Artwork: Bradley Wind
Would you openly read The Story of O on a train?
Something’s shifting, profoundly, in the reading habits of women. A generation, a decade, even six months ago, the answer for most of us would have been a resounding “God no.” Yet over this summer we’ve witnessed an astounding loosening of the corsetry of decorum, a rectitude that’s bound so many of us - all our lives. It’s all down to one book of course: Fifty Shades of Grey. We’ve been freed. It feels revolutionary. It feels like fun.
It’s said the Fifty Shades trilogy has the e-book revolution to thank for its success; because women can safely download it knowing that noone will have any idea what they’re reading. But the phenomenon feels bigger than that. It was encapsulated for me by a friend recently - an extremely conservative housewife - talking in a completely unabashed way about the novel. “The sex is doable,” she said, matter of fact. “As I read it I kept on thinking, yeah, I could go there.” I was astounded because I’d never had a conversation about sex with this woman in my life. The revolution is not just about erotica finding its perfect vessel in e-books, it’s about the fact we’re openly reading this type of book now; avidly discussing it. I’ve even slipped the powerful little Story of O from its bookshelf purgatory in a darkened corner. It doesn’t deserve to be there. It’s such a potent little volume that connects viscerally; I still remember the heated flush of reading it. We can be declaratory about these things, thanks to Fifty Shades. This feels like a huge generational shift.
Ten years ago it felt like a different landscape entirely. I wrote a similar book to Fifty Shades, called The Bride Stripped Bare. The plan was simple, to examine sex within marriage with a forensic, unsparing eye. But as a wife and new mother, I only felt comfortable doing it anonymously. I wanted to write about the raw underbelly of a woman’s sexuality, all those things she may be thinking but had never had to courage to say; her secret life, in all its beauty but all its ugliness too. I found my key to freedom in Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. She described anonymity as a ‘refuge’ for women writers. “For most of history, Anonymous was a woman.” And with that simple sentence, a recalcitrant novel was unlocked.
I wrote with brutal candour – thinking, brilliantly, that noone would be hurt in the process. Myself, of course, but also those closest to me. Because I knew that if I was going to write something with eviscerating honesty there would be reverberations years down the track, for all of us – children, partner, parents. People have always confused my fiction with autobiography; I’ve always had readers assume it was people close to me who were in my book, and judging them as well as myself. I was seized up by a fear of that, bound by fear of being seen as anything but “the good wife.” When I initially tried writing the book with my name attached I’d felt clogged up with caution - afraid of too much honesty, of showing too much vulnerability, and afraid of hurting people close to me.
The door was flung open, gleefully, with anonymity. "The world was made to be free in. Give up on all other worlds except the one to which you belong," the poet David Whyte wrote. Oh yes. The Bride Stripped Bare was brewed in a blazing little world far removed from any other; world that shone with light and truth and power and glee; a deep and thrilling sense of satisfaction. Who dares to presume they know anyone else’s secret life? I wanted to write about a woman’s secret world - any woman’s, if you like, every woman’s. Wanted to write about the raw underbelly of a woman’s thinking in all its complexity, all its shocking ugliness as well as its beauty. It could only be done with the gift of anonymity, the egoless existence that liberates you from what people think, frees from the indignant eye of public opinion, from judgment. I wrote of sex that was bursting with light and life; all the magic and messiness of life as we know it; I wrote of sex that depletes sense, flattens, distances. I wanted a book driven by love and truth; a book where women would respond “oh, that’s me!” and where men would respond, “oh my goodness, did my partner write this?” Having “Anonymous” bold on the cover felt crucial to that sense of enchantment, cheekiness, artifice, honesty. Removing the author’s name meant the book carried with it a shock of universality. This could be anyone’s story. Not wasn’t just “so and so’s opinion” but anyone’s, everyone’s. It felt audacious and authentic and absolutely right.
That was then, this is now. It feels like a long time ago. It took me years to “own” Bride, be proud of it, and that was only after I was outed by the press. In this new environment I applaud the openness of E.L James, applaud the fact that she seems so comfortable with her place in our increasingly sexualised world; that she can talk so openly and honestly about her fantasies. Once, I couldn’t. But what I found in the long run was that honesty connects; that there’s an incredible potency to telling to the truth. Especially in terms of sex. It can have such a powerful memorable impact on the reader if it chimes, connects, excites, stimulates. People responded, urgently, movingly; still do. It was empowering to have women say things like “thank you for writing my words,” or “thank you for saying the things I’ve never been able to articulate.”
I’m a different woman now – aren’t we all? A different writer. Over a decade I grew up. Let go. Strengthened. Loosened. Lightened. And found my courage. Didn’t give a damn anymore about what people thought of me, and I think that’s one of the liberations of middle age. I found my voice. My boldness. The follow up came swift and strong and cheeky and sure, just as Bride had. Because it’s telling the truth, once again. It’s called With My Body. It’s in a similar vein to The Bride Stripped Bare and Fifty Shades of Grey. It’s got my name on the cover. It’s out now. And it feels great.
Nikki Gemmell is the author of four novels, including the international best-seller The Bride Stripped Bare, which went on to become a bestseller in Britain.
Visit her web-site here.
THE BRIDE STRIPPED BARE and WITH MY BODY by Nikki Gemmell are out now in paperback, priced £7.99. Published by 4th Estate.