Don’t typecast erotica by ‘Fifty Shades’

There are certain items in this world so befuddling that there is not enough room on one’s forehead for the necessary eyebrow-lift.

In my case, that item was “Fifty Shades of Grey: Party Game,” which I found on the shelf of my local Barnes & Noble.



I mean, really?

Why the heck are phrases like “Fifty Shades,” “Inner Goddess,” and so on being slapped on everything from self-help books to neckties?

I don’t have a problem with the books themselves. I haven’t read them and don’t plan on doing so unless it’s to giggle at some of the hilariously bad writing. But I don’t have a problem with them.

In fact, I think the popularity of the “Fifty Shades” series is a good thing. “Fifty Shades” is BDSM-themed erotica written by a woman for women, and even had its origins in “Twilight” fan fiction. It has so many people talking about and discussing things they normally wouldn’t — about erotica, about fan fiction, about what women want — that I feel author EL James’ place on Time Magazine’s list of 100 most influential people of 2012 is well-deserved.

What bugs me is not so much the books, but the marketing that has grown up around them: not just “Fifty Shades” the party game, but “Fifty Shades” the magazine and “Fifty Shades” the bondage kit. Anything with the most tangential relation to the books is slapped with the “Fifty Shades” label, and anything without a relation is ignored.

On my eyebrow-lifting trip to Barnes and Noble, they had an entire display case devoted to “Fifty Shades” and assorted accessories, but not one other book: No “If you enjoyed this book, you might also enjoy ...” It was all as if to say, “Sex, paddles, Ben & Jerry’s ice cream — you won’t see anything like this anywhere else!”

You’d almost think EL James invented erotic fiction.

With other highly marketed books of the past few years like “Lord of the Rings” or “Harry Potter,” every bookstore devoted one table solely to the series, but the next table over would have the latest “Sword of Time” or “Guardians of Ga’hoole” hardcover. “Lord of the Rings” and “Harry Potter” were not the only examples of their field that were promoted.

It’s bad enough that romance, as a genre, already gets typecast as either being a Harlequin-style bodice-ripper or else a centuries-old classic a la Jane Austen. Now it seems like all books containing sex, let alone erotica as a genre, have become typecast as “Fifty Shades” knock-offs.

That’s a disservice to all writers. James’ writing is flowery and prosaic and (again just going from the reviews here) a bit amateur. But there are great writers out there who write great sex scenes. Some that will make you laugh, some that will make you cry, some that will make you cuddle in a corner clutching your blanket close about you out of sheer terror. (Sorry, Stephen King, but a gun is not a proper sex accessory.)

And yes, dear reader, some that will be titillating. Some, but not all.

Writers take the writing of sex as seriously as any other aspect of the craft. I’ve been to writing conventions and seen panels for writing sex scenes sandwiched in between panels on marketing to the small press and panels on characterizing antiheroes.

And all of that hard work does not deserve the dismissive giggles that many are launching at “Fifty Shades” — unless, of course, the sex was meant to be humorous, in which case, giggle away.

Again, the problem isn’t the books. The problem is that we’ve focused so much attention on just the “Fifty Shades” books that we’re forgetting the bigger picture to the questions they were inspiring us to ask.

The question shouldn’t be, “Is ‘Fifty Shades’ a good erotic book series?” but rather, “What other books might I like if I liked ‘Fifty Shades’?”

The question shouldn’t be, “Is all fan fiction like this?” but rather, “What is fan fiction? Is there fan fiction for that other series I loved?”

Oh, and guys, the question should not, absolutely not, be, “My girlfriend liked ‘Fifty Shades,’ so that means she’s into such-and-such kink, right?” but rather it should be an opportunity to talk about what you both enjoy.

Joe is a graduate student in Mathematics. He can be reached