Friday, June 15, 2012

The Fifty Shades of Grey Dilemma: To Read or Not To Read?

If you have not heard about the Fifty Shades trilogy by E.L. James then you have probably been living under a rock for the last few months. It is the latest in a long list of hit books that explode onto the shelves every now and again. My book group has heard multiple recommendations from friends and acquaintances, although very few people seem to be aware of what exactly the book is about or even why it is so popular. I am sure that many of the recommendations come from well-meaning people who have heard about the book and think that it must be good because everyone is talking about it.

Description (courtesy of Goodreads)

When literature student Anastasia Steele is drafted to interview the successful young entrepreneur Christian Grey for her campus magazine, she finds him attractive, enigmatic and intimidating. Convinced their meeting went badly, she tries to put Grey out of her mind - until he happens to turn up at the out-of-town hardware store where she works part-time.

The unworldly, innocent Ana is shocked to realize she wants this man, and when he warns her to keep her distance it only makes her more desperate to get close to him. Unable to resist Ana’s quiet beauty, wit, and independent spirit, Grey admits he wants her - but on his own terms.

Shocked yet thrilled by Grey's singular erotic tastes, Ana hesitates. For all the trappings of success – his multinational businesses, his vast wealth, his loving adoptive family – Grey is a man tormented by demons and consumed by the need to control. When the couple embarks on a passionate, physical and daring affair, Ana learns more about her own dark desires, as well as the Christian Grey hidden away from public scrutiny.

Can their relationship transcend physical passion? Will Ana find it in herself to submit to the self-indulgent Master? And if she does, will she still love what she finds?

Erotic, amusing, and deeply moving, the Fifty Shades Trilogy is a tale that will obsess you, possess you, and stay with you forever.

I am a grumpy old rat bag so I am always wary of mega bestsellers and I have been underwhelmed by highly popular titles in the past. I have learnt that there are certain people who have similar tastes to mine and I will follow their advice, so I decided to have a look through my blog roll and see what opinions I could find amongst my fellow book bloggers about this phenomenon.

I have provided links to the articles that I have quoted from repeatedly: they are at the bottom of the post.

Twilight Fan Fiction

Jane at Dear Author has a very interesting piece about this aspect of the controversy. It includes quite a lot of analysis of the Twilight fan fiction (Masters of the Universe) and the trilogy, coming to the conclusion that they are pretty much the same with only minor changes.

However, many people claim that there is no similarity between Fifty Shades and the Twilight series. This might be because they are not very familiar with Twilight, but Stephanie at Cuddlebuggery is pretty adamant that the similarities are very obvious.
 “The mannerisms of the characters are exactly the same. They even say similar things the original characters say. The whole “dazzle” line and Edward asking Bella to trust him. Her mother being remarried with the same inability to maneuver her way around a kitchen. Bella is still trying to save Edward from him­self due to his troubled past. Edward still stalks and controls Bella, only now he gets to hit her when she gets out of line.”
Lazaraspaste at Dear Author agrees with her wholeheartedly.
“It is entirely obvious to me that this used to be Twilight fan fiction because James manages to capture the vibe of the original: the shoe-gazing, eye-gazing, pseudo-angst of Bella and Edward’s tumultuous love affair. Yes! It’s all there from the zero conflict to the zero chemistry!”
I have not read the Twilight novels, and a viewing of the first couple of films left me with no desperate urge to read them. However, I have read quite a lot of fan fiction in my time, and I know that some of it is of very high quality. The big problem I see here is that the work was originally set in someone else’s universe, using their characters, etc. To simply go through and change the names seems to dance a little close to the intellectual property rights boundary. I know that Ms Meyer has made no move to assert her rights, but it still leaves me uneasy.

It Has Naughty Bits!

Perhaps the one thing that we have all heard is that these books are “Mommy Porn”. This is a horrible description, but BDSM (Bondage, Discipline, Sadism and Masochism) is one the major plot points. In fact, many of the people who criticize the book are accused of prudishness, which seems rather strange as many of them complain that the books do not deliver on their promise of exotic sexual kink.

KB/KT Grant at Babbling About Books and More! complains that the kinky stuff is . . . well . . . not all that shockingly kinky at all.
“But when Ana allows Christian to unleash his disturbing kinkery on her, it’s all vanilla, the one thing Christian is against. The build up and final outcome is weak. The most BDSM Ana experiences by Christian’s hands is bondage and a belt he uses to smack her ass that leads to her walking out on him.”

Lazaraspaste at Dear Author is also underwhelmed by the promised erotica.
“Kink serves three contradictory purposes within this story: it is a justification for Christian being an alphahole (He’s damaged! He’s dominant! He doesn’t know what real love is!). It is the erotic titillation and tension in the sex scenes—which, FYI, are so boring they could have acted as general anesthesia. I could have had a tooth drilled during and not realized it. And it is the obstacle or conflict the hero and heroine must overcome in order to be together.”
However, Stephanie at Cuddlebuggery is concerned that the BDSM aspect is actually domestic abuse.
 “Ana has to sign a “contract” agree­ing to his sexual demands and also outlining things she won’t do. It was pretty pointless considering he still got what he wanted and she never signed the damn thing. He exploits her, stalks her and abuses her! She cries after sex. She is afraid of him being angry! Even when he is angry at something else, she thinks it’s her. Her reasoning for allowing him to hit her as his therapy is because she’s afraid to lose him. That is not a reason for agreeing to a BDSM lifestyle!”
I have read many analyses of the Twilight books that highlight their portrayal of an abusive relationship, such as this one from the Psychology Today website. This makes me nervous of books that take that abusive relationship further and incorporate BDSM. But, putting that aside, I am concerned that there is an implication that erotica has not been available before this trilogy. I do not go out of my way to read BDSM, or even erotica, but I remember reading books that involve it and other forms of ‘kinky’ sex ever since I started reading more adult literature in the mid-1980s. However, it sounds like the kink here is more vanilla than anything else, so this selling point appears to be a misnomer.

Writing Quality

The quality of the prose is one of the biggest complaints that I have read in regards to these titles and if there is one thing that will make me stop reading a book it is poor writing.

Stephanie at Cuddlebuggery is blunt in her irritation.
“The writing is a shitty mess too. I mean, if I had to sit and read Ana saying “Holy, shit!” or “Holy, Fuck!” or “Oh, my!” one more time, I was going to lose it. I wanted to take my red pen and have at this “book” so badly. It was the little things like Ana’s roommate saying over and over, “You never cry Ana,” and what do we find Ana always doing? Crying.”
SB Sarah at Smart Bitches Trashy Books is a little less cross, but mostly bored.
“The level of detail and the density of the text - by which I mean THERE ARE A LOT OF WORDS IN THIS BOOK - just bored the crap out of me. Anna's narration was irritating, and I couldn't get past it to enjoy the story.”
Lazaraspaste at Dear Author damns the author with faint praise.
“The prose is dull, but it isn’t unreadable. It’s competent. The best thing I can say about it is that vast majority of sentences are grammatical. More problematically was what I shall call the rhythm of the prose. Like Gertrude Stein, I believe the sentence is the basic building block of narrative. The sentences in this book did not help me enter the world of the story. They were an obstruction. A series of pedestrian, pre-chewed sentences only slightly more sophisticated than the ones found in my 2nd grade reader”
Jessica at Read React Review offers a slightly more positive view
 “I think a professional edit could have made a big difference.”
I know that the book was originally a fan fiction and then a self-published e-book, but you do expect a certain level of competence in a work put out by a reputable publishing house. It is too late for a much needed edit once it is on the shelves. This, more than anything else, is my biggest reason for not touching the book.

Plotting / Character Development

The second biggest complaint has been about the lousy plot and the poor character development. The characters themselves are described as less than convincing and very stereotypical.

KB/KT Grant at Babbling About Books and More! is not sold by Christian’s supposed irresistibility.
“Christian uses verbal threats to the point of overkill. He’s all bluster and talk and never does more than that. Christian comes across more as a spoiled rich boy who has tantrums when he doesn’t get his way. Why Ana is so attractive to him stupefies me. So what if he’s rich and handsome? What else does he have to recommend for himself? He uses threats as scare tactics that never go anywhere and his issues and depravity we’re told about never come to completion.”
Meanwhile, Jessica at Read React Review struggles with Ana.
“Ana is underdeveloped as a character. There’s a lot of telling the reader how strong she is, how smart. I can’t say there was much showing. She likes to read British literature and drink tea. Not a lot to go on.” 
“Ana is a 21 year old in 2011. She often forgets to turn on or bring her phone. She’s not on Facebook. Really? Of course there are people like that, but those choices felt more like author’s decisions than coming from her character.”
Lazaraspaste at Dear Author is unimpressed by both the plotting and the characters.
“That’s pretty much the plot. Ignorant young woman with virginity still intact and a case of low self-esteem meets a controlling, manipulative, hot, young billionaire who identifies as a dominant in order to justify the fact that he’s a paternalistic control freak. Yay! Oh, yay! It’s just such an original and imaginative take on heterosexual relationships, don’t you think? It really offers some new insight into sexuality and power.” 
“Besides being the worst sort of alpha male, Christian’s personality can be summarized thus: spectacularly beautiful man who smirks a lot. There’s not a lot there. He’s pretty much a cipher, not so much enigmatic as empty” 
“Then there’s Anastasia Steele. She has shockingly little personality for a first person narrator. She’s vapid and dumb, so very, very dumb. She’s TSTL (Sue: Too Stupid To Live), but not because she chases down villains in London’s worst slums. No, but because she fails to register the blatantly obvious.”
So, in summary: the plot is not very good and the characters are unbelievable and irritating. This is the one aspect that could make me overlook poor writing, but if both are sub-par then I am definitely going to choose something else to spend my time on.

Overall Impression

SB Sarah at Smart Bitches Trashy Books marked this book DNF. Nothing says more than being unable to finish a book (DNF = Did Not Finish).
“Unfortunately for me, I found it to be melancholy and meandering, and the heroine narrator is so maudlin and wimpy I grew more and more irritated with her and with the story and had to stop. It's amazing how powerful a first-person narrator can be - and what a turn off it is when you don't like her.” 
Stephanie at Cuddlebuggery was not overly impressed *cough* and gave it 0 stars.
“I struggled to come up with a proper review for this book and couldn’t figure out why I was feeling rather uninspired to write one. And then I figured it out. I was left so disgusted by this book that I wanted to purge the memory of its existence from my mind. With a rusty nail. Every time I thought of the book my brain cells would go on strike, yelling obscenities at me.”  
Lazaraspaste at Dear Author was equally unimpressed and marked it with an F Grade.
“Not only does it perpetuate damaging untruths about BDSM as a sexuality and a sexual identity, it also manages to do so in the most clichéd and hackneyed way possible. It is a thoroughly uninteresting book. The characters are as flat as a thing can be without entering the first dimension. The plot has only a single conflict: that Christian is BDSM identified and Anastasia is vanilla. E.L. James has managed to take the worst aspects of Twilight, the worst elements of a Mills & Boon circa 1977, and the worst of BDSM erotica and combine them into one glorious whole (or should that be hole?). She deploys the tropes and clichés with a heavy hand—tropes and clichés that, to be fair, are everywhere in romance. But it is the thoughtless use of these clichés that makes them problematic for me.”
KB/KT Grant at Babbling About Books and More! is much more generous, giving it a B-
Fifty Shades of Grey is pure crack reading. I couldn’t get enough of it even with the massive length and lack of editing that's desperately needed.”
Jessica at Read React Review Is the most positive review I could find, and even she is not unconditional in her praise.
“I enjoyed this book, and I totally understand why so many readers refer to it as “crack” (bad but irresistible) but I won’t be reading more in this series.”
So, not exactly a set of glowing recommendations, even from those reviewers who were caught up by the book and gave it modestly positive reviews. I would have included a review that raved about the book if I had found one on my blog roll. It seems like I have found blogs written by people who are not afraid to say what they think of very popular books, and I find that reassuring and refreshing. It means that when these reviewers rave about a book I can trust their opinion to be honest and based upon serious reflection.


As I was working on this piece I noticed something interesting about the ratings stated for the book.

SB Sarah at Smart Bitches Trashy Books writing in November 2011:
Amazon Rating: 4.50 / 5.00 and Goodreads Rating: 4.49 / 5.00

Jessica at Read React Review writing in January 2012:
Amazon Rating: 4.50 / 5.00 and Goodreads Rating: 4.41 / 5.00

When I checked today:
Amazon Rating: 3.30 / 5.00 and Goodreads Rating: 3.82 / 5.00

It seems like the rave bubble has burst and the negative reviews have started to roll in as more and more reviewers work to give their opinion. I get a sense of disappointment and annoyance that such a mediocre book has had such a positive reaction and that people are actively trying to provide a more balanced appraisal of the work.


Each of these posts is an interesting and entertaining read and I thoroughly recommend them.

Alternatives to 50 Shades

If you would like some alternatives, here are a couple of posts doing just that.


  1. So, are you going to read it ot not? :)

    I decided against it. I had the book in my hand some time ago and read the blurb and all it evoked was, blah, this sounds stupid. And just after that I met a friend who is translating the book into French and she said it was awfully written and told me the story and for the life of me, I just cannot understand what is it that made this book so popular. I mean, even the blurb sounds pathetically melodramatic and completely unreal.
    I feel stupid for saying that as most of the things I read are unreal but I know that going in. :)

  2. No, I will not be reading it! :)

    I know exactly what you mean about realism: I am happy to suspend my disbelief for the setting of a fantasy, but I still need characters that feel real, and a plot that makes sense, within their world. To me, the most successful books carry you into their world and hold you there without effort. Bad writing or unbelievable characters and plotting knock me out of that world and ruin the experience.

    I am also struggling to see what all the fuss is about. I felt the same about The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, which I read with my book group. We were all underwhelmed by it and very critical of the writing, but it was very, very popular: hence my mistrust of all the hype surrounding this title! :)

  3. I haven't read Fifty Shades so I don't feel comfortable commenting about the book, but I will say that I've been asked at least fifty times if I have read it yet. I applaud any author who can get such instant success. I guess it makes me feel old, because the whole S&M thing was done in Anne Rice's Sleeping Beauty series and was all the rage thirty years ago. I think we have a new generation of readers who have just stumbled upon this "naughty" genre. Give Elora's Cave a browse and see how many authors are writing erotica. It may surpise a few readers.

  4. I think what I find most interesting is trying to work out why the books have been such a success. You are probably correct that much of it is due to a large group of people suddenly realizing that erotica is available at their local bookstore. It certainly shows that word-of-mouth can be more powerful than the most sophisticated and expensive advertising campaigns! :D

  5. I finally read the first, and part of the second (I don't know why, damn auto-buy on the Kindle doesn't bode well when coupled with laziness), just to see what the hype was about. Sadly, it was just that - hype. The quality of writing is on par with Twilight, which isn't saying much, but unlike Twilight, it's plot is not addictive.I can definitely see where the main characters of each series mirror each other, although I'm not sure I would readily make the connection if it weren't already out there. The sex scenes are salacious, at first. But they get old quickly. I'm all for a few more scenes than your average 2.5...but I'd like some plot in there as well. And, sadly, what plot there was was not much. As for the BDSM - this too is largely hype. There is talk of it, and some of the scenes involve the milder aspects of it, but the "story" seems to be more about finding a middle ground between "vanilla" and full on "bdsm." Overall, it was an expectedly disappointing read, and I have a feeling the movies will be just as disappointing, as the main draw is the sex and there is no way a main-stream movie is going to come anywhere close to what was written.

  6. I kind of wish that this book could live up to the hype because it makes me feel very uneasy that a book that is so widely reported as being badly written is doing so well. I suppose we just need to chalk it up as a blip and move on to better fare.

  7. I could say the same about Janet Evanovich's series, and yet there is a huge market out there for them as well...

  8. I agree whole-heartedly, as you can see from my review of Wicked Appetite! :D


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