It’s the sort of whispered confession that would attract judgmental frowns or raised eyebrows. I feel like I’ve said something sacrilegious. Why would I do this to myself? What sort of tormented, self-loathing path would lead me to this point? But it’s true. I’ve been to the Dark Side. I’ve gazed upon the grim face of death. Dear reader, I have read Fifty Shades of Grey. And I am here to share my journey.
But first, a justification: I’d resisted reading this novel for a long time, because I’d heard it was an abomination of literature. However, I’ve always believed if I wanted to engage in critical discussion about a text, I should read the source material. I’d need to form my own opinion, rather than relying on what I’d heard from others. This is particularly true of something like E.L. James’s Fifty Shades of Grey, which has achieved such cultural notoriety that it’s hard to discern the faddish, yet baseless accusations from true criticism. It’s become popular to bash Fifty Shades; I wanted to find out why. I also teach erotic fiction at a university level. There’s no denying that Fifty Shades is the best-selling erotic novel of the twenty-first century, a book which has revitalized the genre and attracted a new generation of readers (I can only imagine it must simultaneously be the bane and blessing of all writers of erotic fiction). For many of my students, Fifty Shades is their first and only encounter with this genre. I was curious to see what precedent it sets.
Having said that, Fifty Shades of Grey is one of the worst novels I’ve ever read.
It’s not just the plot – this novel fails on every conceivable level. It is poorly written, has poor character development, terrible pacing and structure, and its depictions of relationships are more accurately descriptions of emotional abuse. The sex scenes failed to arouse me because I couldn’t get past the poor prose. Characters are introduced who have no impact on the plot (whatever happened to Ethan?). It’s well known that Fifty Shades started out as Twilight fan fiction. I have a healthy respect for fanfic writers, having dabbled in the genre in high school, and I know that many of these writers go on to have successful careers as authors. But E.L. James demonstrates why fan fiction is often perceived to be poor quality writing.
The plot is pretty well-known, so I won’t dwell on it for too long. The bookish Ana Steele meets Christian Grey, a mysterious and tormented billionaire. But Christian isn’t interested in a conventional relationship; he wants Ana to sign a contract that will bind her to him as a submissive. Of course, his methods of convincing involve a lot of sex. But Ana wants more. She wants love. In the end, after Christian savagely beats her, they realize they want different things from the relationship and Ana leaves. I’m sure the two sequels are equally as compelling, but I’m reluctant to waste any more time with this series.
The contract is discussed early in the story, around page 100 – Christian spends the rest of the novel trying to convince her to sign the damn thing. And that’s my real problem with Fifty Shades: it is interminably long, with each scene padded out with banal, vacuous dialogue, most of which doesn’t advance the plot or develop character. Christian is mercurial; we know this from the beginning. He’s reluctant to commit. But E.L. James goes to painstaking lengths to belabour this point. So many scenes from this novel could be deleted without damaging the plot. At over 500 agonising pages, the real sadism of Fifty Shades isn’t in the BDSM: it’s the act of reading itself.
Christian’s infamous contract is finally presented in Chapter Eleven. It should’ve been a pivotal moment in the narrative – a moment of realisation for Ana – but instead it almost put me to sleep. Virtually all the rules in the contract had already been established earlier in the story. Despite Christian’s insistence that the contract is binding, he’s already repeatedly demonstrated that he’s willing to bend or suspend the rules for Ana. As soon as he discovers that she’s a virgin, he forgets about the paperwork and proceeds to take her virginity. He allows her to sleep next to him (which the contract forbids), and he even admits that he’s willing to try a romantic relationship. All of this demonstrates, of course, that Christian is hopelessly in love with Ana, but it simultaneously devalues the idea of the contract. If the rules mean so little to him, why is he so insistent that she obey them?
The novel is quite unevenly written, and I’m genuinely surprised that an editor didn’t try to fix this problem. The first few chapters are easily the worst – loaded with repetitive language, clichés, hackneyed storytelling – but the quality of writing does improve further into the novel. Either that, or I just became desensitized to it. It feels like E.L. James improves as an author as the novel progresses. Maybe she just ran out of clichés. I am almost tempted to read the sequels to see if this theory holds true, but I would never subject myself to that sort of torture.
When I teach creative writing, there’s a long list of common writing errors that I encourage students to avoid. One of the most important lessons is about respecting the reader. Writers should allow the reader to work things out for themselves. E.L. James does not subscribe to this philosophy. The novel spells things out for its readers in the most obvious, patronising ways. When Christian makes a quip about something that happened earlier in the chapter, James makes sure she reminds us what he’s referring to. You know, in case we forgot what happened only a few pages earlier. Because we’re stupid. The narrative is also full of examples of where James has ignored that old maxim of writing: “show, don’t tell.” The reader is constantly told how Ana is feeling, rather than relying on her actions or dialogue to convey it instead. The overall effect is incredibly patronising. It insulted my intelligence to read this novel.
And it’s full of clichés. The characters think in clichés, they talk in clichés. When Ana gets in her car, she puts the pedal to the metal. When she’s clumsy, she has two left feet. When Christian chastises her drinking, her behaviour is beyond the pale. Cringe!! Aside from the clichés, the dialogue is just terrible. At one point, Christian actually says “Good day to you,” as he leaves a room. No one has spoken like that since the nineteenth century; it completely ruined my suspension of disbelief. Christian is never able to articulate why he is attracted to Ana. The closest he comes is a nebulous “there’s something about you,” which is pretty poor for someone who speaks most of the time in odd antiquated phrases. But one of my favourite moments was when Christian summons his inner Bruce Banner, threatening Ana with “you wouldn’t like me when I’m angry.”
It is also a very repetitive novel. James is fond of using the same words or phrases again and again. In the first chapter, the word steel appears three times in just two sentences when describing the outside of Grey’s business headquarters. I don’t understand what is so significant about steel. Is it an intrinsically erotic building material? Am I supposed to be impressed or aroused by this giant steel edifice? This repetition is further exacerbated by the fact that the protagonist is named Steele. An even more frustrating example of repetition is Ana’s constant cries or thoughts of “Oh my.” Seriously, it happens on every page. Every fucking page. Oh my… And every time I read it, I couldn’t help but hearing it in the voice of George Takei. Apparently I’m not the only person who’s had this problem, because this video exists:
But the worst repetition is the constant descriptions of Ana biting her lip. Christian walks into a room, Ana bites her lip. Christian speaks to her, Ana bites her lip. A stray dog walks past, Ana bites her lip. She needs to seek medical help for the problem. I will be happy if I never have to read about a character biting her lip for the rest of my life. To demonstrate how repetitive and frustrating this can be, I’ve inserted a picture of actress Dakota Johnson (who plays Ana Steele in the film adaptation) biting her lip between every paragraph for the rest of this post.
One of the most confounding scenes is when Ana receives the gift of a MacBook Pro from Christian. James’s writing is at its most awkward as she attempts to describe this “next-generation tech.” Keep in mind that the story is set in 2011 and Ana is in her early twenties. As the computer technician lists the features of the MacBook, he mentions that Ana now has an email account. Her response is a bewildered, “I have an email address?” The real question should be: how does Ana not have an email address? In 2011? It boggles the mind. She then refers to the computer as the “mean machine” for the rest of the novel… I don’t know why.
The novel largely fails the Bechdel test. None of the named female characters discuss anything else besides men. There’s a glimmer of hope on page 161, as Ana begins discussing her holiday plans with her housemate, but they only manage four lines of dialogue before it’s back to the boys. There’s chunks of dialogue scattered throughout the novel that don’t directly relate to men, but each conversation always comes back to the same topic. I realise that this is an erotic novel: the focus of the story is Ana’s relationship with Christian, so that should always be the main point of each chapter, but James is effectively denying the female characters their own agency by restricting their interactions with each other to the topic of men.
The novel’s representation of gender, sexuality, and relationships has attracted a lot of criticism. There’s more material here than I can cover in a single blog post. Christian’s interest in BDSM apparently stems from his abusive childhood; it depicts his sexual interests as unhealthy, a pathological condition that needs to be cured. Even putting aside his physical desires, his relationship with Ana is certainly one of emotional abuse. Ana breaks down into tears at numerous points during the novel, and her inability to understand Christian’s mercurial behaviour sends her into a depressive state (which, in many scenes, is only alleviated by engaging in sexual intercourse with Christian). The dominant/submissive relationship is supposed to be about power, but instead it becomes an excuse for mistreatment. It is not just the representation of women which suffers in Fifty Shades; even the male characters suffer from outdated gender stereotypes. It’s embarrassing for everyone. The worst example of this comes early in the novel: when Ana’s housemate Kate is being too aggressive and too inquisitive, Ana retreats to the kitchen to make her a sandwich.
I wish I had experience in psychology, because this novel feels like a goldmine of undiagnosed psychoses. Ana’s thoughts are split into three different personas: herself, her snarky subconscious, and her “inner goddess.” It’s very crowded inside Ana’s head. The subconscious is the voice of doubt – Christian doesn’t love you, he’s only interested in sex – whereas the inner goddess revels in Ana’s sexual adventures. I can’t help but think that her fragmented personality, which definitely becomes more pronounced as the story progresses, is a result of the emotional abuse she receives from Christian.
Erotic fiction has always walked a fine line between art and pornography. It aims to encourage critical thought about human sexuality and desire, yet, like pornography, it aims to arouse sexual desire in its audience. If it goes too far in either direction, it loses its appeal. On a basic, superficial level, Fifty Shades does function as a piece of erotic fiction. It is intended to arouse desire. And some parts, I believe, were intended to encourage thought about the nature of sexuality and desire. But it is so poorly executed that any critical thought is buried beneath its vacuous prose and muddled themes. In my work as a university tutor, I’ve marked a lot of pieces of erotic fiction over the past few years, and I can honestly say that some of my students have written stories that are more sophisticated, thought-provoking, and subtle than Fifty Shades.
After all of this, you’re probably wondering why I continued to read this novel. I have to admit, I had a morbid curiosity to see how it all turned out. Would it improve before the end? Surely the entire narrative must be some kind of ironic statement about sexuality that was just going over my head? Sadly, no. Fifty Shades is an example of a book written for the mass-market, one that fills a niche and provokes a craze, yet is substantially devoid of any critical substance. As a precedent for erotic fiction, it sets a poor example.
As an aside, I’ve been binge-watching the TV show Archer lately, so sometimes when I read Christian’s dialogue, I imagined him speaking in Archer’s voice. Hilarious! Made the entire experience slightly more bearable.