The Essayist

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Travelling Southwards

Andrew O’Hagan reviews 50 Shades of Grey

Robbins and Collins liked a plush car with a smooth chassis. They liked champagne and caviar and jets you could shag in. They liked big desks. They liked jacuzzis. But what these gazillion-selling authors liked most was a human being perpetually on the brink of a soaring orgasm. Women just had to be approached, sometimes just looked at, and a ‘shuddering’ event would occur in their ‘sex’. Sometimes it wasn’t called ‘my sex’, and the word ‘clitoris’ made its debut in our lives. Men sometimes had cocks but more usually they had a ‘member’ or a ‘shaft’ or just an ‘erection’. More likely, they had a ‘towering erection’ or a ‘colossal shaft’, and that was worrying. Things didn’t improve a great deal in the 1980s, when women came on TV wearing lakes of lipgloss. Jackie Collins’s sister Joan was chief among them in Dynasty, pouting for England and surrounded by gay men with big hair who were keen to get on with the shafting. By this point in the evolution of the genre, ‘shafting’ could also mean something else, and the enduring aspect of 1980s sex novels was their obsession with new money. Time was when a romantic hero could be a soldier or a doctor or, heaven help us, a priest. But in the age of Jilly Cooper and Judith Krantz he had better be a polo player. Work is for pigs, and anyone without enough money to coat themselves in leisure had no place in a Krantz novel.

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