Fifty reasons not to read Fifty Shades of Grey (and some alternative suggestions)

Fifty Shades of Grey cover image

This book has sold forty million copies worldwide

First things first. This book doesn’t live up to its hype. It’s not very erotic. Also, the domination-submission theme that has been talked about so much is pretty tame, and practically nothing happens in that realm for hundreds of pages.

But wait—I can hear you thinking, “Well then, why did you read those hundreds of pages?”

I could say that I wanted to learn the secret to writing a bestseller. Or that I was curious about the cultural implications of such a book’s achieving bestseller status in spite of being badly written.

Obviously, there must be something alluring in this book or it wouldn’t have sold zillions of copies in its first week after publication. It does have lots of sex. But does sex = erotic? More on this below.

I’ll admit that the book initially generated a …response in me, but unfortunately this response was nullified by the continual irritation I felt about the writing style. Imagine reading the following words or expressions hundreds of times. (There, you’ve been warned.)

  1. wow
  2. oh my
  3. whoa
  4. holy cow
  5. holy shit
  6. holy crap
  7. holy hell
  8. holy fuck
  9. my inner goddess
  10. it’s driving me insane
  11. tipping me over the precipice
  12. craving release
  13. oh, please
  14. it’s too erotic
  15. mind-blowing
  16. splinter into a million pieces
  17. coming apart at the seams, like the spin cycle on a washing machine, wow [nice simile, wow!]
  18. hooded eyes
  19. I’m naked for heaven’s sake
  20. he’s naked
  21. his gaze is scorching molten gray
  22. What’s he going to do to me now?
  23. whimpering
  24. groaning
  25. I can take you places you don’t even know exist
  26. the intense, burning, sexy look
  27. vanilla sex
  28. I thought it was chocolate fudge brownie sex that we had, with a cherry on the top [metaphor, wow!]
  29. everything ignites
  30. The Red Room of Pain
  31. I want my mom

This list was supposed to contain 50 items but I decided it wasn’t worth my time to search for more.

A friend suggested that my negative reaction to this book smacks of literary elitism and pretentiousness. There may be some truth in that; I do appreciate good literature. Is it wrong of me to criticize Fifty Shades for not meeting the criteria for great literature when it makes no pretense of trying to be such a beast? I have to admit that I’m not familiar with the romance genre at its lowest—say Harlequin Romance—level, but I will admit to thoroughly enjoying some Chick-Lit books, Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding being the best example I can think of.

To me, both movies and books are more erotic when they have a real story, and real characters that I become entranced by. For example, I found the movie The English Patient (adapted from Michael Ondaatje’s book) infinitely more erotic than a porn flick. Is that just because I’m a woman, or because I’m intelligent, or because I’m pretentious, or all of the above?

Cover of Lady Chatterley's Lover

This is a 1959 edition of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, first published in 1928

If you want to get turned on, why not do it with great literature? What about classics like Fanny Hill by John Cleland (published in 1749!) or Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D. H. Lawrence, first published (and banned) in 1928? If you want intimate knowledge of a self-centred but extremely talented woman, read Anaïs Nin’s extensive diaries or one of her erotic fiction books, such as A Spy in the House of Love. For more modern reading, you could sample Nancy Friday’s My Secret Garden if you’re curious about real women’s fantasies. Nicholson Baker is one of my favourite erotic writers, and I have no objection to his being a man. Try Vox or The Fermata.

I shouldn’t be too tough on E. L. James because I’ve been too timid to even try writing good sex scenes myself—it’s a risky business! That’s why there’s a special writing award, the Literary Review’s bad sex in fiction award, given out annually in Britain. In fact, the 2011 award was won by David Guterson (author of the 1994 bestseller Snow Falling on Cedars) for the sex scenes in his latest novel, Ed King. Alison Flood, a journalist writing for The Guardian, notes that Guterson faced “stiff competition” from Haruki Murakami’s hugely popular novel 1Q84, which was cited for the following line: “A freshly made ear and a freshly made vagina look very much alike, Tengo thought.”

(As an aside, I thought 1Q84 was an excellent book. The sex scenes were mostly provocative—odd, yet fascinating.)

However, the Literary Review’s Jonathan Beckman felt Guterson was the “clear winner” for passages such as this one:

In the shower, Ed stood with his hands at the back of his head, like someone just arrested, while she abused him with a bar of soap. After a while he shut his eyes, and Diane, wielding her fingernails now and staring at his face, helped him out with two practiced hands, one squeezing the family jewels, the other vigorous with the soap-and-warm-water treatment. It didn’t take long for the beautiful and perfect Ed King to ejaculate for the fifth time in twelve hours, while looking like Roman public-bath statuary. Then they rinsed, dried, dressed, and went to an expensive restaurant for lunch.

At least these examples of bad sex writing are entertaining in their very atrociousness and uniqueness, unlike the cliché-ridden Fifty Shades of Grey.

(You can read Alison Flood’s article in The Guardian here.)

I have to admit there’s another reason this is such a grouchy review. I’m insanely jealous—of both E. L. James and her heroine, Anastasia Steele. Not only does Anastasia get a steady diet of chocolate-brownie-with-a-cherry-on-top sex from her billionaire boyfriend, but she also gets to fly around with him in his private helicopter and he gives her little trinkets like a new car, priceless rare books, and a complete wardrobe including perfectly fitting sexy lingerie. Even worse than all that, as a newly-minted graduate with an ordinary English degree, Anastasia applies for a plum editing job with a New York City publisher, gets interviewed, and is immediately offered the job!

Sorry, I can’t suspend belief enough to enjoy Anastasia’s story. But E. L. James’s story is a true one: she first published her book as fanfiction on a Twilight website (under the title Master of the Universe). The book got thousands of online reviews before it was flagged for sexual content. James then moved the book to her own website. Next, it was published by a small Australian publisher before being picked up by Random House in the United States and sold under the title Fifty Shades of Grey. In Britain, it’s now the best selling book ever! That really makes me grouchy, because it’s an insult to good writers and readers everywhere. But the author doesn’t have to care about my negative review. Her book has sold forty million copies worldwide and she’s laughing all the way to the bank (I can write clichés too!).

I’m a green-eyed monster, all right.

About nancytinarirunswrites

I used to be known as a competitive runner, but now I have a new life as a professional writer and editor. I'm even more obsessive about reading, writing, and editing than I was about running. Running has had a huge influence on my life, though, and runner's high does fuel creativity. Maybe that's why this blog evolved into being 95% about running, but through blogging I'm also learning about writing and online communication. I'm fascinated by how the Internet has changed work, learning, and relationships. I love to connect in new and random ways!
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3 Responses to Fifty reasons not to read Fifty Shades of Grey (and some alternative suggestions)

  1. Pingback: Nancy Huston’s Infrared wins the Literary Review’s Bad Sex in Fiction Award | NancyRuns&Writes

  2. Caroline Crabtree says:

    Nancy in my opinion you got it 100% in your review of %50 shades. Hated it, was so difficult to read, read it out of curiosity. Horrible, Horrible writing (drove me crazy) and yes it was not erotic; I repeat it was not erotic at all!!

  3. Sangita says:

    I was going to put this on my to read list more out of curiosity.Had a good laugh at your word list and this one is so out now.

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