Cover of Twilight (Two-Disc Special Edition)
Once upon a time there was an Englishwoman who fell in love with all things Twilight and decided to try her hand at fan fiction.
Her Twilight story, Masters of the Universe, was also an erotic romance. The writer had read 800 to 900 of such books on her commutes to work and wanted to try her hand at something similar with her favorite fictional characters. And so her fan fiction, about a young whiz kid Super Executive and his innocent and naïve love interest was a steamy, sexy tale that included B*D*S*M. Yup, kinky sexy as in handcuffing ankles and wrists together and using riding crops and canes and . . . you get the idea. It went places a lot of us have never gone.
This spreader bar is the type of device Christian keeps and uses on Ana in his playroom, which Ana calls "The Red Room of Pain."
Word-of-mouth made the fan fiction very popular online, and EL James—the pseudonym taken by the fanfic writer—eventually changed the names and other aspects of the story, renamed it 50 Shades of Grey, and published it as a trilogy for profit in England.
EL James reading a passage from her 50 Shades trilogy.
Vintage Books, an American publisher, heard the enormous buzz and inked a seven-figure deal with James, who went on to sell the film rights for $5 million and to secure casting and script approval. Not bad for a debut author.
50 Shades have been featured on the front page of Entertainment Weekly, written up in numerous print and online media and creating all sorts of buzz over who will play the roles of Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele in the upcoming film.
But—is it any good? Is it worth your while (and your $30 for the three Kindle editions or paperbacks) to read? What are the strengths of Fifty Shades and what are its weaknesses?
Having read the entire trilogy now and discussed it a bit with dearest Dr. Servetus from Me+Richard Armitage, I am ready to share more of my thoughts and impressions. I won’t do it nearly so eruditely as she, but one can only try.
Popularity, of course, in books, films, television, art and music, does not necessarily equal worthiness or quality. We all know that. How else do you explain the cult of the Kardashians?
Keeping Up with the Kardashians (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Mediocre writers end up on bestsellers lists. Artists who can’t hit a note without Autotune have gold records. Go figure.
First of all, let’s get the sex out of the way. There is a lot of it, and it is frequently very, very hot, and I enjoyed that. I like to read and write erotic romance and I’ve been told I am pretty good at penning it.
However, I should also point out I am not into Pain + Sex = Pleasure. What two consenting adults do in the privacy of their own bedroom is their business. I can get into naughty and playful. A little light bondage, blindfolding and fun with sex toys is one thing; achieving sexual gratification from beating someone else is quite another and I can’t quite get my head around that. There’s consensual rough sex and then there’s–abuse? What do you call it if it’s consensual but obviously harmful?
Those darker, more twisted aspects of Fifty Shades I did find very disturbing. On a more light-hearted but nonetheless irritating note I quickly tired of the constant referrals to my “inner goddess” and all that she was getting up to anticipation of sexy time. You could build a drinking game around all the appearances of the IG. There is also a tremendous amount of eye rolling taking place by various characters. I keep expecting them to say, “WhatEVER.”
Some who have harshly criticized the trilogy seemed to have been most troubled by the graphic sex. However, from my POV, that sex scenes were actually one of the better-written aspects of the story (minus IG) and the best reason to read it.
Certainly neither the plot nor character development are particularly strong. If you are looking for consistency, logic and psychological insight, hmmmmm—there could be a problem.
Let me introduce you to the hero and heroine of our tale. Christian Grey is a copper-haired, grey-eyed 27-year-old filthy rich business mogul in Seattle and the middle of three children adopted by the Greys.
He’s handsome, he’s fit, he’s smart, he’s sexy and every female who isn’t a lesbian will start blushing and stammering the moment they are in his presence. His family thinks he’s gay because he’s never seen in public with a woman or had a girlfriend as far as they know.
James' inspiration for Christian Grey. Finally, a photo of Robert Pattinson in which I actually consider him to be attractive.
In fact, he always has a woman at his beck and call—literally. Christian is a dominant and he makes plain the fact he doesn’t do hearts and flowers, vanilla sex or “make love”. He “f**ks hard” and he gets off on “beating the s**t out of pretty little brown-haired girls.”
Anastasia Steele is the pretty little brown-haired girl with the bright blue eyes whom Christian meets cute at an interview where a nervous, blushing Ana is filling in for her ailing roommate, a journalism major on the staff of the college newspaper.
Ana, a bookish and self-described “scruffy” literature major, has hopes of pursuing a career as an editor with a publishing house.
Christian, on the other hand, has hopes of grooming Ana as his next submissive. His controlling, sadistic ways are attributed to some early trauma that happened before he was adopted and which he doesn’t want to talk about. There is also his “f**ked up” relationship with his mother’s friend that started when he was 15 and “Mrs. Robinson” not only seduced him, she started beating him. Talk about carrying around some emotional baggage.
He’s an angry guy with violent tendencies, a hair-trigger temper of volcanic proportions and a control freak without parallel. And yet he is able to be the calm, cool and collected self-made multi-millionaire who has thousands of employees and can buy corporations at the drop of a hat—all this at an age when some men are still living with their moms.
How does he manage it? The problem is, James never really satisfactorily explains that. I find it hard to believe this stuck-in-adolescence fellow who sometimes suffers from debilitating panic attacks, who is completely self-loathing and flies into rages over pretty insignificant matters is also able to be such a competent and successful businessman. It just doesn’t compute.
And then we have virginal Anastasia who adores Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre and who is a complete innocent when it comes to sex.
Kristen Stewart, the virginal heroine Bella in Twilight and inspiration for Anastasia in 50 Shades.
Apparently she has only kissed a guy once or twice in her entire life and never experienced “tingles.”. She hasn’t even attempted to self-pleasure. She’s got more than one good-looking young man who is interested in her romantically, but it is as if her libido is completely in hibernation.
Only super sexy (and kinky) Christian can unleash her passions, it seems.
This isn’t the Victorian era and Anastasia isn’t Margaret Hale. It’s hard to believe she is as naïve as she is written here.
Margaret Hale (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Nor am I convinced someone so innocent would agree to even consider becoming Christian’s submissive and signing a contract stating in great detail all his expectations of her, right down to how often she eats, how much sleep she gets, personal grooming habits, workout schedules and so forth. Granted, she never does actually sign it and she makes clear she has some limits—but I think I would have taken one look at all that frankly creepy fine print and headed for the door.
(She also doesn’t own a computer of any kind. I know she isn’t from a privileged background like her stereotypical gorgeous-and- popular roommate-who-makes-her-feel-scruffy, but nearly all college kids have a least a cheap laptop or desktop nowadays, don’t they?)
Sometimes Ana comes across as level-headed and prudent and other times she behaves in a very rash, immature manner. Her anger flares quite often. In fact, the couple seems to be arguing, screaming, sulking, brooding or fuming over something constantly. They use emails to converse and they both flirt and fume there, too.
It’s like kids in middle school who bicker and break up, and then make up, and then bicker . . . it’s exhausting to read it all. I found myself growing impatient and wanting to say, “Oh, grow up already. Snap out of it!!”
We seem to have two adolescents here with raging hormones and tremendous mood swings. And access to handcuffs and weapons. It’s not really the healthiest of relationships.
They both can be quite charming and tender and flirtatious and they have a lot of hot and mutually satisfying sex, but what they can’t seem to do is to sit down and have a reasonable, rational conversation with one another.
There is plenty of physical intimacy, but very little communication and constant misunderstandings arise . . . but after some more implausible plot twists (think heavy-duty soap opera), they get their happily (and kinkily) ever after. Apparently the love of a good woman (who likes it rough) turns Christian’s life around.
There are several unsavory and/or just plain sad supporting characters in the story. And there’s Christian’s shrink whom I am not altogether sure is providing the proper treatment for his very troubled patient.
Christian has some serious issues and maintains some toxic relationships over the course of the three books. For a long while, he claims the woman who manipulated and sexually abused him “saved” him.
I don’t understand Christian. I am not sure the author understands him and therein lies a big problem.
She just keeps throwing new personality traits into the mix along with his ability to fly helicopters and play classical music. Will he be sweet, loving and tender, overly possessive and demonically controlling or just plain mean and scary? Wait five minutes or a couple of pages and who knows which Christian you will get.
But hey, he sure looks great with his “just-f**ked” hair, those luminous grey eyes darkening with lust, those acid-washed jeans with the top button undone and the way they hang on his hips in such a tantalizing manner . . . I told you the sexy parts were the best thing about the books.
It isn’t great literature but it never aspired to be.
James has said she didn’t have high expectations when she wrote the fan fic or published the novel and “it is what it is.”
And I respect her for being candid about it. One thing she doesn’t appear to be is pretentious.
But I have to agree with Servetus: 50 Shades’ fanfic roots are definitely showing. As the mistress of my fanfic universe I can do anything I want to with the characters and it doesn’t have to be plausible or logical.
But when you move into the realm of mainstream fiction, little things like plausibility and logic and consistency of characterization and a strong story arc are important, at least they are to me. You also need to be engaged with the characters and care about what happens to them. That didn’t really happen for me. I read all three books in hopes of getting more involved with the characters but to no avail.
I would have liked to have seen a good copy editor tighten up those indulgent references to “inner goddesses” and the much-repeated use of “holy crap” and “holy sh*t” throughout by Ana, who tells the story in the first person.
Not to mention removing all the Britishisms that don’t fit properly in a book about Americans living in an American city ( I haven’t seen the Vintage paperback versions of 50 Shades but I understand it has been tweaked since the Kindle edition).
One thing that I am wondering about is how many 50 Shades wanna-bes are going to be written in hopes of winning the jackpot? And how are they going to adapt 50 Shades for the big screen without it being borderline porn and possibly unintentionally hilarious? In order to draw in a lot of the Twihards, won’t they need to tone down the sex in order to get a less restrictive rating?
There’s a lot more I could go into, but I am already at over 1,700 words and will save further discussion on the matter for another post.
Here’s my advice: if you were thinking of purchasing it, save your money. I think it would be worth purchasing for, say, $3.99 an installment but not for $9.99. There are better reads you can get for $30.
As a matter of fact, there are better reads you can get right here in the RA community that include hot and steamy erotic romance coupled with a good story and engaging characters and not pay a dime.
If you’ve got it and you haven’t read it yet, by all means, do. It’s not terrible. I just want you to go in forewarned. It is what it is.
But that’s just my two cents. I would love to hear from anyone else who has read it and may have a very different spin on things.