Fifty shades of blah

I have mixed feelings about the “literary phenomenon” that is Fifty Shades of Grey. Mostly with the word “literary” being in any way associated with this book and partly with people recommending it so highly to strangers. Strangers like me, a bookseller who is paid to interact with you and doesn’t at all want to know about how much the book impacted your life and how I should read it right now. You know you’re telling me to read erotica, right? You’re pushing a book about bondage and domination on someone you don’t know. It’s creepy.

I’d like to say I’m no prude but I’m sure some people are already shaking their heads at my opinion. It’s just sex, they say. Or, it’s a love story.

It’s not a love story, though. These characters don’t know what love is. They are manipulative and shallow and one-dimensional. And poorly written.

Ugh, fine, so I haven’t read the books. The closest I’ve gotten is reading the 50 Shades of Suck tumblr. ( The blogger read the books, pulled out quotes, and made snarky comments about them. My kind of blog. For example:

Why is anyone the way they are? That’s kind of hard to answer. Why do some people like cheese and other people hate it? Do you like cheese?

Fifty Shades of Grey, p. 75.

[We got a regular Aristotle on our hands here.]

And it took about five minutes of searching for one that wasn’t about sex. Here’s another one, it might be about sex, I’m honestly not sure:

It’s only just not painful.

Fifty Shades of Grey, p. 56.

[That’s not a sentence.]


His voice is warm and husky like dark melted chocolate fudge caramel. . . or something.

Fifty Shades of Grey, p. 16.

[Just a good descriptive sentence.]

There is no way I would make it through a book written this poorly. I need to think up more ways to say “poorly written” just to express myself properly. I’m fine with sex, erotica has been around for decades, Anne Rice did it in the 90s and people hid the books they bought in paper bags like winos. I don’t think we need to move backward in regards to a healthy discussion about sex, I think it has its place. And that place is not at the register of a bookstore. Don’t tell me it’s an amazing book. Anastasia sounds like a moron. She’s 22, never been drunk, never had sex, never held hands with a man. I’m not saying you need to drink all the time and have sex all over the place to have a real life. But someone so sheltered and safe jumping into such an intense relationship is moronic. She enters into a contractual BDSM relationship with a cold, distant man whom she doesn’t even like half the time. He’s manipulative, rich, and powerful and used to getting what he wants. She’s naïve and foolish.

“I’d never do anything I didn’t want to do, Christian.” And as I say the words I don’t quite feel their conviction because at this moment in time I’d probably do anything for this man seated beside me.

Fifty Shades of Grey, p. 67.

[This bitch has known him, legit, two days.]

This isn’t love; this is lust. And lust if fine, let’s not dress it up as romance and parade it around the streets. Call it what it is.

E. L. James, the author of this bestselling trilogy, admits that she wrote it during a midlife crisis. She was writing down her personal sexual fantasies and playing out some Twilight fan fiction in her head. She self-published the books and they took off. Now she’s famous. People are rabid about these books. Sales are through the roof and it’s difficult to avoid the discussion.

I attended a BDSM talk at my local bookstore revolving around the first book in the trilogy. About 60 people showed up, mostly middle-aged women, a few who were in their twenties, and two men. Most people had read all three books but the guest speakers tried not to give away too many spoilers about how the series continues. The sex and bondage talk was interesting. The praise of the book made me queasy.

One audience member in particular would not listen to any negative comments about the characters. People said that both Ana and Christian were manipulative, that Ana made bad choices, that Christian forced her into new things she wasn’t ready for. This woman wouldn’t hear any of it. “They were in love,” she claimed. “They both were trying something new and it’s okay that they weren’t good at it.” Even other people who liked the books were disagreeing with her. I think maybe she had defended this book to a lot of people. I would rather talk about how to start a BDSM relationship for hours than listen to anyone so staunchly defend two idiotic characters for five minutes.

Some people admitted that they didn’t think they books were well written but they loved it anyway. They thought Ana had a very superficial view of Christian but they wanted them to get together in the end anyway. They thought that it represented a weak woman and a man who always had to be in charge. They said Ana talked constantly about changing Christian and Christian talked about pushing Ana beyond her limits, but they still called it a love story.

The woman on the panel who leads a BDSM lifestyle commented that the novels don’t properly represent a dominant/submissive relationship. Christian should have eased Ana into this new world. His past abuse sours his current lifestyle choices. Research into BDSM shows that the ratio of abused people to people who have no history of abuse is the same as the ratio in society as a whole. Giving Christian an abusive past as a reason for choosing to dominate women hurts the BDSM culture.

The book may be opening the floodgates for these kinds of discussions, but it’s giving people a skewed point of view. The writing lacks skill and its description of a subculture is as flawed as its attempts at characterization. Nothing makes this a winning combination.

Now, not everything I read is highbrow literature. I love Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series, I’ve read Christopher Moore’s Fool more than once with no plans to read the corresponding Shakespeare plays, but those still had plots and substance over what E.L. James is throwing down. The popularity of the books boggles my mind. At least I’m not alone.

50 Shades of Grey and Bared to You No one seems to know why these books are so dreadfully popular right now. One audience member suggested that adults needed their own Twilight or Harry Potter — something to devour and share and obsess over. There are tie-in books just like the kids get. Instead of things like The Unofficial Harry Potter Cookbook or Twilight-ified versions of Wuthering Heights, the Fifty Shades readers get Fifty Shades of Grey Bedside Companion and Fifty Shades of Pleasure. Other authors have jumped on the erotica bandwagon. Bared to You by Sylvia Day has a cover very similar to Fifty Shades of Grey. It is currently number four on the New York Times bestseller list, right after the Fifty Shades trilogy.  One of the advanced reading copies we got in the store came with a piece of rope. More will surely follow.

If the book makes people more willing to talk about sex and take another step away from our Puritanical roots then I think that is wonderful. But please don’t tell me it’s a great book. Erotica can be well written. It can tell great stories and have depth of character. This series doesn’t do that. It drags BDSM through the mud. Go read Anais Nin or Henry Miller. Get some culture with your porn.

Kelly Hannon works in an indie bookstore, is editing her first novel, and blogs about annoying people at Follow her on Twitter @KellyMHannon

2 Responses to “Fifty shades of blah”
  1. Stephanie says:

    This was interesting — thanks for writing! While I think it’s just as important to read books that are being trashed as it is to read books that are being overly praised (two kinds of hype there), I don’t know how I could possibly read that book on my own, either … let alone Twilight.

    • Kelly Hannon says:

      I have limits on what I can read. Someday I’ll read the Help, but sometimes I need the hype to blow over first.

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