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Fifty Shades of Meh

By Legal Eagle

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.

38 Comments

  1. Posted August 6, 2012 at 8:28 am | Permalink

    your friend had TWO?
    from every reference to this publishing bonanza I have seen, Voltaire and Candide come to mind, so as well as ‘squicky’ prose, it’s been done and done better.
    Can I assume I wonder, that none of the millions of purchasers are church-going? I would hate to think that hypocrisy is rampant.
    please any God? save us from the Hollywood adaptation.

  2. Posted August 6, 2012 at 8:55 am | Permalink

    LE

    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.

    of course you refer to Catarina and that just goes to show how much Will Shakespeare continues to be relevant.

    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.

    I once knew a ‘cutter’. Her boyfriend wasnt into BDSM and couldn’t provide her needs. She often had to go to hospital suffering from horrific self inflicted wounds. The last I heard from her she had moved in with someone who could provide her ‘needs’ in a more controlled way. They were happy. Who needs books when you have ‘real’(?) folks at online chat sites!!

  3. Posted August 6, 2012 at 9:51 am | Permalink

    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.

    It is an eye-rolling cliché that women like this romantic formula.

  4. TerjeP
    Posted August 6, 2012 at 10:09 am | Permalink

    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.

    I’m hardly going to set a precedent by discussing what is and what is not a personal sexual fantasy. At least not in a public forum such as this. However for what it is worth I suspect your suspicions are broadly correct.

    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.

    That’s probably a heck of a lot easier post world wide web. For instance if you had an amputation fantasy and tried to be up front about it 40 years ago I suspect you would get close to zero dates. So the choice was honesty about your fantasy and loneliness, or concealment and companionship. Most would choose the later.

    The power of the world wide web in social terms has been that it provides a forum for massive numbers of people to come out in various ways whilst being able to remain anonymous until there was some critical mass.

    40 years ago saying “I want to tie you up and whip your arse” would probably have you labeled as a psycho. Today it is just considered very kinky. Of course there have probably always been ways and means for the determined to articulate their desires and find like minded partners but the search costs are now much lower.

  5. Marlowe
    Posted August 6, 2012 at 11:10 am | Permalink

    The thing is, there’s millions of better written kinky sex erotica available on the internet. For free. The fact that these women are paying money to read a badly written Twilight fanfiction astounds me. They need to get educated about what’s out there…

  6. su
    Posted August 6, 2012 at 11:23 am | Permalink

    Well done for dipping your toe in LE. The one thing I know of this series is that it must mention Thomas Tallis – I’ve read lots of huffy argy bargy in the Youtube comments for Spem in Alium as the early music buffs try to see off the incoming swarms of libidinal fans. Quite funny.

  7. Posted August 6, 2012 at 2:19 pm | Permalink

    Is it that people need to be better educated about what’s out there, or that their choices a more of a fashion statement than a reflection of their own tastes?

  8. kvd
    Posted August 6, 2012 at 2:43 pm | Permalink

    Well, somebody just landed an SUV on a small crater on Mars named after an amateur Australian astronomer, with pictures via Tidbinbilla.

    I’d call that fifty shades of awesome ;)

  9. kvd
    Posted August 6, 2012 at 3:02 pm | Permalink

    Yeah LE. Not to hijack your important thread, but I really like that our scientific types remained true to their calling, by simply calling it the Curiosity rover. What a perfect name.

  10. TerjeP
    Posted August 6, 2012 at 3:34 pm | Permalink

    However, I guess I’m speaking more broadly about sexual preferences which would be considered reasonably mainstream, and talking openly about what you do and don’t like.

    So you mean people should talk about whether they prefer blondes over brunettes or if they like doing it with the lights on or off. Sure, but ho hum.

  11. Posted August 6, 2012 at 4:47 pm | Permalink

    I should have added (to my post on this) that I do not have a romantic bone in my body, so your sister’s ‘crack cocaine for women’ simply doesn’t resonate with me. At all. It is like looking out over an alien landscape.

    The fact that I do not have a romantic bone in my body was disclosed when I read Wuthering Heights, which I finished, although I thought it was turgid crap. It was for one of my Eng Lit subjects, and I remember the lecturer going around the tutorial getting everyone’s initial feedback. All the girls were swooning over Heathcliff, while the blokes (and me) were rolling up our sleeves to beat the living shit out of the little scrote. For some reason my dad also read it (I must have left it around the flat when he was visiting one day), and he made the point that before I got to beat the living shit out of the little scrote, I’d have to get in line. And between the Royal Navy junior middleweight boxing champion and a shotokan shodan, there wouldn’t be much left of ol’ Heathcliff.

    It is for this reason that I have never watched a ‘rom-com’. Ever. Not one. I don’t even like it when adapted versions of ‘rom-com’ turn up in Roman literature (a lot of their comedies are basically rom-coms, although the protags are usually banging like a dunny door in a gale by that point, so it’s a bit different from the usual formula).

  12. kvd
    Posted August 6, 2012 at 5:35 pm | Permalink

    Anyways, now that that’s cleared up the issue of flowers for Valentines Day, I’d be interested in a considered review from anybody who has actually a) picked up the book or b) read FSOG right to the end.

  13. Posted August 6, 2012 at 6:10 pm | Permalink

    KVD, hey at least I tried to read it. You’ve no idea how hard it was to wade through that.

    3/5+a bit represents a good effort. Much better than my repeated failure to get further than the end of ch 4 with Ulysses.

  14. kvd
    Posted August 6, 2012 at 6:25 pm | Permalink

    LE I would grant you a silver medal (the new gold) for attempt, but I thought I read somewhere that there is more than one book? Or was that Hunger Games, or Potter, or Twilight? Anyway, I do very much sympathise with your and SL’s basic points.

    But that said, it really would be interesting to get the ‘compleat reader’ view, don’t you think? Or is it more interesting that nobody will volunteer such a view?

  15. kvd
    Posted August 6, 2012 at 7:19 pm | Permalink

    Thanks LE. And just for honesty’s sake I should note that I have read the first of the Twilights, first two of Potter, all of the Larssons, and look forward someday to reading the Hunger series, based solely upon your own and SL’s comments.

    Everyone is different in their tastes. The small group of books that I treasure and have reread (sometimes many times) most probably wouldn’t appeal to others, but I always enjoy renewing my friendship with them.

    The thing with FSOG is that there is obviously an appreciative audience out there, and good luck to them, and to the author. It is not for me to judge, just as I would not accept judgement upon my own particular tastes. That said, reviews or opinions are always very interesting.

  16. TerjeP
    Posted August 6, 2012 at 7:28 pm | Permalink

    I started the Lord of the Rings trilogy when I was about fifteen. Half way through the third book I realised it was just a mindless chore and I gave up. When the movies came out I thought I might fair better but I found it boring as batshit. I think what LE said earlier about a good book needing a hook and characters we care about was pretty insightful. If I ever write a book I’ll keep that in mind.

  17. Posted August 6, 2012 at 7:29 pm | Permalink

    Well, I was never going to read the book or its sequels anyway, but not I am much more informed about why :)

    And, any spreading of the virtues of Jacqueline Carey I am in favour of :)

    To quote from the Kushiel’s Legacy series, referring to Phedre specifically, that which yields is not always weak is a good thought as well as a good line.

  18. Posted August 6, 2012 at 7:55 pm | Permalink

    I’m getting the impression that you’d need to be a masochist to read all three 50 Shades right through, kvd. Hence our resistance to attempting it. I did get through all three Twilights (on LE’s “need to find out what happens next” principle) which have been referred to as “Mormon porn”, quite accurately IMHO. I also read all the Steig Larssons, despite finding Blomkvist the singularly most slappable man in the history of fiction. Hunger Games I thought pretty good for kids books probably because I could identify with the strong female protagonist in a way I never could with Harry Potter.

    The stupid thing is that none of this is new.

    The Black Lace imprint has been publishing sexually-explicit novels aimed at women for a couple of decades now, and depending on the author, the writing can be really quite good. Obviously someone at a publishing house has just discovered Slash (pornographic fan-fiction, often written by women about male homosexual relationships, curiously) and unfortunately went for an author from there – presumably for the additional marketability of the “ordinary/nice girls do write porn” angle – rather than an experienced writer with better workmanship.

    Whatever floats your boat, I guess.

  19. Posted August 6, 2012 at 8:39 pm | Permalink

    Terje’s point @23 is an interesting one. I got 3/4 of the way through Ben Okri’s The Famished Road (very unusual for me; once I’m over half-way, I almost always finish), and gave up because I didn’t care about the characters, and good writing wasn’t enough to make up for it. I suspect a lot of books are ‘shelf-popular’; people buy them because there’s a buzz, and then don’t finish them.

    Other thoughts: some books are transportable. I read and enjoyed Tolkien as an adult as well as when I was a child, but found adulthood spoiled CS Lewis. This meant I stopped at the end of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe because I didn’t want to undermine my childhood recollections of the other books. I find that Dr Who also hasn’t survived the transition to adulthood. This means I have never rewatched any of the shows I enjoyed as a child, and now avoid the new series.

    However, that may be because I’m not a geek (too sporty, too ‘regular’ in my habits). While I read a lot of science fiction when I was young, I also read a lot of Russian literature (lots of Dostoyevsky and Solzhenitsyn probably marks one out as ‘intellectual’ rather than ‘geeky’). I do find the obsession some adults have with what amused them as children frankly odd, although I recognise it may be a case of seeking out intellectual comfort food.

  20. kvd
    Posted August 7, 2012 at 7:00 am | Permalink

    Y’know LE, I’ve been thinking about this a lot and, not having read the thing, feel quite competent to proffer the suggestion that perhaps it’s more a problem of editing that penmanship?

    For instance I’m tipping more realism might be attained with a couple of judicious shift-replaces – to whit:

    - Christian becomes Fred, Anastasia becomes Myrtle.
    - heaving becomes consumptive, and ‘said’ is changed to thundered for Fred, shrieked for Myrtle
    - then perhaps you’d change ‘inner goddess’ to ‘naughty bits’ and not to forget ‘dashing’ to ‘prancing’ for the Christmas reprint.

    Waddya rekon? Could be a winner, and would certainly appeal to those of us more into realism. Or was that the first draft before the editor got to work?

  21. Posted August 7, 2012 at 7:30 am | Permalink

    You know KVD, the weird thing is that the characters were such cyphers that I kept forgetting what their names were. Makes sense because they were really originally Bella and Edward from Twilight.

    I’m sure bad editing is some of it, but you’d have to darn well rewrite the book to make it better. Is one allowed to do that to books? “My inner goddess naughty bits did a twirl inside me when Christian looked at me” doesn’t really work either… Although it would have made it far more amusing.

  22. Posted August 7, 2012 at 7:57 am | Permalink

    “My inner goddess naughty bits did a twirl inside me when Christian looked at me”

    First Person, past tense from the subby side??
    No wonder you couldnt finish it. Its a genre that should lead itself far more to third person making the result voyeuristic.
    But maybe thats just the way blokes think!

  23. Posted August 7, 2012 at 8:06 am | Permalink

    re 31

    “As Christians gaze penetrated her very soul, Anastasia felt like she was immediately stripped bare and her heart and inner goddess/naughty bits tumbled over each other in a fruitless effort to hide her true reactions.”

    See?

  24. TerjeP
    Posted August 8, 2012 at 11:57 am | Permalink

    Okay somebody has made an unofficial movie trailer.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=swSA_GiB0g0

    It is well done. In terms of providing a hook that makes you want to see more they did well. The implied sex helped.

  25. kvd
    Posted August 8, 2012 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

    LE@33 thanks for links. The GG one is great. For research purposes, I read the Wikipedia entry for the book, and am thinking, based upon your review, that maybe it’s actually better written than the book itself? That would have to possibly be some kind of first.

    T@34 that trailer is very good. Even as a heterosexual I feel quite comfortable stating that that Matt Boner guy is pretty hot ;)

  26. Posted August 8, 2012 at 12:44 pm | Permalink

    Yes, those reading are quite amusing.

  27. kvd
    Posted August 8, 2012 at 1:17 pm | Permalink

    LE I guess this comment might be binned, but in my ‘research’ I stumbled upon a site listing the funniest quotes from the book, and the one which intrigued me (mainly because it was unclear who actually said it) was “are nipple clamps mentioned in the Bible?”.

    And I thought to myself – finally! a practical need for an I Seymour.

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