June 16, 2012

Big bad books

WHEN my siblings and I were growing up in the ’70s to ’80s, we were surrounded by books.

We had all kinds at home—from encyclopedias like the 20-volume The Book of Knowledge and 10-volume Popular Science—to reference books like Renato Constantino’s A Past Revisited and The Continuing Past (big help during my high school and college Philippine history classes), and novels that ranged from the intelligently written and spiritually moving like Herman Hesse’s Siddharta, to the popular “trashy” erotica penned by Harold Robbins (my mother’s books, for sure, hahaha).

I’m glad that I grew up in such an environment with a love for learning and the written word. I would remember waking up every morning, and seeing my father already seated on his favorite chair in the living room turning the pages of the morning paper. I would later “copy” him as soon as I was tall enough to make it to the sofa without help from my yaya, and read the newspaper as well. (In hindsight, I suppose this was my own beginnings as a journalist.)

I think it was Papa’s fervent desire to make us, his children, literate geniuses (the latter, a failure on my end; for the record, Big Sister is the genius in the family). So he bought books and subscribed to Time, Reader’s Digest and Life magazines. He also bought us a slew of Complete Bestsellers—popular novels published as magazines, containing illustrations (e.g., Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale and John Le Carre’s The Looking Glass War.)

While studying at St. Theresa’s, I just loved spending my free time in the library. Aside from the fact that it was the only air-conditioned room in the premises other than the audio-visual room, there were even more books to be read!

My literary diet as a teenager consisted of the Nancy Drew series, a stream of metaphysical and philosophical dissertations that came in 10 volumes, science fiction (the Dune series by Frank Herbert), and I’m pretty sure I was the only one who read The Pentagon Papers and All the President’s Men then.

Of course, what young female adolescent in the ’70s and ’80s didn’t have her share of romantic novels from the Mills and Boons and Barbara Cartland collection (my Lola Pepay’s influence), and the Silhouette/Harlequin Romances, where all the female leads where virgins before being deflowered by their knights in shining armor? It’s no wonder I have such a screwed-up sense of love and romance, and am currently unattached. I’m still waiting for my muscular hero with his hair long as Fabio to take me away, riding on a white charger, into the sunset! LOL!

Now, among my parents’ stash of course, were the so-called big bad books—risqué or erotic adult novels that were on book shelves far up high in their bedroom, and away from the prying eyes of young, impressionable children like myself.

My first big bad book was Harold Robbins’ Stiletto, which I sneakily read page by page while standing on a stool, in my parents’ bedroom, while they were out. Every time I would hear someone passing outside their door, I would hastily put it back on its space on the bookshelf, my heart racing fast in fear of being caught with the “illicit” item in my hands. It was actually a quick read and the steamy sex scenes awed me—of course they are tame by today’s standards. But what attracted me more was the suspense that surrounded the killing of various witnesses who were supposed to testify before the mob. And I mean, of the Mafiosi kind.

The other “big bad books” I ended up sneaking off with were Vladimir Nabokov’s classic novel of seduction and, well, pedophilia, Lolita; and D.H. Lawerence’s swoon-worthy example of illicit romances among the married, Lady Chatterley’s Lover. I even wrapped the cover of the latter in gift-wrapping paper so I could read it in school without being hauled off to the principal’s office. (Of course, by the ’80s Lady Chatterley’s Lover was no longer considered obscene, but still, I was afraid the nuns wouldn’t understand if they caught me reading it, thus the fake cover. I was also sparing them the agony of blaming themselves for their failure of influencing me to read “better” literature, like, uhm, Shakespeare’s classics?)

Toward my 20s, I graduated to the works of Erica Jong, Arthur Miller, Anaïs Nin, etc. And in my young 30s, I collected anthologies of erotica whenever I traveled abroad. (Sorry to say this but National Book Store was never the local torchbearer for the genre.)

With this background in mind, can you blame me if I am shocked that the apparent erotic novel of choice among bored young housewives and twentysomethings these days is something called 50 Shades of Grey? I admit I haven’t read it, but the reviews I’ve perused so far are enough to make me wince.

So when B., my 25-year-old friend who introduced me to the hilarious Confessions of a Shopaholic (to be fair, it was entertaining), tweeted she too had “jumped on the bandwagon” and bought 50 Shades, I almost died. For those who still don’t what the fuss is about, 50 Shades of Grey started out as a re-worked fan fiction based on the Twilight series, but with S&M scenes. (There are two sequels: 50 Shades Darker and 50 Shades Freed.)

Incidentally, due to the alleged pornographic nature of the first novel, some public libraries banned it from their bookshelves. But a public outcry has reinstated it in libraries. Most readers of the novel, I gather, are thirtysomething housewives, thus earning it the title “Mommy Porn.”

Many respectable literature reviewers have panned the e-book and the eventual paperback written by E.L. James, because of its “clunky prose” and being “treacly cliché” (watch Charlize Theron and her co-stars from Snow White and the Huntsman read from the book here).

Jong, author of the controversial Fear of Flying, and one of my favorite feminist novelists, says of 50 Shades: “The problem...is that it is just bad writing. That and the fact the heroine is subservient, allowing her body to be abused in order to ‘get her man.’ Is this what we’ve come to?”

Indeed. On the other hand, I suppose I was hoping that my young friend’s first foray into the erotic/bondage genre would be something reputable, like Pauline Reage’s The Story of O. But holy cow! what do I know, right? 50 Shades did make the New York Times best-sellers list. (Again for those who don’t know, “holy cow” is the favorite expression of the novel’s protagonist, Anastasia, when she sees a naked man or has sex. She also says, “holy crap” and “holy shit”. Lovely.)
From “50 Shades of Grey”: “He's going to kiss me there! I know it! And part of me is glorying in anticipation." Another one: “Inside me! I gasp, and all the muscles deep in my belly clench. My inner goddess is doing the dance of the seven veils.” (Hahahahaha! Sorry, I couldn’t help laughing while typing those idiotic lines.)

Compare those lines to “The Story of O”: “O felt her mouth was beautiful, since her lover condescended to thrust himself into it, since he deigned to discharge in it. She received it as a god is received, she heard him cry out, heard the others laugh, and when she received it she fell, her face against the floor.” See what I mean?

But as my friend and reading guru Fabia counseled me when I was complaining about my nephew’s obsession with Anne Rice’s vampires, “At least he’s reading.” (Not that there’s anything wrong with Anne Rice—I just wish he read more Catcher in the Rye, Catch-22, Lord of the Flies, you know?)

I know I should be pleased that B. may have finally outgrown her chicklit Shopaholic phase. I suppose 50 Shades can be compared to Jacqueline Susanne’s Valley of the Dolls in terms of the kind of popularity the latter also reaped, and the dismissives it also garnered from literary reviewers.

And I guess every generation needs their trashy novels or guilty pleasures. We just have to cross our fingers that that kind of trash doesn’t become the standard reading fare for the “Y” and “Z” generation. Holy crap.

(My column, Something Like Life, is published every Friday in the Life section of the BusinessMirror...unless it gets bumped off by an ad. :-) This piece was originally published on June 8, 2012. Still photo of the film "The Story of O" from www.listal.com)

1 comment:

Ellen Tordesillas said...

I like Erica Jong. I like her prose and her naughtiness.