Hot Summer Reading: Good Dirty Books VS. Bad Dirty Books

There are some fabulous dirty books in this world.

I remember picking up a paperback of Anais Nin's The Delta of Venus at King's Cross train station in London in the late 1970s. The book was new, having just been reissued shortly before Nin's death in 1977 but the stories had been written in the 1940s for a dollar-a-page; an editor had to convince Nin that the world was now ready to read in the light what she'd written in the shadows and indeed the book hit the bestseller lists for 36 weeks.

I knew nothing of that. All I knew was that Nin was a writer I'd heard of--one a vast tribe of women writers from the 20s, 30s, and 40s whom I was making it my job to get to know-- but had no clue what kind of stories I'd be reading on my journey to Cambridge University where I was a graduate student at the time.

More than twenty years ago, I still remember that particular train ride.

I simply could not believe what I was reading: I was blushing, squirming, giggling, and certain that every other proper, tweedy British passenger just knew I was seeped in porn.

Make no mistake: porn is what Nin had written. Gorgeous, lyrical, hot sexy beautifully crafted filth was at the heart of every tale.

I bought Nin's other book of dirty stories, Little Birds, for my return trip to London the next weekend.

Nin nailed our most compelling and subterranean drives. She wrote "I, with a deeper instinct, choose a man who compels my strength, who makes enormous demands on me, who does not doubt my courage or my toughness, who does not believe me naive or innocent, who has the courage to treat me like a woman." The whole power-imbalance of fantastical, almost mythical sexual situations is what she did best.

And my best bet is that Anais Nin would have flung 50 Shades of Grey across the floor and said "Who are you kidding, honey? If you're going to read filth, read well-written, smart, sexy and good filth."

Consider Nin's "He was now in that state of fire that she loved. She wanted to be burnt" or "I stroke it gently, gently, and I say, 'The little silver fox, the little silver fox. So soft and beautiful. Oh, Mary I can't believe that you do not feel anything there, inside. She seems on the verge of feeling, the way her flesh looks, open like a flower, the way her legs are spread. Her mouth is so wet, so inviting, the lips of her sex must be the same."

Now compare these passages to EL James's "Why is anyone the way they are? That's kind of hard to answer. Why do some people like cheese and other people hate it? Do you like cheese?" or "My inner goddess jumps up and down with cheer-leading pom-poms shouting yes at me."

Is the triumphant cry of the next generation of literate women really going to be "I don't care how rotten the writing is as long as it's entertaining" AND "Anastasia didn't sign the sexual contract!" Is that what a hundred years of the women's movement and excellent critical thinking has prepared as the rallying cry of the educated 21st century female?

At least Nin's characters were complicated. All anybody who feels a need to defend James's hero can say is "He was vulnerable and hid his own distress under his compulsion to offer pain!"

As we say in Brooklyn (I might have a degree from Cambridge but I still talk like I'm from Coney Island) pull the other one. But unlike Anastasia, we are not saying it literally. You pull something on us, and we'll smack you.

Anais Nin knew better than to pretend her characters are "in love" or "heal each other" or "live happily ever after" in a room of pain decorated as a playpen. (Hey, has anybody wondered what their kids of Christian and Anastasia are going to grow up to be like? Want your kids to be in their play group?)

Anais Nin knew better than to believe that a guy watching you do things in various outfits only after you ask his permission and then regarding that as an act of "love" is not something helping us embrace earned trust, shared experiences, and happy, equally-balanced sexual partnerships.

And she would have known that the only way 50 Shades of Grey could possibly be satisfying in any respect would be for the masochistic reader who feels terrible prose is punishment.

(portions of Gina Barreca's remarks previously appeared on The Independent blog)