Fifty Shades of Grey's cover
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Laurie Penny in defence of Fifty Shades of Grey

Critics' main problem with these books seems simply to be that they are porn for women.

Fifty Shades of Grey is easy to mock. The reason it's easy to mock is that it's porn. I picked up the book, with its dark-and-mysterious cover that looks, through half-closed eyes, a bit like one of the Twilight novels, in an airport. I read it on the plane, and I enjoyed it. There, I said it. I enjoyed it because there were, amongst some terrifically trashy bits of girly romance and some eye-watering blow-job scenarios[1], a few quite good, quite detailed descriptions of fucking written from the point of view of a woman who seemed to be really enjoying herself.

That's it. That's all. Fifty Shades of Grey is porn, and porn can be quite fun. With the publishing industry in such choppy waters, I fail to understand why this record-pounding paperback has come in for extra-special derision all over the world, other than the fact that some people are appalled at the idea that somewhere out there, well over ten million women might be – whisper it – masturbating.

"But it's badly written!", I hear you cry. Um, hello? It's PORN. Whilst there is some pornography out there written with a deft stylistic hand – from Anais Nin and Henry Miller to Anne Rice's luscious, filthy Sleeping Beauty series – that's hardly the point, even if you don't buy Oglaf author Trudy Cooper's adage that "erotica just means porn that works for me." A dildo painted with an intricate lubricant-insoluble motif may look delightful, but a plain old rubber shocker gets the job done just as well. This book is porn. It is for wanking to. Pornography made for men is rarely judged on its artistic merits – the average 20-minute RedTube clip has hundreds of thousands of views and practically nobody leaves comments complaining that the lighting is garish, that the pounding cheese music is weird and unsettling, or that there's someone's Bassett hound running about in the background[2].

Similarly, I can't recall Page Three of the Sun ever getting taken to pieces for its lack of artistic imagination. The point, the only point, is to show three million men some tits in the morning, and they've been happily ogling those pixellated teenage breasts on public transport for thirty years. That's understood. Exactly the same basic principle applies to the Fifty Shades series, which has the added bonus that no actual nubile, desperate postpubescents were harmed in its production – but somehow the idea that women might gobble down a poorly-written book in their tens of millions just because they've heard there might be some fucking in it is uncomfortable for the sort of snobbish commentators who have absolutely never themselves bashed out a cheeky one over FHM magazine.

When you get down to it, the problem most people seem to have with Fifty Shades of Grey is that it's for girls. Even worse - it's "mommy porn", porn for mommies, for older women to read and get excited about, and that dangerous nonsense really needs to be stopped right now. Everyone knows that the only women who are allowed to actually have sexuality are slender, high-breasted twenty-one year old virgins – rather like, it has to be said, the heroine of "Fifty Shades of Grey".

Tens of thousands of words have been wasted over whether Christian Grey, our well-tailored, long-dicked hunk of fictional man-meat, is an appropriate lust-object for today's right-thinking feminist, but less attention has been paid to the fact that Anastasia Steele, the protagonist, rather embodies the contemporary concept of "fuckable". Those of us reading Fifty Shades may not all be innocent virgin college graduates, but getting moistly involved with a hardcore sexual fantasy feels less uncomfortable if you can temporarily imagine that you are. Virgin college graduates don't have to feel guilty for fantasising about being seduced by a gorgeous young multi-millionaire entrepreneur with his own private jet and a fleet of audis who's rather unnervingly like Mark Zuckerberg, if Mark Zuckerberg were hot and well-dressed.

Derivative and aesthetically childish though they may be, women everywhere are reading these books, especially now that ebook technology uptake has reached a point where anyone with a smartphone or Kindle can read porn privately on public transport, or one-handed in their bedrooms. The only people who haven't bothered to read the damn books, it seems, are most of the journalists writing about it – which seems to be the only possible explanation for why the parts of the series that have been most anxiously discussed are also the least interesting.

Firstly, there's the sadomasochism. Katie Roiphe's now-infamous Newsweek cover story claimed that the popularity of the Fifty Shades books was evidence that women everywhere are tired of all this feminist liberation and secretly want to be tied down and whipped by wealthy plutocrats. But in fact, there are barely two spanking scenes in the whole of the first book – by far the most in-depth and detailed sex-scenes are "vanilla" – and our protagonist spends most of the time feeling shocked and horrified about her paramour's predilictions, to an extent that anyone actually involved in the S&M community might well find offensive. The watered-down approximation of sadomasochistic sex in the first book, at least, is merely an extended fantasy of possession, of being utterly desired by a person who takes full physical, moral and social responsibility for any boning that may or may not ensue. In a world where women are still made to feel ashamed of ever wanting to experience sexual pleasure for its own sake, that's an appealing fantasy.

Secondly, and most importantly – these books started out as smutty fan fiction. The publishers are extremely keen to underplay this aspect of the Fifty Shades books, and E. L James doesn't discuss it in interviews, but the fact that these books began as extended stories published on the internet in the Twilight fandom community is, to my mind, the most fascinating aspect of the whole Fifty Shades phenomenon.

If you're not familiar with fan fiction, or "fanfic", please just take my word for it that there are countless thousands of men, women and girls out there on the internet – mostly women, mostly young women, and some of them extremely young women – writing and sharing long, dirty stories set in their favourite fictional universes, from Harry Potter to Buffy and Twilight. These stories tend to place beloved characters in sweaty pairings that make private sexual fantasies a community experience – readers comment on and critique one other's work, correcting the most anatomically implausible details and discussing the ins and outs and ins and outs of possible scenarios at breathless length.

Not all fan fiction is filthy, but a great deal of what makes the enormous volume of dirty short fandom stories out there on the internet so exciting is that it's a unique way for readers to re-occupy a text, to rewrite anhedonic, sexless sagas like Harry Potter or actively disturbing chastity propaganda like Twilight with all the bonking and bodily fluids back in. Dirty fanfiction existed before the internet, but online forums have allowed enormous communities of antsy fifteen-year-old girls to crowdsource the education their classmates are getting from RedTube. It was in one of those communities, written largely by women, largely for women, that Fifty Shades emerged, and that fact probably goes quite a long way towards explaining why it works so damn well as what it is. Which, to reiterate, is porn. For women. To masturbate to. Horrifying, I know, but I suggest we all get used to the idea.

[1] "My very own Christian Grey-flavoured popsicle" is not a phrase I'm going to be able to burn out of my brain any time soon.

[2] For more on this theme, visit the absolutely genius indifferent cats in amateur porn tumblr, which just goes to show that the oceans of human time lost in the lonely, backlit wank-alleys of the internet have not been entirely wasted. If you're under 18, get someone who isn't to Google it for you.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

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How working less could help you achieve more

A Japanese lesson in the paradox of productivity.

In Japan, the virtues of konjou and gaman – grit and endurance – have long been considered crucial for success. But the death of a star worker at the nation’s biggest advertising agency has prompted a rethink of a culture of overwork that commonly subjects employees to more than 100 hours of overtime per month.

The Japanese government is now seeking to pass legislation to limit overtime. The English-speaking world is waking up to the problems of overwork, too. A new book – Rest by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, a Silicon Valley consultant and visiting scholar at Stanford University – argues that by working less you can accomplish more.

Around the world, the conventional wisdom that working longer hours leads to superior results is being challenged. “Even in today’s 24/7, always-on world,” Pang writes, “we can learn how to blend work and rest together in ways that make us smarter, more creative and happier.”

Matsuri Takahashi was gifted, attractive and successful. Fresh out of Tokyo University, she landed a job at the Dentsu advertising agency and seemed on course for a life on the corporate fast track. Yet it wasn’t long before Takahashi, crushed by long office hours, began posting about her struggles on Twitter. “My body is trembling . . . I just can’t do this,” she wrote, following up with: “I have lost all feeling except the desire to sleep.”

On Christmas Day 2015, the 24-year-old fell to her death from the third storey of her company’s dormitory building. Labour standards officials recorded the cause as karoshi – or “death by overwork”.

Takahashi’s case resonated in Japan, a country that was already grappling with statistics showing chronic overtime to be the norm. More than a year later, barely a day goes by without a TV chat show inviting scholars and celebrities to brainstorm ways to get Japanese people to work less.

The implications of this culture of overwork go beyond workers’ sanity. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s push to cap overtime at a yearly average of 60 hours a month – in a labour reform programme expected to be adopted this year – envisions higher productivity as a benefit. Meanwhile, some corporations are beginning to ask an unusual (even heretical) question for hard-working Japan: can taking things easier be a recipe for success?

There are some surprising answers to this in Pang’s book. The problems that Japan faces may sound extreme, but they are in no way unique, viewed alongside Western business environments where, as Pang writes, “The proliferation of mobile and digital tools . . . [lets] you work anywhere and any time, [lets] work follow you everywhere.”

Pang argues that rest is a crucial source of creative vigour and that slogging through workplace fatigue – a mantra in Japan and the United States alike – leads not only to burnout but inferior performance. “Rest is not work’s adversary,” he writes. “Rest is work’s partner.”

Pang cites an array of academic studies and creative luminaries to support his argument. What did Charles Darwin, Ingmar Bergman, Charles Dickens and Henri Poincaré have in common? Four hours: roughly the length of time they felt they could productively devote to work in a single day. This is not to say that nothing happens outside those four hours. Pang believes that our best work is done, unconsciously, when we are at rest – while walking in the woods, gazing out of the window, listening to Bach and, above all, sleeping.

In Japan, no corporation has yet proposed a four-hour workday (or encouraged its employees to take long walks to boost performance), but a handful are reporting intriguing results that support Pang’s thesis. Last October, Nidec Corporation, a motor manufacturer, cited a significant reduction in overtime as an important factor in its record profit projections. Nidec banned working outside office hours without a manager’s permission and slashed overtime by 30 per cent without affecting productivity. This year, the corporation went further, announcing that it will invest more than $880m to eliminate overtime by 2020.

Meanwhile, the IT company SCSK has devised a novel solution to the problem of excess office hours: paying workers extra for not taking overtime. Since launching its “healthy management” strategy in 2012, SCSK has succeeded in reducing average daily overtime to roughly half an hour a day (down nearly threefold), while enjoying higher profits every year.

“When you focus on your workers’ health,” the firm’s former chairman, Nobuhide Nakaido, told the Japanese media, “it’s going to result in better work.”

Japan has enjoyed spectacular business success by embracing a philosophy of gritting one’s teeth and putting up with crushing workloads. Yet a growing body of evidence suggests that many of the country’s achievements may have come in spite of a culture of overwork, not because of it. If Pang’s ideas are right, Japan’s admirable cult of quality – even perfectionism – could find greater opportunities to flourish without the inspiration-destroying effects of excessive labour.

Rest condemns neither hard work nor perfectionism, but rather celebrates both. The book advises us to work hard but in short bursts, with opportunities for recuperation, in order to bring out the best that we can achieve.

“I don’t want to deny the importance of work in our lives,” Pang writes. “The challenge we face when learning to rest better is not to avoid work but to discover how to create a better fit between our work and our rest.” l

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit