It's porn and everyone's reading it. Fifty Shades of Grey, a book about bondage and discipline, sadism and masochism, has topped the best-seller lists for weeks and has been taking the US, Britain and now Hong Kong by storm.
Walk into any bookstore in Hong Kong and you can't miss it. The book is about a virginal girl named Anastasia Steele who falls for the dashing young billionaire Christian Grey. As it turns out, Grey is into BDSM and soon young Ana signs a nondisclosure contract agreeing to be his submissive partner.
The fact that it is a best-seller at Dymocks makes me worry. If erotica tops the best-sellers list, does that mean the future of good literature is doomed? Unlike other controversial novels in the past, like Madame Bovary or Lolita, Fifty Shades is just about the worst written book I've ever read. As one columnist puts it, author E.L.James 'writes like a Bronte devoid of talent'. But the story is fast-moving and easy to get into. The sex scenes are descriptive and shocking. And thanks to the privacy provided by the Kindle, millions of people can now take this poorly written erotica and read it anywhere.
The book confirms my long-held suspicion that e-publishing will detrimentally affect writing. The e-book removes all judgment. No one will judge what you read because they won't know. It also removes judgment on the writing front. The publishing world used to have gatekeepers like agents, editors and publishers. Now, anyone can self-publish. With the success of Fifty Shades, we should brace ourselves for a flood of other poorly written e-junk.
I also worry about what the premise of the book means for readers in Asia. Central to the story is the male character's need to dominate the female character. The woman submits to him fully and endures pain in order to satisfy him. In other words, her pain is his pleasure.
In the US and Britain, many therapists, and even the author, say this book empowers women. They encourage women to use it to spice up their sex lives. I don't know about that. What I fear may happen is that the story will perpetuate the pervasive Asian notion that men should be in control while women should yield. That's the last message we need.
And what of the book's impact on the mainland, where keeping a mistress is a symbol of status? Mistresses are usually given furnished apartments and lavish stipends. In exchange, they live under someone else's terms, trying to please someone else's husband. I cringe when I think about these young women, many of whom, like the protagonist in the story, are college-educated. What will they think of Fifty Shades? Will it hit a little too close to home?
Certainly, times are very different from when D.H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover was banned in the 1900s. The prosecutor in the obscenity trial had asked: 'Is this a book you would wish your wife or servants to read?' With Fifty Shades, the question would seem to be: 'Is this a book that features enough swearing, graphic sex scenes, at least a gun, knife, or whip, and uses vocabulary a third-grader can understand?' If so, go ahead and upload.
Kelly Yang is the founder of The Kelly Yang Project, an after-school programme for children in Hong Kong. She is a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, and Harvard Law School. firstname.lastname@example.org