I won’t tell you not to read Fifty Shades of Grey and its accompanying sequels, all written by E.L. James. It’s against every grain of my librarian instinct to try to prevent reading, or to shame people over their reading choices. But I can’t keep silent either.
I’m partway through the book – reading it together with a friend – and I feel like there are a few things I have to put out there that have really troubled me as I’ve worked my way through the story. I’m not looking to turn people off the books, but I do hope that anyone who chooses to read them will do so with a bit more critical thought for having heard what I’ve got to say.
1. This is terrible, sloppy, lazy writing (and editing too). I can’t help but be distracted by the incorrect word choices, the weird use of italics in the text, random bursts of ellipses . . . and misspellings any decent editor should be able to catch even before her morning coffee. Worse, the prose is infested with terrible clichés, especially as concerns Christian Grey’s smoldering, smoking, sizzling, blazing eyes. Somebody call the fire marshall on this guy!
2. It can’t live up to its own hype. Too many people are talking about it, brewing up a tempest in a teapot over the depictions of sexuality, dominance, and submissiveness. Are they anti-feminist? Post-feminist? Exploring the brave new world of women’s sexuality? Or just plain obscene and not fit for consumption? Why, I believe I’m coming down with the vapours! Fetch my smelling salts!
Then you crack the cover and find out that you’ll be wading through a hundred pages of painful prose before you even get to the first sex scene. How could it not be a letdown? So far, aside from the dry legal language of Christian’s submissive contract, we’ve yet to see anything kinkier than tying Anastasia’s hands to the bed frame with a necktie. Presumably it goes a little further down the rabbit hole than that – something about a Red Room of Pain, I think? – but it’s sure taking its sweet time to get there. And in a book this badly written, it would really be kinder to just get it over with.
3. It buys into the sexual myth of our society. For a book that’s supposed to be the most daring erotic fiction you can find on the shelves, it’s got a completely unoriginal, uncritical take on all the fictional tropes that tell us what sex is supposed to be like. You’ve got the virginal, innocent, lily-white, never-been-touched virgin, seduced by the handsome and experienced rake-with-a-dark-past. Throw them together, and suddenly you’ve got fireworks. That’s totally unrealistic – and, frankly, it puts a hell of a lot of pressure on men and women both. It perpetuates an ideal that men who are good at sex can produce multiple orgasms in women with absolutely no sexual experience and no idea what they want or like. And for women, it reinforces the heartbreaking expectation that a lifetime of perfect chastity is going to end with the best sex imaginable and the discovery of her latent sexual intuition, by which she will know exactly how to please her partner.
The truth about sex, which gets ignored here, is that everybody is different, and the only way to find out what works is by experimenting. That means the first time usually isn’t like in the movies, virginity does not make you a better sex partner, and there’s no shame in an encounter that’s less than multi-orgasmic. I acknowledge that this is meant to be an erotic confection, not a study in realism, but I still would’ve liked to see some of those sexual fairy-stories at least questioned in a work that’s supposed to be as shocking and taboo-shattering as Fifty Shades.
4. It doesn’t respect its BDSM roots. I can’t say for certain that the author is not into BDSM herself – I haven’t done the research – but the attitude her book expresses towards this realm of human sexuality isn’t exactly enlightened. Ana treats the whole relationship as a dark and shameful secret, not just because it’s got kinky overtones, but because she’s intrigued and actually considering it. More than merely naughty, she treats it as an outright perversion that has to stay hidden. Worse, the story uses a history of sexual abuse as the explanation for Christian’s interest in BDSM, implying that kinky sex is the dark refuge of a damaged person.
A helpful hint for anyone considering a writing career: try not to suggest in your storyline that your whole target audience needs intensive therapy.
5. It isn’t sexy. It tries, but for all kinds of reasons, I just wasn’t getting into it. It takes more than just some sex scenes to make for genuinely sexy reading. Part of it was undoubtedly the clunky prose; for me, that’s a definite turn-off. Part of it was Anastasia’s schoolgirl squeamishness about all things sexual. Part of it is the lack of originality – maybe it’ll improve once we get to the whole “Red Room of Pain” part, but right now it’s the same virgin-ravished-by-charming-rake trope that I got bored with by the tenth grade.
If you want to read some real erotica with dominant/submissive themes, you can find plenty of it for free on the Internet, written by people who are genuinely interested in crafting a good story, capturing interesting characters, setting a sensual mood, or exploring ideas through fiction. If anything good can come out of this, hopefully it’s an expanded market in publishing for writers who put a lot more effort into the craft of telling a sexy story.
Or, if you absolutely have to find out what’s behind the hype, do yourself a favour and find out whether it’s available from your local library before actually laying down your hard-earned money. With this sloppy piece of writing, E. L. James is laughing all the way to the bank.