If you spend any amount of time on the internet, you’ve heard of the wacky publishing phenomenon “Fifty Shades of Grey”, by E.L. James.
According to Wikipedia, Ms. James initially started out writing fanfic online under the pseudonym Snowqueens Icedragon. (Yes, you read that right. No, I’m not making that up.) Enthralled for some reason by Stephanie Meyer’s completely wretched Twilight series, Snowqueens was inspired to write some mildly kinky BDSM fanfic starring Edward and Bella – and Mormons everywhere tossed in their graves in outraged horror.
Not really. But eventually those original fanfic musings written on a goddamn iPhone became a self-published trilogy of dreck that embarrassed ladies could download discreetly to e-readers. References to 50 Shades started cropping up everywhere. It became a sought-after commodity that was traded secretly around book clubs. Eventually conventional publishing caught on, the books because available everywhere, they hit the New York Times bestseller list in March of this year, and rumour has it Ms. James – that’s not her real name either, BTW; her real name is Erika Leonard, her photo is inside the book jacket, and I’ll bet her two kids are damn near dead from embarrassment that this is why they can suddenly live like kings – has been offered upwards of $5 million for the movie rights.
Now, I have been reading erotica off and on since I was a teenager. Some good, some bad. Full disclosure: I lean toward the BDSM side of things, at least in fiction. In real life I find it less appealing, especially as I get older and am more comfortable in my own skin. I impart this not to gross anyone out – sorry to any family members who might be reading this – but so that you’ll understand that 1) I was predisposed to like this and really hoped I would; and 2) so that you don’t think my distaste for the subject matter tainted my opinion of the books as books in any way.
OK! Book 1, 5o Shades of Grey. Sentence one, we find out that the female protagonist’s roommate has an alliterative name, and that our fearless lady is named Anastasia Steele. This… does not bode well. Ana – because even the author realizes early on that “Anastasia” is not a name that can be easily yelled out in the throes of passion, and thus gives her a more practical nickname – is mousy, whiny, down on her appearance, and a totally passive people-pleaser. Oh, and she’s also a 22 year old college graduate who has never been drunk, is still a virgin and has kissed ONE man in her life, and doesn’t have her own computer. This book is set in the present day. SHE DID AN ENGLISH LITERATURE DEGREE. SHE HAS NO COMPUTER. Perhaps she did all of her assignments long-hand? Or using telepathy? (No, she used her roommate’s laptop. For everything. Since my college roommates and I couldn’t even share the TV remote successfully, I’m not sure how this worked).
Through a completely ridiculous plot device, she meets self-made 27 year old gorgeous copper-haired billionaire Christian Grey – and loses me a second time, because the one thing that will kill erotic fiction dead is if the male protagonist has the same name as your little brother. However, this is hardly James’ fault, so I try to put that out of my head and move on. Anyway, he is immediately attracted to her for some reason that is beyond our understanding, and since he is the most singularly perfect
adolescent vampire shirtless werewolf billionaire playboy our sheltered heroine has ever met, she is also attracted to him. Because, and I’m not making this up, she can feel things “down there” when he looks at her a certain way.
I did mention these books were written for adults, right? Right.
Blah blah blah first date blah blah blah. Somewhere in here James introduces the single most foolish characterization in the history of the written word – Anastasia’s inner goddess.
IG shows up so many times I’ve lost count, but it’s at least a hundred over the course of the series – maybe more. IG is some sort of physical manifestation of Ana’s actual desires and internal monologue. The IG does increasingly bizarre and contrived things to illustrate her reactions, up to and including:
- an arabesque
- a tango wearing a long black dress with a rose between her teeth
- smiling, nodding, winking
- wearing half-moon glasses and reading the collected works of Charles Dickens
And these are just the ones I can remember off the top of my head.
The IG becomes more and more intrusive and over the top, making me wonder if the publishing house just printed this thing off as it appeared online, or if the editor was drunk that day. Because I cannot imagine a universe in which anyone – anyone at all – reads the IG conceit and thinks “yeah, this is totally sexy and awesome”.
So Anastasia’s inner goddess twirls around and solves the theory of relativity (kidding), and she gives up her virginity to this jackwad. Her first time she has mind-blowing multi-orgasmic hot sex. We also learn that she has never masturbated, and MY inner goddess throws her hands in the air and leaves. The following morning they have more sex in a bathtub the size of a football field, and it turns out that our sheltered virgin gives the best blowjobs ever – even though she hadn’t heard of them a mere 24 hours earlier. This brings us the totally wonderful and not at all disgusting and yucky observation from Grey – and I’m quoting here “don’t you have a gag reflex?” Turns out I do because that sentence made ME gag and then I had to eat some cookies just to restore my equilibrium.
Anyway, the sex is so hot and killer and stuff that she decides to keep seeing this control-freak weirdo, thus bringing us Chapter Eleven – “The Contract”. And it is literally pages upon pages of a ‘legally-binding’ (heh) contract spelling out everything that will and won’t be allowed should Ana become Christian’s sub. The contract has appendices. There is a non-disclosure agreement that she must sign. The contract spells out ‘soft limits’ and ‘hard limits’, identifies safe words, and is the least sexy thing ever included in a work of erotic fiction.
A word about BDSM. Anyone in the scene will of course tell you that all of these things are important to discuss. Safe words are hugely important, and it is a good idea to talk through what is a definite no-no before you start. But people – this is FICTION. Sexy-times fiction. There is nothing – NOTHING – erotic about contracts.
Blah blah blah more sex blah blah blah he buys her a laptop, a Blackberry, and a car because he doesn’t think the one she’s driving is safe enough. He reveals that the Blackberry has a tracking device in it so he will always know where she is. He freaks out whenever she wants to spend time with her friends – especially her male friends. He hovers over her while she eats and forces her to clean her plate at every meal.
He’s a horrible human being, actually. And also, just because you are sexually dominant or submissive does not mean you will be that way outside the bedroom; in fact, it’s often the opposite. Dominant type-A personalities tend to be more on the submissive side. But instead, the author makes Grey into someone who needs to control absolutely every aspect of his life – including Ana, who he is falling in love with – and so what we have here is a man with limitless wealth, no scruples, and a controlling personality.
As the plot unwinds we find out that Grey is not a bad guy, not really. He had a terrible early childhood! He lost his virginity at 15 to his mother’s married friend (ew)! He’s never had vanilla sex before! HE’S JUST DAMAGED GUYS BUT THE INNER GODDESS CAN TOTES FIX HIM WITH LOOOOOOOVE.
It’s like every bad Harlequin I ever read, with handcuffs and spankings.
There is also a weird subplot, wherein Ana gets a job with a small publishing firm and her boss sexually harasses her a lot, but she doesn’t see it that way because she’s an idiot. And Grey doesn’t want her working there because then she has a life, so in an utter dick move he secretly initiates a hostile takeover, buys the company, and fires the boss. Oh, and she then gets promoted because every publishing house needs a 22 year old running it.
I could go on and on, but bottom line on book 1:
- The writing is just terrible. The characters are one-dimensional, the prose is stilted and awkward, and I’m not entirely sure why the author feels the need to describe in painstaking detail what the furniture looks like in every room the protagonist enters, but there it is. I skimmed a lot because I just couldn’t read one more description of an ultra-modern all-white gigantic room with high ceilings, art everywhere, and an iPod dock.
- “Dominant” and “stalker control freak” are not the same things.
- I can’t relate to Ana and I really really wonder who can.
- The sex scenes are stilted, unintentionally hilarious, and repetitive. Like, really repetitive. We’re supposed to believe this guy has experienced nothing but BDSM sex for 12 years, and has a fully-furnished and equipped ‘playroom’, and yet the sex is oddly the-same-every-time.
- The original inspiration, the Twilight books, are crap. This book is like crap squared.
It is probably a fair introduction to erotica for someone who has never ever picked one up. I guess. Maybe.
Next up – book 2.