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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The end of solitude: in a hyperconnected world, are we losing the art of being alone?

In the end, Solitude feels a bit like an amiable cop-out. 

Michael Harris is a Canadian writer who lives in a big city and whose life is defined and circumscribed, as so many Western lives are now, by digital technologies. He finds it hard to leave his phone at home in case he misses anything. He worries about his social media reputation. He uses apps and plays games, and relies on the internet hive mind to tell him which films to watch or where to eat. Here is what happens when he goes on holiday to Paris:

Disembarking from the train from London, I invited a friendly app to guide me to a hotel near the Pompidou . . . The next morning, Yelp guided me towards a charming café in the Marais. There, wizard-like, I held my phone over the menu and waited for Google Translate to melt the words into English. When the waiter arrived, I spoke into my phone and had it repeat my words to the grinning garçon in a soft, robotic French. Later, at the Louvre, I allowed a Nintendo-sponsored guidance system to track my steps up the centuries-old Daru staircase as I squinted confusedly at its glowing blue you-are-here dot . . .

Terrifying, isn’t it? Well, I thought so as I read it, and Harris thought so afterwards. It was situations like this, during which he realised that his life was controlled, confined and monitored by distancing technologies, that led him to wonder whether solitude – the act and the art of being alone – was in danger of disappearing.

Harris has an intuition that being alone with ourselves, paying attention to inner silence and being able to experience outer silence, is an essential part of being human. He can remember how it felt to do this, before the internet brought its social anxiety and addiction into his life. “I began to remember,” he writes, “a calm separateness, a sureness I once could live inside for an easy hour at a time.”

What happens when that calm separateness is destroyed by the internet of everything, by big-city living, by the relentless compulsion to be with others, in touch, all the time? Plenty of people know the answer already, or would do if they were paying attention to the question. Nearly half of all Americans, Harris tells us, now sleep with their smartphones on their bedside table, and 80 per cent are on their phone within 15 minutes of waking up. Three-quarters of adults use social networking sites regularly. But this is peanuts compared to the galloping development of the so-called Internet of Things. Within the next few years, anything from 30 to 50 billion objects, from cars to shirts to bottles of shampoo, will be connected to the net. The internet will be all around you, whether you want it or not, and you will be caught in its mesh like a fly. It’s not called the web for nothing.

I may not be the ideal reader for this book. By page 20, after a few more facts of this sort, I had already found myself scrawling “Kill everyone!” in the margins. This is not really the author’s fault. I often start behaving like this whenever I’m forced to read a list of ways in which digital technology is wrecking human existence. There are lots of lists like this around at the moment, because the galloping, thoughtless, ongoing rush to connect everything to the web has overcome our society like a disease. Did you know that cows are now connected to the internet? On page 20, Harris tells us that some Swiss dairy cows, sim cards implanted in their necks, send text messages to their farmers when they are on heat and ready to be inseminated. If this doesn’t bring out your inner Unabomber, you’re probably beyond help. Or maybe I am.

What is the problem here? Why does this bother me, and why does it bother Harris? The answer is that all of these things intrude upon, and threaten to destroy, something ancient and hard to define, which is also the source of much of our creativity and the essence of our humanity. “Solitude,” Harris writes, “is a resource.” He likens it to an ecological niche, within which grow new ideas, an understanding of the self and therefore an understanding of others.

The book is full of examples of the genius that springs from silent and solitary moments. Beethoven, Dostoevsky, Kafka, Einstein, Newton – all developed their ideas and approach by withdrawing from the crowd. Peter Higgs, the Nobel ­Prizewinner who discovered the Higgs boson particle, did his best work in peace and solitude in the 1960s. He suggests that what he did then would be impossible today, because it is now virtually impossible to find such solitude in the field of science.

Collaboration, not individuality, is fetishised today, in business as in science and the arts, but Harris warns that collaboration often results in conformism. In the company of others, most of us succumb to pressure to go with the crowd. Alone, we have more chance to be thoughtful, to see differently, to enter a place where we feel free from the mob to moderate our unique experience of the world. Without solitude, he writes, genius – which ultimately springs from different ways of thinking and seeing – becomes impossible. If Thoreau’s cabin in the woods had had wifi, we would never have got Walden.

Yet it is not only geniuses who have a problem: ordinary minds like yours and mine are threatened by the hypersocial nature of always-on urbanity. A ­civilisation can be judged by the quality of its daydreams, Harris suggests. Who daydreams now? Instead of staring out of the window on a train, heads are buried in smartphones, or wired to the audio of a streaming film. Instead of idling at the bus stop, people are loading up entertainment: mobile games from King, the maker of Candy Crush, were played by 1.6 billion times every day in the first quarter of 2015 alone.

If you’ve ever wondered at the behaviour of those lines of people at the train station or in the street or in the café, heads buried in their phones like zombies, unable or unwilling to look up, Harris confirms your worst fears. The developers of apps and games and social media sites are dedicated to trapping us in what are called ludic loops. These are short cycles of repeated actions which feed our brain’s desire for reward. Every point you score, every candy you crush, every retweet you get gives your brain a dopamine hit that keeps you coming back for more. You’re not having a bit of harmless fun: you are an addict. A tech corporation has taken your solitude and monetised it. It’s not the game that is being played – it’s you.

So, what is to be done about all this? That’s the multibillion-dollar question, but it is one the book cannot answer. Harris spends many pages putting together a case for the importance of solitude and examining the forces that splinter it today. Yet he also seems torn in determining how much of it he wants and can cope with. He can see the damage being done by the always-on world but he lives in the heart of it, all his friends are part of it, and he doesn’t want to stray too far away. He understands the value of being alone but doesn’t like it much, or want to experience it too often. He’ll stop checking his Twitter analytics but he won’t close down his account.

At the end of the book, Harris retreats, Thoreau-like, to a cabin in the woods for a week. As I read this brief last chapter, I found myself wishing it was the first, that he had spent more time in the cabin, that he had been starker and more exploratory, that he had gone further. Who will write a Walden for the Internet Age? This book is thick with fact and argument and some fine writing, but there is a depth that the author seems afraid to plumb. Perhaps he is afraid of what he might find down there.

In the end, Solitude feels a bit like an amiable cop-out. After 200 pages of increasingly disturbing facts about the impact of technology and crowded city living on everything from our reading habits to our ability to form friendships, and after warning us on the very last page that we risk making “an Easter Island of the mind”, the author goes back home to Vancouver, tells his boyfriend that he missed him, and then . . . well, then what? We don’t know. The book just ends. We are left with the impression that the pile-up of evidence leads to a conclusion too vast for the author, and perhaps his readers, to take in, because to do that would be to challenge everything.

In this, Solitude mirrors the structure of many other books of its type: the Non-Fiction Warning Book (NFWB), we might call it. It takes a subject – disappearing childhood; disappearing solitude; disappearing wilderness; disappearing anything, there’s so much to choose from – trots us through several hundred pages of anecdotes, science,
interviews and stories, all of which build up to the inescapable conclusion that everything is screwed . . . and then pulls back. It’s like being teased by an expert hustler. Yes, technology is undermining our sense of self and creating havoc for our relationships with others, but the solution is not to stop using it, just to moderate it. Yes, overcrowded cities are destroying our minds and Planet Earth, but the solution is not to get out of the cities: it’s to moderate them in some way, somehow.

Moderation is always the demand of the NFWB, aimed as it is at mainstream readers who would like things to get better but who don’t really want to change much – or don’t know how to. This is not to condemn Harris, or his argument: most of us don’t want to change much or know how to. What books of this kind are dealing with is the problem of modernity, which is intractable and not open to moderation. Have a week away from your screen if you like, but the theft of human freedom by the machine will continue without you. The poet Robinson Jeffers once wrote about sitting on a mountain and looking down on the lights of a city, and being put in mind of a purse seine net, in which sardines swim unwittingly into a giant bag, which is then drawn tightly around them. “I thought, We have geared the machines and locked all together into interdependence; we have built the great cities; now/There is no escape,” he wrote. “The circle is closed, and the net/Is being hauled in.”

Under the circumstances – and these are our circumstances – the only honest conclusion to draw is that the problem, which is caused primarily by the technological direction of our society, is going to get worse. There is no credible scenario in which we can continue in the same direction and not see the problem of solitude, or lack of it, continue to deepen.

Knowing this, how can Harris just go home after a week away, drop off his bag and settle back into his hyperconnected city life? Does he not have a duty to rebel, and to tell us to rebel? Perhaps. The problem for this author is our shared problem, however, at a time in history when the dystopian predictions of Brave New World are already looking antiquated. Even if Harris wanted to rebel, he wouldn’t know how, because none of us would. Short of a collapse so severe that the electricity goes off permanently, there is no escape from what the tech corporations and their tame hive mind have planned for us. The circle is closed, and the net is being hauled in. May as well play another round of Candy Crush while we wait to be dragged up on to the deck. 

Paul Kingsnorth's latest book, “Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist” (Faber & Faber)

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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