This week's Diary of a Submissive tries to cash in on the year's big publishing craze. But it misunderstands what made the original so popular.
If there's one question everyone in the publishing industry has been contemplating this summer, it's this: What accounts for the wild popularity of 50 Shades of Grey—a novel about a man who likes to tie women up and the virgin who falls for him? What secret need or deep yearning has the bestseller tapped into? And, crucially, considering it's become the world's fastest-selling adult paperback—surpassing the Harry Potter books, the Twilight series, and even The DaVinci Code—how can its success be replicated?
In a Newsweek cover story, cultural critic Katie Roiphe, a reliable firebrand and writer I admire, argued—dubiously—that the book appeals so much to modern women because they're so bored and burdened by all the professional, marital, and cultural power they now have that they yearn for someone to order them around in the bedroom. She writes:
It is intriguing that huge numbers of women are eagerly consuming ... fantasies of submission at a moment when women are ascendant in the workplace, when they make up almost 60 percent of college students, when they are close to surpassing men as breadwinners ... a moment when—in hard economic terms—women are less dependent or subjugated than before. ...
Why is it so interesting to surrender, or to play at surrendering? ... it may be that equality is something we want only sometimes and in some places and in some arenas; it may be that power and all of its imperatives can be boring. ... It may be that, for some, the more theatrical fantasies of sexual surrender offer a release, a vacation, an escape from the dreariness and hard work of equality.
The people at Gotham Books, a Penguin imprint, must think Roiphe is on to something. Or else they're simply going along with a widespread practice in the publishing world that we'll call The Vampire Law: If one book that becomes a bestseller features characters who are unusual in some way—because they are, for example, vampires, or people who enjoy kinky sex—surely a number of other books featuring similar protagonists will also sell handsomely (or at least enough to make the bean counters happy). This week, Gotham is releasing a new memoir, Diary of a Submissive, by a pseudonymous British journalist, Sophie Morgan, about her experiences with dominant men. The first one she meets gives her a thorough but harmless smacking with the back of a hairbrush, which she enjoys so much it surprises her. The last man she describes is far more severe: He shackles her ankles to a chair, handcuffs her wrists behind her, and clamps her nipples with clothespins before walloping her clitoris 109 excruciating times with a wooden spoon.
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The beating was her punishment for being a bad submissive and "disobeying" him by not sending an email she'd promised to send. "[I]t was a kind of agony I had never felt before," writes Morgan. "He made me count off the strokes and thank him for them and his pace was so fast that I was gasping out my thanks as fast as I could speak, as fast as I could process the pain." And yet, despite the physical torture of it, she is turned on by what he's doing: On stroke 109, she has an orgasm "so vicious and painful [that it] ... made me thrash against my bonds in a way that left me with marks around my wrists and ankles that I had to hide ... for a few days." As she goes on to explain, the experience was "freeing, cathartic and yet, at points, terrifying. He pushed me to the very edge of what felt acceptable ... all I cared about was him—pleasing him, satisfying him, not doing anything to give him reason to punish me. He was my world and for the first time I truly understood the kind of submission that consumes you."