Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James (Cornerstone - April 2012)
A diligent reviewer would start with a brief precis of the plot. Alas, this one is so thin that there is nothing to offer suffice to say the characters are based on those in Twilight, supplant Anastasia for Bella, Christian for Edward and some BDSM for all that naughty vampire stuff. Christian lives in an apartment, which, from the description, he bought from Frasier Crane when the TV show ended. I could continue. I won’t.
The writing is so glaringly awful as to defy critique. The endless repetitions are wearying to a point of narcolepsy and if Ana continues to “bite her bottom lip” as often as author EL James describes it, she will soon require a skin graft. Everything is “delicious”, “exquisite” and “divine”, a few times over, in every chapter, to a point where the tedium of the writing overshadows any eroticism this book proclaims to offer.
If the sheer grinding incompetence of the writing does not bore or anger you it might reduce you to giggles. I’m afraid the sex is not worth giggling over. Every “divine”, “delicious” experience renders anything vaguely off-piste, strangely pedestrian. Somewhat giggle-worthy are the bizarre asides which seem to double as product placement. Exhibit A: baby oil, “such a versatile liquid”. Exclamation point. Much less a sexual awakening than a good housekeeping tip that Martha Stewart would be proud of. Proud too are the producers of the film, yes, it is true, as they negotiate the product deals.
But for all the inanity and guff this book, and its two, even uglier sisters, encapsulates, we ignore it at our peril.
We must acknowledge it for two reasons. The first is its success as a publishing case study. As a publishing phenomenon the book defies belief and hats off to EL James for doing what writers have done for centuries and made a mint from peddling porn. Sex sells. She knows it and she sold it. It is also heartening for ePublishers to know that books do have a viral appeal and can operate in a market place outside of traditional publishing. Kate Mosse has opined the fact that because the book is now published in traditional form, this means people do still want “proper books”, but the truth is the traditional publishing industry was playing catch up on this one and saw a retrospective quick buck.
The initial success of the book had much to do with the anonymity an e-Reader offers. No one knows what you are reading on your tablet and commuters everywhere can enjoy a helping of BDSM with their Latte on the way into work. In broader terms, chick lit has run its course, and the “female light read” market was looking for a marketable successor. This is just economics, and James got there first. As a genre it has already been branded as “mummy porn” and if that term is enough to make you retch, you should probably stop reading now as you aren’t going to like what comes next.
The second reason we cannot ignore this book and its offspring is that it is another nail in the coffin of gender equality, and in the worst way possible.
Here is a girl, apparently a graduate student who decides that her sexual education at the hands of a narcissistic, damaged, violent man, trumps any need to educate her mind. Perfectly, she is a virgin.
Christian’s fetishisation of virginity and her inability to own her sexuality are the basis of this profoundly unequal relationship. On a basic linguistic level, EL James has Ana, an educated girl, unable to name her own genitalia other than with a vague “down there” allusion. If she is not even in control of the language of her body, the implications are academic. Her innocence is so profoundly ingrained that she quite literally has no sexual vocabulary. Some would say James has no vocabulary either, but that is another matter. Here, in Ana, we have the same old virgin/whore dichotomy that is as banal and obvious as any. Ana is reduced to an archetype of child-like feminine mystique or to an embodiment of sexual degradation at the hands of her lover. He decides which role she fulfills in his eyes, not the other way round.
And here is the clever illusion we are under with regards point of view.
The trick of a first person account from Ana’s point of view means we are diverted, lulled into thinking this is a sympathetic, nuanced approach to female sexuality. It is a break from the typical full frontal male gaze so often associated with pornography and erotica. Far from being objectified to a body part or two from Christian’s perspective rather we are treated to Ana’s perspective on the proceedings.
Similarly, this point of view allows for little one dimensional forays in self-doubt that are meant to assuage any concerns we may have for this poor beset-upon virgin. Ana’s see-sawing through “should I, shouldn’t I” have nothing to do with the character’s intelligent, self-reflexive musings of the power at play, rather, it is James’ futile stab at a plot line. The only reason to keep reading, one assumes, is to see if they get together and her decision towards the end of the interminable Volume One is so that James has a reason to render us stupid with Volumes 2 and 3.
But, for all the pseudo-psychology, the most damaging and dangerous aspect of this disaster of a book is that, yet again, we are subjected to another lurid example of sex and violence packaged as entertainment. There is absolutely nothing neutral about sexual violence. I cannot express enough that this is not a complaint against BDSM at all, but rather its representation by this particular author in this particular context. In the hands of a more accomplished, intelligent writer it could be offered context and interrogation.
In this book, with is grade school grammar and giddying floor show of hyperbolic adjectives, sexual violence against a woman is offered up as titillation and what is worse, the abysmal quality of the writing adds to the sense that this representation is weightless. As it stands, the temptation is to dismiss this little tale as a trifle. It is not. It is a signal to millions of women, and let’s be clear, another entire generation of women and men, that sex and violence are entertainment. This serious, damaging, and to some women, life-threatening assumption, can be lobbed in to your shopping trolley for £3.50. Fifty Shades of Grey may work well as a title but the assumptions it endorses result in other shades of black and blue for thousands of women, every day. There is nothing trifling about that.
I am aware that other popular fiction does just the same thing. Crime novels are rife with sexual violence, romance fiction endorses much the same and apparently more literary writers such as Houellebecq disguise blatant gynophobia under the veil of intellectual naval gazing. This is not a problem specific to this book or this writer.
In relation to this book, defenders will of course point to the tired old adage that these are two consenting adults. Let’s put that into perspective. She is a virgin, he is sexually sophisticated. She is a penniless student, he a millionaire, she is 21 , he is 27. In terms of life experience, socio-economic class and sex the inequalities are glaring. If you still don’t get it, let’s make it a full house. What if Ana were a young black woman? Bound, and beaten by and older, wealthier, white male and all written in light frothy tones.
This is a retrogressive, vicious book. I doubt this was its intention. Its author is clearly too stupid to know any better, but her publishers should, and so should you.