PG thoughts on the mystery of 50 Shades of Grey

Fifty Shades of Grey, or possibly a few fewer

I can learn something from reading any bestseller, even Fifty Shades of Grey. 

As part of my quest to read mega-bestsellers, I recently read Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James. This post is my attempt to share my thoughts on it.

I’m not reviewing the book, and I’m not going to attack or defend the things portrayed in it. But, like it or hate it, it is humongously successful, and my purpose is to see what I can learn from it.

The first thing I asked myself when I decided to talk about this book is how much I can say on a PG blog. Can I say the word “sex”?

Hey, I just did. I guess that’s a yes.

What about “kinky sex”? Looks like I can say that too. But that’s as far as I’m going to go.

Now that I’ve figured out the rules, shall we make a start?

I asked Sebastian and Rain to talk about Fifty Shades, but Sebastian refused to stoop to that level and Rain giggled and ran away, so it’s all me.

(I should note I know Fifty Shades started life as Twilight fan fiction, but not having read Twilight I’m not going to comment on this aspect of it.)


It’s hard to live in this world and not have heard something about this book, so I went into this exercise with certain expectations. Based on the enormous amount of vitriol I’ve seen directed against the book, I expected the writing to be absolutely atrocious and for it to be full of the kinkiest sex you’ve never heard of.

On both counts, I was disappointed.

I’ve also heard it portrays an abusive relationship with a stalker in a positive light, it portrays a certain lifestyle inaccurately, the plot is full of inconsistencies, and many negative things besides.

Let’s start with the first of these.

The writing

Fifty Shades is not great literature in which every word is chosen carefully.

For example, the characters have a few stock movements that they repeat ad nauseum–flushing, lip biting, eye rolling, mouths pressing into hard lines, breaths hitching, heads cocking–though some is clearly deliberate repetition taken to extremes and then way beyond.

And there’s a great deal of “wow”–literally.

Ana might be an English major, but I’m not sure that’s an excuse for some of the $5 words she occasionally throws into conversation:

“I didn’t know what you liked, so I ordered a selection from the breakfast menu.” He gives me a crooked, apologetic smile.

“That’s very profligate of you,” I murmur, bewildered by the choice, though I am hungry.

And I’m bewildered by her choice of the word “profligate”.

Then there are the lines that are so random I can only laugh and wonder if I’m missing some literary allusion:

My inexperience is an albatross around my neck.

But, if I have to be perfectly honest, the prose itself is less terrible than what I see in eight out of ten self-published books. Once I got past a few odd stylistic choices, the writing was mostly not clunky enough to jerk me out of the story.

Sure, inane actions and conversations were often spelled out finger twitch by finger twitch, and Ana murmured, muttered, mumbled, and whispered so much I’m surprised Christian heard a thing she said.

But have you read eight out of ten self-published books recently?

I think the lesson here is that the average reader doesn’t care about the quality of the prose.

The content

I know a lot of readers object to the content of the book, the lifestyle it portrays and/or how it portrays that lifestyle.

(See what I did there? I didn’t even have to use the phrase “kinky sex”.)

I’m not defending it, but I don’t object.

Crime thrillers inaccurately portray how bad guys are (hopefully) caught and tried, medical dramas inaccurately portray the lives of doctors (or so I’ve been told), fantasy novels inaccurately portray the relationships between knights and dragons and the unfortunate fate of the average warrior-maid.

Books of all kinds use and twist reality to tell a good story.

They distort psychology.

They put flawed individuals in the hero’s chair and, although readers knows these characters are not perfect, they like and root for them anyway. Just because a protagonist is conveyed as holding a certain belief, that doesn’t mean the book is arguing that belief is right or just.

Book sex is to real life sex like a full-on circus is to a street juggler–the lame kind with only two tennis balls.

If I had to guess, the controversial nature of the book’s content helped with its publicity. People saying how much they hate a book is still people talking about it.

The lesson here? You can’t please everyone, and perhaps you should try to annoy at least some people.

What Fifty Shades has going for it

With those points out of the way, why do I think Fifty Shades has enjoyed such astronomical success?

Obviously it’s not a matter of coming up with a formula, but I can hazard a guess at a few aspects that helped.


The heroine is an ordinary girl–inexperienced, awkward, and actually kind of hilarious. She’s nothing special. She could be you.

The love interest-slash-antagonist is a billionaire. Young, beautiful, poised, unattainable, and damaged.

Maybe it’s not your fantasy, but the book is clearly intended as a fantasy. Ordinary girl entrances the man every woman desires and tries to save him.

I’d say the secret wish to be chosen by the one who holds all the power (which in our society often means he or she is rich and attractive) hit home for a lot of readers.

Several shades of grey koala
Several more shades of grey

The plot centres, and is tied pretty tightly, around a focussing question: will Ana–can Ana–do what Christian wants?

This is the question that kept me reading (and a little bit the fact the book is so famous).

Both characters have their internal conflicts: Ana wants Christian because he’s so pretty and he makes her feel squibbly down there, but she doesn’t know if she can do what he wants her to do to be with him; Christian wants to be with Ana (though it’s not entirely clear why), but his tragic past interferes with his ability to relate normally to people.

And Ana and Christian conflict with each other as he struggles to control her and she resists.

It comes down to whether Christian will convert Ana to his side (though it was never clear to me whether that would be considered a good thing), or whether she will be able to “save” him.

Oh, kinky-romantic woe!

It’s freaking hilarious

I don’t know why I’ve never heard how funny Fifty Shades is.

Read a chapter or two, and the only possibly conclusion is that, on top of being a fantasy, the book is intended to be a kind of joke. Let me share a few lines that illustrate my point.

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

Stop at “caramel” and that is a cringe-worthy line. But once you add “… or something” the narrator is clearly laughing at herself, and I’m laughing with her.

For a fraction of a second, he looks lost somehow, and the Earth shifts slightly on its axis, the tectonic plates sliding into a new position. Oh my. Christian Grey’s lost look.

Oh my, indeed.

My heart slams into my mouth. A date? Christian Grey is asking me on a date. He’s asking if you want a coffee. Maybe he thinks you haven’t woken up yet, my subconscious whines at me in a sneering mood again.

Did I mention that Ana’s subconscious and her inner goddess are hilarious? They get out pom-poms to cheer her on and hide under the couch when things are daunting.

I make my way down the corridor, my knees shaky, my stomach full of butterflies, and my heart in my mouth thumping a dramatic, uneven beat. I am going to have coffee with Christian Grey … and I hate coffee.

This loses a bit without the build-up of the previous paragraphs, but still. I hate coffee?

“Okay, bag out tea. Sugar?” For a moment, I’m stunned, thinking it’s an endearment, but fortunately my subconscious kicks in with pursed lips. No, stupid—do you take sugar?

In the back of my mind, my mother’s often-recited warning comes to me: Never trust a man who can dance.

Sound advice, that.

Fractured memories of the previous night come slowly back to haunt me. The drinking—oh no, the drinking—the phone call—oh no, the phone call—the vomiting—oh no, the vomiting. José and then Christian. Oh no.

They are exquisitely designed fancy European lingerie. All pale blue lace and finery. Wow. I am in awe and slightly daunted by this underwear. What’s more, they fit perfectly. But of course they do. I flush to think of Buzz Cut in some lingerie store buying this for me. I wonder what else is in his job description.

He’s my very own Christian Grey–flavored popsicle.

Who’s he kidding? He’s no gentleman. He has my panties.

I sigh. He’s so polite. I remember, though I would like to erase it from my memory, that this man has bought me underwear.

Is it just me? I’ve been told I have an inappropriate sense of humour, but I found these excerpts pretty funny.

More shades of grey.
More shades of grey. Possibly an elephant butt.
The sex

People are programmed to like sex. If we weren’t, the human race would have died out long ago.

By extension, people are programmed to like reading about sex. Unless it’s too cringeworthily written… in which case we probably enjoy laughing at it.

And kinky sex?

People read to risklessly experience things they would never do themselves, like slaying dragons, fighting terrorists, or getting tied up and… Just read the book.

I’d say at the end of the day, the kinky sex probably did a few things for Fifty Shades’ popularity.

So there you have it. Nearly everyone I’ve heard from has said what a terrible book this is, but someone clearly enjoyed it. A lot of someones.

Have you read it? What did you think?

Get my updates right in your inbox. Entirely PG except for the words “kinky sex”.

Author: A.S. Akkalon

By day, A.S. Akkalon works in an office where the computers outnumber the suits of armour more than two-to-one. By night, she puts dreams of medieval castles, swords, and dragons onto paper.

22 thoughts on “PG thoughts on the mystery of 50 Shades of Grey”

    1. Squibbly is a great word. It would make me very happy if you were to give it the loving home it deserves.

      I would say “read it”, but it’s not a book I’m going to go around recommending. 😉

  1. “I think the lesson here is that the average reader doesn’t care about the quality of the prose.”

    I has a sad.

  2. I’ve always avoided this book and probably still will. I am curious what other humongously successful books you are going to research. I suppose I will have to sit tight and find out. The albatross around the neck is an allusion to Coolidge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner. A sailor shoots a friendly albatross and is forced to wear it around is neck as punishment.

    1. Sebastian and Rain talked about a few of them here , here and here I’m not sure what else I’m going to read, but Twilight will probably have to be one of them. 🙂 I also read a bunch more that I didn’t get around to writing about.

      Aha! I knew the albatross had to be some literary thing. I wonder what fraction of the books’s readers got the reference. I’m guessing it was very low.

      1. Ah, I see. I was on vacation when you wrote that blog post. I loved All the Light We Cannot See. Popular but also well respected (Pulitzer winner). Gone Girl left me feeling a bit nauseous, I shoved the book away from me when I finished it. I did read it ridiculously fast, though. What about The Da Vinci Code? I don’t know about Amazon reviews, but it has sold something like 90 million copies. According to wikipedia it is the 12th bestselling fiction book of all time

        1. I’m currently in the middle of reading All the Light We Cannot See, and I’ve sort of stalled. It’s well written, it just doesn’t interest me that much. I’ve heard that about Gone Girl before – makes me kind of curious, I have to say. I actually read the Da Vinci Code years ago. It was a “page-turner”, as they say, but very little of it stayed with me afterwards so I don’t think I was especially touched by it.

  3. Honestly, I haven’t read it, but my general thought is that it was a major bestseller because it hit at exactly the right moment. E-readers had appeared, and they gave people the privacy to read things they wouldn’t, if they had to wander around with their covers out. (What am I reading? Oh, the meditations of Saint Jerome. Why?) Nobody knows what you’re reading on that Kindle of yours. (And most of its readers are not the kind of people who would walk up to a bookseller and say “Show me your porn.” So, they’re also encountering erotica for the first time. It’s new and daring, and it doesn’t have to be good, because so many people are just in awe of it.

    It also bears the distinction of being the only book I can name that managed to irritate both conservative Christians AND the BDSM community, so it was always getting protested somewhere.

    1. No doubt the timing helped a great deal, but I don’t think timing alone can do *that* much for a book if it has nothing else going for it. (I would totally crack up if someone walked up to a bookshop counter and said “show me your porn”.)

      Good point – never underestimate the power of annoying people.

  4. I bought Fifty Shades for my mother for Christmas last year. (She actually asked for it, and I was loathe to buy it because of its roots in Twilight fanfiction)
    She hated it. She said it was just lots of boring sex.
    I laughed a lot at some of the excerpts here though, so maybe there’s more to it 😛

    1. Haha. She’s right – the sex did get pretty boring. It was not a good book, but I don’t think it deserves as much hate as it gets. It’s funny! Maybe even deliberately.

  5. I glanced at a copy of 50 Shades in an airport bookshop once and when I figured nobody was looking I picked it up and thumbed through a few pages, but then I thought I felt someone giving me a quizzical glance and so I put it down not TOO fast, just, you know, casually, as though I’d opened it by mistake. My glimpse into its pages was too brief to reveal anything beyond it has very short paragraphs, at least the section I peeked at did, which could honestly be a point in its favor. I did not, alas, spot anything that made me feel the least bit squibbly. Perhaps I should try again, in the comfortable anonymity of my Kindle as Reprobate Typewriter suggests.

    1. Someone must feel okay buying from an airport bookstore, or they wouldn’t stock it. They probably read it on the plane too, which is their prerogative… but a little weird. 🙂

      I confess I bought the kindle version. (It was cheap!)

  6. I found this book SO. FRIGGIN. BORING. Like you, I wanted to read it for research purposes, and I failed. It was no use even for a falling asleep read. It only sent me into a benumbed torpor. Too, too, much minutiae about the main character’s extremely boring life. The sex scenes were OK, I skipped ahead for them, but they went on forever.

  7. “or getting tied up and… Just read the book.” Funny you should phrase it that way–you might have to tie me up to get me to read it 😀

    It’s good to know you found some enjoyment in it. I have a friend who read it before it became a sensation, and she also never told me how funny it was. However, she’s also actually into the subject matter in real life, so…

    Most of what I’d heard about the story before was some odd choices in phrasing, like “His eyebrows widen in surprise.” I don’t understand how to envision that or how it would be physically possible.

    But hey, like you said, it’s popular, so it’s got to have something going for it, right?

    1. I gave up trying to remember all the weird phrasings, though “His eyebrows widen in surprise” paints a hilarious, cartoonish picture. It certainly has something going for it… but probably not that. 😉

  8. I appreciate your honest review. I probably wouldn’t have found it funny, as my sense of humor doesn’t run that way, but I can see how it could be.

    Very, very interesting on the Mary Sue insight. Perhaps being told not to write Mary Sues isn’t the best advice. If that was a key selling point, and I bet it was, it means people want to be able to see themselves in the protagonist.

    Not shocked that saving the damaged bad boy had a lot of appeal.

    1. The whole idea of Mary Sues does rather intrigue me, though I’m not sure Ana is a Mary Sue in the classic sense. She’s more the ordinary heroine than the perfect heroine, though you get the impression she’s supposed to be pretty even though she doesn’t see it herself. Ordinary girl wins the attention of extraordinary (and damaged) boy. *lovelorn sigh*

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