Going to the Mattresses: Reconsidering the place and purpose of E. L. James’s “Inner Goddess” Journal

So by now, a number of you will have seen and had a good mean-spirited chuckle about the viral Entertainment Weekly news that “Fifty Shades of Grey” writer E. L. James is going to publish a “writing guide.”

People are having a good snicker. “Serious” writers are brutally offended that the Internet abuse-porn fanfic sensation, the writer whose work is oft-described (accurately) as “a derivative Twilight knockoff,” is daring to publish a writing guide. It’s presumptive; it’s arrogant; for many it’s a sign of the Apocalypse. It’s a hallmark of the terrible, beastly, dreadful, howling anti-intellectualism of the Trump age that we will let E. L. James tell us how to write. There’s a war on against intellectualism, against truth & beauty, against good taste. “Letting” E.L. James publish a writing guide is an apocalyptic sign to many that the culture war is ramping up—that it’s time to “go to the mattresses,” to borrow a term from Mario Puzo. That term is triply resonant here, given the between-the-sheets world of Fifty Shades, and also given my operating definition of “mattress poetry” below.

Naturally, much of the scathing sight-unseen criticism of James’s guide is condescending, even bullying: it “punches down,” as they say, and in the world arts & letters there’s no direction more “downward” you can punch than toward E. L. James. I’m sure some of it makes use of some harsh misogyny, too, though I’m tapped for examples at the moment.

In part, I’d like to set the record straight on the “Inner Goddess” journal, and in part, I want people to think seriously about the things we should always think about when we bring critical thinking to bear on writing: we should think critically about what is being produced, and for whom, and why.

For the record, NO. Vintage Books is not publishing a “writing guide” by E. L. James. At least, not in the sense any sane writing professional would think of a writing guide or how-to book. They’re publishing an “inner goddess” journal, a lined but mostly blank book, keyed to E. L. James’s brand, intended for her fanbase, and peppered with tips from James herself to help readers in her demographic unlock themselves through writing.

That’s not the affront or insult to good writing that you think it is. That’s not the travesty against high art that your mean condescending self wants it to be. It’s not a book that’s meant to go toe-to-toe with your beloed, dog-eared copy of Strunk & White, or Stephen King’s On Writing instructo-bio, or even Chuck Wendig’s The Kick-Ass Writer, which I’ll never get tired of plugging.

No, see, some books are on the market for the sole purpose of helping brilliant artists with the entrepreneurial savvy of a doorknob structure their brilliance in a way that’s marketable. Other books are references beloved by professionals because you can lose an agent or book contract by writing “foregone” [went ahead of x, as in a “foregone conclusion”] when you really mean “forgone” [eschewed or made do without x]. This one bothers me because even most online dictionaries get them wrong. It’s as wrong as affect/effect to use the wrong “forgone/foregone.” COME ON, PEOPLE! But I digress. If you are double-checking “forgone/foregone” in a query letter, James’s book is not going to be for you.

There are about 900,000 books in the marketplace (and Chuck Sambuchino has written 45% of them) for the benefit of almost-pro writers who are serious about both honing and monetizing their craft, who write to eat, or to communicate a sublime world or story to an audience, or to advance the Platonic ideal of Truth & Beauty for a generation of readers. These are all great reasons to write. But they’re not the only reasons to write… and they’re no more or less valid than any other reason, and they’re not the motivation behind 99% of the people who will pick up an E. L. James-branded journal.

Do you remember, dear snobby writers, the “mattress poetry” you wrote early in your writer’s life—be it in your angsty high school days, or your experimental college days, or your emo working-in-a-record-store days? Do you remember the awful trash doggerel you churned out in the hackneyed style of every Allen Ginsberg or Sylvia Plath imitator on the planet, or the “dark poetry” you write that really sounded just like Evanescence lyrics, because High-School you wasn’t an 18th-century gentleman, and the only frame of reference you had for the feels you were feeling was the broody music of that Goth bar you snuck into underage? Think back on your mattress poetry. Did you write it as an “experiment in metric form” because you were serious about meticulously honing your mastery of prosody & poetics? Hell no. You couldn’t tell an apostrophe from an epistrophe. You thought epizeuxis was what happened when a Greek god sneezed.

You were neither agonizing over high art nor perfecting a marketable craft. You were just writing to let the feels out. You were writing what you needed to write to process the emotional insanity of adolescence—if not literal adolescence, whatever adolescence you were facing at the time. I call it “mattress poetry” because you hid it under your mattress, never to see the light of day. You would have been mortified then, and would maybe be even more so now, if someone were to actually READ it. It was pure drivel (mine was), but it was intensely personal. It wasn’t important for anyone to read, but it sure was important for you to write, for some reason we can’t explain.

That’s writing. Mattress poetry is writing. It’s definitely its own genre. The secrets we let out of ourselves into a journal like E. L. James’s, with its weirdly symbolic “fifty shades” key on the cover, is not meant for the query circuit. But we write for a thousand sacred reasons; and how arrogant of us who fancy ourselves Serious Writers™ to imagine our best-selling, contract-landing, movie tie-in-ing reasons to be higher or more important than the reasons of a person in E. L. James’s core demographic: that is, a questionably literate person of repressed desires, unable to recognize mechanisms of abuse, who has NEVER BEEN GIVEN THE RIGHT TO SPEAK—and maybe, in that, someone who is waiting to be given the right to have a voice.

We live in a world where Afghan women are literally risking their lives for the right to write and share two-line poems of rebellion called “landays.”  We are living in a world—I think—where we’re starting to realize that the “enlightened” West isn’t necessarily any better about letting women have their Own Voices.

There are a thousand thousand benefits to writing, to being a Writer in any sense of the word, and those should not be monopolized by the people privileged enough to go to university and write at the grammatical standard of Remedial English 099 or better. We live in an age when women are raised to think they need permission to have a voice. We’re living in an age when men are silenced because poetry and writing our feelings aren’t “manly” pursuits like, say, learning to shoot an AR-15. Angry young gun-owning men like Kurt Cobain, empowered to write their little “mattress poems” without mockery, gave us art of real worth in the 1980s and ’90s. But more importantly, they didn’t give us school shootings in anywhere near the same numbers. I’m not saying poetry’s a better answer than gun control. But it’s part of the package of healing. WRITING IS HEALING. And when we confine who gets to write to the “literate,” to the “college-educated,” to the “talented,” we deny people the ability to heal themselves.

We’re all living in mad adolescence now. We’re all bundles of raw nerve endings—overequipped to burden ourselves with feelings. And only the privileged few are given the tools & encouragement to turn their boiling blood into ink on a page before it cooks them alive from the inside. So let E. L. James have her “Inner Goddess” writing-advice journal. Don’t mock it. Don’t be offended by it. Realize that the people who are actually going to buy it are largely voiceless people who need to be given something. They’re the people no one ever, ever writes “how-to-write” books for. And maybe they’re the people who need it the most.

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