Saturday, February 28, 2015

“Two novels built around the same contrivance. Will a trivial woman surrender her virtue to a wealthy master?”

In Slate magazine's Low Concept, Steven Metcalf writes-- 
“Good morning,” he said, then sniff-laughed, smiled, and, poking eyeglasses up the grade of his nose, corrected himself: “Good afternoon.” Professor M. looked around the room. 
 The preening,  pedantic Professor M nailed it.  

The history of the novel is, in fact, itself a kind of novel, an inner history of the middle class from its inception in the 18th century, through its consolidation in the 19th, its utter dominance in the 20th, and through to its unfortunate fate in the early parts of this professor Watt once said—the ‘unplanned aggregate of particular individuals having particular experiences at particular times and at particular places.’
The salient point here is not that stupid people loved Fifty Shades or that smart people deplored it. It’s that the educated classes were drawn to it in spite of themselves. Drawn to it just as they were to Pamela. In Fifty Shades, they found what the literate middle classes always found in novels: the drama of who they are, who they must become next, as it works itself out in the marriage plot. How do sexual power and social power map—or fail to map—on one another? Just as in Pamela, a middle class might be born, so too in this supposedly inconsequential little virgin, something like a middle class might yet survive; might yet hold onto its self-respect. This is why otherwise intelligent people were drawn to a manifest idiocy.

In 1740, the virgin must convert the licentious aristocrat into a middle-class individual, capable of companionate marriage. In 2011, the moment has arrived in which the master once again has everything—not only money, but comportment and dress—while the young middle-class virgin—without skills or talents or ambitions—has nothing left to bargain away but her self-respect. And it was into this sad proxy that middle-class readers lost themselves, in one final ecstasy of total submission.
 1,380,000 Google Search results for "he lifted her as if she weighed nothing"

Pamela and Fifty Shades of Grey
Photo illustration by Slate. Painting by Joseph Highmore via National Gallery of Victoria/Wikimedia Commons, film still courtesy of Universal.

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