Neither porn nor romance

GREY — The Juliette Society

Just popping in [as a reward to myself for having slogged through Responsible Adult Duties the past couple of days and] to finally get to say something about The Juliette Society. That is: I enjoyed it immensely, admittedly more than I thought I would. Sure, I’d been curious since news first broke out, wondering how Sasha Grey (who’d styled herself as this fiercely intelligent, utterly self-aware girl whose chip on her shoulder is that she just happened to be one of the most recognizable names in the adult entertainment industry) would read. Curiosity turned into immediate (and lasting) infatuation—I was taken by the rightness of its voice, was charmed by the awkwardness in its very earnestness. I crushed real hard on The Juliette Society.

I’d wondered, though, about its generally poor reception. When I’d resolved to buy the book, the readerly Internet warned me that it was terrible. I was told that Sasha Grey could not write—this after I’d finally read the book and thought precisely, admiringly that Grey knew what she was doing. And it’s all a misunderstanding, guys.

The common thread in what little reviews I’ve seen [that care to elaborate their pithily dispensed star ratings] is, I’ve noticed, a misconception about what The Juliette Society strove to be. An overwhelming majority labeled it as yet another erotic rehashing of the blight that is Twilight. But it isn’t, it never was, it hardly aimed to be—and so, of course, on that criterion alone, Grey’s debut would fail astoundingly. But, unfortunately, that is what people expect in a landscape that’s fairly littered with Fifty Shades of Grey erotic romance and [even the far, far, far better] variations of it.

But Sasha Grey absolutely did not write an erotic romance in The Juliette Society; it’s more dangerous, for one, and follows more faithfully the tradition of erotica. That is: Grey’s book isn’t a romance with graphic sex scenes, which usually [tediously] involved forays into a poorly conceived BDSM culture. Sasha Grey isn’t a hanger-on of James’ [utterly frustrating] success—I am arguing that Sasha Grey, with The Juliette Society, was writing under the house of Anaïs Nin, even of Pauline Réage.

Its heroine Catherine allows herself to get dragged and pushed and plunged and sent careening though a world she never knew existed—because of frustration, because of curiosity, because of desire—and, later, she gathers all that agency and does something with it. A good cop-out would be for all those things to fall on two different spheres of her life—her more mundane one, and the new untold-joys one that the mysterious and ridiculously sexed up Juliette Society has made accessible for her—but what makes her narrative so damned affecting is that there’s always a duality within each sphere. She’s terribly in love with her boyfriend, and madly lusting over her professor; she’s so intrigued by the sensuality and delightful perversions she’s been given access to, but she balks occasionally and longs for the life she’s always known, the one that’s safe and with its manageable strangeness. And her sensuality—it’s never ridiculous, it’s never unrealistic; she’s a girl of comparatively unremarkable lust made extraordinary by her curiosity. She’s Alice, see? And, while we’re at it: The dreamlike quality that I’ve always noticed in Nin’s works is here, too—that sense of the otherworldly, not least because the world unfolding before you is solely of Sex indulged and celebrated and suffered and unabashedly enjoyed, isn’t that the oddest, most unheard of thing?—that fever dream, the exhilaration of going after something you know you’re going to get because you’ve never had that kind of freedom before, and who are you to waste this chance? It’s about a fantasy-made-real that credibly coexists with real life, is what The Juliette Society is—and not, no, never an unwieldy, courtly, sexed up daydream.

I have read enough erotica and erotic romance [screamed her black, perverted heart] to recognize them, and to feel fairly confident what’s bad and what’s not, and according to the parameters of each genre. And: The Juliette Society is competent, if a bit solipsistic, erotica at its worst—and it’s damned good erotica—dangerous and exhilarating and awkward and ridiculous and earnest and charming and so very smart—when you’re me. In a landscape where hyper-sexed courtliness has trended and reigned and remains chugging along, Grey’s discomfiting and utterly un-romantic novel cuts. And it’s exciting.

7 thoughts on “Neither porn nor romance

  1. Thank you so much for posting, this seems like a fantastic book! I must admit what intrigues me the most is the dreamlike atmosphere you described and I find that very humble of the author : erotica really is just the description of a fantasy, made accessible to the reader in this form or another. I think Grey made justice to the genre,by captivating its essence <3

    1. That’s pretty much the crux of my pissiness with the Internet over this book: It’s not a romance, it’s not E.L. James: It’s actually erotica—a little strange, a little hazy, a little dreamlike, a little dangerous, a little unsure of itself, a little disconcerting—all that, all over the sexiness.

  2. I love to read such a great review about it! I saw this book a couple of weeks ago in a bookshop and read the first pages and they instantly raised my curiosity – now it’s definitely on my (oh, so long) tbr-list!


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