That’s Some Hot Shit: Fifty Shades of Grey at McNally Jackson

1. Body to body in the basement of McNally Jackson. (Alliteration, whaat!) 2. Roxane Gay makes her grand entrance via MacBook.

How does a Wednesday evening panel discussion on E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey begin? With McNally Jackson events coordinator Amy Lee telling the 80 or so assembled, “We’re not discussing the literary merits,” followed by someone in the audience shouting, “because there are none,” eliciting ha-has from the expert panelists: Roxane Gay, Erica Jong, Melissa Febos, Ian Kerner and Daniel Bergner.

With Fifty Shades of Grey accounting for one in every four books sold, sales of sex toys and classical music are also up. According to Ian Kerner, sex in committed relationships―the kind you don’t have to pay for―is also on the up and up (how does one track that, one wonders?).

Fifty Shades has been called Mommy Porn. Truth?

Erica Jong: “It has the heart of a romance novel.”

Roxane Gay: “It could be erotica. It pretends to be woman-centered, but it is about [Christian, the dominant CEO].”

Daniel Bergner: “It’s sex novel in the guise of a romance novel.”

1. Let’s talk about sex, Baby: Roxane Gay, Erica Jong, Melissa Febos, Ian Kerner, Daniel Bergner.

“To call it a book is a stretch,” Roxane Gay added from video chat. “With an impoverished source material like Twilight, it’s problematic to build three books out of that.” But “it’s far from a travesty, because I never laughed harder.”

While literary merit was off the table, editing was not. Erica Jong bemoaned the Bart Simpson-esque “Holy Cow!” exclamations that accompanied many an orgasm. The prose interrupted Jong’s continuous dream, “It’s so poorly done that it’s hard to stay within the realm of fantasy.”

In fact, the word “shit” was synonymous with Fifty Shades throughout the evening:

Erica Jong: “It’s a piece of shit.”

Roxane Gay, on the man-centered plot, “It’s bullshit.”

Melissa Febos, on fantasy’s existence outside of political correctness, “We’re giving the book too much power. It’s just a shitty book.”

Yet. There’s always a yet. In this case, there were three:

Yet 1, from Melissa Febos: “It’s irrefutable that this has tapped into something in the psyche of American women. But the suggestion in the media that a submissive fantasy is a threat to feminism is offensive.” That was a double yet. Febos went on to say, “I’m not going to name any one specific article in Newsweek, but it’s an insanely reductive, sexist idea that we can’t have a fantasy and be a feminist at the same time.” The audience cheered.

Yet 2, from Ian Kerner. “I talk to so many women in sexless relationships. They say, ‘I want to want sex. I just don’t want it.’ I have empathy for women [who live in a world] with the ubiquity of male porn. I think [Fifty Shades] does function as an erotic stimulus.” For Erica Jong, the sole source of erotic stimulus was when Christian Grey gave Anastasia a rare copy of Tess of the d’Ubervilles.

Yet 3, from Daniel Bergner, “It raises the issue of desire. It sits on an uncomfortable boundary.” Though Bergner wondered if we were playing it safe, the frequent shouts of agreement and disagreement from the audience made me think not.

Moving from yets to ands, Roxane Gay pointed out that the popularity of Fifty Shades shows “they’ve finally figured out that you can cater explicitly to the female gaze. The media acts like it’s a revelation that women enjoy sex, but it isn’t.”

But what about the submissive fantasies?

“We eroticize the things we feel menace us as a way to digest it,” Melissa Febos said.

“But you should fight that menace,” a woman in the audience countered.

“That’s what I do in my life. That’s not what I do with my vibrator,” Febos said. She had just given us the best line of the evening, and for that, we clapped.

Mary Yuter, who will now read Fifty Shades, and Maribel Paredes, who will not. Like many of us, Yuter was wowed by Erica Jong’s presence, “It was like having Frank Sinatra in the room.”

Roxane Gay, the only panelist who made it through books two and three of the trilogy, was bothered by the progression of Christian’s abusive relationship with Anastasia, his submissive girlfriend.

“Who buys a girlfriend’s company to control her? There’s no amount of romance that can make that go away. I’m not worried about adult women who can tell the bullshit from the bullshit. I’m concerned about the young women who are still buying records from Chris Brown.” Gay expands on this in her essay on The Rumpus.

Erica Jong concluded the evening with a dare: “I challenge all of you to make up new fantasies that don’t hew to the ancient paradigm of domination and submission.”

Yes, ma’am.


–Erika Anderson moved to Brooklyn from Geneva, Switzerland. She has an MFA in creative nonfiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts, contributes to Hunger Mountain and tweets for the Franklin Park Reading Series.

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