I read Fifty Shades of Grey expecting loads of bad writing and S&M up the kazoo…and got neither. But questions? Oh, I came away with questions.
What is good writing? Some reviewers lambaste the writing—and Fifty Shades has its quirks. Christian Grey, the dark hero, often “cocks his head to one side,” as though he could cock it any other way. And maybe an editor or someone should have realized that no one in Seattle would say, “I shall no longer have to sit in rows of anxious students,” or speak of a man’s “bespoke suit.” I know the British thought of English first, but that just ain’t the way we talk it in America.
On the other hand, I agree with thriller author Sean Black, who says in Fifty Million Shades of Green: The real story behind Fifty Shades of Grey, that “to complain about the writing “is to ignore the fact that the ability to engage on a storytelling level with readers often trumps the ability to craft beautiful prose.”
So it must be something else that so many people find so fascinating.
Is it the S&M? If that’s the case, our society is worse off than I ever imagined. I mean, I first saw the movie 9 ½ Weeks in 1986. There’s not much in Fifty Shades that’s not in 9 ½ Weeks. Where’s everybody been for the last 26 years?
And, besides, erotic stories that include S&M has been a fast-growing segment of romance for several years, according to Ellora's Cave publisher Raelene Gorlinsky. Should anyone be surprised that a book from the subgenre finally hit the big time?
Is it the romance? "What I loved was that it was a great love story,” a 39-year-old mother and lawyer from New Jersey told ABC News recently. To which I say, “What love story?”
Seriously. A 21-year-old virgin who talks like a seventh-grader meets a handsome, rich dominant male and, after three weeks, all they’ve done is have sex and talk about having sex. And when she decides they need to talk more, they just rehash a bunch of their old conversations.
Oh, Christian is willing to go beyond his usual limits with Ana, which in his case means having sex without whips and chains. And I guess more happens in books two and three, where the heroine, Ana, “fixes” Christian so they can finally realize their Happily-Ever-After.
Or maybe it’s because Christian thinks Ana is so desirable that he has to have her no matter how “yucky” she is at the moment. In one case, it’s after she’s just gotten back from a five-mile run; in another, it’s when she’s having her period and he yanks out her tampon as part of the foreplay. (Hey, I agree that if women can handle menstruation, men certainly should be able to as well. But, really, he doesn’t even ask her first.)
What makes a great romance story? Great characters you care about. Does Fifty Shades have that? Meh.
Is the book a romance at all? Romance author and USA Today blogger Joyce Lamb says no. “The ending (of book one) is not happy,” she recently posted. “The No. 1 rule in romance novels: A happy ending is a must, even when a book is only the first in a trilogy that probably does have a happy ending. Also, the ‘hero’ of Fifty Shades of Grey does something at the end that is not redeemable by romance novel standards.”
What’s all the fuss about? Or, more precisely, what should all the fuss be about? I’m pretty sure that the use of floggers and vaginal pleasure balls, and not tampon tugging, is the reason Fifty Shades has been banned in some places. Which also says something unfunny about our times. Is it really all that bad if some people get jiggy when other people shove steel spheres into their orifices? Isn’t it far worse that Ana talks about Christian the way you hear abused women talk about their abusers? Like musing about how hitting her is how he “gets his kicks” and apologizing to him for being angry over a severe spanking by saying, “I asked for it.”
I’m not alone in wondering about this. In her HubPages blog, writer and public health professional “LauraGT” writes, “What is disturbing about the popularity of this novel is not the mild S&M scenes, but how the storyline so closely mimics the patterns displayed in an abusive relationship. Remove the S&M entirely, and the basic dynamics of power and control that exists in abusive relationships remain.”
Furthermore, Ana only participates in Christian’s sadomasochistic “play” because she thinks it will make him love her enough to change. But “in reality,” LauraGT says, “it is rare for someone to change in this type of situation, without serious professional help.”
She goes on to articulate my thoughts quite well, acknowledging that while she seems to be taking the book too seriously, “I know it’s fantasy. I know it’s escape. But, why are people still writing about romance this way? And, why are so many women (and men) gobbling it up? One explanation is that women still don't feel powerful (or equal) in their relationships, and they seek fantasy worlds where women with magical powers are able to change the men in their lives and make them more loving.”
That’s more than I expected to take away from this wildly popular and widely derided book, so maybe it is a work to be taken seriously. I don’t know if I’ll ever have all my questions about it answered, but I do know I won’t be finishing the trilogy.
And, no, it’s not the tampon thing or the thin lines between eroticism and abuse. In the end, I just don’t care all that much about the characters.