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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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