Wednesday, April 04, 2012

The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Fifty Shades of Grey

E.L. James's Twilight fan fiction turned best-selling e-book Fifty Shades of Grey was recently optioned for a reported $5 million by Universal Pictures, and 575,000 paperback copies hit U.S. stores today. When I heard this, I hadn't yet read the book, but I was nonetheless a little tempted to move to space.

I realize that I might be alone in my dim view of fan fiction: Jean Rhys's Jane Eyre prequel The Wide Sargasso Sea is required reading in a lot of middle schools. Midnight in Paris made a lot of money even though it could alternately be titled 2 Moveable 2 Feastious. The New York Times gave P.D. James (no relation!) a nice little review for her Death Comes to Pemberly, which I assume is about digging up Jane Austen's arm bones and banging the keyboard of a MacBook Pro.

People are reading the hell out of Fifty Shades of Grey and calling it "mommy porn," saying it rekindled their marriages and introduced them to a world of erotic possibility. So even though I'm late to the phenomenon, I felt compelled to pick it up. After reading it, there are just a few things I don't understand. Namely, how it's possible that anybody is turned on by this.

On websites like, the original home of Fifty Shades of Grey, anybody who can successfully operate a mouse has long had the option to masturbate to a story where Worf has rough sex with DJ from Roseanne. For Fifty Shades to have such crossover success, I figured it was probably better written than most fan fiction, and that the characters had been successfully disguised enough not to merit outrage or lawsuits. I have very limited familiarity with the Twilight franchise, but Bella, Edward, and Jacob are culturally omnipresent enough that I could probably pick them out of a lineup.

Christian Grey, the Edward of our story, is a 27-year-old ginger who likes white wine and using emoticons in e-mails. He refuses to use contractions when he speaks, so in my head, I sort of pictured him sounding like Andy Dick at the medieval restaurant in The Cable Guy. Our Bella, Anastasia Steele, sounded like Speedracer, mostly because she's always shouting her catchphrase, "Holy crap!" At 21, she's never given a blow job, but when she does, instinctively knows to use lots of teeth. That dry, skittering sound you heard is your fallopian tubes curling like party ribbon.
Fifty Shades dispenses with the supernatural plotline but also the main erotic draw of the Twilight books: the fact that the characters can't or won't have sex. Unencumbered by Mormon sexual ethics, pacing, or a YA classification, E.L. James is free to go straight to the fucking.

Here is why the fucking is not very sexy:
The Prose: I'm sorry. I know, it's soft porn, and it's not there to better us. But the advantage of erotic fiction over a DVD of I Can't Believe I Ate the Whole Team is that books will always at least FEEL more high-minded than movies. Besides, there are ways to write sex well. This is not that. This is like Tom Wolfe–bad sex scenes but punctuated by non-sex scenes that are gut-wrenchingly awful. A passage where we find out what Anastasia Steele looks like via girl-frowning-at-her-appearance-in-a-mirror exposition should be punishment for vehicular manslaughter in some states.
Read the rest over at the Vulture website.

Postscript by The Bookman:

Fifity Shades of Grey, which is part one (500+ pages) of three part series of books, was causing such a sensation in the international media a couple of weeks back that I decided I couldn't wait for the paper version to arrive from Random House (publication tomorrow - 5 April) so I bought a copy to read on my Kindle.In a nutshell I suppose I would sum it up as Mills & Book with sex, lots and lots of sex.
The book is primarily about the relationship (especially the sexual relationship) between fabulously wealthy, young (not yet 30) businessman and experienced man of the world, Christian Grey, and newly graduated, unworldly, sweet and innocent especially (in matters sexual) Anastasia Steele. She is an editor at a Seattle publishing house.
One of the things I dislike about reading on Kindle is that you do not have page numbers, rather it tells you the % of the book you have read. So while reading this book I had no idea how long it was but when my print copy turned up this week it turned out to be far far longer than an average novel at 520 pages. It is the first of three parts and apparently all are a similar length.The subsequent titles are Fifty Shades Darker, and Fifty Shades Freed.
Having now read all three (it took me a week!) I can tell you that there is a family story running through the books and also the story of some unknown person who is out to harm the two protagonists but essentially the books are about the erotic relationship between Ana (as her friends call her) and Christian and their inability to be together for more than a few minutes without becoming carnally engaged! No matter whether it be in an elevator, a hotel lobby, the kitchen, in the shower or the car, wherever they are they do it! And with gusto.


Renee said...

Yes, but what did you think of it? I can tell you're holding back ...Would you recommend it?

Anonymous said...

Ahhh so you've read them all! That must mean they were engaging enough for you to get through all three of them... I read them all in a week myself. And in amidst all the sex sex sex, there is an engaging and intriguing storyline. Well, for me anyway.
Always enjoy the blog. Thank you.