It seems to be the offspring of the trend for literary mashups from a few years ago (Sense and Sensibility and Sea-Monsters, anyone?), and publishers’ desperate hunt for anything that can take Fifty Shades of Grey’s place in our collective masturbatory fantasies, if not its position in the Amazon charts.
I passed the book around to my friends to see what they thought of it as a premise – wouldn’t you? – and the general consensus seemed to be that this had to be a joke.
But the book exists. It’s surprisingly hard to tell how it’s being pitched – in a piece Spector wrote for the Huffington Post, she says that the book came from her “sordid sense of humour and feminist wrath”, and the “smutty thinking” that the original book inspired. The problem is that the book isn’t funny, and the sex scenes are awkward:
“’On your stomach,’ he said, scooping her up by the hips as if she weighed no more than a doll, and plopping her onto her belly. Within a moment, he was back inside of her, plowing rigorously away. This was less thrilling for the inside of her vagina, but the weight of him upon her mashed the front of her pussy into the mattress so that, in a position familiar to her from her lonely nights, her clitoris was stimulated.”
Now, this is not your standard bad sex-by-numbers (although that’s certainly here, too – earlier in Rosemary’s first sexual encounter, we are told that the pain of her hymen breaking “miraculously” starts to “melt away” as Dorian thrusts), but it’s not particularly interesting. It’s certainly not more absurd than the sex in Fifty Shades of Grey.
Possibly the most famous work of queer literature in the English canon becomes a clunky story full of vaguely scandalous heterosexual coupling... Because of this, and because it is part of a longer section mostly made up of very standard erotica, it is impossible to read it as satire.
Both attempts at erotica are funny, but they do not read as if they are supposed to be funny (although Spector is slightly more knowing).
I’m not sure where Spector thinks her “sordid sense of humour” manifests in this book. If anywhere, it’s mostly in the premise, because it’s nowhere to be found in her writing.
Another problem is that, of Wilde’s original characters, Basil has become Rosemary, and Henry Wotton has become Helen (although Henry still exists as her adulterous husband, fucking his mistress in the background somewhere).
Possibly the most famous work of queer literature in the English canon (a book cited as evidence in Wilde’s trial for “gross indecency”; a book censored on publication, that has only recently been published as Wilde originally wrote it; a book powerful largely because Basil’s desire is entirely repressed and Dorian’s not at all) becomes a clunky story full of vaguely scandalous heterosexual coupling. All of the sexual tension is resolved, and there is no subtext left. All is expunged.
There is also a harrowing rape scene involving Sibyl, the young actress whom Dorian has a brief flirtation with. It is written in the same way that the sex scenes in the book are. It reads as if it’s been written to titillate.
The blurb of the book crows that it is “hotter, lewder, sexier, steamier and more morally corrupt than (the) original story!” In the original book, of course, Sibyl kills herself after Dorian breaks off their engagement.
He does not physically make her do anything, and we do not see the act in any detail. Here we are not allowed to look away. When the blurb talks of the story as being “morally corrupt” in the same breath that it boasts of its steaminess, it is talking about rape.
In the preface to Wilde’s original, he famously comments, “There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.”
But, of course, for all that this is a charming quotation, The Picture of Dorian Gray is a profoundly moral book. This story basically has the same plot, as you may have gathered – but it lacks the force. In the original, Dorian regrets Sibyl’s death – here, we never hear of her again.
The book revels too much in what it sees as its own wickedness, and by the end is just following the plot of the original because it’s there. It doesn’t do anything clever, it’s certainly not feminist, and it’s not well-written either.
Fifty Shades of Dorian Gray was published by Piatkus on 2nd January and is available in paperback from Foyles, Amazon, and your local independent bookshop, priced at £7.99. A Kindle version is also available, priced at £4.49.
Recommended for: People who thought Wilde’s original was too subtle.