May 16, 2012

Fifty Shades of Grey

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If you haven't heard of Fifty Shades of Grey yet, you may be living under a rock.  I first heard about this book several months ago.  It's a breakout hit from a new author who originally conceived the story as Twilight fanfiction, and it's become seriously popular with women all over the world.  It came up for discussion as a choice for my book club, and we'll be discussing it at our May meeting ths weekend.  It's an easy read, I finished it in probably five hours or less, and read the entire first half in one sitting.  Here are my thoughts on what's become the most talked about book of 2012.  This entry contains spoilers, so if you haven't finished the series and don't want to know some of the details, come back after you've read all three books!  Also, it's long... sorry about that.  But I have stuff to say!

The Popularity

First and foremost, I don't quite understand why this book has taken off like it has.  It's all over the media, inspiring parodies, SNL skits, and terrible 50 Shades jewelry on Etsy.  The writing is pretty abominable (more on that later).  It reads like fanfiction or an online erotic story, not like a novel that's been through stages and stages of editing and been rewritten and refined (though I did see some excerpts from the original story, Master of the Universe, and they were actually worse).  At that, I have read both fanfiction and erotic fiction that are much more well written with no professional editing.  After I finished it, I began reading some articles online, and one of them that focused on the genre of fanfiction said some of what I was thinking.

Sonia Bolasco, in her article On Fan Fiction, Open Secrets, and Shades of Gray, says:
"If you don’t know what Fifty Shades of Grey is, I’ll enlighten you. It’s a novel that began as a piece of Twilight fan fiction and became a best-selling phenomenon. It’s a romance, I guess, about a mysterious man and a woman who falls for him. As far as I can tell, without having read any of it, it’s mostly about sex. They have a lot of kinky sex, tie-me-up and hit me sort of sex? And people like to read it, especially – according to the media – women.

Do you ever have what I like to call a hipster moment? Like, when you realize you’ve known about something forever and the rest of the world has just discovered it? This is how I felt reading Entertainment Weekly’s article about Fifty Shades of Gray. There seems to be a lot of tittering and blushing going on in the media about this book, with the undercurrent of oh my, women like to read about kinky sex? What is this madness? I know, right? It’s insanity. The next thing you know women will be enjoying sex too, and then what will we do? THE WORLD WILL END.

The slightly quieter but ever-present element of this debate is also: Fan fiction! What is this fan fiction?! As if author E L James was the first person on earth to think: Hey, I like that story and those characters, I think I’ll write one of my own where things go a little differently! In this case I guess the Bella and Edward-inspired characters have more sex of the BDSM variety, though from my impressions of the actual Twilight saga, that’s not that far off from what those of us in fandom call “canon,” or the original source material."
So, what IS it about this book that has women all riled up?  Is is the fact that they have never read erotic fiction before?  I've read erotic fiction, both in books and online, I've read romance novels that border on erotica, and I've read Laurell K. Hamilton.  It does occur to me, however, that a lot of women have never read anything close to this explicit before.  Which is too bad, because it can be a lot of fun.  I hope that maybe in reading this, women will realize that there is a whole other world out there they might want to explore.

Maybe another part of the appeal is that you can read this, and have the excuse that it's been everywhere and EVERYONE is reading it.  A lot of women would never, ever pick up a prince charming romance novel, or even venture into the romance section of a boostore.  Here, they can get their romance novel without admitting it.  Indulge in their fantasies without feeling quite as silly as they would picking up a Harlequin novel.

For me, part of the appeal WAS it's popularity.  I am really interested in both books and pop culture, so when this thing took off... it was inevitable that I would read it.  Even if the topic didn't interest me, I find a value in reading a book or watching a movie that is getting so much attention and has become important in the media.

The Writing

To put it bluntly, the writing is terrible.  I consider myself a writer, and I am hard on myself a lot of the time, but I feel like I could have written this better.  I just don't understand why once this started to take off, it was not put through a better editing and polishing process.  Although I guess it doesn't really matter since it's managed to become this popular even with the writing the way it is. 

In an interview in EW April 6, "The stuff she wrote before FIFTY SHADES was, by her own admission, "terrible. But I thought it was God's gift! I just had to sit down and get it out of me."  They refer to it as Fifty's "rough literary style" but I would disagree with using the word "literary" to describe these books at all.  There is a difference between writing in a rough style on purpose and just not being that great a writer.
The dialogue includes a lot of repetition of phrases, and has Christian Grey talking as if he is about 80 years old a lot of the time.  This is one of the places we run into the problem of this story having started off as fanfiction - speaking in a dated way would make sense for Edward Cullen, he has been around for a while.  But for a modern day 27 year old man?  Not so much.  Beyond the dialogue, there were a few huge sticking points for me...

If I had to hear Ana inaccurately talk about her subconcsious one more time, I thought I was going to stick a fork in my eye.  She constantly refers to her subconscious with sentences like "Maybe he thinks you haven't woken up yet, my subconscious whines at me in a sneering mood again."  Or this particular gem, "Stop! Stop Now! - My subconscious metaphorically screaming at me, arms folded, leaning on one leg and tapping her foot in frustration."  I could have done without ANY of her subcinscious OR her 'inner goddess'. 

First of all, your subconcsious is called that because it's something you are not conscious of.  I could not get past the fact that James was using Ana's subconscious as another full on character in the story.  To me, it just felt like a lazy way to write what Ana was thinking or feeling without being more descriptive or thinking of a better way to show those feelings.
I couldn't get past the overuse of the phrase 'fifty shades of grey.'  It happened over and over and over.  In many variations, in Ana's head and out loud in Christian and Ana's dialogue.  It was ridiculously overdone.  You can work the title/theme of your story in without beating the readers over the head with it every two chapters.

Finally, I think the writing was hugely inconsistant in terms of the language James decided to use.  One minute she is writing "oh my: and "I could gaze at him all day, but I have needs - bathroom needs."  Then, next thing you know, she is turning around using literary references to Tess of the D'urbervilles or using words like profligate and saying he is richer than Croesus. Ana thinks about her brain ("My medulla oblongata recalls it's purpose. I breathe...") and at one point in the story, James refers to Ixion's wheel...  I am not ashamed to admit I had to look that one up, and in a book like this?  There shouldn't be analogies and language the average adult can't understand.

Then there are things that are just... weird.  Like at one point she randomly refers to Christian as Bluebeard for a few pages... what?  I don't get it.  Then she describes his S&M cave as "womb-like."  At one point, James mentions fond memories of playing snooker on the billiard table, which makes no sense because no one in the US even knows what snooker is.  I realize that's not a huge thing, but I get really bugged by things like that because it would have been so easy to fix.

Details are lacking in some areas, and overabundant in others - Ana loves "Twinings English Breakfast" tea, and it comes up several times that it's her favorite.  I'm not sure why that detail is so important, it's not an artisan tea or anything, they sell it at Walmart.  She randomly inserts this gem to remind us they're in Seattle: "...reach into the glove box and retrieve the baseball caps. The Mariners. He likes baseball." and namechecks Voodoo Donuts in Portland.  These details are only going to connect with people who are from the Pacific Northwest.  The Esacala is a real condo building in Seattle, but I only know that because I saw an article about it, and I live 2 hours from there.

The Story

When it all comes down to it, the actual story and plot don't vary that much from either Twilight or from a run of the mill romance novel or chick lit book.  In one scene from the first book, Ana is almsot plowed down by a bicycle, and the similarity to the scene where Edward rescues Bella from being crushed by a car is ridiculous.

I found a couple of huge problems with the story.  The first is Christian's wealth and empire.  His wealth at such a young age makes sense for Edward, since he was not actually young, but not so much for a human that young.  In book 2 he enlightens her that he makes $100,000 an hour... how?
Also related to the business side of things, Ana continuously questions Christian about situations that arise in his business.  This made no sense to me.  For one thing, he is a businessman and she is young, naive, and far from a businessperson.  Yet she continues to a. question him about his affairs as if he should be telling her everything and b. get upset when she doesn't understand everything he's doing.  I didn't get that at all.  In the 3rd book she wonders why she didn't know he has business with people in Taiwan, but a better question would be why WOULD she know?

As  I got into the second book, the story developed more and I felt that the plotline got more interesting.  However, I also felt that things moved way, way too fast.  With Twilight, at least it took place over a year or more.  At the end of the second book, Ana is saying yes to moving in with Christian, then to marrying him... after, what, a month?  When they get back from their honeymoon, they have only been together for three months.  It's just too unrealistic.  I know that the story is told without gaps in time, but sometimes gaps in time can make a story better.

There were also inconsistencies in the story that I felt were just... sloppy.  For example, about 100 pages into the third book they have a conversation in which Ana says that "of course" she has made out with other guys.  She won't tell him with who, and she starts to say "Well, the first time..." and he interrupts and you can guess where it goes.  I thought she had never kissed anyone before and was left confused by the whole scene. 

In the 3rd book she finally starts to get things - like that sex is his coping mechanism.  She doesn't see it before that largely due to her complete obliviousness to the world (see next section). 

I saw Ana's pregnancy in the third book coming from a mile away.  Why else would James have put such a freakisly huge emphasis on Ana's birth control throughout the two other books?  Every time they had sex she had to mention the 'foil packet' of the condom.  On a side note, when she gets pregnant, the dr. says "Looks like the shot ran out early.  Oh well, that happens sometimes."  WHAT DO YOU MEAN OH WELL?  If my doctor said that to me, I might punch them in the nose.  It just happens sometimes?! 
 
The Characters

Ana

I read Twilight.  I get that Bella was naive, so James made Ana naive.  However, I did not feel that it was realistic that someone could be THAT sheltered and unaware of the world around them.  Really?  You've never held hands or kissed a boy or masturbated?  And didn't seem to grow up in a particularly oppressive or religious home?  How does that work?  It just seems cliche and not real.  Especially since she claims to have never WANTED to kiss anyone. 

I know that there is the rare person out there who doesn't kiss before they get married, but it's just that - rare.  And it seems that most of the time it's a result of a strictly religious or sheltered upbringing, not a normal childhood which includes her mother having four different husbands.  She claims never to have felt desire before, which is just ridiculous.  I don't believe there is a single girl out there who goes through puberty without liking a boy or dreaming about her first kiss or feeling SOME glint of desire.  Ana feels naught using his toothbrush and is shocked when he puts on his jeans without underwear despite the dirty sex they just had.  It got old.

Her naivetai extends far beyond men and sex though.  When Christian gives her the laptop and she opens it, she thinks, "I have an email address?"  Really?  She didn't use email at college?  She says she doesn't want or need a computer indefinitely... what?  Honestly, there is no way you could get through college in 2012 (or even in 2001, which is when I was in college) without using a computer extensively and having an email address set up.  I'm pretty sure I don't even know anyone who doesn't own a computer, even if they don't use it that much.  It is a necessity.  Ana is interested in the world of publishing, so she's on a track to go into a business work environment.

I found her naivetai regarding Christian's past disappointing as well.  Ana doesn't glean a thing from his obvious issues with food.  She never suspects that he might have gone hungry?  As you get into the second book, she finds out more about his past, and she is shocked that his sadism has anything to do with his abusive mother.  Really?  I can't believe that she could possibly be SO naive.  Example:

"You know I don't like talking about all that shit. It's done. Fishished," he says quietly.
No, Christian, it isn't. The thought saddens me, and for the first time I wonder if it will ever be finished."

It takes her until 50 pages into the 3rd book to finally come to this.

I found myself annoyed with Ana for constantly fighting against his gifts. I know that it can be hard to accept gifts when you're not use to it, but this guy is basically that tophat guy from Monopoly.  Or Daddy Warbucks.  In other words, these things are like chump change, so why get mad about him buying you a gift?  She gets pissed when he upgrades her to first class... really??

The most grating thing to me about Ana may have been how she was constantly doing things that she KNEW were going to make him mad, but then acting surprised when he actually was mad.  Okay, listen.  Either you're making him mad on purpose, or you are just that stupid.  It's like she doesn't ever think ahead by two seconds or bother to consider his feelings about anything.  She acts like a selfish child who can't be honest with her partner, doing things like deciding to 'defy him' by going out for drinks, but not bothering to tell him, then acting surprised when he gets upset even though she knows how controlling he is.  I can't believe someone could continue to be that unthoughtful or naive when they're spending 24/7 with the other person.

When she finds out she is pregnant, she is not sure whether she is allowed to drink alcohol anymore or not.  I think the thing that bothers me most about all of this is that she is supposed to be written as a self-assured, strong female who stands up for herself... But she doesn't pay attention to the world she lives in, and to me, I don't think you can be strong without being aware. 

Christian

Ana wasn't the only character I had problems with in this story.  Christian was inconsistantly written as a character.  He is supposed to be cool and hard, yet he keeps referring to  Ana as 'baby.'  It just didn't fit with his character at all.  He also continuously refers to his mother as "the crack whore."  I don't buy that at all.  I totally buy the idea that he could hate his birth mother, that she hurt him and that it was an awful time in his life.  But I can't actually think of a single situation where someone would continuously use those words to describe the mother that they hated.  I could see not using her name, or not referring to her at all, but this was just over the top and it really bothered me.  Especially since he goes to extensive therapy, and I feel like that's an issue his therapist would have addressed after the 10th or 20th time Christian had referred to her as such during a session.

More than halfway through the 3rd book, he finally realizes that his relationship with Mrs. Robinson was bad for him.  This is a good thing... but at the same time I don't see how he can be seeing a therapist (who is presumably highly expensive and educated and well lauded) and not have figured this out after years and years of talking about it.

Christian's character is developed more in the last 2 books, and he comes out a bit more fleshed out.  He's supposed to be smoking hot, and a little control can be a turn on.  But in an article on CafeStir, Maressa Brown voices something I thought too:
"Although Christian is ultimately a three-dimensonal, sympathetic character, he's also described repetitively as mercurial. Ana can't keep up with his ever-changing moods that blow breathtakingly hot to bone-chillingly cold. At least through most of the first book, Fifty's mysterious nature and hair-trigger mood swings have Anastasia walking on eggshells, petrified that he's going to snap. And this is somehow supposed to be ... sexy as hell?
I'm sorry, but what a crap message to send women!"
The problem is, Christian is kind of an asshole.  I know a lot of romance novels start out this way - guys is closed off and has a temper, but it turns out there's a legit reason for it.  That doesn't make it okay that he's being an asshole in the first place, and we end up with another "woman fixing man" story.  And I don't know about you, but I've learned that in real life?  You can't fix/change a man, only they can do it for themselves.

The Sex

Let's get into the real reason women are devouring these books, shall we?  I struggled a lot with the sexual aspect of the book, but not because I didn't like it.  Some of the sex was hot, I'm not denying that. The first time Christian pushed Ana up against the wall in the elevator I felt that little flutter. The problem is, by the end of the first book, the ratio of story to sex scenes was so out of balance.  I felt like I was becoming desensitized, in fact I started to skim through the sex scenes instead of reading every word.  The problem continued into the second book. 

I think that one of the reasons that these books have been so popular is because of the BDSM element to some of the sex.  I did think that the erotic scenes exploring Christian's dominance and Ana's limits were the best ones.  When it came to the 'vanilla' sex, it seemed to me that the hottest part of the sex scenes was the beginning- he pushes her up against the wall of the elevator and kisses her, he bends her over the piano.  It was best when it was unexpected and he wanted her so much, because that's a part of the fantasy - what woman doesn't want a man to desire her that much?  But it was the day-to-day normal sex that became way too plentiful to the point of me not even caring anymore.

I was also disappointed that the reason behind all of his behavior turned out to be that he was abused as a young child.  Why?  Because it just makes it so that the BDSM stuff meant that Christian is messed up/broken and not really doing what he wants, but what he's compelled to do because he's fucked up.  I would have liked the story better at face value if he was more normal and just had these preferences because I feel that would have been a better introduction into this world for all the women reading these books. 

I do understand that people who are truly sadists - which it turns out that Christian did struggle with - often have abuse in their pasts.  However, I found myself wishing that there could be a more realistic portrayal of the more common BDSM relationships that exist.  In the third book at one point he tells her he wants to punish her and "really beat the shit out" of her, and I felt like that was the first time we really get a peek at how he truly has sadistic thoughts beyond a playful dominant submissive situation.  I just don't like it being both ways - for two books it comes off as a preference, then suddenly he is coming off as really wanting to hurt her, and it rubbed me the wrong way.

In the EW article I mentioned above, they talked to a professional:
"Not everyone is charmed by the sex in Fifty, either. Some believe Ana and Christian have an abusive relationship that misrepresents BDSM sex play.  He tells her when to eat, he stals her and goes into jealous rages every time she's talking to her male friends. I'm like, that has nothing to do with BDSM. That's just a good old-fashioned abuseive, controlling boyfriend," says sexologist Jill McDevitt, owner of the feminist sex show Feminique Boutique, in West Chester, PA.
This is part of my problem.  Ana is turned on by him, but also continues to do things she is clearly uncomfortable with, ultimately culmiating in letting him actually hurt her then turning around and blaming him then running away. I feel that this is giving people the wrong idea about real D/S relationships, which are build around mutual desire, trust, and respect. At one point, he is telling her that this type of relationship is built on trust and that it won't work unless he knows that she trusts him... but they just met, she's naive, and he springs all of this on her. Why SHOULD she trust him?  This is part of my problem with the story moving so fast, and of Christian trying to enter into a contract with someone who not only has never heard of this world, but has never even kissed a boy.

Beyond the issues behind the sex itself, the actual erotic writing was full of language I just couldn't take. If you're going to write erotica, much less bondage erotica, please, please learn to use words other than "behind" or "backside" or "down there." Stop talking about a sexy man's "happy, happy trail" or "oh-so-happy trail."  It seemed like James couldn't decide if this was romance novel fluff with throbbing members and velvet caves, or hard core sex.  She describes an orgasm as "pushing me higher, going to the castle in the air" and then turns around and they talk about butt plugs and fisting. Is this hardcore, or not?  It was muddled and confused.

Not only that, but Ana's ability to climax constantly seemed unrealistic.  Her roomate Kate says "yeah, took almost a year to have my first orgasm through penetrative sex and here you are... first time?"  Really?  Because I'm pretty sure it takes the majority of women years, or it never happens at all.  That is so far removed from most women, as is the fact that multiple times she reaches orgasm just by having her nipples played with.  On top of that, every time they have sex Ana climaxes first, then Christian climaxes immediately after... that is just not the way it usually happens.  Not only was it unrealistic, but it got old having every single sex scene end the same exact way... how about a little variety?  I suppose maybe this is all part of the fantasy, but part of a good fantasy is relatability, and I'd venture to say those things are not relatable to a significant portion of the female population.

It bothered me how he was always constantly telling her to keep still and be quiet while they were having sex.  Perhaps that is part of the fantasy too, but like a lot of things in the story, it was just SO overdone.

The Worst of It

I could not stop myself from bookmarking some of the worst pieces of writing as I read, so here they are.  I can't help it.

"Next, I set up the mini disc recorder and am all fingers and thumbs, dropping it twice on the coffee table in front of me."  Isn't everyone always all fingers and thumbs?  Wouldn't it have made more sense to say all thumbs?

"Ray is a skilled carpenter and the reason I know the difference between a hawk and a handsaw."

"Portland disappears in front of us as we head into US airspace..."

"His voice is warm and husky like dark melted chocolate fudge caramel... or something."

"...and I don't know if I'm running toward something or away from it... it's just not clear."

On several occasions, he feeds her wine. By putting it in his mouth and basically spitting it into hers. EW.  Also, it wouldn't be cool and crisp after having been in his mouth.

I don't even know what to do with this: "Weirdly, all the wood, dark walls, moodly lighting and oxblood leather makes the room kind of soft and romantic... I know it's anything but; this is Christian's version of soft and romantic."  Not really...

"His pants hang from his hips, in that way... oh my..."

"I close my eyes and surrender to his oh-so-adroit tongue."

"My subconscious loos up from her book - The Complete Works of Charles Dickens, Vol. 1 - with alarm."

"Damage report? Argon? It rings a distant bell from chemistry class - an element, I think."

"My inner goddess is celebrating her inner bitch."

One word:  tampon.  If you've read it, you know what I mean.  WHAT THE...?  How is that necessary??

Also, I would now like to ban the following words/phrases:
  • oh my
  • just-fucked hair
  • quirks up (as in, he "quirks up his lip at me")
  • smirk
  • laters, baby
  • calling your spouse 'mr. lastname' or 'mrs. lastname'
  • Mr. Mercurial
  • twitchy palm
  • kinky fuckery

Final Thoughts

Yes, I thought it was poorly written.  Yes, the main characters grated on my nerves.  Yet, I continued to read, finishing all three books within a week.  Obviously, there was something there pulling me in to the story.  In the end, it's just a romance novel - the classic fantasy of a rich man sweeping you up and giving you everything. It's a Cinderella story, and one I'd say most women have dreamed about or fantasized about at one point or another.  I like romantic movies, this is basically the equivalent, with a little kink thrown in.  I liked the story okay, but I LOVE books with really, actually strong female characters and that was not this.

If you're curious about it, why not read it?  It's not going to take up that much of your time.  If you need some inspiration for your daydreams about meeting a rich man and being swept away, this could work.  But if you are only interested because of the erotic element, why not just go to the erotic fiction section of your bookstore, or if you're not ready for that, try literotica.com...  You'll find fiction that's better written and just as hot.

Now, you've read enough. Enjoy this video of the SNL skit.

6 comments :

Shana Dumblond said...

Ugh. Thank you. You have justified my decision to stay away from that book. As soon as I heard it started out as Twilight fan fiction...oh hell no. I have a problem with the regular series (even though I read all the books) and I have yet to read ANY fan-fic that was good. 
I'm sorry you had to read the books and then dwell on them long enough to write about them but take some solace from the fact that you are encouraging others to find BETTER racy novels.

Mecca said...

Rachael,
I stumbled upon your blog and am so glad I did! I was laughing out loud while reading this post.  I especially love that you are able to critique the book (it is awful writing) but then freely admit that you read all three! I look forward to reading more from you!

Beth G said...

You nailed it.  You just forgot one phrase that practically had me pulling my hair out - "Jeez"

Nicki Ditch said...

I have not read the book and I only started hearing about it a week ago.  I know. I live in a bubble.  I started to think that so many people were talking about it, it was a sin that I have not read it yet.  Thank you for this post!  I no longer think I am missing that much!  The bad writing would have put me over the edge.  And the SNL skit?  OMG!!!!  Thanks for the laugh!!!!!

Lrsinspired said...

Lots to consider. Several things I agree, but some a see differently. Guess you might find it funny that I'm routinely called Mrs. S
Looking forward to discussion...

Sophie said...

You took the words right out of my mouth. I wished you had written this review before I read the books. The only thing I like about this series is the email conversations. I though it was clever enough, especially the email headings.

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