No Good News – Fifty Shades of Wente

Fan-favourite Margaret Wente, between sessions of manic-gibber-gush about her deep-seated hatred for you and your terrible, terrible freedom, writes about her own job:

A few weeks ago, I downloaded Fifty Shades of Grey to see what all the fuss was about. Part of my job, I rationalized, is to keep in touch with cultural trends. And this one is a monster.

Oh, thank god she’s on the Fifty Shades of Grey case. I scarcely knew what to make of millions of women reading porn on the subway. Next to me. At 8:34 am on a Wednesday. Ladies, don’t think I haven’t figured it out. What you’re doing is gross; and I have an ‘at best’ deductive sense of what is going on in those spank books of yours.

At last, we know what women want. They want to be tied up.

Oh, I, er… I, ok? Um. One second. “Keep your pants on”, as it were.

Jeez Louise! That was a google and a half. Of all the times to leave safe search off. FOOL ME ONCE.

The market for Fifty Shades is (I’m guessing) 99.9 per cent female. The books are widely derided as mommy porn for horny housewives, but twentysomethings and teenagers are devouring them, too. They are not hard reads. They are narrated in the first person by Ana, the bond-ee, who, when something surprising happens, has an irritating habit of exclaiming, “Holy cow!”

Holy cow? Seriously? This is what’s going on in all those Kobos and Kindles? In lunchrooms? On the subway? On park benches? “Holy cow” is going on? Now, before I lose sight of the forest for the trees, I need to know what I think about this so that I don’t do something crazy, like form my own opinion.

The astonishing success of Fifty Shades, which began as a self-published online novel by British author E.L. James, has been the subject of extensive cultural debate. Is it, as some feminists have argued, a giant step backward for womankind? Or perhaps it’s no accident that women’s current cultural interest in sexual domination comes at the very time when they have never been more ascendant in the workplace. As Katie Roiphe wrote in Newsweek, “It may be that power is not always that comfortable.”

OK? So, are we conflating the success of a sexy book with interest in sexual domination? Is this in Cosmo? Oh, they’ve got their summer reading covered.   And while you’re at it, figure out if you’re an oversharer or mysterious. Being that grade 6 exists, I’m a little confused about who writes for Cosmo, let alone how it has readers. Maybe, someday in the future, Cosmo will replace junior high in a triumph of “letting the market figure it out”.

But Margaret Wente, of course, is never confused. She never has to figure anything out, because we ask her what she thinks all the time. That’s how her job works, right? She woke up, bought a copy of Fifty Shades, and immediately had the best opinion for us to read. Hint: it’s not the feminist one. Or is it because Wente is a woman? How about that? Did you think of that? Margaret Wente did.

I hate to burst this speculative bubble, but I don’t think the reasons for the popularity of Fifty Shades are terribly profound. Its basic dramatic themes can be found in bodice-rippers through the ages. Many (dare I say most) women have harboured fantasies of being ravished by powerful, dangerous, sexy men who then fall in love with them. In years gone by, captive narratives (in which civilized European women were kidnapped by primitive savages/pirates/desert sheiks and debauched in various delightful ways) were a sturdy genre of popular entertainment. Another literary staple is the emotional rescue drama, in which an intelligent but poor girl wins the heart of a brooding, rich man who has a tortured and mysterious past (Jane Eyre, Rebecca, numerous Harlequin romances). Add some whips and chains, and you’ve got Fifty Shades of Grey.

Sounds to me like this is avoiding the question of the popularity of the genre. I hate to hack away at a theory. I hate to suggest something existed in the past. I hate to imply that perhaps a step is being skipped. Especially when there’s 211 comments waiting for me at the bottom of the article.

The other reason Fifty Shades took off is e-publishing. Half its sales have been online. E-books are great impulse buys because they give you instant gratification. Also, you don’t have to go to the bookstore and feel embarrassed when you buy them or read them on the bus. As Brenda Knight, a publisher of racy books for women, told The Telegraph, “You could be a mom, like, sitting in the park on a play date with the moms down the block and you could be reading, like, a real kinky novel and nobody knows.”

I just threw up in my mouth. WITH OTHER MOMS? What is this, a Penthouse Letters conspiracy theory? And what’s with the ad for E-books?

Personally, I agree that e-readers are a big advantage for books you don’t want to be caught reading. I’m not all that embarrassed by dirty books. I am embarrassed by lowbrow books. Stephen King is on my iPad too. But I would never, never, never have him on my bookshelf.

What, Stephen King is not good enough for your highbrow friends? You don’t want to share any paperbacks with the plebes? Or are you saying that you couldn’t fit a 180lb man on your bookshelf? But then, how’s he in the iPad?


“Women have just as much right to pornography as men do,” declared Anne Rice, whose steamy 1980s Sleeping Beauty trilogy is being rereleased.

Porn for women is much different from porn for men, of course. Women like their erotica dressed up with narrative, plot and romance. They want stories. Men just want action. The print market for porn aimed at men has collapsed in the face of new media, and now the online pornography industry itself is collapsing as amateurs take over from professionals. But the market for racy stories will never be obsolete. And writers who figure out how to tickle modern women’s fancies are going to get filthy rich.

So, Wente’s conclusion is: people write dirty books to make money. Well, why do they make country music then? Why are some of them lawyers? You’re telling me that firemen aren’t just in it to fight fires? Where is the integrity anymore? Moreover: this has been my get-rich-quick scheme for YEARS, and Margaret Wente just went and flooded the market on me. Now I guess this was a waste of $6:

About Matt Collins

Matt Collins is a musician (Ninja High School), cartoonist (Sexy), jock (Manhunt), and comedian (Matt Collins) in Toronto, Ontario. Please buy more Matt Collins. [Other Posts By Matt]