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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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After ten days alone, only The xx at Brixton Academy can make me feel normal again

Very quickly, it becomes clear that loneliness doesn’t suit me.

I’ve been on my own for the past ten days. I mean, there’s a 15-year-old in the house with me, and a 19-year-old, too, but teenagers live in their bedrooms, emerging only occasionally to announce that they’ve gone vegetarian, or want a Pink Floyd poster, so they’re not much in the way of company. And it doesn’t take long before I start to feel that I’ve become a slightly different person, that I’ve changed or reverted to type. I get a glimpse of the person I’d be if I were alone all the time.

I rattle around the house and I don’t sit in my normal corner seat of the sofa watching telly: I sit at the kitchen table instead and watch it on my laptop, and at night I creep back into the rumpled sheets of the unmade bed, refilling the impression I made last night. And like Joni said, “The bed’s too big/The frying pan’s too wide”.

Ben usually keeps up a constant soundtrack in the house, which is fine by me, a perk of living with a DJ, but now I’m in charge. I listen to Roxy Music, and Solange, and Elastica, and Liza Minnelli, and then I start on Rickie Lee Jones, and remember being a teenager listening to Pirates, always with a cigarette in my mouth, and when that’s done I watch the eight-hour O J Simpson documentary, and Mean Streets, and then Catastrophe, and then I sit up late reading The Red Parts by Maggie Nelson.

Twenty years ago I wrote a song called “Single” in which I asked myself: “And how am I without you?/Am I more myself or less myself?/I feel younger, louder/Like I don’t always connect . . .” I wonder the same things now. There’s a strangeness about being on your own, the sense that you are an odder person than you realised. Being in company, or with a partner much of the time, involves constant tiny adjustments and compromises, moments when you subtly shift in order to fit in with someone else. Your edges get smoothed off. You mirror each other and become more alike, which makes you feel normal. But when there’s no one to notice what you’re doing, or eating, or drinking or watching, and you can make all your own choices, you wonder whether your choices are weird.

In her book The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone Olivia Laing writes about how loneliness makes people hypervigilant about social threat, always on the lookout for rudeness and rejection, which inevitably leads to lonely people becoming more isolated and suspicious. “What this means is that the lonelier a person gets, the less adept they become at navigating social currents. Loneliness grows around them, like mould or fur, a prophylactic that inhibits contact . . .”

That isn’t going to happen to me in ten days, I realise, but on the other hand I can sense very quickly the creeping isolation that comes upon you. You can feel not just odd, but invisible. As I sang in “Single”, “. . . if no one calls and I don’t speak all day,/Do I disappear?”

I don’t want to disappear and I don’t want loneliness to grow around me like fur, so after a few days I kick against it, and decide that the antidote is going out. I go walking with one friend, and have coffee with another, and dinner with three more, and then go to see The xx at Brixton Academy. It proves to be the perfect evening. Their songs revolve endlessly around the difficulties inherent in bonding with other people, trusting and believing, loving and being loved.

Everything about them hints at isolation: unshowy on stage, they look a little lost in the lights and mirrors, Romy’s guitar lines inhabit an empty, echoey space, and images of loneliness recur – “I can’t hold on/To an empty space”, “I go to those places where we used to go/They seem so quiet now/I’m here, all alone”.

They capture something specific about human awkwardness, especially during that youthful phase when you’re all elbows and feelings, but their music luxuriates in the experience, and out of it all they create a kind of desolate euphoria, so that by the end of the gig the balcony is shaking and we’re all dancing and singing, hands in the air, united and comforted, all of us alone together.

Next week: Kate Mossman

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution