Making the once known known again.
I’m a big fan of airports. In fact, sometimes I look forward to being in the airport more than I look forward to reaching my destination. I love the souvenir shops, the restaurants, and especially the bookstores. Recently I was in a bookstore at the Nashville Airport when I came across the book 50 Shades of Grey. For those unfamiliar, 50 Shades of Grey is the tale of the sexual relationship between an inexperienced college student and a very experienced entrepreneur. At that time the book was number one on the bestsellers list and was getting a lot of buzz for it’s sexually explicit nature. Being a pop culture enthusiast, I picked up the book and started to flip through it to see what all the fuss was about. Five seconds into my flipping I had this feeling that everyone was looking at me and wondering why the dude with the fro-hawk was reading “mommy porn.” I quickly put it back on the shelf and hurried to catch my flight to Ohio.
When I arrived at my friends’ in Ohio, 50 Shades of Grey was still heavily on my mind. Since my friends hadn’t heard of it, I thought it would be fun to google excerpts from the book and read them out loud. I was going for shock value and believe me, everyone in the room was shocked by the excerpts. Since my friends’ 4-year-old daughter was present the read-aloud got cut short, but the part I did read would have made Rihanna blush. The thing that surprised me was that women from all walks of life were reading the book despite the erotic content. No matter the race, creed, religion or economic status, women seemed to be united by their interest in the book. The fascination made me think about a book from 1969 that captivated the public in a similar way.
Naked Came The Stranger was the brainchild of Newsday columnist Mike McGrady. Annoyed by the literary culture’s fascination with sex over substance, McGrady set out to prove that even a horribly written book would be a success if enough sex was included. He decided to write an imitation of the popular smut novels of the time but wanted it to be devoid of all literary intelligence. Instead of writing it himself, McGrady invited twenty-five colleagues to write a chapter each. McGrady’s sister-in-law agreed to pose as made-up author Penelope Ashe during publicity and one of the greatest experiments in the history of literature was born.
The plot of Naked Came The Stranger involved a Long Island housewife who decided to get revenge on her cheating husband. The revenge came in the form of sleeping with a smorgasbord of men including businessmen, mobsters, athletes, and even a rabbi. Each chapter (authored by a different colleague of McGrady’s) detailed a different sexual escapade. In a memo McGrady instructed his writers that the book was to have “an unremitting emphasis on sex.” McGrady also warned that “true excellence in writing will be quickly blue-penciled into oblivion.” The writers followed those instructions with the utmost accuracy.
The book was a smash hit right out of the gate. It became so successful that a lot of the writers felt guilty about all of the money they were receiving from it. When McGrady and his colleagues revealed their true identities on “The David Frost Show,” the book got even more popular and ascended to the top of the New York Times Bestsellers list. The book ended up selling 100,000 copies in hardback and several million in paperback. McGrady was offered $500,000 to write a sequel but turned it down.
50 Shades of Grey and Naked Came The Stranger were written over 40 years apart but their impact on culture is the same. People love them and it has nothing to do with literary technique. It has to do with sex.
Several questions to get the conversation going this week:
Why have these books received mainstream acceptance while magazines like Penthouse and Playboy are labelled as “dirty” by society? Aren’t they all intended to make us fantasize? Where is the line drawn?
Why do we flock to sex related product?
Are there any damaging effects caused by reading books such as 50 Shades of Grey or Naked Came The Stranger?
Does identity play a role in choosing to read or not read these books?
Anyone have either of these books? What was your motivation for reading them?
I look forward to hearing your thoughts!