Fifty Shades of Grey, by EL James

>> Friday, August 03, 2012

TITLE: Fifty Shades of Grey

PAGES: 528

SETTING: Contemporary US
TYPE: Erotic romance
SERIES: Starts a trilogy

When literature student Anastasia Steele goes to interview young entrepreneur Christian Grey, she encounters a man who is beautiful, brilliant, and intimidating. The unworldly, innocent Ana is startled to realize she wants this man and, despite his enigmatic reserve, finds she is desperate to get close to him. Unable to resist Ana’s quiet beauty, wit, and independent spirit, Grey admits he wants her, too—but on his own terms.

Shocked yet thrilled by Grey’s singular erotic tastes, Ana hesitates. For all the trappings of success—his multinational businesses, his vast wealth, his loving family—Grey is a man tormented by demons and consumed by the need to control. When the couple embarks on a daring, passionately physical affair, Ana discovers Christian Grey’s secrets and explores her own dark desires.

Erotic, amusing, and deeply moving, the Fifty Shades Trilogy is a tale that will obsess you, possess you, and stay with you forever.
I knew this book would not be my think. Sure, you can't really know until you actually read a book, but everything I'd heard about it made me certain I shouldn't even try to. I DO NOT read books I think I won't like just to write angry reviews about them. But then my book club chose 50 Shades of Grey for our August read (and this, by the way, is a mixed, about 50-50 male-female book club). And since I actually run the thing, no way I could just skip the month.

Well, no surprises. I thought it was badly written and a total mess. It took me about 3 weeks to read a bit over half of it, and then I just had to give up. I'd pick it up, read 10 or 20 pages, and got so angry I had to put it down.

Christian is a creepy douchebag, and sleazy, to boot. I hated how he was pressuring Ana into something she not only wasn't ready for, but wasn't even sure she wanted to try. Still, my reaction to him was mostly just "blergh". I would normally have detested him, but the thing is, the person he was being so horrible to was Ana, and she was the one who made me properly angry. I utterly despised the dumb little idiot.

Who the hell is this woman? Makeup "intimidates her", so she doesn't wear it. Not only is she a virgin, she hasn't ever even masturbated. She has no idea BDSM even exists. She doesn't even own a computer, or have an email address. What? She has the money to buy a car, but not an old, second-hand computer, if only to write her essays for uni? In fact, how the FUCK does someone graduate from university without a computer or email? Using her housemate's computer? Don't make me laugh. And why am I even getting angry about this, when there's so much more that's utter crap here? Like the fact that James is selling this unwordly, blank-minded cow as the ideal woman who every man wants?

And speaking of crap, or rather, holy crap... I wanted to slit my own throat every time Ana said it. Or just crap. Or holy shit. Or holy moses. Or... you get the picture. And since she did that ridiculously often, that meant the book made me feel suicidal. Oh, and don't get me started on Ana's subconscious (yeah, the word doesn't mean what you think it means, EL), and her utterly despisable "inner goddess".

Seriously, though, I hate that this book is so popular. I hate that many people's first experience of a romance novel (because that's what this is) is something this badly written, with such problematic messages. BDSM is not a valid lifestyle choice, but a symptom that one is fucked up, and it can be cured by the love of a good woman. A good woman is one who is preposterously unworldly and "pure", and who allows a man she's just met to control her sexuality. Ugh. Yeah, sorry, I don't have a sense of humour about this.

I'm also pissed off about the influence it is having and it will have on other books. Fortunately, publishers seemed to have latched on to the BDSM. This is an element that's just not my cup of tea, but should be easy enough for me to avoid in other books. I suspect they're getting it wrong, though (not least because although they talk about all sorts of kinky things, the sex I read was pretty vanilla, and it appears, from what my reading group people said, that it continues that way). I think what a lot of people actually liked, and what has made it such a runaway success, is precisely the relationship dynamics that I despised. I'm keeping my fingers crossed that publishers won't quite get that (just as they thought what people liked about Twilight was the vampires, rather than the creepy Bella-Edward relationship), and that I won't start accidentally stumbling upon the type of romance heroine that was so common in the bad old days of romance and that is fortunately a lot harder to find these days.

The one good point? The discussion at my book club was fantastic. Given what I'd seen in discussions online, I started out by requesting that people refrain from making assumptions about people who liked the book, but I needn't have worried. The discussion was non-judgmental enough that people who liked it were comfortable saying so, and people who hated it (and I think I was probably the most negative about it, even more than the lit fic-loving guy who objected so strongly to it when the book was picked last time) could also say exactly why. I really enjoyed that discussion, so in the end, I guess the moments of extreme annoyance were worth it.

MY GRADE: A DNF, strictly speaking, but the bits I read were a big, fat F, and I don't give those lightly.


Jane 3 August 2012 at 11:22  

For the readers that did enjoy it, what did you find to be te appeal? My neighbor and her husband both read it and for her it became a springboard for reading more books. She loved the intensity of the relationship and also enjoyed how crazy the two were for each other, in their strange ways.

Anonymous,  3 August 2012 at 15:24  

This isn't a romance novel, it's erotica at it's worst. I had no idea women were pining away for abusive a$$holes with a rapist mind-set. Obviously the trailer-trash mentality is sweeping the nation.

So, with all the quality books out there this piece of crap is what finally stirred your neighbor's interest to read? Really? And they actually admitted this? These are probably the same people who watch such stellar shows as, Hill-Billy Hand-Fishing, and that show with the exterminator, so I guess I shouldn't be too surprised a poorly written, ill-conceived piece of shyte like 50 Shades excited them. I can see it now---Happy Anniversary honey, here's your butt-plug.

If I were you, I 'd move...

Rosario 3 August 2012 at 16:31  

Jane: I think you're on to something with what you say about your neighbour. I suspect it's the romance at the core that most people like, the fantasy of the powerful, sophisticated man falling so completely for the average, nothing-special girl. I think this is the draw, not the 'sexy' BDSM. In fact, the book I recommended to the couple of people in my book club who liked it, and who've never read romance, wasn't BDSM at all. It was Overseas, by Beatriz Williams (which I couldn't finish either, actually, but which I think might appeal to them).

Rosario 3 August 2012 at 16:52  

Anonymous: I understand the anger, truly I do. I'm just very uncomfortable with judging the people who enjoyed it so sweepingly. I really don't think you can draw any conclusions just because someone liked this. I know people who liked it who are very well-read and whose taste in books generally agrees with mine (who mostly admit it was badly written, but say they liked it anyway). I also know people like Jane's neighbour, for whom reading 50 Shades meant realising that reading can be fun. Clearly there's something there that appeals to a lot of different people. It's a shame that this element came packaged in a poorly written piece of shyte, as you put it (which I agree this is), but here we are.

mepamelia 3 August 2012 at 21:48  

I am someone who reads A LOT (over 100 books a year) and who enjoys well-written books (for romance I prefer Duran, Chase and Kinsale) and who majored in English and is one of those "grammar nazis" people make fun of on the internet (I know my "there/their/they're"s). I also happen to believe that good writing is not just comprised of impeccable prose and poetic language (although much of it is); I believe it also has to be emotionally involving.
I personally loved the heck out of FSOG (all three books)because they got me emotionally involved. I'm hardly surprised others didn't have the same response. I loathe lots of things other people laud.
I can't fault anyone for not "getting" the appeal of FSOG even though I obviously got it. I do get a little worried about the rabid "hater" backlash against the book and those who loved it, but if other people feel the need to vent anonymously on the internet to get their jollies, well, have at it!
I read the first 2 books back in November well before they hit big and I was rather shocked (and still am) at their popularity. Why these books? Why now? I don't think anyone has come up with those answers.

Jane 3 August 2012 at 23:22  

@Rosario, I think Overseas is exactly the type of book that would appeal to FSOG readers. I had forgotten about that one and will need to suggest it to my neighbor.

I think for long time romance readers part of the aggression toward FSOG stems from this idea that it was the first to put forward a sexy and intense storyline. Of course it wasn't. There are hundreds of books that did it before and better but for whatever reason it didn't become the phenomenon so we can't really "blame" the readers who enjoyed the book for the phenomenon it has become.

There are really positive things about the book and the book's success. On the macro level, making it more acceptable for women to be sexual beings is super positive. Being able to talk about the book with our neighbors is another positive. Reducing the shaming of readers for their reading choices is another positive.

For me, I want to understand the why so that we can a) encourage more readers to come into the romance fold and b) recommend the right books to those new readers.

Reading like so many things is a habit and if this book is the gateway drug to a new habit called reading then rah rah rah FSOG.

Rosario 4 August 2012 at 09:41  

mepamelia: There you go, that's exactly what I meant in my response to anon. Plenty of people like you, who know perfectly well what good writing is, and who still liked the book.

On another note, I liked what you said here:

"I also happen to believe that good writing is not just comprised of impeccable prose and poetic language (although much of it is); I believe it also has to be emotionally involving."

I'm not sure if that's good writing or good storytelling, but I definitely need to have that to enjoy a book. There are books where I admire the writing, but the book itself leaves me cold (Barnes' Sense of an Ending, for instance), and to be honest, I'd rather read a badly written book where the story appeals to me (like, say, some of the early JR Wards).

Rosario 4 August 2012 at 09:46  

Jane: Oh, yes, I think that's spot on. A lot of the anger (including mine, to be honest) is about our having been doing it for ages, unnoticed. And then comes this book and people are talking about it as if it was something revolutionary, completely ignoring decades of romance history.

Trying to understand exactly why this particular book has become such a big success is one of the most interesting things about it. It's gone past a tipping point where people are reading it because people are reading it. But how did it get to that tipping point in the first place, and why didn't the thousand other romance novels that are similar?

Anonymous,  7 August 2012 at 13:04  

It got popular because it's an alternate-universe Twilight fanfic that's been online for years, converted to change the names so as to not get sued when the author decided to self-pub it.

People read it because it was free online and it was Bella/Edward + all the sex Ms Meyer had the unfortunate habit of cutting-to-next-scene on. It got a lot of page-views. I assume at that point the author began suffering from the delusion that the quality of her writing had something to do with its popularity and decided to unleash it upon the world.

I have no idea why it got popular as a book at that point...

Tara Marie 8 August 2012 at 01:01  

I almost ordered this book this morning. Popped over to Dear Author before actually ordering it for my kindle to see if there was anything "newsworthy" and discovered their column today and your review.

There's a part of me that would like to be part of the conversation, and yet, I'm not interested enough to buy it just to be part of a conversation with people who are clueless about real "romance".

Anonymous,  17 August 2012 at 15:33  

I agree that it is a shame this is marketed as a romance novel, and so for many people, this is their first exposure to that genre. But it is NOT a romance novel. It is written like someone's idea of a romance novel, someone who has NEVER read a romance. This book may very well be the first and last romance some people ever read. What a many talented romance novelists out there.

Anonymous,  19 August 2012 at 20:41  

The intensity of criticism that has resulted from the FSOG trilogy is a little much, particularly, those reviews that are so passionately critical of the fans. Shouldn't a good critique be objective and constructive? It seems many have crossed over into cruel, vicious, or worse yet, condescending of not only the books, but the people that read them. Obviously, the appeal of the books has mostly captured women and interestingly, women also write some of the harshest reviews. Are we once again our own worst enemy, seeking to embarrass or suggest women who enjoy the books are somehow doing something wrong? I love it when these reviewers express their concern for the well being of these poor, misguided readers. I picture them shaking their heads and wringing their hands as they contemplate the poor schmucks that will never know a good novel and are yet another alarming signal of societal decay. Sheesh, get over yourselves! Are you suggesting that women have to try to be intellectual when indulging in sex fantasies? REALLY? Because, if you are, that sounds a bit burdensome to me and it seems that no such pressure is placed on men. If the same harsh commentary is being associated with male sex fantasy material, it appears that they care not. And let's face it, the only reason there has not been a strong male following to FSOG is probably the lack of illustrations....I'm joking of course, but if you asked most heterosexual men if they had ever looked at and enjoyed artless nude photographs of women, I'd bet that most would say yes....But does this define their intellects or capacity to appreciate good books, art, etc? Are they humiliated or do these same female reviewers chuckle indulgently, winking at us, as they accept that "boys will be boys"? Are photographs vs. the FSOG trilogy a fair comparison of the differences in the way women and men think regarding their sexual fantasy life? I guess that depends on what you think the differences are in what men and women enjoy in terms of sexual fantasy. If you accept that erotica and romance novels are a long standing favorite for women, in the same way that pornography is for men, then all I am trying to say is that we don’t really try to humiliate men for enjoying porn, so why should we be so sensitive about what women enjoy reading about sex,? Could we already know that men might be multifaceted with capacities to enjoy and appreciate all kinds of mediums affecting their lives? And if that's the case for men, could it also be that women are multifaceted as well? Seriously, is it possible for a woman to enjoy a sex fantasy that includes a little domination, a pretty face, scads of money, and a butt plug or two, but still be able to appreciate a Picasso, and even support the Equal Rights Amendment? I don't know....this is heady stuff.....Frankly, I'm a little worried about any women or men who want to police what women sexually fantasize about and enjoy reading in the privacy of their own homes to the degree that the need exists to humiliate, generalize about our intelligence, or categorize us into the lost souls of the literary world. As a young girl, I worked for a wonderful librarian who impressed upon me that all reading that does not incite us to fear, hurt, or hate our fellow man is good and while I can appreciate the value of a good literary critique, I would question those that set a tone for rounding up all the women that enjoyed the books for a stoning in the town square.

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