If you didn’t like E. L. James’ book, don’t worry, everything’s fine with you. You’re not alone; it happened to many of us…
If you read it and happened to like it, that’s fine too. In this you are certainly not alone...
After hearing so many controversial comments about the book that is selling millions of copies, I wanted to form my own opinion re: Fifty Shades.
The book jacket says: “Erotic, amusing, and deeply moving, the Fifty Shades Trilogy is a tale that will obsess you, possess you, and stay with you forever."
Hmm, I thought, using – coincidentally – the Fifty Shades heroine’s favourite expression for just about any situation (even when she means Mmmm, as in ‘tastes good’), I love books that are obsessive, possessive and especially those that decide to stay with me until death do us apart.
So, a few days ago I went to Walmart, bought the whole trilogy, 30% off, sent my kids to bed early and curled into my bed with my newest ‘guilty pleasure’ acquisition, the book that’s not only on everybody’s lips, but on so many bestseller lists as well.
I won’t say I fell asleep. After 115 pages, and few peeks toward the end of the novel, I put Fifty Shades down, went to my book shelves and pulled out the newest Susan Elizabeth Phillips’ novel. Soon, I giggled and laughed, turning page after page of The Great Escape, following the adventures of Lucy Jorik, a smart, funny girl who might not know what she wants, but she surely knows what she doesn’t, especially in a man.
What went so wrong within these first chapters of this most recent cultural phenomenon that made me abandon it so quickly?
I randomly picked a few examples (feel free to disagree with me):
Present tense narrative (historical present): On such short notice, I can recollect only two books where present tense narrative was masterfully used: The Notebook by Agota Kristof (which is, in my opinion, one of the most powerful novels of the twentieth century) and, more recently, April and Oliver, Tess Callahan’s debut novel (2009). Combined with the main character’s inner dialogue and first person narrative, historical present makes Fifty Shades a laborious read.
The main character: Anastasia Steele is an English Literature student, a young girl described as happiest in her own company, curled up with the English classics, yet her vocabulary is on the level of a high school drop-out and her thoughts are monosyllabic. I personally didn’t bother, but somebody actually counted all those craps, holy craps, hmmms, oh mys, ohs and ahs Anastasia uses page after page, paragraph after paragraph, sentence after sentence. She raises her eyebrows, frowns, grins wickedly, stops breathing, smirks, narrows her eyes and turns red, crimson, scarlet, and puce (!?), flushes and blushes so much that the book could have easily be called “Fifty Shades of Red”… Should I mention a ghost of a smile that doesn’t reach his lips used several times within first few chapters?
Secondary characters, e. g. her BFF, Kate Kavanagh, who alternatively advises Anna she should keep seeing Christian (“He likes you, Anna!”) and should stop seeing him (“He’s a dangerous man, Anna!). The same pattern repeats several times. Ms. Kavanagh reasons? For you should – Christian is rich; for you shouldn’t – well, he’s a reserved and private person…
Description of Anna and Christian’s physical appearance or, rather, the lack, of it. I simply can’t visualize them. I know she had problematic hair, blue eyes too big for her face, we know her age and height… I still can’t picture her with any more success than I can put a real, human face on a mannequin in a department store. Same goes for Christian. We have to take Ana’s word that he is oh so handsome. Well, he is, if your idea of masculinity is reduced to long, manicured fingers and grey eyes. I need more. I need Lord John Grey, for example. Those long fingers and smoky eyes do not sing the epitome of male beauty to me, and they’re not nearly enough to make Christian Grey possible and alive in my imagination.
I doubt anybody had the similar problem picturing Grey’s literary predecessor, Edward Cullen, but throwing Twilight into this article would open another Pandora’s Box, so I’ll leave it for some other time.
As I continued navigating through the book the next day, I easily recognized another Fifty Shades’ literary ancestor: a 1954 erotic novel Story of O, by French author Pauline Reage. O is a young photographer; Rene is a rich nobleman. He takes her to his castle, where she is, in the name of love, subjected to sexual submission.
Fifty Shades of Grey is by no means a literary upgrade of its French prototype. Yet, Story of O has stayed where it belongs - in the shady zone of cheap erotica. Fifty Shades turned soft, unconvincing erotica into mainstream fiction.
My question is: what is so terribly missing from our lives that make us women flock to online and traditional bookstores and Walmarts to buy millions of copies of this book? Reverse feminism? An overdose of gender equality that, aside from all its benefits, somehow took a part out of our femininity? Loneliness? A chance to take a bite of forbidden fruit without risks and guilt associated with unfiltered Internet search and back rooms of specialized magazine stores?
Or is the Fifty Shades trilogy simply a colossal mix-up followed by a collective hallucination: E. L James actually wrote an erotic parody of Twilight, it somehow got misunderstood for real fiction, E. L. James said, okay, fine with me, and voila…
The previous cultural phenomenon of this magnitude was Da Vinci Code. Stephpen King called it ‘intellectual equivalent of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese”, but it was relatively easy to identify some of the major reasons of Da Vinci Code’s global success in controversies surrounding the Catholic Church, and our undeniable attraction to conspiracy theories.
Is it possible to explain popularity of E. L. James’ books with our dark curiosity when it comes to sexual taboos and pseudo-taboos?
Being a linguist, a former literary fiction editor and an eclectic reader doesn’t qualify me to even guess the answers, although I would love to know them.
Maybe Ana Steele will find them for me, before the end of her love affair with Christian Grey.
In meantime, if you like erotic fiction, here are plenty of novels and authors in our collection you might enjoy reading (This time, I not even going to hit you with the classics such as Henry Miller or Vladimir Nabokov.)
Luisa Burton and her Hidden Grotto novels (In the Garden of Sins; Bound in Moolight, Whispers of the Flesh and House of Dark Delights)
Jaci Burton (Riding Temptation; The Perfect Play)
Lora Leigh (pretty much everything she wrote; for extra-hot, try Dangerous Pleasure from her "Bound Hearts series)
Robin Schone (Scandalous Lovers, Private Places, Cry for Passion).
Back to the beginning of the article, if you want a book that will indeed stay with you forever, find Ana, Sorror, a novella about passionate love between brother and sister (erotica plus a taboo plus first-rate literature), or Memoirs of Hadrian, both by Marguerite Yourcenar.
If you feel you need a quick antidote of pure art, read Shandor Marai’s Embers. This one is a good candidate to stay for you forever.
P.S. I won’t say there's absolutely nothing I liked about Fifty Shades of Grey. I like the title and I think the cover's cool. There is also something touchingly honest and naïve in Fifty Shades that I have hard time to explain. I’m quite sure the author didn’t have profit in mind when she wrote it. It seems that she simply wanted to share her story with us, for better or worse.
P.P. S. As I mention, this article is based on Volume One, and doesn’t talk about the rest of the trilogy. If I find reasons to change my opinion down the road, I’ll let you know.