appearance of the word “deep.”  The closest thing to original language is “Desire pools dark and deadly in my groin.”  But all that alliteration cannot muffle the screams in my head that protest against the collision of “pools” and “groin.” Is this passion, I wonder, or a urinary tract infection?

To neutralize the poison of this passage, I offer a counter-example, also written by a woman, Florida’s own Zora Neal Huston.  Their Eyes Were Watching God was published in 1937 to mixed and controversial reviews but is now counted among the important novels of the 20th century.  A blurb on the 75th anniversary edition by Alice Walker reads: “There is no book more important to me than this one.”

There is a photo of a pear tree on the cover, and beneath the title, an image of a bee.  That artwork pays homage to the book’s most famous passage.  The main character Janie Crawford thinks back to when she was 16-years-old.  Her memories of a young lover, Johnny Taylor, turn into an erotic reverie.

It was a spring afternoon in West Florida.  Janie had spent most of the day under a blossoming pear tree in the back-yard.  She had been spending every minute that she could steal from her chores under that tree for the last three days.  That was to say, ever since the first tiny bloom had opened.  It had called her to come and gaze on a mystery.  From barren brown stems to glistening leaf-buds; from the leaf-buds to snowy virginity of bloom.  It stirred her tremendously….

She was stretched on her back beneath the pear tree soaking in the alto chant of the visiting bees, the gold of the sun and the panting breath of the breeze when the inaudible voice of it all came to her.  She saw a dust-bearing bee sink into the sanctum of a bloom; the thousand sister-calyxes arch to meet the love embrace and the ecstatic shiver of the tree from root to tiniest branch creaming in every blossom and frothing with delight.  So this was marriage! She had been summoned to behold a revelation.  Then Janie felt a pain remorseless sweet that left her limp and languid….Through pollinated air she saw a glorious being coming up the road.  In her former blindness she had known him as shiftless Johnny Taylor, tall and lean.  That was before the golden dust of pollen had beglamored his rags and her eyes.

You don’t need your X-ray glasses to realize that this passage is a highly stylized description of a sexualized sensibility. I’m all for sex – in life and literature.  I’ve studied the ways in which human sexuality is portrayed in popular culture and in art.  You would think that decades of such contemplation would lead to wisdom, but I admit to being as confused as ever about the power that sex holds over us.  Only religion can compete.  Sex, beyond its biological imperatives, is a cultural force that fascinates us, dominates our thinking, and drives us to acts that help us, hurt us, and complicate our lives.

Descriptions and depictions of sex, I would argue, in media, advertising, literature, and drama are easy enough to create, but difficult to do well.

Let’s consider for a moment the difference between creative work that is erotic vs. pornographic.  My inclination is to identify pornography by what it says, and erotica by what it does not say.  Porn is, by practice if not definition, prone to exaggeration and overstatement; eros works by suggestion, imagery, and understatement.  Both porn and eros have the same desired effect:  to excite the body, to prepare it for sex.  Porn does this primarily through the eyes; eros through the imagination.

What interests me most about Hurston’s passage – beyond its erotic allure – is the way in which the most standard metaphors of language are transformed from something common and euphemistic into something astonishing and exciting.

To use the most old-fashioned language, a woman who lost her virginity was said to be “de-flowered.”  When young teens began to learn about sexuality, it was all about “the birds and the bees.”  The parts of the flower, we might have learned in high school biology, had their male and female equivalents.  We can find traces of all these comparisons in Hurston’s passage, and yet the power and originality of the language unveils the sex act in ways we haven’t seen before.

Sometimes a pear tree, Dr. Freud, is more than a pear tree.

There is a name for Hurston’s technique, and as an anthropologist and author, she would have known it:  Anthropomorphism.  Here’s the definition from the American Heritage Dictionary: “attributing of human motivation, characteristics, or behavior to inanimate objects, animals, or natural phenomenon.”  This process is easy enough to recognize when the subject is a mammal or primate but becomes harder as we move down the chain of being.  When it’s a flower, Hurston gives its bloom a “snowy virginity.”  The breeze has a “breath” and even “pants” like an energetic lover.  There is a “love embrace” and even a “marriage” between the parts of the tree.

Then there is a cluster of words and images that in a different context or via expressions of connotation remind us of sexuality.  A tree blossoms and blooms, and so, in a sense, does a young woman. Janie is “stretched on her back beneath the pear tree” as if it were her lover.  A bee will  “sink into the sanctum of a bloom” bearing pollen, and carrying countless associations with sexual union, fertility, and procreation.  The “thousand sister-calyxes” describe the sepals of a group of flowers, but a “calyx” also describes the cup-like structure of a human organ, such as a pelvis.  It arches, as a lover would arch her back, and the result is a kind of sexual orgasm:  “the ecstatic shiver of the tree from root to tiniest branch creaming in every blossom and frothing with delight.”  (In porn, that’s called the “money shot.”)  At the end of that passage, Janie is a spent lover, feeling “limp and languid,” alliterative words beginning with liquid consonants that offer their own kind of lubrication.

What a great move of perspective to look down a road through the glorious haze of “pollinated air,” to see the human object of her desire.  He is transformed now through the lens of her Sex-ray vision. “the golden dust of pollen had beglamored his rags and her eyes.”  There is magic at work here.  The pollen is a form of fairy dust.  To be “beglamored” means to be transformed as if in a spell or trance.

To understand how good this is – how artistic and controlled -- all that is needed is to compare it to Fifty Shades of Grey.

The key to writing good sex (good anything) is original language.

Recall how Vladimir Nabokov describes Humbert Humbert’s first sighting of Delores Haze, who would become his beloved Lolita:

With awe and delight…I saw again her lovely indrawn abdomen where my southbound mouth had briefly paused; and those puerile hips on which I had kissed the crenulated imprint left by the band of her shorts….The twenty-five years I had lived since then, tapered to a palpitating point, and vanished.

At one point early in the novel Humbert laments, “Oh, my Lolita, I only have words to play with!”  Rather than a lament, Nabokov could adopt it as a boast for I know no other novelist who is as relentlessly playful with the English language. Enjoy some of the phrases above, from “indrawn abdomen” to “southbound mouth” to “crenulated imprint” to “palpitating point.”  Appreciate the balance, alliteration, assonance, repetition, variation – the wild and witty texture of the prose.

Now hold it up against “Holy cow. How can he still do this to me?”

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    Roy Peter Clark

    Roy Peter Clark has taught writing at Poynter to students of all ages since 1979. He has served the Institute as its first full-time faculty member, dean, vice-president, and senior scholar.


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