Why can’t we take the “Fifty Shades of Grey” trilogy seriously (for a change) and see how it works (or doesn’t)?

Yes, I confess, I’m one of those people who don’t hear about a publishing sensation until most of the public excitement and in this case notoriety is over; I don’t get to read most books until the library carries them, since my book budget is growing smaller and smaller these days.  So, though I did hear about Fifty Shades of Grey and its sequels, I heard about it in a murmurous brook-like current, far away from the great hue and cry of the reading mainstream.  Once I knew just what the debate was all about, I thought to myself, “Well, it sounds like absolute garbage and malarkey, but you should never condemn anything you haven’t read, at least not without giving it a cursory glance.”  I’m glad I did read the first book.  Not because I found it good, however, but because I gave it a fair shot.  I had to persuade myself to continue reading after that, having already assured everyone whose opinion I respect in the literary field that I probably wasn’t going to continue with the second and third volumes.  Having done so anyway, I now can say that there’s no need to take it down with the sort of overwrought negative hype which is diametrically opposed to the positive hype of the advertisers; all you have to do is attempt to take the book seriously, and that in itself dispels it as any sort of major contender for lengthy spans of attention.

First, let’s take the characters and ethos/psychology.  The greatest amount of the time spent in all three novels (Fifty Shades of Grey, Fifty Shades Darker, Fifty Shades Freed) is spent in steamy sex scenes between the two main characters, Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey.  This is true despite the fact that the female character enters the novel as a sort of maladept Keystone Kop, full of slapstick awkwardness and social incapacity.  Though there’s a certain way in which she is a true-to-life girlish, giggling, virginal walking orgasm in the making, the amount of intentional or unintentional humor directed at her in the first 25-35 pages or so makes it hard to take her as a serious contender for the passion of a darkly threatening, sophisticated, rich, mysterious male lead, though this is not a fault of these books alone but one which they share with the modern romance genre in general.  It does make it harder to believe, perhaps, that Christian Grey is a dominant male, or Dom, in a BDSM sort of preferred role, inasmuch as even someone who likes to encounter submissives, or Subs, must surely find such a dishrag as Anastasia Steele no challenge to his imagination.  The text, of course, makes the point again and again of telling us that she is subverting his power and challenging him in ways in which he has never been challenged by anyone else, and they are constantly celebrating a series of “firsts” with each other.  For he too is trying to change her, and it’s here that the characterization isn’t really strong enough to sustain the claims of the plot:  they are both trying and hoping to change the other to some extent, certainly in the first book, and to a certain extent in the other two as well.  And as we have been often told by professionals such as psychologists, marriage counselors, and statisticians, not to mention novelists, relationships don’t survive well in which people go in expecting to be able to change the other person from whom they were when they met each other.  Furthermore, we are asked to believe that Grey’s development of self-awareness comes from the interaction not only with his therapist, but also with Anastasia; but the facts of therapy and relationships, as we have often heard, are that we must not only want to make changes ourselves, but must take it upon ourselves to make these changes, no matter how we are accompanied.  Yet over and over again, Grey shows himself to be recalcitrant and difficult, in fact as if he really does have a split personality, a diagnosis word which E. L. James throws off casually without fulfilling the adequate terms of the diagnosis.  As to the BDSM going on in the novel, I’m not going to pretend either that I am competent to judge it or that I am shocked by it:  though I doubt that it would convince aficionados of that sort of relationship, there is enough petty meanness in most of us that we can at least imagine being a dominant, bossy, demanding individual, and enough pusillanmity that we can at least imagine what it is to bow to someone else’s will constantly.  I also doubt that it is a fantasy romance meant to appeal to BDSM experts, but rather think it is meant to titillate the more adventurous of ordinary readers.  A few posts here and there have spoken to this fact, and I bow (figuratively speaking) to superior experience and knowledge.  The other characters fill the roles of friends, friends who have mirroring romances, jealous and envious enemies, and supernumeraries.  Perhaps the most interesting negative character is the aptly named Jack Hyde, though he is a standard suspense-novel villain strayed into the romance genre.  There’s never really any doubt that he will get his, though the “his” is not the one he was striving for; first of all, he’s totally outmanned and outgunned by Grey’s “troops” and Anastasia’s late-but-at-last-arriving good sense, and he turns out to have an interesting connection with the past.  This suspense element is what actually helps drive the rather tired third novel, and is the main thing that keeps what interest it has going, since any reader who’s still speculating about what Anastasia and Christian will get up to on any occasion when they are alone in a room for more than one minute–or, in fact, when they are in public and are not the immediate focus of attention–has a seriously lagging imagination.  Also interesting is the late introduction of Hyde’s female accomplice, a not totally convincing but still more intriguing than not plot development.  What’s somewhat distressing in the series is that in opposition to an abusive male figure in Christian’s past and the character Jack Hyde in Anastasia’s and Christian’s present, there is no counterbalance of good except Anastasia herself.  As she says at one point, she wants to be Christian’s “Alpha and Omega.”  This is to say, in quite literal Biblical terms, that she wants to be God.  Though I don’t mean to suggest that the book necessarily needs a god or gods (though she has an “inner goddess” and a “subconscious” both mentioned overtly and constantly throughout the book), it seems somewhat impious even from an agnostic’s point of view to suggest that one human being can play this role for another.  She is, in fact, wanting to be dominant in an overweening way herself if this is to be taken seriously.

Next, I would like to comment on the language in the novels, which has amused and bemused more commentators on the book than one.  Put in simple terms, the books are very badly written, and need a good editing job from several different perspectives.  The simplest criticism one can make has been made by a number of people before now:  that is, that James does not distinguish between the slang terminology of America, where the action of the novels largely takes place, and the slang of England, which is often used instead.  “Packages” are therefore “parcels” and “strollers” or “baby buggies” are “prams,” among the least confusing things.  Far more serious, however, is the bad grammar and style.  This also kept me laughing irreverently from page to page here and there.  The constant repetition of words and phrases to convey emotions and actions which were repetitive but which good writing would have portrayed with varied language was part of the problem.  For example, when aroused, the female character very often thinks to herself “Oh my” in italics.  When she’s being approached sexually in a way unfamiliar to her, she acts almost as if shocked and indicates the area of touch concerned as “down there.”  She’s constantly either “biting her lip” or “flushing crimson.”  And the male character after a certain point in the action in which he has spanked her is said to have a “twitchy hand”; he also “pouts” at her in a corresponding attention-grabbing way to her lip-biting.  Thus, the characters don’t really develop, despite indications in the outright story to the contrary:  they simply follow a series of repetitious prompts, a code of sorts to let the reader know what’s coming (so to speak).  The bad grammar is much more obtrusive, however, and of that the dangling and misplaced modifiers in phrases and clauses are the most offensive.  To take one example from the second book, when the two characters are on the man’s catamaran and he is enjoying strapping her into a life vest, we read a sentence something like this (bear with me as I try to reconstruct it, the book has already been returned to the library):  “Being secured, he grinned and patted her arm” or whatever.  The problem there is that “being secured” modifies (reflects meaning on) “he,” not on her or her vest, not mentioned in the sentence in question.  And it does no good grammatically speaking to say “you know what she means, though,” because good grammar and good writing depends not on these kinds of contraband understandings, but upon obvious accuracy.  What this sentence in fact says is perhaps accurate to what some people think of the books as a whole, that the character Christian Grey would be better off to himself and everyone else were he restrained in a tight straitjacket (never mind the even more amusing question of how, once restrained, he managed to pat anything, however much he might be grinning maniacally.)  An even more ridiculous example which I’ve racked my brains to recollect exactly but which escapes me at the moment occurs when the misplaced modifier tells us that Christian’s erection is doing something that an erection unequipped with additional limbs simply could not do.  Inanimate objects as well sometimes take on the characteristics which almost certainly are meant to apply to the characters themselves.

Now as to the modern romantic novel tradition that the book is written in, I think that using the higher number of openly sexual scenes, the book does a reasonable job of making overtly physical the mostly emotional sadomasochistic tendencies of the average romance novel.  Teasing the reader is of course the game not only in romances but in suspense and mystery novels, and there are wee portions of the latter two in this romance as well, concerning the mystery of Christian’s past, the suspense of what will happen when Jack Hyde has the upper hand of the main characters, et cetera.  But it’s not just a matter of teasing the reader with the typical reversals and re-reversals of fortune that occur in almost any novel, popular or not:  the usual romance novel in fact plays off a sort of emotional sadomasochism which often subsists in the relationships between women and men.  Sometimes, it’s the sufferings of the boy-next-door who finally gets angry at the girl for momentarily preferring an apparently more vigorous lover, sometimes it’s the girl-next-door who, like Anastasia Steele, is deeply in love with a richer, more sophisticated man who doesn’t treat her in an easily understandable way.  Whichever variation on the forms it is, there is a certain amount of cruelty in the characters’ relationships, a degree of deliberate melodrama and perversity, which governs the way the plot unfolds.  All I’m suggesting is that this trilogy of novels makes these things into overt sexual acts, however well or badly they are portrayed, however realistically or not.

Lastly, you may wonder about my qualifications for making judgements concerning a novel series of this kind, considering that I have heretofore prided myself on writing about already acclaimed and worthy works of literature about which there has on that matter been little contest.  Let’s just say that I read a fair amount of mindless modern romantic drivel in my adolescence, and these three novels, though catering to that same impulse only for an at least slightly older demographic, isn’t the worst I’ve read, which tells you yes, these things can get pretty bad before they exhaust the patience of addicted readers.  This has in fact been an odd sort of holiday for me from the serious literature I generally cover; now, however, I look forward to rejoining the works of critical merit and worth which render so much more in the way of valuable reading experiences.  Here’s to all you readers of quality works who’ve occasionally stepped off the straight and narrow and felt embarrassed, but not known where to look about your guilty secret–since E. L. James stepped on the scene, the opportunity to read something literarily neglectful, occasionally boring, and sometimes just plain bad has increased exponentially:  I leave the knowledge, I feel safely, in your competent hands.


Filed under Articles/reviews, What is literature for?

9 responses to “Why can’t we take the “Fifty Shades of Grey” trilogy seriously (for a change) and see how it works (or doesn’t)?

  1. I read the first few pages on amazon and despite the fact that I’m no native English speaker I thought was not only badly written but the character sounded like an older person trying to sound young. I also found it anti-feminist from the beginning (the friend who is ill but not deserving of compassin because she is pretty). I have never read any romnace other than some chick lit but while I suppose I wouldn’t mind it, I mind it when it’s not well written.
    I have read The Hunger Games, although they would need editing as wel, but I found it original and Katniss is a strong character.
    The idea that 21st Century women dream of being spanked by a rich guy is a bit appalling. Btw – I’ve read a hilarious review in a German newspaper where they wrote they had to spice up the translation considerably as “down there” and similar wordings wouldn’t work in Germany. Not explicit enough.


    • All of what you say is well-considered and yet there’s my insatiable curiosity–just how bad could these books be, I wondered, and still get published, with the following they had? The answer is “Pretty bad.” The offense to my sense of fair play vis-a-vis eliminating sexism was constant: there was no way to look around or through or above the extent to which the books totally ignored political and personal advances made by women since 1850 (hell, why stop there? Since time began! Adam probably had a lighter hand in the garden of Eden than C. Grey had in ordering A. Steele around). Basically, I got through the experience because it also constantly provoked laughter at the improbabilities and utter nonsense circulated in the book. I hear E. L. James is working on another book, too–I don’t think even the possibility of laughing myself silly will lure me in, however. You make an interesting point about the problems with translation–good books rely on certain human equivalents which are universally true everywhere, our humanity, our common nobility, our heroisms. These books, though often hard to translate because of time and space configurations, are ultimately worth the hard work it takes for a translator and his or her patient reader. But this series by James could have supplied nothing but sheer word-for-word slogging for a translator. The especial irony from my point of view is just the last name of the author: I wrote my doctoral thesis on Henry James, a literary and critical figure of infinitely more merit and worth than E. L. James. The great man would be not only spinning in his grave could he see her sorry performance, but wrapping himself round and round in his famous complex sentences for protection! Thanks for writing in–I am always glad to see you because I know you will have something worthwhile to contribute.


      • I think he would say “Oh my”.
        I hope she didn’t choose the name because of Henry James? That would be so sacrilegious. I’m normally as curious as you but the last time I bought and read a book because of a hype and although I was convinced it would be bad was The Da Vinci Code and that was painful too. Since then I trust my instincts but I know a few bloggers who laughed their way all through the series.


      • I know what you mean about H. J. He has his odd side, too. As the nearly equally sexist to E. L. James William Faulkner said, “Henry James was one of the nicest old ladies I ever met.” I mean, it’s perhaps unfair to characterize primness as belonging particularly to older women, yet we all know what Faulkner means (from his point of view) when he makes this remark. And of course in fictional terms, saying “Oh my” every time one is sexually surprised does get to sound a bit like someone’s old Aunt Fanny. There’s hype and hype, I guess. Sometimes a good book or movie gets a lot of hype (I’m remembering “The English Patient,” I think) and sometimes a bad. I usually take a look at who the reviewers are who’re hyping it, and where they publish themselves. This isn’t foolproof either, but it helps. I didn’t read “The Da Vinci Code,” though I did see the movie. It was conspiracy theory suspenseful, I guess, and enjoyable for that reason and in that way, but I don’t think it really added anything to my understanding of the human being. And my understanding is that E. L. James is the woman’s real name, and there’s a Mr. James somewhere in the picture (I often wonder spitefully if they wrote the books together, while “whipping” each other to further efforts! But that’s probably just my insane sense of humor working overtime).


  2. This is a great guide and dissection. Even my staid CEO sister has read Fifty Shades, and I’ve been at a loss to understand. Now I do, sort of.


    • Thanks for your tribute to my understanding, Richard. I appreciate a fine critic like you reading–and yes, “dissection” was rather what I had in mind. I didn’t spend any time on setting only, because E. L. James’s setting was fairly standard for romance novels (one humdrum sort of setting jazzed up a bit, and then a vacation setting for the honeymoon, all over the top). I didn’t see the point of pretending not to be curious–now if only better writers got as much attention (another funny name coincidence is that James’s female character’s last name is “Steele,” reminsicent to my mind of the name of a well-known romance writer, Danielle Steele, whom–thank God–I’ve never read). Thanks again for the compliment.


  3. E.L.James isn’t her real name btw.
    I actaully wanted to comment on your Setterfield post but you’ve turned off the comments. Accidentally I suppose.


    • Thanks for the info about E. L. James, and thanks too for the info about the Setterfield post. All of the comment options on all my posts should still be up and running, but any time they’re not, feel free to leave a post on any subject heading at all on whatever topic you want to comment about. I’m not a computer whiz, so some things may happen sometimes that it takes me a while to rectify. Thanks again, I always have a use for your comments.


    • Dear Caroline, I think now I have the comment section correctly set to allow comments for all posts ad infinitum. If you’re still interested in making the comment on the Setterfield post now, you can–sorry about the mix-up. And thanks again for telling me.


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