REVIEW: Fifty Shades of Grey by E L James
This review is being posted in lieu of a morning opinion piece because it is an opinion piece of sorts and because, well, it is verbose. So you get three reviews today. Yay!
Dear E.L. James,
So I’m pretty much in the minority when it comes to this book as I hated it.
Fifty Shades of Grey came to my attention during a Twitter conversation. I was intrigued by the fact that the book was apparently once a Twilight fan fiction piece entitled Master of the Universe and featured a BDSM relationship between the main protagonists. I was told that there was a high level of WTFery but I ignored this warning. I’m usually a fan of WTFery. If I was not a fan of WTFery, I would not have enjoyed afternoon soap operas for most of my teen years. After all, WTFery is simply the absurd taken to new heights of, well, of absurdity. But this was not WTF in an absurd, adorable way. It was infuriating. I wanted to scratch my eyes out or maybe the characters’. I’m not really sure. At one point, I had to start drinking heavily. But even gin didn’t dull the fury.
In writing this, I’ve been thinking of alternate titles, something that plays on the title of the book, what it is about, and how I feel about it. Something succinct like: “50 Shades of Grey, 7 Shades of Scarlet, & 372 Pages of Dumb.” Or maybe: “120 Days of Boredom.” What about: “The Story of Oh . . . My!” Perhaps, “Where There’s a Will, There’s an Ellipsis” or “The Whiner, the Witch, and the Wanker”? No, I’ve got it: “Oh Bondage! Up Yours!” but I wouldn’t want to associate X-Ray Spex with this book. So let’s call this after my favorite safe word: Julie Andrews!
I should state, for the record, that I was did not buy this book. I was lent it and I am very grateful to that person. Yes, I am very grateful despite the fact that I ended up loathing this book. So, what’s it all about?
Anastasia Steele is on the cusp of graduating from Washington State University. Before she can do that, though, she’s got to get through finals, a task which would be made easier if she didn’t have to drive up to Seattle to interview some billionaire named Christian Grey for the student newspaper. But she does have to, even though she isn’t technically on the student paper. Her BFF Kate is sick, and being sick she is incapable of driving the three hours or conducting the interview. So Anastasia does it instead. It’s a last minute thing and honestly, she’s just not prepared for it (or for anything in life, really, but we’ll get to that). She doesn’t know anything about Christian Grey. She doesn’t know how old he is or what he does. All she knows is that he’s rich and he donates to the university.
Whatever she expected, it wasn’t the reality of Christian Grey. He’s young, for one, and he’s intense, really intense. Anastasia knows that she’s no match for him looks-wise, so it baffles her when he starts pursuing her: showing up at her work, sending her a first-edition of Tess of the D’Urbervilles, rescuing her from a drunken evening out. She can hardly believe her luck when this perfect man whisks her away to his penthouse in Seattle. Only Christian Grey has a dark secret. No, he isn’t a vampire or a spy or Batman. He’s kinky. He’s into BDSM. He likes to whip and chain it. GASP!
That’s pretty much the plot. Ignorant young woman with virginity still intact and a case of low self-esteem meets a controlling, manipulative, hot, young billionaire who identifies as a dominant in order to justify the fact that he’s a paternalistic control freak. Yay! Oh, yay! It’s just such an original and imaginative take on heterosexual relationships, don’t you think? It really offers some new insight into sexuality and power.
I am, of course, being sarcastic. Fifty Shades of Grey does the exact opposite. Not only does it perpetuate damaging untruths about BDSM as a sexuality and a sexual identity, it also manages to do so in the most clichéd and hackneyed way possible. It is a thoroughly uninteresting book. The characters are as flat as a thing can be without entering the first dimension. The plot has only a single conflict: that Christian is BDSM identified and Anastasia is vanilla. E.L. James has managed to take the worst aspects of Twilight, the worst elements of a Mills & Boon circa 1977, and the worst of BDSM erotica and combine them into one glorious whole (or should that be hole?). She deploys the tropes and clichés with a heavy hand—tropes and clichés that, to be fair, are everywhere in romance. But it is the thoughtless use of these clichés that makes them problematic for me. And this is coming from a person who has just written and presented an academic paper defending the cliché and clichéd language!
Worse, the prose itself is stuttering and robotic. Sentences are rendered in a childish sing-song structure (subject verb predicate) and overwhelmingly they are in the active voice. Moreover, the prose beats you over the head with its intended meaning. James clearly doesn’t trust her readers to pick up on nuance, to infer traits and qualities from the characters dialogue and interactions, or to remember events from mere paragraphs prior (God knows Anastasia doesn’t). Instead, she spends a great deal of timing telling us all sorts of things about Anastasia and Christian but somehow manages to demonstrate the exact opposite.
What I hated about this book are certainly issues and problems that I have disliked in other novels. However, as I said above, by separating the clichés from the original forms and contexts (particularly in the case of Twilight), James loses the subtlety that made these problematic clichés at the very least tolerable in their other contexts. For instance, in Elizabeth Hoyt’s Wicked Intentions the hero’s desire for kinky sex is “cured” by his relationship with the heroine. However, the central conflict of that book does not revolve around the hero’s sexual identity nor does the heroine find it any way monstrous. As such, I was able to overlook it enough to enjoy the rest of the novel. That simply was not the case for me in Fifty Shades of Grey.
In order to address the multitude of problems in the narrative, I have divided the review into three sections. I have not written a thesis statement, which I’m sure will disappoint Maggie Stiefvater. C’est la vie! We can’t always get what we want. I certainly didn’t whilst reading this book.
The prose is dull, but it isn’t unreadable. It’s competent. The best thing I can say about it is that vast majority of sentences are grammatical. More problematically was what I shall call the rhythm of the prose. Like Gertrude Stein, I believe the sentence is the basic building block of narrative. The sentences in this book did not help me enter the world of the story. They were an obstruction. A series of pedestrian, pre-chewed sentences only slightly more sophisticated than the ones found in my 2nd grade reader:
The drive to the heliport is short and, before I know it, we arrive. I wonder where the fabled helicopter might be. We’re in a built-up area of the city and even I know helicopters need space to take off and land [Reviewer’s Note: No. They don’t. That’s their advantage over the plane!] Taylor parks, climbs out, and opens my car door. Christian is beside me in an instant and takes my hand again. (p. 63) Kindle Edition.
By pre-chewed, what I mean is that every sentence, every piece of dialogue is exactly the sort of thing you’d expect in a book like this. Like in a James Cameron movie where every character says exactly what such a character always says at such a moment. It is uniformly predictable and because it is uniformly predictable it doesn’t convey any subtle or nuanced meaning to the story. Its uniformity on a sentence level shapes the superficiality of the rest of the book—the plot, the characters, and the underlying themes. This is what I mean by clichéd.
The prose is further made awful by James’ weird and arbitrary use of the italics. Italics are used to emphasize certain words or phrases. They are also used, on occasion, as a way of setting off a character’s thoughts. By using the italics all the time, which she does, the emphasis loses all meaning and force. Quite frankly, the italics make Anastasia look dumb—not that she needs any help with that. They create a constant sense of Anastasia as a person easily startled, like someone suffering from short term memory loss who forgets she just saw you ten seconds ago and then jumps when she sees you again. It’s fucking ridiculous. For example:
“I assume you’re not on the pill.”
“I didn’t think so.” He opens the top drawer of the chest and removes a packet of condoms [Reviewer’s note: the pill doesn’t protect from STDs, yo!]. He gazes at me intently.
“Be prepared,” he murmurs. “Do you want the blinds drawn?”
“I don’t mind.” I whisper. “I thought you didn’t let anyone sleep in your bed.”
“Who says we’re going to sleep?” he murmurs softly.
“Oh.” Holy hell.
He strolls slowly toward me. Confident, sexy, eyes blazing, and my heart begins to pound. My blood’s pumping around my body. Desire, thick and hot, pools in my belly. He stands in front of me, staring down into my eyes. He’s so freaking hot. (p. 82).
Why are these in italics? What is the purpose of the emphasis? What does it tell us that the context doesn’t? That the words themselves don’t? We don’t need them if they are just supposed to be setting off Anastasia’s thoughts because the story is told in the first person and we are already occupying her headspace. We don’t need to be told that this is what she is thinking via italics. They emphasize nothing. And at one point, dialogue coming from another room is in italics (Location 2842 of 10541). So to me, there is no rhyme or reason for this usage. It just takes the reader out of the story. Let’s not even get into the plethora of ellipses (oh my god . . . the ellipses!).
A final, but by no means last, word on the prose is the use of the word subconscious. The subconscious plays a large role in Anastasia’s life. Almost as large as her inner goddess, which I can only assume is some kind of euphemism for vagina. The subconscious is constantly berating and admonishing her. The problem is that this is not what the subconscious does. That’s what the conscience does or the superego, if you are going to be Freudian about it. You are not actually consciously aware of the subconscious because it is sub conscious; it is below the level of consciousness. This may seem like mean-spirited nitpicking, but it isn’t a singular instance of wrong usage. It is a constant refrain within the book. Every time the subconscious spoke, I thought to myself: No. Wrong. No.
Because the prose is so weak, it ends up highlighting and accentuating the book’s other weaknesses, which are as follows:
The plot in this book is the characters. And that’s the problem. There is no other conflict or story other than the fact that Anastasia wants a normal relationship and Christian can’t give her one. He gives it the old school try, I’ll tell you that. Theoretically, this could be a really interesting story. What happens to a kinky person when/if they fall in love with someone who is vanilla? Is it bound (ha!) to be a doomed relationship? Or is there a way to make it work for both people? There’s a good story there. That’s a good premise. Unfortunately, that is not the story in Fifty Shades.
Going in, I had heard rumors to the effect that Christian gets “cured” of his BDSM kink and to me it was fairly clear from the beginning that this is trajectory of the story. This because of the way the narration—that is Anastasia as the first person narrator—characterizes Christian’s kink and the presumption that the reader is going to or ought have her same perspective about BDSM. But let’s talk about Christian first.
Christian is an asshole of the first order. At the outset of the story, he employs the classic move of mind-fuckers and bad boyfriends everywhere, “Anastasia, I’m not a hearts and flowers kind of man, I don’t do romance. My tastes are very singular. You should steer clear of me” (p. 52). Ha ha ha ha ha ha! Ooohhh god! What girl hasn’t heard a version of that before? Am I right, ladies? Regardless of what language it is uttered in, this is the first tip off that you are dealing with a manipulative fuck. But you know what? Let’s give credit where credit is due, Anastasia actually takes him at his word, something Christian never manages to do when it comes to her word. No, no. He just steamrolls right on over every one of her objections. But Anastasia doesn’t pursue him after he tells her this. No, he pursues her. He sends her a first edition. This is not the action of a man who wants a woman to stay away from him. When she calls him drunk to ask him why he would do that, he tracks her down and takes her back to his hotel. Nothing happens, but again, his actions say something different than his words. I would call him a stalker, but he doesn’t have that level of subtlety
The mind games really set the scene for when Christian takes Ana to Seattle where he has her sign a Non-Disclosure Agreement prior to revealing the fact that he’s a dom. There is so much wrong with this I don’t know where to begin. First, Anastasia has no effing clue what BDSM is. Second, she has no sexual experience. Third, the agreement says she can’t talk about this to anyone, which means that she cannot ask anyone bedsides Christian anything about BDSM. Thus, Christian gets to be the one who controls the interpretation of what it means to be a submissive. Does that not strike anyone else as abusive? This is such a violation of kink ethics, of ethics period.
Fine. Whatever. Let’s move on. So then, he hands her a contract. Surely you jest? I mean, dude. Just . . . wow! For god’s sake, he doesn’t even give her a chance to find out what BDSM is or whether or not she wants to pursue something with him. No. He just hands her a contract that’s basically structured to be a 24/7 Dominant/submissive relationship. I mean, I’m not kinky but it seems to me to be common friggin’ sense that you ought to at least play with someone, do a few scenes with a new partner before you go all 24/7! Let’s hire a U-Haul! Forevah, Babes! Not the mention the fact that he’s totally pressuring her to say yes immediately. Argh!
Anyhow, I shouldn’t have been surprised that Ana’s virginity would not stop him from just steamrolling right on over that issue and continuing with his plan to have her as his sub. Oh! And did I mention he blames her for not telling him she was a virgin. Douchewad! So then we get this romantic and touching scene:
“We’re going to rectify the situation right now.”
“What do you mean? What situation?”
“Your situation. Ana, I’m going to make love to you, now.”
“Oh.” The floor has fallen away. I’m a situation. I’m holding my breath.
“That’s if you want to, I mean, I don’t want to push my luck.”
“I thought you didn’t make love. I thought you fucked hard.” I swallow, my mouth suddenly dry.
He gives me a wicked grin, the effects of which travel all the way down there (p. 81)
Somebody call the producers of Jersey Shore, because it turns out The Situation is actually Anastasia Steele’s intact hymen. Yes, responsible sex at its finest. This attitude pretty much characterizes Christian throughout the novel. The only difference between Christian Grey and a Greek Tycoon is that Christian isn’t Greek, as far as I know. He also has more contracts. Other than that, his paternalism and general alpha-hole behavior may as well have been stripped from any number of Harlequin Presents, sans the nuanced characterizations or groveling scenes of penance.
Besides being the worst sort of alpha male, Christian’s personality can be summarized thus: spectacularly beautiful man who smirks a lot. There’s not a lot there. He’s pretty much a cipher, not so much enigmatic as empty.
Then there’s Anastasia Steele. She has shockingly little personality for a first person narrator. She’s vapid and dumb, so very, very dumb. She’s TSTL, but not because she chases down villains in London’s worst slums. No, but because she fails to register the blatantly obvious. Right after Christian tells her he’s kinky, we get this gem of an exchange:
My mouth drops open. Fuck hard! Holy shit, that sounds so… hot. But why are we looking at a playroom? I am mystified.
“You want to play on your Xbox?” I ask. He laughs, loudly.
“No, Anastasia, no Xbox, no Playstation. Come.” (p. 70)
Is this supposed to be cute? Endearing? If so, fail. It is one thing to be a virgin, it is another thing to be so flamingly, fantastically ignorant of the universe and the obvious. I mean, good god, Xbox?! Freaking Xbox?! (Note the use of italics, used to emphasize my disdain). Come on, woman!
I don’t have a problem with virgin heroines, because I don’t equate virginity with being a brain-dead ignoramus. Call me crazy, but I don’t think one needs to have had sex in order to be able to connect the dots in basic human interactions. James has Christian constantly praising Ana’s intelligence and bravery and cleverness, but everything Ana does renders these compliments into ironic, nay sarcastic statements. Every time something sexual is mentioned Ana blushes or flushes or gasps. Any time Christian tries to have an adult conversation with her about BDSM, she bites her lip and peeks out from under her hair like Princess Diana used to do at the paparazzi. Then he tells her he wants to fuck her. Ana’s entire attitude towards their relationship is immature and adolescent, while Christian’s is controlling and manipulative.
If only she were just dumb and easily embarrassed by sex, but no. Ana’s also judgmental and shallow. I think her attitude towards Christian is fairly well summarized in the following lines: “The problem is, I just want Christian, not all his… baggage – and right now he has a 747 hold’s worth of baggage” (p. 217). And later she says: “I’m in this fantasy apartment, having fantasy sex with my fantasy boyfriend. When the grim reality is he wants a special arrangement, though he’s said he’ll try more” (p. 269). The sheer immaturity of these statements is awe-inspiring. Ana doesn’t want Christian with all his baggage. She wants the fantasy, not the grim reality of the actual man. The fact that her adolescent crush on him is characterized as true love illustrates the underlying fuckwitted-ness of this book.
In an adult relationship we deal with the other person’s baggage, whatever that baggage is because everyone’s got it. When Ana talks about how she doesn’t have any examples except literary heroines for knowing how to deal with men, her fundamental misreading of relationships is revealed. She says, “My other references are all fictional: Elizabeth Bennet would be outraged, Jane Eyre too frightened, and Tess would succumb, just as I have” (p. 163). Ana seems to be under the misguided impression that Elizabeth was upset with Darcy for having baggage. That Jane was scared of Rochester’s baggage, which like most people he kept in the attic. But this is a terribly naïve reading of those books and the relationships they depict.
And this naïve attitude toward sex and romance is reiterated in the way that Ana repeatedly characterizes Christian as a monster, as depraved, as a nut-job, as scary, and as dangerous. At one point she says, “This man, whom I once thought of as a romantic hero, a brave shining white knight – or the dark knight as he said. He’s not a hero; he’s a man with serious, deep emotional flaws, and he’s dragging me into the dark. Can I not guide him into the light?” (p. 259). And that pretty much sums up the problem with Ana, Christian, and the plot. BDSM is something you do when you don’t know how to have a “real” relationship. Something you use when you don’t know what “real” love is. “Real” love being two flawless people with no baggage loving boinking. And that’s bullshit.
Oh BDSM! Up Yours! Kink serves three contradictory purposes within this story: it is a justification for Christian being an alphahole (He’s damaged! He’s dominant! He doesn’t know what real love is!). It is the erotic titillation and tension in the sex scenes—which, FYI, are so boring they could have acted as general anesthesia. I could have had a tooth drilled during and not realized it. And it is the obstacle or conflict the hero and heroine must overcome in order to be together.
The narrative wants to occupy a position where we get to take the moral high ground sexually speaking but at the same time get to be thrilled by the eroticism of BDSM. It wants us to think of Christian’s BDSM as something that’s wrong with him, a symptom of his inner, childhood demons. But it also wants us to get off on it. Like teenage girls giggling over pictures of penises, it seems to say of BDSM, “Tee he he he! That’s so gross!” But secretly loves the titillation it gets from viewing the forbidden.
Nowhere is this made clearer than in the depiction of Mrs. Robinson. Mrs. Robinson is the name Ana gives to the older femdomme who introduced Christian to BDSM when he was but fifteen years old. Ugh! But friends, it gets worse. Ana, in her typically sensitive and insightful way, refers to her in front of Christian as Mrs. Pedo. To which Christian responds, “She’s a dear, valued friend and a business partner. That’s all. We have a past, a shared history, which was monumentally beneficial for me, though it fucked up her marriage – but that side of our relationship is over” (p. 314).
Cue stunned silence.
I don’t even know where to begin with this: the fact that one of the few, and certainly the most important, femalez involved in BDSM is depicted as child molester. Or the fact that she gave Christian the only kind of love he would accept and saved from a life of darkness and drugs. Oh my! Or the fact that it basically justifies Ana’s view of BDSM as “scary” and “dark” . . . like Christian’s eyes. This is just so, so, so WRONG.
The characterization of Mrs. Robinson as a pedophile is followed by Ana getting turned on, for the umpteenth time, by Christian and then trying to use sex to get him to tell her about his past. Followed by BDSM being characterized as some kind of therapy. Followed by another mind-blowing orgasm. This is fairly typical as far as this book is concerned. One minute BDSM is wrong, wrong, wrong. So scary! So dark! Then the next it is hot, hot, hot! Then it is therapeutic. Then it is wrong and dark again. Then Ana’s getting off on images of Christian with a riding crop, and so on and so forth. In short, the depiction of BDSM as an identity and as sexuality is careless, inconsistent, and rests on common myths and misperceptions about it. And I haven’t even gotten to the contract, yet!
It is entirely obvious to me that this used to be Twilight fan fiction because James manages to capture the vibe of the original: the shoe-gazing, eye-gazing, pseudo-angst of Bella and Edward’s tumultuous love affair. Yes! It’s all there from the zero conflict to the zero chemistry! However, as it turns out—and believe me I’m as surprised to be saying this as you are to hear it—Twilight turns out to be the more sophisticated version. If we were to characterize Edward and Bella’s relationship as BDSM, then unlike Anastasia, Bella eagerly and unconditionally accepts Edward and his darkness. She embraces him and his baggage wholeheartedly. She is happy to go into his world. She never thinks of saving him from his darkness. She never thinks of him as a monster. Edward is the one in the closet, so to speak. Edward is the one who fears his desires. This book has completely missed that aspect of its source material.
For all that Twilight normalizes the Gothic, the monstrous, and the kinky it never “cures” it. It never tries to “drag it into the light” and reform it from its bad, bad ways. Instead, and I’m quite startled to realize this, Twilight posits a world in which the “monstrous”, too, can be happy. Even the villains experience real love and true love. In fact, Victoria’s pursuit of Bella is based upon the fact that she did love her partner and mourns his death. Fifty Shades, on the other hand, persistently characterizes kink as abnormal except when it uses it to excuse bad behavior or to titillate its readers. It is exploitive and appropriative in the worst sort of way. More importantly, it separates the “hearts and flowers” sort of romantic love Anastasia wants as being distinct from and incompatible with BDSM.
I could say a lot more about this book: the use of musical references as status symbols, the weird relationship to food the narrative has, the weird relationship to appetite generally the narrative demonstrates, how the text defines love and normalcy, etc. Not to mention the hoops E.L. James has to jump through to keep Ana innocent of the world. I mean seriously, what student doesn’t have an email address? Or a computer? And there is a helluva lot more to say about the depiction of BDSM. But I will refrain.
While I recognize that there are two other books in this series that I have not read and have, therefore, not completed the narrative arc, I have no confidence that the problems that were so garishly on display in this first book have, in any way, been resolved in the subsequent installments. And I will not be reading the others to have my suspicions confirmed. I’m quite positive that my predictions will come true: Jack Hyde will turn out to be some kind of bad dom; Mrs. Robinson will play the role of jealous, glamorous older lover that Christian has to break free from in order to be with Anastasia; and finally, Christian will be set free from his need to be a dominant once he has fully come to terms with his dark past.
But why did this infuriate me so? Why? I think, after much contemplation, it was because the way in which the clichés and elements of genre romance were deployed served to reveal a troubling and repugnant worldview. Troubling for the very fact that these are not issues isolated to 50 Shades of Grey. The artless way in which they were written simply laid bare the problems, exposing a terrible underlying ideology. Whether James realizes it or not, intended it or not, she has written a book whose ultimate message is this: the only people who deserve love are those who are perfect and normal. Redemption is nothing more than learning that you were always already chosen, always already perfect.
How Calvinist! I find this message foul and damaging. Because of that fact and because it is rendered in dull, robotic prose, I hereby give this book an F.
You can read more about Fifty Shades and its origins here along with recommendations of other books here.