Does ’50 Shades of Grey’ Deserve its Criticism?
So here’s how this review came about. About a year ago I became aware of a growing pop culture phenomenon called the ‘Fifty Shades’ trilogy. I went to find a copy (because I’m always curious about these things) and found that the local bookstore was out of stock. Instead I turned to something called ‘the internet’. That little episode was documented right here. If you can’t be bothered with that feature (you’re missing out on Iron Batman) the bottom line is that between 50 Shades of Grey being Twilight fanfic with the names changed and it looking like a chronicle of an abusive relationship I decided not to read it.
Skip to the 2012 office Christmas party, and we’re playing that crummy game where everyone gets to steal secret Santa gifts off each other. I wound up with 50 Shades in my hands and nobody seemed willing to ‘steal’ that particular prize from me (I work in a female dominated industry, I suspect they’d all secretly read it). Initially I vowed to trade it in for an actual book at the earliest possible opportunity, but the giver of the gift seemed miffed about that, especially as it was a nice hard-cover edition with a hand written note from the author. So I said I’d read it, if anything I can form my own opinion. And read it I did, with the oodles of criticism I’ve seen for the series lurking at the fore of my mind.
So does it deserve the critical trashing it has already received?
Actually…yes. All the criticism it has received and more. Because it’s terrible. Downright awful. I’ll explain why.
Sometimes the opening line of a novel is all it takes to hook the reader. When discussing great opening lines many people would go with “Call me Ishmael”, but my personal favorite would be “Of Herbert West, who was my friend in college and in after life, I can speak only with extreme terror”, or “Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the western spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small, unregarded yellow sun.” In this case we have the following:
I scowl with frustration at myself in the mirror. Damn my hair – it just won’t behave…”
I just know that I’m going to hate this book. And good for me, I was right. But at the time I repressed my urge to throw it aside and gave it a genuine shot. While the main character whittled on about not sleeping with her hair wet I thought back to the people who had forewarned me about the book’s sexual content, claiming that I may find it off-putting or that it “takes a woman to get it”. I’ll just say right off the bat that I didn’t take issue with the sex in this book. I didn’t find it offensive or even that extreme (I’ve heard of stranger fetishes, thanks cracked.com). So my extreme distaste for this book didn’t come from the depiction of unorthodox sexual practices but the characters, the narrative and the prose.
Beginning with the latter, the writing is BAD. Really, really bad. E.L. James, who originally wrote the story under the pen name Snowqueen’s Icedragon, only has a couple of descriptors at her disposal and when that well has run dry she just repeats them to infinity. Every single line of dialogue is described as being ‘murmured’, ‘gasped’, ‘smirked’, ‘breathed’ or ‘softly whispered’. When the inevitable film adaptation rears it’s head it’s going to need subtitles because you won’t be able to hear a fucking word they’re all ‘murmuring’ at each other. The word ‘murmur’ appears in the book more often than the word ‘and’. Even the character descriptions are done in a repetitive manner, with Christian Grey having ‘long arms’, ‘long fingers’, ‘long hands’ and ‘long legs’. Considering James never goes into detail about what his face looks like I’m left with this familiar image…
Actually I tell a lie, James does spend an inordinate amount of time talking about his mouth. Whenever the character are interacting the protagonist ‘Anastasia Steele’ goes through the exact same responses – staring, looking down and/or ‘flushing’. She ‘flushes’ more often than a public toilet during festival season. On occasion she ‘flushes’ every second line. If you image that she’s actually flushing a toilet that just happens to always be next to her it’s quite funny. Then there’s all the crap…meaning that she won’t stop saying ‘holy crap’ and ‘double crap’. You’re partaking in adult activities here, you can swear like an adult if you choose. Actually they use strangely chaste words to describe genitals for what is meant to be erotic fiction. Christian is referred to has having an ‘erection’ or a ‘length’ and Anastasia has ‘her sex’. One would think that after the cat-o-nine tails is brought into the action she could come up with something more colorful to describe their naughty bits.
Even the sex gets repetitive before very long. The highly touted sex scenes are surprisingly short and spaced out, lasting an average of only two pages each. This might work if the intervening time was spent building sexual tension or an engaging story, but it’s mostly two idiots talking about having sex again, and how much they liked having sex last time. The pay-off is that if James was required to described sex any further the sex scenes would get reduced to the same three words repeated again and again, most likely ‘clasped my chin’, which is something Christian does to Anastasia so often they book could be retitled ‘Fifty Shades of Chin Clasping’. In all honesty the sexual encounters aren’t even very erotic due to the extremely awkward prose. Here’s a few gems.
“No-one’s ever said no to me before. And it’s so – hot.”
My mouth goes dry and desire blooms in my body…whoa.
Jeez, my body hungers for him.
I want to feel his mouth on mine. Kiss me dammit!
Regardless of your thoughts and opinions on BDSM relationships or erotic fiction in general, there’s no way you could find anything written in this manner thrilling. The actual depiction of a dominant and submissive relationship is also questionable, especially when they get towards the later chapters. Christian is less interested in ‘dominating’ Anastasia and more interested in inflicting pain on her. He reads more as a sadist than someone fulfilling a fetish. One thing that has irked the BDSM community is that much of the story centers on the fact that Christian’s interest in BDSM is derived solely from childhood abuse, and the mother he doesn’t remember being a ‘crack whore’. Being raised by a supportive and successful adopted family from age four onwards didn’t do anything to cancel his poor biological parentage, and he’s ended up a sadist.
Outside of the bedroom (or ‘playroom’) things are even more tedious. There are multiple plot threads that gets bounced around and serve no purpose other than to fill up the pages. Christian’s rival for Anastasia, Jose, is putting on a photography exhibit. For about a hundred pages Anastasia doesn’t know whether she should tell Christian about it because he’s ‘jealous’. Then she does (during sex for some lunatic reason) and he’s OK with it. They never actually go to this thing, mention it again or have any further interaction with the character Jose, and it doesn’t change the dynamic between any of them, so it’s just a massive waste of time. Likewise her room-mate’s relationship with Christian’s brother, her room-mate being at odds with Christian, applying for sought-after internships…all just boring, pointless filler for a boring, pointless story. The whole thing feels as though it was written in one draft as there are some major short term inconsistencies. One of the more glaring is a chapter in which Christian, over-come with desire, pounces on Anastasia in an elevator and aggressively makes out with her. As they are literally walking out of the elevator Anastasia complains to herself that she doesn’t seem to evoke desire in him. You WHAT?! Did he slip you a roofie?
Considering that this was read off the back of the entire A Song of Ice and Fire (aka Game of Thrones) series, a series that doesn’t waste a single one of it’s 5000+ pages, this 514 page tome feels like 100 pages of story stretched to painful proportions.
The real drive of any story is the characters, and even in the hands of any writer a good set of characters could still hold the readers’ interest. This is not the case here. We’ll start with Christian, as we have more to say about Anastasia. Christian is described as long, and “so hot!” and that’s it. He doesn’t really have any other distinguishable features or characteristics beyond ‘wealthy, sadist’. It seems a bit unrealistic that a 27-year-old is the billionaire owner of his own international company, but the novelist explains this…not in the slightest. It’s even less credible that the two lead characters meet when Anastasia interviews him for a college newsletter in place of the real journalist who wasn’t feeling well. This may have been the perfect opportunity for the author to explain how he wound up as the youngest billionaire CEO ever but fuck it.
Then we have Anastasia. Like Christian she is an unorthodox character and the backstory and reasons for this are entirely skimmed over in favor of people murmuring at each other. She is a 22 year old about to graduate from college and she has never had a drink or any sexual experience ever. You might think that she’s some kind of social outcast, but she’s friendly, outgoing, intelligent and attractive. Her best friend is a certifiable party animal and she begins the story with two potential suitors practically doing backflips to get her attention. The ‘never drunk before’ comment is made just before she gets plastered and she then drinks throughout the rest of the story so it’s a pointless thing to mention. Being a virgin is just a bit strange as there’s no explanation for why. She’s got different guys in love with her, she doesn’t mention any moral, ethical, cultural, religious or medical reason for it. She’s just a 22 year old virgin. It is repeated again and again that she’s ‘clumsy’, and that’s as close to an explanation as we get. Even then you’d think she might’ve tripped onto a guy and accidentally sexed him by now.
Unlike Christian, there are a couple of words to describe this character, the foremost three being ‘bitch’, ‘idiot’ and ‘fucking loon’. The term ‘bitch’ is not one I readily employ, but there’s no other word that suits her. This characteristic is most evident in her relationship with Jose, who she describes as being a close friend. She knows from the get-go that he’s into her and this comes to a head when he drunkenly makes a move on her. In a follow up phone call he expresses his sincere apologies for his indiscretion and professes his love for her. She tells him that she sees him as a ‘brother’ and then immediately asks him out for a coffee. Give the poor guy a break and cut him loose. Less glaring (and only because the story is told from her point of view) is the way she thinks of her friends, most notably her room-mate Kate. She rarely has a nice thing to say about them in her mind. Outwardly it’s all smiles and giggling, but internally she’s cursing Kate’s attempts to help her with her new relationship and rolling her eyes at Kate’s own sexual behavior. Given the way the other characters fawn on Anastasia it’s clear that this particular character trait is not intentional.
As to being an ‘idiot’, Anastasia is consistently warned by Christian that his particular lifestyle choice will be difficult for her to accept, he’s unwilling to change and he does in fact wish to inflict pain on her but she keeps turning up at his doorstep trying to change him. This is done out of ‘true love’. It’s worth noting at this point that this character was modeled directly on Twilight‘s Bella Swan, along with all the brain-numbingly moronic responses to a relationship. Like Bella, Ana meets a mysterious and dark man who is for some reason irresistibly drawn to her because he doesn’t know what she is thinking. Although this is the first relationship they have ever been in they have declared that it is ‘true love’ after only a week. In both cases the older, wealthier and more powerful male character will warns them that being with them is a direct route towards physical and psychological harm, but they insists on challenging them on this – and getting spectacularly injured – because that’s what you do when it’s ‘true love’ after a week with your first boyfriend. It’s possible that in the next book Ana will start trying to kill herself because her boyfriend leaves her, because that’s what you do when your first boyfriend doesn’t want to horribly abuse you any more. Bella and Ana – setting a new standard for idiocy.
Oh, I almost forget. After Christian rescues her from her friend Jose trying to force himself onto her (an act she will later defend because they’re friends) she passes out in his bed. The next morning her feelings about him and whether or not he likes her are further confused by the fact he didn’t try something while she was passed out drunk. I’m sorry…should he have, in order to prove he loves you? Maybe ‘idiot’ was going easy on her…
Finally we get to ‘fucking loon’. I’m not speaking metaphorically here, Anastasia is certifiably insane. She has two voices in her head that she refers to as her ‘subconscious’ and her ‘inner goddess’. Her subconscious comes into the story first and initially just warns her away from problems, but later it starts tutting at her, calling her a ‘ho’, looking over its ‘wing shaped’ glasses with a sardonic expression (it’s described in the book as something like ‘a you-knew-this-was-going-to-happen-but-you-did-it-anyway-and-look-what-happened look’…once again James is lacking the proper vocabulary) and at one point morphing into the scales of justice and winking at her. Her ‘inner goddess’ is a more supportive figure, not saying much but often seen either in the lotus position or doing cheerleader routines, complete with pompoms. It got to a point where it just sounded as though the nutjob had Disney’s version of the Genie from the lamp in her head.
These two parts of her psyche get more interactive and more varied throughout the course of the story, and there is more than one instance where Anastasia responds to them as well. Now I checked in with Doctor Funk on this one and she says that based on the evidence Anastasia Steele is likely suffering from schizophrenia and these two ‘characters’ are the manifestation of her symptoms. It makes you wonder who else in the story might be in her head. Her relationship with Kate is very unusual…although she claims they are ‘like sisters’ they have absolutely nothing in common in behaviour or personality. Perhaps ‘Kate’ is just the version of Anastasia that she wishes to be: outspoken, confident and sexually forward – and ‘Kate’s’ relationship with Christian’s ‘brother’ is what she wants her relationship with Christian to be like. Hell, maybe the deranged Christian Grey is her very own Tyler Durden…christ knows it would make the book more interesting.
Fifty Shades of Grey is rubbish. The story meanders around for three times longer than it needs to and most plot threads don’t get resolved. The characters are shallow, annoying and function without any sense of logic. It doesn’t even provide a satisfactory exploration of a taboo subject because the author lacks the writing skills to communicate anything more challenging than someone ‘flushing’. Even if you pick it up looking for something a little dirty to liven up your daily commute try and remember that this book features a sexual encounter where the man pulls out the protagonists tampon…and she finds it ‘hot’.
Don’t read it.