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.)
- oh my
- holy cow
- holy shit
- holy crap
- holy hell
- holy fuck
- my inner goddess
- it’s driving me insane
- tipping me over the precipice
- craving release
- oh, please
- it’s too erotic
- splinter into a million pieces
- coming apart at the seams, like the spin cycle on a washing machine, wow [nice simile, wow!]
- hooded eyes
- I’m naked for heaven’s sake
- he’s naked
- his gaze is scorching molten gray
- What’s he going to do to me now?
- I can take you places you don’t even know exist
- the intense, burning, sexy look
- vanilla sex
- I thought it was chocolate fudge brownie sex that we had, with a cherry on the top [metaphor, wow!]
- everything ignites
- The Red Room of Pain
- 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?
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.