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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Everyone Is Watching asks us to question who really makes a city

Megan Bradbury's novel of derelict New York of the 1970s was generative even as it was falling apart, inspiring artists of all stripes.

Who makes a city? Is it the urban planners, summoning bridges and highways out of thin air, conjuring swimming pools and parks from slums and marshes? Or is it the citizens, crammed cheek by jowl in tenements, hip to groin on subways, making their own desire paths through the metropolis, repurposing the built environment to suit their needs? This is the question that drives Megan Bradbury’s luminous first novel, a kaleidoscopic dreamscape of New York seen through the eyes of some of its most celebrated inhabitants.

First, the master builder: Robert Moses, the visionary despot responsible for structuring and sculpting the mid-century city. His projects included sites for public uplift and enjoyment such as the Lincoln Centre, Shea Stadium and Jones Beach, as well as dozens of roads, among them the FDR Drive and the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. His idea of the perfect city was a place you could get into and out of fast, and he was determined to make urban life hygienic and rational, whether the people he displaced wanted it or not.

Moses is an almighty figure (Robert Caro’s 1974 biography, The Power Broker, runs to 1,344 pages) but Bradbury deals with him deftly in her vignettes, casting him against a trio of artists with a very different notion of what might constitute urban pleasure.

Cruising through Moses’s time frame is Robert Mapplethorpe, with his cold green eyes and his chilly, rapacious sensibility, on course for discovering dual outlets in photography and sex. The full sweep of Mapplethorpe’s jagged life is here, arranged as meticulously as the necklaces he loved to string, “this bead and then this bead then this bead”.

A century earlier, and similarly seduced by the city’s possibilities, is the poet Walt Whitman, aboard a cross-country train with his biographer. He pontificates woollily about democracy and brotherhood, bent on building a new poetics out of the diction of common American lives.

It’s always a gamble making fictional play out of real people, but in her final character Bradbury takes an even bolder step, inserting a living artist into the frame. She portrays the novelist Edmund White as an ageing isolate (counterfactually; the real White is married), newly returned to the sanitised Manhattan of 2013 after a long spell in Paris. True, White took the same liberty with Stephen Crane in Hotel de Dream, but his own presence here left me uneasy.

This White is nostalgic, vulnerable, baffled. He wanders the tourist-thronged High Line, dreaming of the city of his youth, the wild nights below ground at the Mineshaft club, naked but for his shoes, the men like “phantoms in the dark”.

Sex is part of Bradbury’s vision of what a city can be and do, the kind of contact it might permit. She opens a glory hole into a hedonistic era before Aids, when gay claimed men the rotting Hudson piers as cruising grounds. In this place of ruin, love could happen between strangers, as “knife-sharp walls of light streamed in through ­injured ceilings”.

The derelict New York of the 1970s was generative even as it was falling apart, inspiring artists of all stripes. Unconcerned with the hydraulics of plot, Bradbury constructs a complicated and lovely mosaic, interspersed with passionate descriptions of works of art. There’s Nan Goldin’s Ballad of Sexual Dependency (“Nan begins and ends in this room in the Bowery, but after tonight traces of her will be found all over the city”); Gordon Matta-Clark’s monumental Day’s End; Laurie Anderson’s Institutional Dream Series, in which the artist charts her dreams after napping in various public spaces.

The effect is immersive and compelling, heightened by an unusually declarative present tense. Full names are repeated, occasionally to the point of Peter-and-Janeish absurdity. “Robert Moses is standing on Manhattan’s western shore in 1934.” “Robert Mapplethorpe looks his lovers directly in the eye when he has sex.” “He would not excite Edmund White, though he should think him very beautiful.”

The cumulative effect of these deliberately repetitive formulations is grating and hypnotic at the same time. What Bradbury is doing is working herself deep into the ­present moment, capturing its inconclusiveness and mutability, the stuttering sense of something on the verge of coming into view. Time contracts and dilates; a whole life squeezed into a page, an entire world summoned from a single photograph.

There are costs to all modes of living. Moses begins a hero but finds himself increasingly called to account by the people whose homes he razes, the slum-dwellers he believed as discountable as render ghosts. His greatest opponent is the doughty Jane Jacobs, a Greenwich Village mother who had a different idea of how cities should be organised, and who later wrote the defining work of ethical urban planning, The Death and Life of Great American Cities.

Bradbury shares something of Jacobs’s ­vision, which is to see that the strength of cities is diversity, not development. The great miracle of an urban space is that it allows interactions to happen between strangers, from the sustenance of community to the alchemy of art. Dirty, dangerous and delicious, this is a novel that understands the cost of contact and bets on it anyway.

Olivia Laing is the author of “The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone” (Canongate).

Everyone Is Watching by Megan Bradbury is published by Picador (278pp, £12.99)

This article first appeared in the 16 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Britain on the brink