You know, it seems almost pointless to write anything about Fifty Shades Of Grey. The books have dominated the headlines for months and have been analyzed and reviewed within an inch of their tawdry lives. It’s old news. So why write about it now?
I feel like I have to. My blog is about women’s erotica after all and it seems rather negligent that I haven’t addressed the topic which has essentially defined the genre in 2012. I’ve left it til this late stage because I put off reading the books for a long time. I didn’t want to because I’d heard so many bad things about them. And reading is a source of leisure for me, whereas reading erotica is work. I wasn’t keen to give up more of my free time to read a sex book. I finally gave in because I felt I had a professional obligation to review them and understand the source of all the fuss.
So, now I have. And damn, I wish I hadn’t.
Last month I tweeted that I didn’t mind the first book. And, if I’m honest, I’ll say it’s not that bad, if you take it for what it is: a simple bit of guilty wish-fulfilment fantasy for women. I read it that way and actually enjoyed bits of it. You could say my “Inner Goddess” had fun with it, even while my feminist, sex positive Conscience was cringing at it all.
It’s utterly unrealistic in so many ways: a 21 year old virgin who has never masturbated suddenly has orgasms just from getting her nipples sucked and can give deep throat blowjobs with ease. A 27 year old is a billionaire, somehow. And he falls in love with said 21 year old virgin for no reason at all except she bites her lip. They have mind-blowing sex together all the time. Yada yada yada. But I guess that’s just to be expected from guilty wish-fulfilment fantasy. Because wouldn’t it be nice if your first experience of sex was fantastic? Wouldn’t it be nice to have a lover who is an expert at turning you on and making you come, every time? Wouldn’t it be nice not to ever have to worry about money again?
And I’ll say that when I shut down my brain while reading it, I rather enjoyed it all. The “kinky fuckery” wasn’t too bad either.
Still, the repetition of phrases and scenarios was annoying as was the over-the-top dialogue and purple prose. Ana says “Oh my” 72 times during sex in the first book and by the end I was hearing it in George Takei’s voice. And Christian is certainly a less-than-impressive hero, what with all his stalky controlling tendencies. But in the first book he’s kind of nice as well so you tend to forgive that and put it down to EL James’ attempt to create a complex character.
But then the second and third books happen and fuck, by the end I was hoping both characters would die in a firey helicopter accident or at least Anastasia would kill Christian by making him choke on his unwashed butt plugs. Because what starts out as a vaguely interesting idea (how to balance conflicting sexual needs in a new relationship) turns into an endless, repetitive round of jealousy, anger, ongoing avowals of love and then extremely similar sex scenes. There’s a few other plot points in there somewhere, enough to maybe make a single novel, but in between is just a wasteland of boring, painful idiocy. Reading it was like dragging myself through lavender-smelling broken glass. I did my best to skip over bits, like the 15 page description of Ana giving Christian a haircut (!) but even then it’s hard to get away from the repetition.
It might have been OK if the sex had stayed interesting. But no. Despite the promise of “Fifty Shades Darker”, there’s very little fun kinky sex in the second book; it’s all vanilla stuff. But not good vanilla stuff; it’s all insipid and unimaginative. The third book has a bit more kink but not much. Unfortunately a much hoped-for BDSM anal fucking scene is relatively tame, not to mention unrealistic. And of course the depiction of BDSM in all three books isn’t really accurate and the way James links an enjoyment of kink to childhood abuse is wrong (Pamela Stephenson Connolly’s article on this is worth reading).
Worse, though, is the transformation of Christian from a typical romantic “handsome yet troubled” hero into a seriously unattractive asshole. Honestly, he just becomes such a mean, controlling bastard that you’re left wondering why Ana hasn’t just kicked him in the balls and high-tailed it out of there. Instead, she simpers and does what she says, agreeing that she’ll try and be “tolerant” of his abusive behaviour because she loves him. And when she does feel inclined to tell him off, he distracts her with sex. As Katrina Lumsden wrote in her amusing review: “Christian spends the entire book shutting Ana up with his penis.” (I highly recommend Katrina’s amusing gif-enhanced reviews of the books).
So I think the ultimate reason these books suck is because the two characters are just so goddam annoying that it becomes a chore to have to spend time with them. You just want to slap them both and tell them to wake up to themselves. And instead we’re given the “happily ever after” scenario, even though Christian hasn’t really changed and is still a controlling dick.
It took me a few weeks to get to the end of these books and I want my time back. It’s been a long time since I’ve hated a book so much. Usually I stop reading it if it bugs me but I forced myself to finish it because it was work-related. Hell, I didn’t even do that with Dickens’ Bleak House at uni. *
Still, at least I know what everyone is talking about now and I can add my opinion to what it all means.
Many people are pondering the question: how did this book become such a best-seller? Why, after so many negative reviews, is it still selling? And how on earth is it that Publisher’s Weekly has named EL James the writer of the year? Because it seems mortifying that something this awful could become the cultural phenomenon that it has.
I think we can put it down to a perfect storm of factors. Firstly, sex sells and the first book does offer a lovely guilty pleasure to women; for many this novel is just a pleasant bit of brainless erotic entertainment. Secondly, the media went nuts for it and created a buzz about it, to the point that people bought it out of curiosity, or to know what all the fuss was about. This created a kind of self-perpetuating cycle, to the point that it seemed necessary to read it, just to keep up with the water-cooler conversations. Thirdly, e-books have made it easier and cheaper to buy books, especially erotica, and this book just happened to have been released at the right time.
I’m not surprised Publisher’s Weekly is lauding the author. She’s made her publishers – and herself – a shitload of money. And the would-be author within me is snarlingly jealous, as are most writers, I suspect. EL James has lived the dream – becoming a best-selling author, making millions with her first book – and she did it with a huge pile of badly written crap. I’m certain there are plenty of experienced authors who are simply fuming and asking themselves why it wasn’t them. I think I might look on the bright side and see it as something to hope for: if SHE can do it with that, surely I can get somewhere with my work?
In the aftermath of Fifty Shades has come discussion as to whether the book has been good for women as well as good for erotica. I think I’m on the side of those who think it’s a positive thing, despite the general awfulness of the novels. A book that gets people to read is good. A book that gets women to enjoy themselves sexually is also good. And the heightened awareness of women’s erotica in the media has also been a positive thing because it’s created a more accepting environment. If everyone you know has read (or attempted to read) Fifty Shades of Grey, you can’t be a “pervert” for enjoying erotica, right?
I posted on my personal (non porn) Facebook page that I’d finished the third book and was surprised by how many of my female friends and family chimed in to comment. Firstly, there was no hesitation to admit they’d read it and secondly, some even said they went looking for the “good bits”. I think this book may have inspired a new culture of openness and that’s cool.
The other good thing is that sales of erotic e-books have soared in 2012. People have discovered good erotic literature. The fact that Fifty Shades is so awful hasn’t put them off; rather, they’ve gone looking for something better. Given that I’ve spent 12 years promoting women’s erotica, including good sex stories, this is great to see. And hopefully it will encourage women to seek out good porn as well.
* You know, I might have finished Bleak House if it had contained more kinky fuckery. Note to self: rewrite Dickens novels as erotica. Actually, second note to self: don’t. I’m NOT going to try to read Bleak House again.