Last week I read 50 Shades Of Grey, the erotic, pulp fiction sensation that is sweeping several nations. I’ve heard a lot about this book and now that I’ve read it I have a LOT to say about it. In the spirit of the 50 Shades trilogy, this week I’ll be posting three entries on my experience in the Grey zone.
MY BOOK REPORT ON 50 SHADES OF GREY
by Nadine K. Thornhill
50 Shades of Grey is the first in a trilogy of erotic novels written by E.L. James. It was originally conceived as Twilight fan fiction and then later reconceived as book porn. The story is told from the perspective of 21-year-old Anastasia Steele, who falls in love/lust with Christian Grey, a 27-year-old business magnate. Christian entices Ana to explore BDSM and a whole lot of kinky sex ensues. Over the course of the book we learn that Christian is dominant with a troubled past who has difficulty wearing pants correctly. Ana… bites her lip a lot.
What I Liked About 50 Shades Of Grey
The sex scenes. They are, in my opinion, some of the better written scenes in the book. Spanking and sexual power roles are big turn ons for me. When I chose to disregard the surrounding narrative, the tawdriest parts of 50 Shades definitely stimulated my libido and imagination. It’s also inspired a few ideas that I’d like to try with my partner…and a plethora of masturbatory fantasies!
On a meta-level, I like that 50 Shades Of Grey is bringing discussions of BDSM and other kink into the mainstream. I like that it has prompted conversations about other, arguably better, erotic literature. Reading about sex can be hella fun and if this book helps people feel more comfortable with book porn, I’m all for that!
What I Didn’t Like About 50 Shades Of Grey
Sex scenes not withstanding, I thought the writing was remarkably bad.
As a fellow writer, I can’t bring myself to hate on E.L. James. Like me, she’s just a woman sitting at her computer typing words and doing the best she can. But unlike me, a publisher looked her work and decided it was suitable for mass publishing. That’s the part that baffles me. I can’t imagine reading this manuscript and wanting to distribute it (although it is a runaway hit, so what do I know from publishing).
Here’s an example of what I mean. There’s running commentary by Ana’s “subsconscious” and “inner goddess” respectively . It’s all meant to very be Freudian (I think). It could have been an interesting convention if it weren’t executed thusly:
Stop Stop now! my subsconscious is metaphorically screaming at me, arms folded, leaning on one leg and tapping her foot in frustration. Get in the car, go home, do your studying. Forget about him…Now! And stop all this self-pitying, wallowing crap. (p. 37)
First of all, this isn’t Ana’s subconscious. It’s a straight up conscience. Also? What’s metaphorical screaming? Since when do psychological processes have arms, legs and feet? And why does her inner voice “speak” in italics but then doesn’t? Which brings me to another beef…
Why didn’t 50 Shades have an editor? I’m assuming there was no editor because of style glitches like those in the previous paragraph. Also because of the excessive repetition of phrases such as:
“Foil packet” (10 times)
“He cocks/is cocking his head to one side” (23 times)
There are also 43 references to lip biting.
There are weird character inconsistencies, odd uses of language , awkward metaphors and on and on. At the end of the day this book is meant to be escapist fantasy and many won’t care that this isn’t Pulitzer calibre writing. I just found it irksome after awhile.
Sorry…one more writing gripe. Christian wants to send Ana e-mail and she’s all a-fluster because Oh no, the Internet! and Yikes, technology! and Eek! I don’t even have a computer! Reminder: Ana is a COLLEGE LITERATURE MAJOR LIVING IN THIS CENTURY!
What Bummed Me Out About 50 Shades Of Grey
It isn’t hard to see the Twilight-y origins of 50 Shades. I think that Twilight is for suck. Unfortunately, 50 Shades has a lot in common with it’s source material.
Christian Grey shares many of the same repellent qualities as Edward Cullen. We’re told ad nauseum that he’s irresistibly good looking. He’s also controlling, manipulative and a full on creeper a la Edward. Like in Twilight, 50 Shades tells us that creepers are romantic. For real. Dude stalk because they care. When Christian suddenly appears in Ana’s bedroom or follows her across the country (after she EXPRESSLY TOLD HIM NOT TO), it’s not douchebaggery, it’s love.
Bumming hard, you guys. Bumming hard.
Christian chastises Ana when she isn’t completely open with him, yet he shuts down emotionally when she asks about his personal life. When Ana breaks down and confesses that her first experience with spanking was sexually exciting but also left her feeling “demeaned, debased and abused”, Christian’s response is “Do you feel like this or do you think you ought to feel like this?” Pressumably, we’re meant to see this as part of Christian Gray’s powerful, commanding allure but in my opinion, he’s just being a jerk.
Meanwhile Ana is completely passive. 50 Shades of Grey is about Ana’s adventures as the submissive to Grey’s dominant. However, as a wise friend once put it ,”being submissive isn’t the same as being passive.” Ana is a woman without any sexual agency. As it’s written, the woman has had no sexual feelings, let alone sexual experiences until her libido is triggered by alleged for of nature that is Christian Gray. She’s a good girl who loves her mom and never masturbates, who succumbs to sex, rather than actively participating in it. Like Twilight’s Bella Swan, Anastasia Steele never instigates the action, she only reacts to sexy, good-looking dude of the story.
I cannot tell you how much it depresses me that both Bella and Ana were created by female authors.
What Pissed Me Off About 50 Shades Of Grey
My final complaint is also my biggest. For a book that’s mostly about sex, I found 50 Shades of Grey to be intensely sex-negative. Like I said, the sex scenes themselves didn’t bother me (except for those ubiquitous foil packets), but everything that happened around them made rage with frustration.
In some ways, 50 Shades is no more offensive than any other bodice-ripping novel. That having been said, I think a lot of those books perpetuate some pretty unfortunately myths about what constitutes great romance and hot sex. And yes they’re just books, but I think many of those myths have influenced our real-life ideas and negotiations around sex. Again, I’m happy if erotica is moving into the mainstream. But I’m not happy that the book that’s leading the movement relies on tropes such as:
- For women, being “good” means existing in a default state of naiveté, innocence and sexual passivity.
- Desirable women are young, straight, slender, white and have long hair that goes wavy on command.
- Desirable men are wealthy, well-muscled, also straight and highly skilled lovers.
- Women never want sex until a dude comes along and makes them want sex.
- Men never want love or emotional commitment until a woman comes along a makes them want love.
- When men do fall in love, they hate it. The get grumpy and start muttering – usually stuff about how the woman is “doing something” to him.
- Women should be happy when men get grouchy and start blaming them for feelings. It’s love!
- Women should be happy when men are controlling, stalkery and jealous. It’s love!
50 Shades also perpetuates some pretty negative stereotypes about BDSM and how the type of people who practice it are fucked up. . Ana repeatedly comments (internally, of course) on Christian’s fucked up childhood, his fucked up attitude and how they’ve contributed to the fucked up ways he likes to have sex.
Christian isn’t just a dominant. He’s domineering. He manipulates Ana at every opportunity. He uses sex and kink to to alternately entice and terrorize her. Despite having only been sexual partners for a couple of weeks, Grey insists that Ana “trust him” and sign a contract that would not only give him complete sexual control but also control over virtually ever aspect of her life.
Christian does explain to Ana that as a sexual submissive she always has the power to say no. However every time she says no, expresses resistance or uncertainty, he either shuts her out or seduces her with his I’m-So-Sexy sexmagiks.
So yes, Christian is fucked up. But BDSM is not. In fact the motto I’ve always heard regarding BDSM is safe, sane and consensual. Many, many people explore various aspects of BDSM in their sex lives for no other reason than it feels good and they enjoy it. I’m so tired of the CSI/Law & Order portrayal of kink as a manifestation of some dark psychological problem.
Again, I know it’s a fantasy. I don’t expect chapters dedicated to a long-term relationship with nuanced sexual negotiation. But sanity and consent can still be part of a sexy make-believe world. Why did Christian have to be screwed up. Why did Ana have spend the whole book resisting?
Instead it was a lot of manipulation and Ana feeling ambivalent and implications that Christian’s desire to exert sexual pain and control had to do with an abusive childhood, rather a simple sexual desire.
Seriously, there were times 50 Shades got me so pissy I wanted to throw it across the room. Fortunately (or perhaps unfortunately) I was reading it on my iPad.
I know a lot of people have read and liked 50 Shades of Grey. Despite my personal criticisms, I don’t want to make anyone feel bad for enjoying the book. Some people will be able to overlook it’s shortcomings and simply take as the sexy story I suspect it was intended to be. But 50 Shades just wasn’t my speed. I found the characters deeply flawed and the sexual politics troubling. I felt relieved when I finished…and not in the pleasant, post-coital way.
Have or someone you know read 50 Shades Of Grey? What did you think? Or are you someone who’s avoiding it like the plague? Can’t wait to read what you have to say in the comments!