Saturday, 9 June 2012

Fifty Shades of Grey, or What to Expect from a Sadomasochistic Novel

I'm writing this because I don't want anyone buying that crap. Save the money and get a better book. Seriously this book makes Stephanie Meyer look like Shakespeare. I wanted to write something amusing on How to Become a Millionaire Novelist but this noble course must be taken first. Besides, I haven't thought up everything on how one becomes a millionaire novelist.

The story is basically about this college student on the verge of graduation called Anastasia Steele (who has a noticeably long name, like Isabella Swan) who has been asked by her roommate Kate to take over Kate's interview with the billionaire Christian Grey. She obliges with reluctance, because she's nervous and awkward. Anyway once she arrives she does act awkward, making numerous blunders along the way, and not asking very intelligent questions. Part of the reason is she is distracted by his disarmingly good looks - he is like some kind of statue, to hear her speak. She thinks she's failed, but surprisingly he seems to be attracted to her - he even gives her his phone number and asks her if she wants to intern at his company. She refuses saying it won't suit her. Back to home. Kate hears of this and at once thinks Grey is in love with Anastasia.

Anyway we are introduced to Ana's boss, Mr Clayton and his son. (She works part-time at a hardware store). Young Clayton is naturally in love with her and of course she refuses his advances. By the way Anastasia is an inexperienced virgin who's never been in love, dated or masturbated. Now while I am far from disapproving of sexless heroines (I think too many literary heroines are over-sexed) I think this heroine doesn't quite fit the bill of modest demure maiden. Oh no. Oh, and Jose, Ana's friend, is also in love with her. He's Hispanic, which is supposed to be an exotic complement to Twilight's Native american Jacob Black.

Kate decides to take a photo of Mr Grey and so Ana calls him and he actually obliges to meet up with them for a photo shoot. Somehow after that he takes her to a coffee house for the first time (and this is the only genuinely romantic incident in the book), holding her hand. He does open up a bit and warns her off, saying he's not the sort for relationships. I thought this was remarkably early for a second meeting (then again what am I to say such things?) Ana is depressed after this.

Fast forward and Ana is celebrating with her friends at a bar and in a drunken state phones Grey. While Jose attempts to kiss her Grey arrives and rescues her. She ends up waking up in Grey's bed. No, he did not have intercourse with her. Again that crazy billionaire warns her that he's dangerous and she shouldn't be dating him.

They do end up having intercourse, and then Grey shows her his "playroom" full of his sadomasochistic toys. Apparently an older women seduced him as a teenager (he was her submissive) and he's been into SM ever since. He asks her to sign a contract binding her to him, and basically a sort of control over her life.

Some of the quirkier bits are their emails to each other. Though why couldn't they use Blackberry messaging? I know I'm not technologically proficient but I do at least know something. But the author is a middle-aged woman.

There are no fewer than FOUR sex-scenes at least two very close to each other and after a brutal session Ana breaks it off and goes off to her new job.

I thought this was confusing.  She just leaves him like that because of some pain?!!! Why didn't she do so sooner? Altogether a downer ending.

Like anyone else I deplore the grammar, shoddy vocabulary and stupid personas. "My subconscious said," "my inner goddess said," If it is subconscious you wouldn't be aware of it. And inner goddess may even be a euphemism for vagina. But worst of all (and this is what disqualifies a novel from being a good work) was the utter lack of plot. It's all about sex. Fancying, mooning, sex, SM, mooning, sex, sex, SM, abrupt departure.

Some amusing bits: Grey asks her to see his playroom.
"You want to play with your Xbox?" asks Ana.
He laughs.
(The playroom of course is the torture room).

And the parts where they email each other, he always signs off as "Christian Grey. CEO of Grey Enterprises." I know company emails do sign off that way, but it's not a terribly romantic way to end an email. One of his catchphrases, by the way, is to end off, "Laters, baby."

I laughed off my chair. Who says that sort of thing? Some tasteless people do I suppose, but the author takes care to present him as a formally-spoken man for someone only 27 years old. But there is no consistency in this novel.

Did I mention the oral sex scene? She describes it as a Christian Grey-flavoured lolly. Had this been read out loud I would have blushed.

Also her exclamations every few pages - "Holy cow!" I think if I see that phrase again I shall scream. The word penis is never mentioned, and it is described alternately as his "manhood", "erection" etc etc. (By the bye "etc." is an 18th century euphemism for female genitalia.) Isn't it shallow to place so much importance on the size of a man's privies? If I were a Politically Correct freak I would denounce this as a conspiracy against short-genitalled men. The length of his member is emphasised so often, it makes one tire of enormous genitals.

Sweet sparkling vampires, where is the tension?! Ana is not even sure of his affections and she sleeps with him so soon. There's no romance in that, she is merely physically attracted to him. The good thing about this accursed novel is its nod to Thomas Hardy, though it is too obvious. Several quotes from Tess of the d'Urbervilles appear, talking about the dangers Tess faces. The difference is, Hardy made it clear that the danger from Alec d'Urberville was brutal and degrading and wicked. E.L. James seems to propagate the view that dangerous brutal men ought to be loved and admired. Anastasia even compares him to Alec rather than Angel Clare - this in a favourable manner. Ana is supposed to be witty and intelligent and Thomas Hardy is the only remotely intellectual thing you will see here, and he's not presented in an intelligent way.

This is somewhat akin to Stephanie Meyer alluding to Romeo and Juliet and Wuthering Heights in an entirely wrong way. The key to portraying romantic tension, my dear Mrs James, is not to have the hero and heroine strip off the second time they have a romantic encounter. The whole essence of deep, stirring passion is the deprivation of nookie. Now if you wanted to write a proper sadomasochistic romance you really ought to write about how the hero could not fulfil his passionate fantasies. Why? Because it gives him pain, which is counted as masochism. Charlotte Brontë could teach E.L. James a thing or two about SM. If you inspect her novels carefully, Jane Eyre and Frances Henri call their suitors Sir and Monsieur, even though the men insist they call them by their first names. Far more erotic than the strip-sex-spank scenario in Fifty Shades.

To be honest with you, I read the book in the hopes of getting a good laugh. Yes, I'm one of those weirdoes who laugh at funny spanking scenes. Especially if they involve strange instruments, a great deal of pain and a feather duster. As long as the victim doesn't enjoy it. I'm no sadomasochist, but I like to see how ridiculous people make themselves in fiction.
Victorian flagellation scene, 1890's

But no, there wasn't enough spanking. It was more intercourse than anything else, which made it terribly boring. I couldn't see the controversy. The undoubted brutality certainly wasn't convincing. All the while the heroine gapes about how hot the hero is, making it more like Mills and Boon prose than serious spanking. If the whole problem is Christian's SM tendencies for heaven's sake write more about it. All the mush was just too distracting. If Ana was repelled by his SM habits surely she would have withheld from intercourse? But oh no, she's a sex goddess. Despite having had no experience with anyone else before.

Another thing I couldn't approve of was the materialism. Christian buys Ana an Audi, a Macbook, a first-edition version of Tess of the d'Urbervilles costing $14,000. It sounds like a the author's fantasy of being seduced by a rich man and showered with presents. Also, why does he have to be a billionaire? Could she not have been satisfied with a millionaire? Billionaires are rarely that young unless they're Mark Zuckerberg and into IT and electronics.

Since this was originally Twilight fanfiction let's compare the 2 series. Ana Steele is a nicer and more stable person than Bella, since she bothers to graduate and get a job, and at least Mrs James makes Grey more experienced than Edward - which is more realistic, because come on, how many awkward, inexperienced billionaires can there be? She doesn't run away from home and slash her wrists and alienate herself from everyone else for love. Even so, I felt Ana was too perfect - she's nice, pretty, popular and loved by a sadist billionaire. Despite being awkward and shy and her claims she hardly goes out. What is she doing with a hyper party girl like Kate then? Get real. At least Bella was bitchy enough to warrant cult status, because shy, nice girls rarely become the centre of attention, even if they're popular, because their hyper friend will be even more coveted than them. Yet no fewer than two different men actively pursue Ana at the same time, and in the 2nd book her boss fancies her.

Still, compared to Twilight, at least Ana is fairly stable, attractive and popular and the beloved of the hot rich guy. In Twilight, Bella is awkward and antisocial and yet full of admirers which beats reality.  I can believe in a pretty sociable girl who is admired. Yes, I know I am nitpicking as usual, but because these novels have no intellectual value I am harsh with the way social dynamics are portrayed. Classics, due to their complexity can't portray social dynamics too well. But in silly novels you must compensate their silliness with some reality.

Oh, and if Ana is supposed to be intellectual and sensitive, why does she only talk about the romance in Thomas Hardy? What about the forces of nature, Darwinism, etc.? I like Hardy and it annoyed me she insulted the great master's memory by taking out the cheesy "romantic" stuff in his works.

Oh well at least EL James was humble enough to acknowledge her novels aren't that good. Unlike SMeyer who deliberately puts in the Shakespearean allusion and disgraces her novels with their minuscule intelligence.

Couldn't she have written the characters with some restraint? The longing, the waiting, the hopes crashing ... there is no real tragedy in Fifty Shades, and the real tragedy is the effect it has on readers.

And if you want to portray a shy awkward heroine (which I understand are fashionable nowadays in YA fiction) you would do well to refrain from making them the centre of attention and emulate Miss Brontë. Her heroines suffer due to their temperaments but this isn't the case with these YA authors. You feel for them because it is so real and it is no easy thing to live with. They don't get attention and affection the way modern heroines do either.

What's worse the main champions of the series are middle-aged married women. One would expect them to know better, being more experienced in relationships.

This is it. I no longer find expensive presents romantic. Damn you, E.L. James, for ruining my future fantasies. I was fantasising about getting an iPhone and now the book has ruined it for me.

I've decided to start writing sadomasochistic novels to become a millionaire. Wish me luck!


  1. I have a confession to make. *Looks furtively behind shoulder.* I read Twilight fanfiction.

    NO! don't get the wrong impression. I wouldn't touch this thing with a ten-foot poll! I'm just saying that I've heard of it because I follow a few wolfpack fanfic writers who have tried to "correct" the Twilight saga. (I'm under the impression the "correction" attempts have nearly led to nervous breakdowns.) So of course they're having fits, because they all HATE Twilight, but THIS thing is from the very bottom rung of grammar/writing hell.)

    So, yeah, I don't know whether to be amazed at your bravery in reading this or cry for you. But thank you for such an amusing and satisfying bashing review.

    Btw, apparently Bella Mary Sue Swan says "Holy Crow!" all the time, because somehow that's less like swearing than "Holy cow!" lol

    Oh, and did I miss the plot/end of the story? ;) (None, right?)

    Actually, I think I'm a sadomasochist to even be reading and talking ABOUT this stuff so much.

    Um, where did E. L. James acknowledge her novel isn't that good? This is what I heard she said in USA Today: "I've got several more good ideas, but how do you follow this? I've set the bar quite high in terms of storytelling." Excuse me while I go vomit over Meyer and her.

    On an intelligent note, I'm going to be rereading "The Mill on the Floss" soon, so can't wait to enjoy your post on it. :)

    1. I think Twilight fanfiction is generally more intelligent than the original series. (Well, except for Fifty Shades). You should check out the one where Edward is a sugar freak and is in love with Charlie Swan. Fifty Shades of Grey ends with a violent SM scene and their breakup. I've started book 2 and they reconcile 3 days later. Just when there was some romantic conflict.

      I read when the novel first became a bestseller EL James said she didn't expect it, as it wasn't even a good effort. I suppose fame has made her proud. I didn't hear about that quote you mentioned. I am shocked she can even say that, the bar is abnormally low. At least SMeyer had some werewolves and vampires and opposing parents. I wrote a crappy story when I was 16 and it was even better than Fifty Shades.

      The moral of the story is, extract every last juice of romance from all the classics you've read, pool it together, and you've got a bestselling novel. I'll be writing a parody on how to become a millionaire by writing novels so watch out for this.

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