Author Shirley Conran discusses Fifty Shades of Grey
The erotic fiction writer is unimpressed by EL James' contribution to the genre
It was a visit to one of London’s top sexperts that finally convinced Shirley Conran to write Lace. At the beginning of the 1980s, after a successful career as a journalist and non-fiction writer, she was researching an educational tome about sex for teenage girls.
‘A woman would never discuss her sex life with other women and not really with herself,’ Conran recalls. ‘There was a lot of unnecessary expectation. Men’s sexual enjoyment is based on in-and-out sex. Men assumed that, for women, what worked was out-and-in sex. And of course it’s not so.
‘I went to see the best, most famous sexologist of the time, who also happened to be a woman. It was costing me £120 an hour and I was strapped for money. I went with my friend who worked at the Daily Mirror. We were both recording the interview. Towards the end, this woman said, of course you pee with your clitoris. You can hear us both laughing on the tape. She repeated herself, got annoyed and suggested we go and check with Gray’s Anatomy.’
They did. Gray confirmed that Conran was correct. ‘It reinforced my belief that the book was needed.’ And instead of helpful diagrams and cheerful advice, she decided to give it a wildly shoulder-padded plot about four ballsy dames who do a good deal of inventive and enjoyable squelching in between editing magazines and choosing curtains for grand chateaux. Lace, first published in 1982, sold three million copies and showed a startled publishing industry that ladies would pay good money to read about high fashion feminists who enjoyed having goldfish inserted in their bits.
‘It’s been called a feminist tract and of course it is,’ says the author. ‘But I didn’t do that consciously. It’s what I thought. It’s a big sponge filled with feminist dos and don’ts.’
Thirty years later and everyone in the world is reading, or ostentatiously not reading, Fifty Shades of Grey. Conran, 79, was not impressed. ‘It needs a good editor. I went to sleep by page 300.’ It takes forever to get to the juicy stuff – ‘200 pages before the heroine gets spanked on the behind’, and is inaccurate. ‘A professional dominatrix does not do physical sex with his or her client and only the client has a climax.
‘The basic plot is Cinderella, plus sanitised sex. Nobody in Fifty Shades of Grey ever has to sleep on the damp patch.’
The wild success of Fifty Shades – sales of 31 million worldwide and counting – shows that women still want to read about sex. Sex with a sharply-cheekboned gazillionaire in clean Calvin Kleins (none of EL James' characters ever wear a generic garment when there is an aspirational branded alternative). It is lifestyle porn as much as start-me-up porn; James' genius has been to bind the two together with a plastic cable tie (which, as every kinkster knows, can leave a nasty scar).
Lace was doing this 30 years ago and it has set the blueprint for what gets women hot and bothered ever since. ‘We were all fed up of the details in male fiction, what kind of gun James Bond uses, what its special features might be. So women turned to wardrobe for detail. I have always thought there was a market for porn in haute couture.’
Conran is not convinced of the traditional argument, that women are aroused by words and men by pictures. ‘I think women are. I’m a visual person.’ (She went to art school and worked as a textile designer.) ‘I just don’t think we’ve got the right pictures yet.’
Secret Diary of a Call Girl, starring Billie Piper, is the nearest that TV has got to getting it right. Anaïs Nin’s fiction is her only wholehearted recommendation; trying to think of others, all she could come up with are ‘not very good 18th century novels with women pretending to be virgins by hiding vials of cow’s blood in their bed posts to sprinkle on the sheets.’
Although their body fluids are absent from the texts, she reckons Messrs Darcy and Rochester are pretty hard to beat. ‘Erotica is intended to fire you up, which is not what Ms Austen and Ms Brontë may have intended but they did it, because they wrote passionately. I suppose because the alternative at the time was knitting or embroidery.’
Neither of which appeal to Conran, who runs two companies and is currently reworking all of her back catalogue for Canongate. (Next up, Savages. Roar!) Her days of writing new fiction are over. She has no regrets about this: ‘Writing sex scenes doesn’t make me feel sexy. I’m too busy wondering where his left leg is.’
Lace will be published by Canongate, Wed 2 Aug, £7.99, to mark the book’s 30th anniversary.