Trashy Read 2012 #5: Fifty Shades of Grey, by E L James
For awhile, I thought I'd avoid reading this one. I've never been one for popular books (I tend to wait a year or so until the fanfare has died down before reading a bestseller or critically-praised work), and I wasn't particularly interested in what Fifty Shades had to offer the romance genre, as its crossover popularity removes it somewhat from the romance novels I love so much. But after a half-hearted agreement with other MFAs to give it a shot over the summer, I finally relented and put my name on the library hold list.
Fifty Shades of Grey is not very good. It's ridiculous that the trilogy covers 1,500 pages to tell a story that a better writer could tell in 350 without losing any of the emotional beats. The writing is pretty abysmal, too. I suppose that a lot of people won't notice James's reliance on her thesaurus or the overdose of adverb usage. As an adverb hater, I noticed and it bothered me a great deal. At one point, when the heroine is crying, James actually uses the phrase "watery tears." What?! I'm not surprised this book started out as fanfiction, as its writing is on par with your average piece of fanfiction. (Note: I say that as someone who loves and appreciates good fanfiction.)
However, I don't think Fifty Shades is a particularly bad book, either. I've certainly read books, including literary fiction, that is less absorbing. The sex scenes are, as promised by the book's categorization as erotica, definitely the most interesting I've encountered in mainstream publishing. I even appreciated the way James builds the sexual relationship between the two. It doesn't start off being crazy BDSM stuff; it works its way there in a (somewhat) more believable manner. So while the book itself is lacking in a lot of what I like about fiction in general and romance in particular - the characterization, the believability of the building relationships, the emotional stakes - I can see why it has sparked so much attention.
That being said, I'm not sure what makes this book so special, so different from any other erotic romance out there. I don't read erotica, but I know it exists in major digital markets in the romance community. So why this one? Was it because James already had a big following from her days of writing fanfiction? Is it the fact that the books actually made it into paper copies that made it accessible to a wider audience? I don't know. I can't imagine why anyone would care about these lead characters in particular. Christian Grey is business-as-usual angsty, the kind of alpha male that exists all over the place in what romance reviewer Sarah Wendell would call "old skool romance." Anastasia Steele (yep, that's her actual name) is the other side of the old-skool couple model, the wide-eyed innocent who doesn't understand why she has all these feelings for a dangerous man. There's nothing here that is new or interesting. These are not fascinating people (especially Anastasia, who annoyed the shit out of me through the entire book, a problem since the book is narrated in her first-person voice). Not to mention how out of date this book feels sometimes. For example, Anastasia is 21 and graduating from college and DOES NOT OWN A LAPTOP. The book features some truly kinky sex and a bizarre submissive-dominant contract that is hilarious in its seriousness, but the thing that drove me craziest about the whole thing was Anastasia's absolute stupidity when it came to techonology. I'm supposed to believe this girl got an internship at a publishing company without knowing how to work a Mac? You have got to be kidding me. (Since getting my library tech job and seeing what people my age and younger are capable of automatically picking up in regards to technology, I am angry that James did not have enough respect for her main character to make her as technological proficient as any college student would have to be right now.)
So there you have it. As someone who appreciates good writing and a high dose of believability, this book didn't really satisfy me the way it has the general reading public. I don't think it's the kind of trash some critics have labeled it, but I also don't think it gives us real insight into relationships like some readers and TV personalities have claimed. It's a book with a lot of acrobatic sex scenes and base-line brooding. It wasn't the worst book I've ever read, but except for its occasional moments of WTF-ery, it isn't going to stick with me long, either.