Fifty Shades of Grey by E. L. James

This is the first of two reviews of this book. The next one will likely be somewhat more positive. So keep an eye out for another forthcoming review.

Fifty Shades of Grey
E. L. James
2012

I enjoy fanfiction, both the fact that it exists as a genre1 as well as the genre itself. Thus, when I heard that someone had written an AU2 Twilight fanfiction and then changed the names in order to publish it professionally, I decided to read it. I hadn’t enjoyed Twilight, but mostly I found it uninteresting and poorly crafted. With a different author and a different setting, this had potential.

Especially since the articles I had read about it, were mostly shocked by the fact that apparently women can like sex. Yes, even mothers! The fact that this is apparently shocking makes me mourn for the women’s movement. Given that this was the primary complaint about the book, I thought the book must be pretty good.

Alas, I was doomed to rather severe disappointment.

To a certain extent, E. L. James did fix one of the major problems I had with Twilight. The characters are well presented. The narrative descriptions match their actions. Thus, Ana is both described as shy and acts shy. Christian is both described as arrogant and acts arrogant.

Another thing the author does really well is build anticipation. What’s going to happen next?, how are these two characters going to get together?, etc. It kept me reading for about half the book.

Then I hit the first sex scene, and wow, the badness.

From there on out, as the book attempts to get more serious, it becomes something of a travesty that I had trouble slogging my way through.

It’s not clear to me that this author (or the editor for that matter) knows what sex involves or any real concept of physicality or how bodies work much less anything at all about the BDSM3 lifestyle. Given the whole plot of the book is based on the sexual awakening of a young woman and the moderate depravity of her love interest, the lack of understanding on the author’s part is a major problem.

The problem with this book is not that it was based off of another author’s work and not that it contains a lot of sex; the problem is that it’s poorly researched, poorly written, and, to an even greater extent than Twilight, it attempts to romanticize a highly dysfunctional relationship.

1 U.S. Copyright law involves a fundamental division between idea and expression. Ideas are not considered under copyright, ever; only the expression of those ideas is protected. In the past, this was taken to literally mean the exact words. Even translations were considered to be a matter of the ideas rather than the expression. More recent legal interpretations of copyright have expanded what exactly is considered an expression to include not only translations but also events, places, and characters. However, no case of fanfiction has ever made it through the court system, and thus whether or not the genre infringes on copyright remains uncertain.

2 AU in this context means “Alternate Universe.” In fanfiction, this means taking well-loved characters, relationships, and plot devices and transposing them into completely different settings and situations. In this case the Twilight characters were used in a modern setting.

3 BDSM stands for Bondage & discipline, Dominance & submission, Sadism and Masochism. (It is not to be confused with DBMS, which stands for DataBase Management Systems, with which I am somewhat more familiar.)

The rest of this review is going to involve spoilers of the R-rated variety, so I’m putting a break here. Proceed at your own risk.

The sex scenes alternate (paragraph by paragraph, or sentence by sentence) oddly in writing style between first person descriptions of the feelings involved (which are pretty well written) and clinical descriptions of what is actually happening (improbable to impossible.)

Some of it is just an extreme version of self-indulgence:
A virgin who has never so much as thought of sex before, suddenly has three rounds of amazing penetrative sex, leaving behind a blood stain on the sheets but feeling no pain either during or after, and provides an amazing blow-job including deep throating, with no problem.

Some of it is physiologically/psychologically dubious:
A man who was brought into the BDSM scene at age 15 and has never before had sex outside of a scene, is still capable of both performing in a standard fashion and enjoys it to the point of losing control, but remains  determined to never do so again?

Other parts are written with contradictions inherent:
At one point Christian “shouts through gritted teeth.” Have you ever tried shouting through gritted teeth? I’m not even sure what the author was imagining here.

Beyond the flat out breaking of my suspension of disbelief, there’s also the problems with the character relationships.

There has, of course, been much made of how problematic the relationship between Bella and Edward is. This book attempts to transpose Edward’s vampire issue into a BDSM issue for Christian. The BDSM community is not one that I know much about beyond the theory, but I apparently know more than the author. (If any of my readers know more, please feel free to let me know.)  Trying to find a way for this book to make sense, I can only assume that Christian has been black listed from his local community.

First, he blows hot and cold on Ana, saying that he doesn’t want to introduce her to his scene and then saying he does and then changing his mind. A lot.

Then, he decides he wants to be her only source of information on the scene. She can look things up online or she can ask him questions, but is not allowed to ask or tell anyone else.

Third, despite saying he is purely dominant, and wants her complete submission, he gives her mixed signals, changes his mind about orders, and only sporadically enforces the orders.

As I understand it, the benefit of being a submissive is to be able to relax into a situation where the dominant provides a strict and reliable structure. Christian seems incapable of being at all reliable.

What he is capable of is giving Ana expensive gifts she doesn’t want and stalking her.

Which brings me to Ana’s friends and family. In Twilight, the one character I was sympathetic with, was Bella’s father. He was trying to be a good dad. In this book, there was not a single character in the book that I liked or respected. Ana’s parents ignore all the warning signs and are delighted that their daughter managed to catch a guy (since Ana was clearly an old maid at age 22), and her best friend seemed mostly interested in creating a situation where Christian would beat Ana in a jealous rage.

If you are interested in a BDSM novel, there are other books out there, written by people who might actually know what they’re writing about.

7 comments on “Fifty Shades of Grey by E. L. James

  1. Anna says:

    Yay! I was waiting for you to post this review to post this link of Gilbert Gottfried reading choice excerpts from the book:

    http://www.jest.com/video/174214/gilbert-gottfried-reads-fifty-shades-of-grey

    I did listen to it at work with headphones, but I really recommend listening to in complete privacy because your expression is sure to give away that you are listening to something completely inappropriate. With all that said, though, you should definitely give it a listen! Thomas and I both laughed until we cried.

    (The book itself, however, definitely does not sound like my cup of tea.)

    • Rebecca says:

      Ha-ha-ha! That is awesome. And cringe-worthy. Dear God. I particularly liked the video though, showing various women listening to it and trying not to cringe too much themselves. Hee.

      • Anna says:

        That was my favorite part, too, and really what tipped Thomas and me over into hysteria, seeing their crinkled brows and grimaces. And then the voice-over would kick in about how romantic and erotic it is!

  2. Christine says:

    Rebecca: I enjoyed the contrast between our reviews! I didn’t read the Twilight series, nor have I paid attention to the publicity this book has received, so my expectations were different going in. I do agree with you that it’s not the novel it set out to be (the BDSM aspect), though I still think the insight into that sexual dynamic (whether it’s well researched or not) is what creates the intrigue for a contingency of its readers.

    Anna: Love the Gottfried clip! Ana’s reference to her “inner goddess” was the perfect way for him to start. That was a monontonous reference in the book which got annoying quickly! Hearing it from his voice is so funny and drives home my Danielle Steele reference.

    • Anna says:

      Hee, I bet the Gottfried clip is even funnier for people that have read the book and now the contexts for each quote! Of course, it’s still pretty funny for those of us who haven’t read the book.

    • Rebecca says:

      Hee, Gottfried’s inner goddess.

      But yeah, the contrast is kind of fascinating. We look for different things. I recognized everything you wrote about and it makes a great deal of sense, it just wasn’t what I had come up with on my own.

  3. Christine says:

    It’s interesting Rebecca because I think we had a little bit of overlap in our reviews, just from different perspectives. For example, you saying the benefit of being a submissive as you understand it is to be able to relax into a situation, and me saying that it sounds nice to let someone else be in control. Also, you point how despite saying he was dominant, Christian only sporadically enforces his orders (and I saw the dominant-submissive relationship as the author’s hook to keep the reader intrigued while she let it be the start of a love story more than anything else).

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