~Two Avid, Intelligent Readers Discuss Fifty Shades of Grey~
Warnings: This post contains mature content and has spoilers.
The Controversy that Binds (heh)
The idea for this blog derived from a recent conversation I had with OstiumUnity, contributing, opinionated author and fellow reader (hereafter referred to as Lisa) after the preview for the movie aired and we decided to reread the novel. Also, Annie Neugebauer’s post “Why I’m Tired of People Ragging on Twilight“ got the old wheels turning on bandwagons and the blind hatred of popular books on risqué matters (i.e. spanking billionaires and sparkly vamps). Not only am I tired of people hating on E.L. James’s debut novel without even ever having read it, but even of the people who have read it, take a chill pill! I understand not being interested in reading a romance, or a book that explores the BDSM lifestyle—however tamely—but don’t hate on it for being those things.
Fifty Shades of Grey is a provocative novel–obviously not the first of its genre, but currently, one of the most well-known. It gets people asking questions and that’s why literature lives on, right? Not that Fifty can be considered “Literature”, but we’ll get to that. For instance, people have suggested that the novel promotes violence toward women (I don’t think it does). The novel also gets people examining related issues, like the possibility of a normal relationship growing out of this type of arrangement. But I want to delve into the mechanisms of hatred and fanfare intertwined with the reception of this novel, and also get to the bottom of this question: “why were these books so successful, and what can I learn from that?” The fact is, E. L. James tapped into a previously unexplored demographic, and whether luck or fate catapulted her into popularity, she’s there. The whole of the female population cannot all be idiots for reading it, as many have claimed. So let’s not write off the female reading population as female-authored books are often done because they are deemed frivolous, inconsequential and shallow. Let’s give women more credit than that by exploring what faults are overlooked by readers in favor of what attributes. But of course, as a fellow writer who doesn’t want to come off as jealous, I can’t, in good form, give James the critique of her life without raising the novel’s virtues to the microscope as well (haters need to deal with it. And don’t be so jealous, it makes your face look ugly).
Before opening the dialogue/critique, I want to preface that for me to talk of these characters as though I know them, I have to feel something for them, and I do. But, essentially, what follows is discussion of the things that drove me through my first read of the book, and the things that made me feel hollow throughout my second read, the things that made us, my fellow reader, Lisa, and I, at our worst moments, consider the novels “inconsistent slabs of quivering lunacy”–Lisa’s words. At our best moments, we calmly stepped back and tried to analyze, to disassemble so we could better understand how the novel ‘works’ when put back together.
• For a romance, this book almost derails the genre’s expected formula, as it does not culminate in the ultimate feel good conclusion. This first installment necessarily leads to a series, ending with a dramatically convenient cliffhanger that is resolved two weeks later at the start of Fifty Shades Darker. Slightly annoying, but I did appreciate the unexpected end and the reality of the bumpy—sometimes mountainous—road these characters must undertake to mutual contentment.
• It boils down to a sweet romance about people coming together with their own fears and ghosts from the past through their daily relationship-building interactions. While Ana really has to work out her inconsistent feelings of inadequacy, Christian’s journey as a character is an admirable—albeit unrealistic—one.
• Sometimes great dialogue—good character interaction
• For anyone ignorant to the mechanisms of BDSM, the novel pulls the curtain back to give you a little, though perhaps slightly watered-down, romanticized peek at new and potentially exciting ways to conceive sex and sexual fantasies
• Uses technology to develop the relationship—their email exchanges are fun, flirty, and insinuating—as mentioned above. The stuff of epic romance—well, maybe not epic. Contemporary though, yes.
• E. L. James has the best friend thing down. Writers can appreciate this, surely. Lisa pointed out that “Ana is one of the few romantic female leads that I’ve ever read that actually WANTS to discuss what’s going on with her best friend.” She wants feedback.
• Anastasia has issues with accepting this lifestyle, though she’s intrigued by it. And that’s realistic and good. Though I disdain the lack of penetrating inner dialogue (just trust that I am aware of every pun), there is one particular scene after Anastasia has read the contract wherein her consideration of Christian’s proposal is a truly plaintive inner dialogue despairing what she cannot have, what she thinks Christian does not want to give her.
“He doesn’t look back. I close the door and stand helpless in the living room…For the first time ever, I feel lonely and uncomfortable…unhappy with my own company. Have I strayed so far from who I am? I know that lurking, not very far under my rather numb exterior, is a well of tears. What am I doing? I have fallen fro someone who’s so emotionally shut down, I will only get hurt–deep down I know this–someone who by his own admission is completely fucked up. Why is he so fucked up? Perhaps if he was more normal he wouldn’t want you…and in my heart of hearts I know this is true.”
–Fifty Shades of Grey
This melancholic uncertainty resonates on a human level with readers. And I posit that this, this humanity is what reverberates with readers and stirs them into a frenzy. Women couldn’t just read a book of sex and enjoy it unless there were some emotions being played upon, no matter how much it tapped into deep-seated fantasies—that would be tripe.
• A word from Lisa on the treatment of the romantic feminine stereo-type: “James takes an innocent virgin and drops her smack dab in the middle of a very lustful and violent lifestyle. Ana has her reservations and fears, but for the most part she likes it. For the first time in mainstream fiction (that I’ve seen), James dared to write a female character that preferred rough sex, fucking, as opposed to making love. People argue this book advocates the bad treatment of women, but I believe it proves that even the most innocent of women knows what she wants and goes for it and isn’t afraid to break some of the rules of “normal” sex. That’s kind of empowering.” Not only is Ana an intelligent—if not a bit dense—ambitious, strong, and emotionally developed leading lady, she is sensual. “After all, in the end Christian re-defines his life for her, not the other way around. Ana lets herself be dominated, but not controlled. She sets boundaries and leaves Christian when she becomes convinced that he will be unable to respect them, or find his own satisfaction in them.”
I think this flipping the script on gender-roles, sexism in literature, and the prevalence of the bygone “angel in the house” theory is a great achievement of Fifty. Are there other issues with the novel that keep it from being a great literary achievement itself? Sure.
• Sometimes not so great dialogue, and specially not great inner dialogue. Ana does not linger on things long enough. Sometimes you want a more in-depth reaction to something, and it’s completely absent—with a few exceptions like when she reads the contract and when Grey first punishes her.
• Lack of clear character motivation/character inconsistency. Lisa laid it out best with this break down:
“Ana goes from naturally submissive and painfully shy, to snarky and independent, then willing to try his life style, then to completely unwilling, to curious, to insistent that she deserves better, to soooo in love that nothing matters anymore.”
Another quandary Lisa and I have beef with is that Ana has low self-esteem something fierce, and yet she acknowledges every man who throws himself at her. “Christian notices it too and she never argues with him. It gives her such false humility that it’s disgusting. And despite all the kinky fuckery, by book three she still can’t say the word vagina, it’s always ‘down there’ or ‘that place’.” Maybe this is an issue with too much character consistency. News flash, Ana: Your innocent card has been played and torn to shreds. It’s time to accept your newfound maturity and sexual awakening.
• Every book has its thorns, and I’m sure we’re all in agreement on this one: The freaking inner goddess. But the typical criticisms about the writing have more to do with character flaws, like Ana’s inner-goddess, which seems to grow innocently enough from some references to her subconscious in the beginning but then turns into this disease of Ana being unable to just feel the damn things herself. Regarding the charges of horrific writing quality, yes, James’s writing quality is not stellar by any means, but it’s not all bad. The novel actually boasts some nice, crisp sentences, and does something I like, which is gives the reader some geography: how a room is laid out, the way a person’s sitting, where their eyes are looking.
• In their criticisms, people are too unforgiving with idiosyncrasies. Lisa points out that “the lip biting is often mentioned as subconscious to Ana, and also is a point of eroticism for Christian, so of course attention is drawn to it. Christian shows frustration by pulling his fingers through his hair.” Plain and simple. Everyone has idiosyncrasies, including every writer (which must mean that James’s is repetition). So though the reviews poking fun at these things can be quite hilarious, they’re really neither here nor there.
The blatant repetition of entirely unnecessary things begs the question though: Why didn’t they catch this in the editing/publishing process? It comes down to someone clearly having dropped the ball on polishing, and James should have done a couple more drafts before publishing, or at least yoked a couple of content readers.
• Anyone else feel a little miffed by the fact that this novel is obviously so little changed from James’s fanfic idea, and therefore from the Twilight characters? True, Edward was never a sadist billionaire CEO, but that and the fact that the supernatural element is gone is about all that’s changed. It’s a recycled idea. She even keeps things that Edward said to Bella in the Twilight series verbatim: “Breathe, [insert character’s name].” And while James desperately tries to hold onto characteristics of Edward and Bella in these ‘new’ characters, rather than letting them take on their own life, that’s when they fall flat—like Ana inexplicably being self-conscious, believing herself unworthy of male attention, yet acknowledges that three—later four—men aside from Christian want her. But hell, whatever, it’s her own idea to recycle if she wants. Except that it’s not. It’s kind of plagiarism.
• And I don’t even want to get into the blatant racial stereotyping with José
The BDSM Factor
While it’s true that “mainstream fiction had not yet touched upon the subject. [James] brought this subject to the forefront of popular literature, started a whole new sub-genre that awakened the erotic curiosity of many ‘vanilla’ women”. However, Lisa also has some valid points regarding the negative portrayal of BDSM in the novel:
“I don’t think James is necessarily looking in depth to it. It’s arguable of course, but it seemed, to me anyway, that she took a rudimentary understanding of a BDSM relationship and made it her own unique thing. If anything, she bastardized it, made it even more taboo because Christian is how he is because of a heavily emphasized traumatized childhood that resulted in the absolute need to control all things, almost to the level of OCD, that manifested into BDSM as a result of an older ‘cougar’ archetype taking advantage of him through a relationship that was actually illegal considering Christian was not of consenting age. Now, in the first book, even the second, James kind of leaves it up to the reader to determine what you think of the ‘Mrs. Robinson’ character. You can choose to hate and blame her for Christian’s preconceived faults like Ana does, or you can agree with Christian when he insists she gave him a way to control the chaos of his traumatized mind. However, in the third book, James make very clear HER opinion of the matter when the truth of their relationship is revealed to Christian’s family and ‘Mrs. Robinson’ is ostracized because of it. And also through a couple of key conversations Ana has with Christian’s psychologist, the reader gets the idea that James feels like the BDSM relationship is an aberration that Ana cured through her unconditional love.”
Despite the flaws and the hate, this novel did something amazing for whatever exploration of the BDSM subject/lifestyle it undertook by transforming it into a timeless romance. I have to feel a modicum of awe at what E.L. James has accomplished in the publishing industry.
Tell me I’m crazy. Tell me I’m looking at it with too critical of an eye–a fellow writer’s eye and perhaps always with a bit of why-not-me envy–or concur, or hell, argue your own point(s). What do you think?
 Her post, “Fifty Shades of Grey, a Discussion“, is a nice crash course in the novel with a handy mini-summary and definitions.
 Question taken from the “Fifty Shades of Grey, a Discussion” post by Annie Neugebauer, under “A Final Thought for Writers”