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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Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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