There are three main issues I have with 50 Shades of Grey, and I’m offering nothing new in the world of criticisms of this book – these are the same issues a lot of people have. But I’ll be damned if I put myself through the torment of reading that book without offering my own two cents.
50 Shades of Grey is the story of Anastasia Steele, a quiet girl who ends up in a relationship with young billionaire Christian Grey. She’s unnerved by his attention to her but immensely attracted to him. But she’s also unprepared for his predilection for kinky sex in which she is the subordinate to his controlling master. Cue a story entirely about her concerns over surrendering herself to him, with her mind telling her no, but her body, her body telling her yes.
PROSE BEFORE HOES
50 Shades of Grey arrives marred by its origins, a Twilight fan-fiction with the serial numbers filed off that went the self-publishing route before being picked up by a publisher and bewilderingly becoming one of the best selling books in the world.
It’s worth noting that there’s nothing inherently wrong with fan fiction or self-published novels, save for the fact that they’re often let down by a lack of editorial insight by someone who isn’t the author. The enthusiasm of writing can often overtake the ability of reviewing flaws within the writing, which is definitely something that 50 Shades of Grey suffers from in spades.
Clearly it worked though. The book would not be as big a success as it is without appealing to an audience out there and for that alone I can’t deny that something about the book must appeal to others, though for the life of me I’m not sure what that is. Perhaps undiscerning readers buy in bulk.
I am not its target audience, neither a fan of Twilight nor a fan of romance novels. Automatically I need to declare myself a square peg to 50 Shades of Grey’s round hole (!). But the problems with the novel start in just the prose.
50 Shades of Grey’s priority is the sexual content and revelling in the “naughtiness” of it all rather than anchoring it as one of many parts that make up a more cohesive whole.
50 Shades of Grey is a terribly juvenile piece of fiction.
This is evident in several ways: firstly, the prose of the novel is uneven, inconsistent and banal. Secondly, for a book that is 90% concerned with “steamy” and “kinky” sex, its approach to sex is surprisingly conservative. Thirdly, characters and setting seem to have been included as an afterthought.
EL James appears to be trying for a vivacious sort of style in her prose, and while this might work in conversation, it makes an arduous read.
Told from protagonist Anastasia’s first-person view, the book contains an overabundance of inner monologue and observation that’s completely unnecessary at best, and outright distracting at worse. James writes in a conversational tone, which has its place, but not when it’s as unevenly applied as in these pages.
It would work well if it was trying to capture the enthusiastic-yet-vapid spirit of a teenager, but from a character who’s meant to be shy and reserved and by her own admission relatively sheltered, it rings false. It also fails to actually convey much in the way of information – the majority of the book is spent examining Anastasia’s every passing thought, with very little given to establishing who she is or how she relates to the world around her, meaning that it’s a constant slug of just accepting everything that’s thrown at you without any work for you to do as a reader.
It’s also just very tedious to wade through – despite the adult themes of the book, the prose is incredibly immature in style and effect and it serves as an immediate and pervasive blocker to being able to take anything seriously.
There are two egregious examples of this.
Firstly is an appalling misuse of euphemism for the sexual content. Anastasia constantly remarks, “Oh my…” as a method of showing that she’s turned on by something. I suspect James was trying to make this her catchphrase, but it’s so overused (and used poorly) that it reads more like she meant to go back in later and expand those sections with more words but failed to do so.
If the multiple “Oh my”s were spoken in dialogue it could be excused as an attempt to be coy or discreet, but in the narration it just feels like James was too embarrassed to write in more detail, despite everything else that’s detailed. Imagine a child tittering at the word “sex” – that’s the accidental function of “Oh my.”. This also extends to the many descriptions Anastasia provides of being turned on, referred to as feeling things “down there” – where it just seems it would be more prudent to throw the word “moist” around with wanton abandon and actually give a sense of the setting of the multiple scenes, or to convey any of the atmosphere of these scenes.
For a book that deals with sex as its prime conflict, and for a book that literally falls into a pattern of its characters fucking then waking up then fucking again then wandering into a different room and fucking again, it needs a bit more confidence in its writing to pass muster, and a bit more sexiness to its sex to make it even passable as an erotic novel.
And for this reason alone, I have to assume the movie will be better than the book
When you hold back from describing your character’s antics or feelings because you’re choosing to use words that make it seem like she’s embarrassed, then juxtapose that with clinical details of he sexual content in a seemingly endless cycle, it robs the book of any relevance; an uneven masturbatory fantasy that falls…well, limp.
Secondly is the personification of Anastasia’s subconscious and sexual desire. The latter infuriatingly referred to as her “inner goddess”, while her subconscious is just referred to as “my subconscious”. Anastasia imagines her subconscious to be a dowdy bore, constantly belittling her and questioning her judgement, while the inner goddess is a fairy-like woman who’s in a state of constant craving for Christian Grey and all of his sexual expertise. Other than the fact that recognising how your subconscious is affecting your thoughts just makes it part of your actual consciousness, this a device that is indistinguishable from the good/bad shoulder consciences.
While I want to give James credit for trying to explore her character’s thoughts and feelings in a slightly different way, the biggest problem is that they don’t actually affect anything about Anastasia through the story. She quite often presents a situation, and what her subconscious’ reaction is, then her inner goddess’s, and then hers. If she’s a third entity between the two, it means they aren’t actually necessary at all. They’d be better titled “my horniness” and “my misgivings” because all they serve to do is comment on one possible consequence each of the choices Anastasia makes, without actually making any impact on what those choices are. If these two elements of her personality were meant to convey an ambivalence between being a “good girl” or embracing her sexuality, it fails entirely because they’re little more than observers on her actions.
James probably thought this a quirky aspect of her story, that her main character’s ability to personify these elements of her psyche (another word atrociously misused in the book) would make her endearing to the reader. It doesn’t. It makes her seem self-loathing or ardently reckless when either the subconscious or the inner-fucking-goddess has more attention.
Across all relevant aspects of the writing, the book also suffers a major blow of “show don’t tell”, from Anastasia’s narration and introspection, to the various settings the novel lurches between. Next to nothing is left up to the reader to establish for themselves. If that were the case, we might have been allowed to craft likeable characters.
One gets the impression the James was so in love with her concept that she didn’t want there to be any variation on what a reader pictured, and so did away with anything that could possibly be interpreted differently to her own imagination. The result is a deathly dull book that leaves nothing up to the reader to interpret.
There’s also just some of the worst writing you’ll ever come across, ranging from ludicrous to banal, often in the same sentence. You don’t need to be told that Anastasia’s subconscious is figuratively doing something; you don’t need a thousand mixed metaphors distracting you from the flow of the story because you have to figure out what James actually meant.
You certainly don’t need the single token-minority character to begin nearly every sentence with “Dios Mio!” just to remind you that he’s Hispanic. And you certainly don’t need the countless offences of EL James perusing through a thesaurus to choose the snazziest word for her sentence without realising it actually changes her meaning.
There is none. Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey are two of the most boring characters I’ve ever read. We are told everything we need to know about them and there are no opportunities to garner this information for ourselves through their thoughts or actions. There’s no subtlety to them – everything we might need to infer about their characters is outright explained in the prose or discussed by the characters. Nothing is left for the reader to do when all necessary detail about the leads is spelled out clearly and there’s nothing left to invest in beyond endlessly repetitive sex scenes.
Given the general conceit of the story is Anastasia’s uncertainty about her relationship with Christian, as well as her resistance to engage in unconventional sexuality while at the same time being motivated by her increasing lust and desire, you would think this would at least make for ample opportunity to invoke those same feelings in the reader. Instead, we are told that she is confused, that she is turned on, that she is scared, that she is overwhelmed and every other conceivable thought or feeling she might go through is spelled out in simple “this is what Anastasia thinks” terms.
We’re also not given any subtlety with Christian as a character – Anastasias perceptions of him are gospel truth as far as the novel is concerned. When she finds out tiny tidbits of information about him, she makes an assumption that is then treated as fact without Christian ever confirming or denying. This would be ok if it ever became an issue, that maybe Christian would react differently or reveal that matters were different to what Anastasia was assuming, but it’s not. We have only Anastasia’s quick assessment to go with as establishment, and no exploration of that. And it’s not that Anastasia is arrogant or just that she’s quick to presume – it’s that EL James didn’t bother to go back and invest any further detail into these things.
For instance, Christian, deathly unwilling to reveal much about his personal life to Anastasia, reveals that his mother was “a crack whore” and that’s about all he says. Anastasia then extrapolates this information to imagine him suffering as a toddler from his mother’s abandonment and imagines him crying alone, and scared and hungry – which she then uses as the basis for why he must want to “feed the world”, something he uses his vast fortune to do by providing food to developing nations.
At no point is this ever questioned, or does Christian contradict her. She makes grand generalisations off small evidence, and the book doesn’t bother to throw us a credible bone with them. This is aggravating because it creates an entire novel where the reader is only given the basic information they need to make sense of the words – there’s no work for them to do, and nothing for them to gain themselves out of reading.
Imagine if Harry Potter was written and all you knew about Hogwarts was that it was Harry’s school – but none of the extra information like his attachment to it, the significance of it being the first place he feels at home, the memories he creates with his friends, the amount of growing as a person he does there. Imagine if all of that is left out, and then Voldemort shows up and destroys half the school – why would you care about it? By the same token, why do we care about anything in 50 Shades of Grey? The answer is that you don’t. It’s not about creating those connections – it’s about sex.
CHARACTER AT ALL
Christian is an impossibly wealthy, impossibly handsome, well-hung, stunning billionaire and he’s even under 30 to boot. He had a dark childhood that he’s somehow overcome, and is supremely confident in everything he does.
He’s also the largest cop-out of a character in a long time. He has no conflict about him. He doesn’t have to work for anything. He doesn’t have to worry about anything. He has infinite resources available to him, because in the world of EL James literature, money just means you can do everything. He’s boring.
Anastasia is a quiet and bookish university graduate. She has a loving support network in her mother and step-father, as well as her roommate and another friend, as well as the endless kindness of her employers and even her employer’s family. She lives rent-free in her roommate’s apartment, and when the two of them move to Seattle, her roommates parents buy her another apartment. There is nothing she needs to work for or worry about except her own insecurities, which are relatively minor. She’s boring.
Clearly EL James didn’t want her story being bogged down with anything worth investing in as a reader, because that might distract from her sordid sexy-time-words and how much they envelop her characters. And who needs a well-rounded or fleshed out character when you can have your two leads become entirely obsessed and involved in each other? Because that’s all you need right? Two characters whose sole motivation is an orgasm from the other. There’s literally nothing else to the characters except their involvement with each other, and they’re constant, constant fucking. And the sex is so boring that giving it a title as mildly evocative as “fucking” seems misleading. “Prolific genital smushery” is more appropriate.
But more on that in part two.