Up Close and Not So Personal with <em>50 Shades of Gray</em> author, E L James

I don't want E L James to be the poster child for my personal understanding of sexuality or for woman's sexual empowerment in a general sense. And the good news is, neither does E L James.
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When I heard that the author of 50 Shades of Gray was going to be speaking at Willow Ridge Country Club in Harrison, NY, I immediately emailed my friend, writer Annabel Monaghan. "You've got to come with me to hear E L James," I begged.

I met Annabel in a novel writing workshop at Sarah Lawrence College about a year and a half ago. On the first day of class, we went around the table and introduced ourselves. It was instant kinship. In the oft-recycled words from the film Jerry Maguire, she had me at "I wrote a YA novel about a math genius that falls in love with the FBI operative hired to protect her from terrorists," and I had her at "my main character is a teacher and mom who lies to her family and her employer and takes off for a much-needed vacation."

Who better to sit next to at a 50 Shades luncheon than one another?

"I'm going to have to think about it," she wrote back. "On the one hand I want to attend, and on the other, I fear it might suck out my soul."

Understood. The phenomenon created by the 50 Shades of Gray trilogy here in the suburbs -- and, now, nationwide -- is a bit overwhelming, especially to writers like Annabel and me, who scratch our heads at a success story like James who, by her own admission, has no formal training as a writer. But, then again, we did read the books and we are suburban moms who fit the E L James demographic quite exactly. So, while I waited for Annabel to struggle with the moral, social and political implications of her decision, I went ahead and bought us tickets at $85 apiece.

I knew I had to be there, and I knew, eventually, Annabel would agree to accompany me. Which, of course, she did.

"$85?!" Another friend chafed. "Is it a fundraiser?"

Yes, I said. A fundraiser for E L James.

This may surprise you, but I was not really going to see E L. It was the other women in attendance at this luncheon that had my interest piqued. Who were they? What were their stories?

The event was hosted by Lyss Stern, whose company, Divalysscious Moms, "is New York City's premier socializing network for fabulous moms... think Sex and the City meets Mommy and Me." The company has been hosting parties of all sorts since 2003, but recently started sponsoring book club events.

Lyss had me at "Divalysscious."

According to Urban Dictionary, the adjective "divalicious" describes "the epitome of a diva, in a positive manner. A female that is independent, confident, worldly, stylish and all-around fabulous." I took one look at Lyss in her neon and lace dress, super-high heels and perfect hair and make-up, flanked by a photographer and two event planners, and I knew that adjective had her name written all over it.

"She really is the hostess with the mostest," one of the women at our table said, looking around the ballroom with awe. This woman was plus-sized and big-breasted, wearing a full-on diva outfit of a low-cut, body-clinging satin dress. Her hair was short and spiky. Her friend, sitting beside her, owns a romance publishing company and suggested that Annabel and I write for her.

These two were kind of the stand-outs in the crowd. We were lucky to have sat with them.

Who else came? There were skinny moms and average moms, moms with hair straightened by keratin and moms with curls. There were even moms with their 20-something year-old daughters by their side, both boasting about their love for the books. "I was reading my Kindle while driving to work!" the mom of the duo at our table said. "I haven't read a book in years and yet I read this trilogy in two weeks!"

All while driving, I wondered?

"I miss it," she sighed.

Another woman at our table had arranged for her husband to watch their two-year-old so she could attend, while another declared to E L over a microphone that, "this is the best Mother's Day gift I've ever gotten!"

"Unlike our heroine, Ana, these women like to eat!" Annabel said as we snaked our way down the lunch buffet line, watching as women piled up their plates with decadent salads.

And that's why I brought Annabel.

While we were chowing down, Lyss raffled off some items, including a painting, a diet book (won by a very thin woman, natch) and a vibrator. I won a 5-pack of fancy, chocolate-covered pretzels. I ate one on the ride home and it was pretzelicious.

Next came Lyss's enjoyable introduction to E L James. She recounted how the 50 Shades trilogy "tied women together... and you, the women, were the rope." She described our "evolution from the sandbox to the red room of pain," and said that E L James' writing was "putting women everywhere into a breathless, orgasmic coma." She told us that these books had let us realize that "it's okay to admit that we want our needs satisfied." Ultimately, she thanked James for "writing a book that was a community service to women... and men!"

That may have been the soul-sucking part. Because, as Annabel said after (and texted to me during), "I don't want to offend this group, but it was funny how they were billing it as the new women's movement, like this book had not only converted the illiterate but had also given women this long dormant ability to communicate with each other. It's like E L James is Gloria Steinem walking around in Super Nanny's body."

That's also why I brought Annabel.

E L James spoke next. She is not a very dynamic speaker, to put it kindly. This is probably why she isn't doing much public speaking. E L shied away from questions about the books' sexual content, saying only that she did have one "inappropriate relationship" when she was young, although she would not elaborate on the nature of the impropriety. Was he much older than she? Married? Kinkalicious? We'll never know.

What struck a chord with me and other attendees at the luncheon was that Brit E L did not boast and did not seem to take her fame too... oh, what's the word... Americanly. She was "stunned" by the reaction of American women to both her and the books, although "it's beginning to sink in a bit."

Secondly, we noticed that the emphasis of these books for her is about the power of reading. James said several times during the Q & A portion of the talk that her goal was to write books that people would read and enjoy, "because that's all I set out to do -- write a hopefully entertaining love story." In particular, getting emails and letters from women who haven't read in years and who thanked her for her books has been "gobsmackingly amazing."

In short, while Lyss Stern and many others are more than happy to discuss the sexual and social implications of her books, James is not comfortable doing so. After all, the 50 Shades of Gray trilogy has sparked tremendous controversy, ranging from comments made by Dr. Drew Pinsky on the Today Show to recent banning of the books in a public libraries in Florida, Wisconsin and Georgia to date. Under such criticism, James would be insane to open her mouth about anything other than the fact that she is pleased that women are reading the book and talking about sex more than they used to. But, c'mon... is the book counter-productive to the women's movement, or does its popularity somehow embody the evolution of a new phase of women's sexual liberation? Do women's fantasies of domination translate into anything other than fantasies?

Perhaps the answer isn't black or white, but rather filled with at least 50 shades of gray.

So, here's my takeaway from the event last week: I liked 50 Shades of Gray. It made me randy for a while and spiced up my sex life with my husband of 13 years. I thought it was awfully written and yet I couldn't put it down. I had fun at the Divalyssious event, even if, afterward, I felt like describing everything with an "icious." But I don't want E L James to be the poster child for my personal understanding of sexuality or for woman's sexual empowerment in a general sense.

And the good news is, neither does E L James.

Laters, baby.

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