Twilight and fanfic and Grey, Oh my! 50 Shades of Grey review

Reading Remittance Girl’s astute review of 50 Shades of Grey by E.L. James, made me set set aside my writing plans for the day to finish reading it and knock something off the ‘currently reading’ pile. [I started the review and then came back and finished a few weeks after.]

I was, of course, curious about it when it came out – being erotica that has has done so well, making sales in ways that much modern erotica aspires to but doesn’t quite manage, it struck me as something that one ‘ought to read’, in the way that any kind of publishing phenomena becomes self-perpetuating in that readers start to read just to see what the fuss is about.

Basic plot (if you’ve somehow missed it): Anastasia Steele, Ana, an English student, is sent by her friend, who is ill and needs a replacement, to interview billionaire industry tycoon Christian Grey. Attraction between them ensues. But Grey has a dark secret – it’s not a spoiler at this stage to say he’s into BDSM, and he wants Ana to become his Submissive, a proposition that she is alternatively aroused and repelled by. Tension results from their trials to negotiate this and from Ana’s attempts to understand what is in Grey’s past that makes him desire ‘such things.’

Rambling thoughts below the cut.

As most people probably know, though it is not really given voice by the author herself, the novel, and the trilogy it is part of, was originally a Twilight fanfic titled ‘Masters of the Universe’. 50 Shades of Grey is definitely an improved title, because all I can think when I see that is of the rather silly film based on He-Man that came out sometime in the 80s starring Dolph Lundgren. As a transition from fanfic to so-called original, from what I can tell it was more a find-and-replace exercise. This doesn’t bother me too much in itself – when you do an AU (alternative universe) fanfic, there is a certain amount of work and world-building needed to make the characters come alive in a milieu they are not intended for. Granted I’ve not read Twilight, only seen the first film, so cannot comment on how alike Bella is to Ana, and Edward is to Christian. Though one suspects the characters are shallow enough that this was not all that hard to achieve.

I was by turns compelled by the plot, and at other times bored stiff. On the one hand, the back and forth exchanges between Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele were often fun and had a nice frisson – honestly James could have written the book entirely consisting of their email conversation and that would have made for much better and probably quite compelling work. Bored stiff, because after about the half way point, things seemed to plod along, with scenes that lacked basic tension required to forward a plot – despite repeatedly telling us about Ana’s concerns and fears from being in a relationship with Grey, I never really felt an imminent sense of danger, and you’d think I ought, right?

A good hand of pruning would have made for a more interesting read, to be sure. Not just of the sentences and excess of adverbs, but scenes themselves – redundant and tedious scenes of people making plans to meet up, paragraphs taken up of ‘Hi, how are you?’ ‘Fine thanks,’ conversations, slowed down the proceedings. There was also a set of very, very repetitive refrains – Ana appreciating Grey’s attractiveness, how much Ana beguiles him, Ana’s shock at him being anywhere in her presence – that became plain tedious.

There were aspects of the book I liked, or more accurately, had great potential. James has a sense of humour that comes through occasionally, so the laughs weren’t entirely at the expense of the missteps. Many people have complained about the use of Ana’s two internal monologue characters, her inner goddess and her subconscious, but they were kind of fun – could have been better handled, though, and, in the case of the subconscious, better named (as this glorious detailed, highly critical, and very funny review at Dear Author points out, it ain’t a subconscious if you’re aware of it!) And I did like the emails – the stylistic nature of them almost forced James to think more about the prose/dialogue nature of them. But oh! For a good editor! Oh! (no my at the end of that…)

Granted, the almost cartoon-ish appearances of the inner goddess etc. and with the constant ‘Oh mys!’ and the ‘Holy [insert appropriate expletive here], made Ana seem like a cross between Ally McBeal, Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz, and Robin for the camp-tastic 60s TV version of Batman

The sex itself – it was ok. The only truly odd metaphor was the ‘popsicle’ reference to Grey’s cock – but that was the one true offender to my mind. After all the talk in the media about the BDSM aspects of it, I went in expecting something, well, more hardcore than I found. But then, I’ve read enough passing comments in the blogosphere to see that this is not an accurate depiction of a D/s relationship. More than that, James doesn’t seem to have a great grasp of what people who are into BDSM are like. Remittance Girl makes a good critique of some of those issues, and there have been others. I can’t come at it from a personal perspective, but it does, to my mind, read more like a vanilla couple who occasionally engage in some kinkier play – which isn’t a judgement on either way of doing things in one’s sex life, but it is a distinction that is important in terms of accurate characterisation, and indeed representation of what goes on in real life. Of course, 50 Shades is very much a fantasy, so we could argue until the cows come home about whether or not is has a responsibility to be true to life or nor, or indeed if erotica should try follow that too. I, typically, can see both arguments for it, and haven’t quite decided where I sit on this point. I do think it’s frustrating when you see an aspect of yourself you hold very dear misrepresented, though.

I can’t exactly recommend 50 Shades. Overly, I found it a very frustrating book with a some good points that I wish she’d developed.