Fifty Shades of Grey

by E L James

[Editor: Here’s the second perspective on Fifty Shades of Grey]

First, think Danielle Steele with an edge.

I haven’t read Danielle Steele in over 20 years, but what I remember of the genre is the redundancy of a heavily sexual plot with over-the-top beautiful characters. Fortunately for Fifty Shades of Grey, leading male character Christian Grey steps up the level of intrigue through his divergent pursuit of leading female character Anastasia Steele.

Anastasia, or Ana, is on the eve of her college graduation. Her best friend Kate is the editor for the university’s newspaper and has a high-brow interview with the 27-year-old billionaire Christian Grey, who will deliver their commencement speech. But Kate has the flu and begs Ana to stand in for her. Ana arrives at the interview knowing nothing about Christian. He of course is hot, and she of course doesn’t know how beautiful she is. She’s also unassuming and lacking confidence, and trips and falls when she enters his office. In Danielle Steele style, the electricity between them is palpable. Ana is inexperienced with men and freaked out by it. Christian, on the other hand, is a man who knows what he wants and gets what he wants. Ana has no idea what she’s in for. He lives the art of seduction, and she’s hooked.

And so is the reader. As Ana enters into his sexual world of “dominant-submissive” relationships, Christian is not so much pleasing the pants off of her (like every hour)—he’s pleasing the most devoted readers. When he takes her into his sexual play room (what Ana calls his “red room of pain”), it’s out of the ordinary, and intriguing.

Next, think a new kind of liberation for women.

Having read and discussed Fifty Shades of Grey as part of my book club, I got to thinking about it from a different angle. These days, post-women’s liberation, the lines are blurred as to who’s in charge in a relationship. Women often have the upper hand—regardless of the fact there are women’s lib issues that need balancing. But in exchange for this relatively new sense of power and freedom of choice, have women completely put their submissiveness aside? And have they inadvertently transferred too much of that submissiveness to men?

Christian is a rare species of a man. In his own deviant way, he’s both an old school gentleman and an intensely controlling character. Combined, this can actually be a turn on for readers. Why? He brings a new light to submissiveness. At the end of the day, would it be so bad to have a man open your car door, decide what you’ll have for dinner, order a nice bottle of wine, pay the bill, tell you what to wear (or what not to wear), instruct you how to wait for him in his play room as he enters with no shirt, top button of his jeans undone…

It’s not Ana’s struggle to be a modern independent woman that gets readers fired up. Nor is it her exhausting insecurity and repetitive self-monologues. It’s the intrigue into her relationship with Christian through which he teaches her to give up the need to be in control, and in the process, makes it look sensual and gratifying.

The Fifty Shades of Grey plot is purely dependent upon its erotic twist, but the Danielle Steele feel is its saving grace. It’s not all spanking, whips, and bondage (or even close)—that which is supposed to define Christian as “the dominant.” It’s actually pretty fluffy, and a love story. Yet the author knows her hook. While the play room, the backdrop for the dominant-submissive rules and regulations, does not come into play often, it leaves readers wondering how far Christian will go and why he is the way he is. Why else dive into the next two books of the trilogy?

—Christine, Guest Contributor

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

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. Continue reading