Monday, July 30, 2012

Fifty Shades of Wrong



By Reece Hirsch

British e-publisher Clandestine Classics recently announced that it will be issuing sexed-up versions of classics like Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre and the Sherlock Holmes stories, hoping to capture some of the readers who have made E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy a mega-seller.  There is so much wrong with this concept that I don’t know where to begin.  Does anyone want to see Watson’s man-love for Holmes portrayed as explicit scenes of, well, man-love with Holmes?

There is a note on the Clandestine Classics website that reads:  “You pay only for the words our authors have added NOT for the original content.”  What a relief to know that if this money-grabbing scheme works, the estates of those great authors will not benefit.  If this is supposed to make me like you, Clandestine Classics, it’s definitely not working.

I haven't read Fifty Shades of Grey so I will resist the temptation to bash it (even though, from everything that I have heard about it, it appears to be eminently bashable).  But anyone who thinks that the E.L. James phenomenon will usher in a new era of popular erotic fiction is likely to be, well, unsatisfied, because it’s some kind of minor miracle when the term erotic fiction isn’t an oxymoron.

There is a reason why explicit scenes aren’t found in many great books, and it’s not just deference to the sexual attitudes of a time – it’s a matter of craft.  The sex scene has been the undoing of even some brilliant writers (John Updike’s queasily clinical approach comes to mind).   And after perusing some truly appalling excerpts from the new versions of Jane Eyre and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, I can confirm that the writers involved in perpetrating the new Clandestine Classics are not aspiring to the mandarin prose of Updike.

One of the few examples of an effective erotic scene that I can think of is the library sex scene between Robbie and Celia in Ian McEuen’s Atonement.  And even that walks (I was going to say straddles) a very fine line between the evocative and the cringe-inducing.

I think that Barbara Kingsolver got it just about right with her sex scene in Animal Dreams, which says it all in just four words.  The narrator decides that if the man she is with has a condom in his pocket, then it’s her lucky day.

“He did,” she writes.  “It was.”

11 comments:

Vicki Delany said...

Kingsolver's line is perfect. Then again, most of her writing is also.

Gary Phillips said...

Reece,

Just to be crass, taking cues from Fifty Shades and Magic Mike --a low budget film about the trials and tribulations of male strippers marketed to gay men and women that made over a $100 mil -- and harkening back to how Newsday columnist Mike McGrady in 1969 got two dozen of his pals to each write a chapter of Naked Came the Stranger, a potboiler as they used to say that became a bestseller under the pen name of Penelope Ashe, I say the Criminal Minds writers follow suit and pen such a, er, classic.

Reece said...

Thanks for stopping by, Vicki. I love that Kingsolver line, too.

Gary -- I'm game if you are. As a Floridian, that reminds of a similar group effort instigated by a bunch of Miami-area writers, including Hiassen and Barry, with a truly classic title -- Naked Came the Manatee.

Sue Ann Jaffarian said...

As much as I love a well-written steam machine (key words here "well written"), I am truly appalled by Clandestine Classics cash grab at the expense of the classics. And a cash grab is all it is. Shame on you Clandestine Classics!! Shame!!! I really dislike books that have gratuitous sex (and violence). If it doesn't move the story along, it shouldn't be there. And a reader can tell when it is simply stuck in to cheaply manipulate and titillate. It's like comics who can't tell a single joke without several F bombs. If they were really good at their craft, they wouldn't need to go there.

Victoria said...

I'm hoping if we all ignore it, it will just go away. I know; fat chance, right?

Reece said...

Well said, Sue Ann! I couldn't agree more.

Reece said...

Victoria -- We can hope. It's such a cheesy concept that perhaps it will just die a quiet death.

Meredith Cole said...

I guess adding sex scenes is not any stranger than adding zombies or vampires to the classics--but I don't approve of either. Jane Austen was no prude, but I'm glad she's not alive to see her work get butchered and rewritten. Ick!

Reece said...

Meredith -- I don't really have a problem with a mash-up parody that throws in a few zombies and what-not. I think this is much worse because it takes the original text and mangles it. I'm not sure if Tracy is up this week, but I'd love to hear what she thinks of what they're doing to Austen.

lil Gluckstern said...

Kingsolver's line is elegant and evocative. We don't have a lot of that these days. Explicit and tawdry sells, which I think is sad and frustrating.

Reece said...

Lil -- Sad but true. However, I took comfort from the fact that Gillian Flynn's "Gone Girl" was right up there recently on the NYT bestseller list after the three E.L. James books.