SL and I must be en rapport because we’ve both jumped on the Fifty Shades of Grey bandwagon at the same time: her earlier comments are here. The common thread is that neither of us are impressed, and neither of us likes bad writing. The difference with my review is that I broke my resolution not to read the books, and actually began reading Fifty Shades of Grey the other night.
I wanted to read it to see what the hoohah was about. It has just become Amazon UK’s best-selling e-novel yet. But to me, the big question is not how many people buy Fifty Shades of Grey — the question is how many people finish it, and how many people buy the next two books? I can tell you that (a) I didn’t finish it, and (b) I won’t be buying the next two books. About three fifths of the way through the novel, I got incredibly bored. I skipped to the last two chapters. I know, I know, it’s anathema to any red-blooded book reader, and an extremely rare act of desperation on my part. Then I skipped to the spiels about the next two books at the rear of the book. And I suspect that’s all I’ll ever read of them again. (Fortunately for me, I didn’t actually purchase it – a friend had two copies and gave me one).
For those who have been hiding under a rock, the synopsis of the book is this: virginal naive female university student meets rich and controlling mogul who falls in love with her and inducts her into a world of increasingly kinky sex. And, well, that’s the book in about a sentence. I suppose I wouldn’t have become so irritated at the book had it not been so badly written. There was a serious overuse of certain adjectives and adverbs, and if I heard one more time about the female protagonist’s “inner goddess” I was going to scream.
I’ve said in an earlier post that I expect two things of a good book:
Some books are purely for enjoyment. Some we read because they have a “hook” – we simply must find out what happens. I would put The Da Vinci Code in this latter category – it was appallingly written, but I had to find out what happened – it was the archetype of a “page-turner”. We read other books because they are beautifully written – but if there isn’t a hook to pull us through, we might not finish the book (eg, The Eye of the Storm by Patrick White – exquisitely written, but finishing the book is like wading through half-set concrete.) The very best books have a “hook” and are well-written to boot. Mmm, such books are pure pleasure.
Now, if the book had simply been badly written, I probably would have finished it because I’ll finish almost anything with a “hook” to find out what happens. Heck, I read The Da Vinci Code from cover to cover. I might be an English literature major, but I’m not a book snob. But the problem for me with this book was that it didn’t hook me. I didn’t like any of the characters, and I didn’t care enough about what happened to them. They were one-dimensional and irritating. I got so sick of hints about the characters’ family circumstances which gave rise to their cliched pop-psychology hang-ups. There was no depth to the emotional interactions: they were just a lead-in to the next sex scene. And the way in which the sex scenes were written was turgid and not in the least sexy. (To be fair, it’s really hard to write a good sex scene. Many famed literary authors have been nominated in the Literary Review’s Bad Sex in Fiction Award: see the 2011 winner here).
Why was this book so popular? I’m going to muse on it. [Spoiler alert and not necessarily safe for work over fold]
Maybe one aspect of the book which appeals to some women is the fact that the female protagonist largely seems to enjoy her sexual awakening and explorations (until the end of the book, anyway) and the male protagonist actively assists her in enjoying it. The cultural stereotype with regard to women and sex is that women don’t enjoy sex as much as men, and that some simply “lie back and think of England” during the process. It may be that there is truth in this for some women. According to Wikipedia, about 15% of women report difficulties with orgasm, 10% have never climaxed, and 40–50% have either complained about sexual dissatisfaction or experienced difficulty becoming sexually aroused at some point in their lives. Clearly sex isn’t fun for some women. Perhaps the idea of a man actively attending to a woman’s sexual pleasure is attractive in this book to female readers who haven’t enjoyed sex or had someone actively try to make sex pleasurable.
Maybe another feature about the book which makes it interesting for readers is the fact that the book doesn’t just deal with ‘plain vanilla’ sex, and readers may be curious to see what that involves, if they’ve not had a glimpse into that world before. The male protagonist of Fifty Shades is into BDSM, and thus he negotiates a contract with the female protagonist in order to ascertain what sexual conduct she enjoys and what she does not enjoy, and what they are entitled to expect of one another. Perhaps some women wish that they had been able to negotiate sexual conduct in this manner in their relationships? That was probably the most interesting part of the book for me: the terms of the contract which he gets the female protagonist to sign and the negotiations which go on between them as to the terms. That’s because I’m a contract law nerd, and my mind immediately started wandering to thoughts like, “this would not be specifically enforceable; it’s a contract for services”. And then I started to wonder what real BDSM contracts look like, and whether the one in the book was based on a real one, and how these contracts are enforced.
Personally, regardless of what kind of sex floats your boat, and regardless of whether you’re a contract law nerd or not, I think that’s it’s probably a good idea to be upfront about what you want in a relationship right from the start, and to be clear about what is and isn’t okay. I think that a lot of difficulties in relationships come from lack of clarity on these points.
Another aspect of the book is that it ties into — or at least attempts to tie into — the ultimate female romance fantasy (what my sister calls ‘literary crack cocaine for women’). The idea goes like this: shy, ordinary woman who lacks confidence about her own attractiveness attracts the attention of an extraordinarily powerful, handsome male figure who is nonetheless wounded, withdrawn and moody. This ordinary woman is so wildly attractive to the man that she is able to withdraw him from his shell just by her very existence, and he falls madly in love with her. Sound familiar, anyone? Well yes, it could be a synopsis of many books, from Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre on one end of the spectrum to the Twilight saga on the other end of the spectrum. Now I suspect every woman lacks confidence about her own attractiveness and has at one point or another secretly wished that some ‘tall dark and handsome’ figure would come along and confirm for her that she is attractive. Yes, I confess it, I like this fantasy too. There is also a sense in which this fantasy confirms the power of women: an ordinary woman can change an extraordinary man, and can turn his life around. I very much doubt that this fantasy is a male one, or that it draws men in to the same extent that it does women (note that the authors of the three books I mention above are women too). Perhaps the men on the blog can tell me more.
Personally, I don’t enjoy books where romance is the sole plot, but I must confess that I do enjoy books which have a romance thread in them. My favourite kind of heroine is a feisty, argumentative girl who swears that she will never be in a relationship, but then finds that someone has fallen madly in love with her, and reluctantly finds herself falling in love with him back. (This may tell you something about me and my personality.) Possibly this is why I disliked the heroine in Fifty Shades – the guy fell for her because he thought that she’d make a great submissive, not because she was feisty. I found her wet and pathetic, and wanted to shake her when she was weeping for the umpteenth time. I didn’t find that the book plugged into the female romance fantasy successfully.
I wonder if one of my problems with the book was that, on a personal level, I’m not particularly into a dominant/submissive fantasy. I have no desire to be dominated by a powerful rich man, nor do I have a desire to dominate one, for that matter. Indeed, by the end of the book, I was a bit distressed by the female protagonist’s naive willingness to submit. I have no issue with other people’s dominant/submissive fantasies or with people engaging in those kind of sexual practices. What people want to do in the bedroom is up to them, as long as it’s consensual. It’s simply that it’s not something that turns me on. That being said, I have read another series of books with interest, the Kushiel’s Legacy series, featuring a female submissive who is into BDSM, so it’s not that I am squeamish about female characters who fall into that category. The protagonist of the first three of those books, Phèdre nó Delaunay, is an anguissette, a holy prostitute who enjoys having pain inflicted on her, but nevertheless she is a strong, feisty and determined person. She’s a sympathetic character with whom you can empathise in a way that you can’t with the woman from Fifty Shades. There’s no kooky pop psychology explanations, Phèdre just is what she is, and God made her that way. Her self-awareness of her situation is fascinating. And then there’s the problem that she falls in love with someone who’s not into inflicting pain, and so accordingly, she satisfies that aspect of her desires with other people who will inflict pain on her. It’s much more convincingly done than Fifty Shades.
Finally I wonder if this book did so well just because people were curious like me, and wanted to see what the fuss was about. Success begets success. (I’m sure I’ve seen explanations that this is the case with both blog posts and journal articles – once they hit the big time, they go viral in this modern information age). And maybe, unlike me, others are not squeamish about overused adverbs, ubiquitous inner goddesses and weeping wet heroines. But if you’re wondering whether to succumb to the hype, I’d say don’t bother. There are much better books of that type out there.