Naughty Books

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Reviewed by: Jane Fae

Naughty Books
"It's a little bit of an eye-opener and, if you have not considered this issue before, it will provide you with new perspective and new insights into a topic not much explored in the mainstream."

Naughty Books is a film that delivers precisely on the premise of its title. Who is writing 'naughty books'? Why? How do they feel about being known as a writer of smut? And what effect has it had on their lives?

Bottom line: everything you wanted to know about the emergence of a new, woman-centred, self publishing movement but were afraid to ask. It begins with the obligatory image of po-faced dogmatism, decrying Fifty Shades as not a feminist work.

Copy picture

Then it is on to the authors. A procession of ordinary, everyday women who, if you met them down at the supermarket, you’d pigeonhole as mums and home makers…before dismissing them and their opinions as being of no value to cultural discourse. Because we do. Always, the prevailing assumption is that the opinions of women, once with child and settled into their traditional role as nurturer, cease to matter.

It is an interesting view in the sense that it is the place where right-wing and Christian politics join hands with a particular form of elitist feminism. Want to be a real woman? Then get out on to the street and get political. And none of this equally important, necessary, grassroots empowerment.

Because there is a certain consistency to the narratives on display in Naughty Books. There is prejudice against self-publishing, once regarded as “vanity project”. Perhaps it once was. Not so, any more. For the internet means that almost anyone who wants to write is doing so online through social media and blogging and the ability to publish digitally makes it that much easier for them to connect with their audience.

Equally, though, the success of so many of the women writing this sort of material tells us something else. How limiting is mainstream publishing, not just in terms of what it will allow to be published, but also in terms of what it tells aspiring authors is publishable?

Almost without exception, the women authors interviewed for this film tell tales of multiple rejection, sometimes patronising in the extreme, by the publishing establishment. And then they go on to success, selling tens, hundreds, even thousands of thousands (aka millions!).

In parallel to this practical empowerment, providing a platform to women who in a previous age might never have found such is a secondary theme: sexual empowerment. Author after author talks about how they were brought up to view sex as shameful, limited: male-centred. Because still there, at the heart of most man-authored smut, is a focus on male pleasure, male release - and though there are frequent descriptions of women having sex, the perspective lacks a certain verisimilitude.

These are men’s ideas about what turns women on. Again, the authors talk about how they were left puzzled, frustrated, unsatisfied by the mainstream. PD James and Fifty Shades was the game changer. Since this is not a film about that particular phenomenon, little gets said of it in this film: though Kate Roiphe and Gail Dines pop up (very briefly) to put a counter-view.

Here at Eye For Film we have examined this before. The sniffiness, holier-than-thouness targeted at a film that was “not what women wanted” and then, when it turned out it was, dismissed because it only appealed to inconsequential, ordinary women.

As such, Naughty Books is a worthy film. It's a little bit of an eye-opener and, if you have not considered this issue before, it will provide you with new perspective and new insights into a topic not much explored in the mainstream.

Sadly, while that is a plus – and a very good reason to watch it, listen to it – it is not especially attractive in a film. That is a common failing of documentaries where the focus is on revealing the inner workings of a community. Doubly so here where there is next to no counter, no conflicting view. Naughty Books is essentially an hour and twenty of women talking about how they have found success in publishing. Publishing, though, is words on a page - so other than talking heads talking about their books, there is not much to show. Occasionally we get readings from books. But sanitised. Because presumably this documentary is aimed at a family audience. A little incident crops up, occasionally, as the reaction of former (male) partners injects itself into the narrative. But not much.

So the key here is listening. Almost without exception the women interviewed are interesting, insightful and have much to say about publishing, erotica, and women’s representation in the creative arts. The words are good. Still, they are words and it is not a positive that this film can be followed almost entirely with the pictures off and playing as soundtrack in the background.

In the end, that is a shame, albeit perhaps inevitable given the subject matter. Definitely worth a listen. Which is not an ideal end to a review of a film.


Naughty Books will be available to purchase or rent on 6 October.

Reviewed on: 02 Oct 2020
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A documentary about the boom of self-published romance novels in the wake of Fifty Shades of Grey.

Director: Austen Eleanore Rachlis

Starring: Austen Eleanore Rachlis, Kelli Maine, CJ Roberts, Kirsten Proby

Year: 2020

Runtime: 82 minutes

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