Fifty Shades of Exasperation

It’s time. You are about to discover my take on that whole Fifty Shades thing. I have already publicly admitted to reading the thing (well reading volume one of the trilogy and skimming volumes two and three), so now here (drum roll) is my critical appraisal of E L James’s reworking of the well worn theme of the sexual awakening of a young woman, with the bondage/submission and domination/S&M element. What I mean is that it is the reworking of Histoire d’Ô and similar (well, an attempt at, I should say), not a reworking of Sleeping Beauty.

Let me pinch a few sound bites from various sources to set the scene: “porn for Moms”; sadly very true (the “sad” bit is just that this description makes me a typical reader, and indeed, I’ve read it, hence the “very true” bit); “Cinderella with a spanking”, and here I must credit Gail from Paris book club who in turn credits an unnamed friend; “my midlife crisis, writ large”, which is a quote from Fifty Shades of Grey and subsequent two books author E L James. It’s all of those things, and not much more.

But before you heave a sigh of relief at being let off so lightly, I feel it a public duty towards anyone hesitating to read the trilogy to help them come to a decision, by giving them a warning. And no, I’m not talking about the porn. Mary Wodehouse or Geneviève de Fontenay are not among my aliases.

Much had been said about the poor writing, but not enough, I’m afraid. Some people take issue with emails padding out the text; annoying certainly, but surely the least of evils present in the book. Most readers note the total absence of plot and character development; absolutely, and I stupidly suggested and lost a bet about a plot line, which turned out to be of my invention (for anyone interested, I thought Taylor was going to be revealed as Christian’s father, and sharing that in no way violates my self imposed ban on spoilers: just in case I hadn’t made the point clearly enough, there is no plot to spoil); yet, most reviewers have dismissed these glaring mistakes with a “what else can you expect from that sort of trash?”. True, but this is in my view damning nonetheless, as it shows how little effort has been put into the crafting of the book. The repetitions have been mocked more or less hilariously (a simple word occurrence count says it all, actually, and then feel free to laugh or cry) and surely everyone has wanted to throttle the heroine’s inner goddess the third time she popped up and sighed at every other mercilessly frequent appearance.

I’m very aware in making these unkind comments that there is a person behind the author who produced this work. The fact that E L James is a Twilight fan fiction writer turned self-published mega successful author could potentially have forced my admiration, but I just can’t turn that into indulgence. Anyway, if she were a more remote author, shrouded by a mist of agents and a solid, serious, literary reputation (whatever that may be), I would still unleash my negative criticism if I felt it justified. (Here endeth the lecture on the purity of my reviewing.)

In fairness, I must point out two positives: the sincerity of the thank you to readers at the end of volume three, and the idea of setting out the contract early on in book one, which is meant to set the framework for the dominance/submission relationship proposed. This latter ploy means that you know exactly the nature of the porn content to come.

So, if I ever met E L James, I’d say to her: “Congratulations on your success. Please can you work on the writing now?”

I share with book club friend Emily my distaste for the financial aspect of the relationship depicted in this trilogy: he’s mega rich, obviously. She, after a little token resistance, is showered in gifts. Generally, much emphasis is laid on signs of wealth, so the whole “well, after all, women do enjoy the nice things a man can buy them” scenario gets yet another airing.

To close, I will repeat here what I’ve said to many people who’ve been patient enough to listen: I am far more worried about the impact on my daughters of countless music videos for one thing and the hypocrisy of women’s magazines for another. Elle, Vogue, Cosmopolitan and similar publications usually fund programmes for girls in various parts of the globe, and at the same time present a consumerist heaven to their readers on every single page. And more to the point here, their articles mostly preach how women of all ages and sizes deserve wellbeing and fulfillment, while running adverts featuring teenage models with an improbable physique, photoshopped or not.

Fifty Shades of Grey just doesn’t give me the same concern. First, because I’m still at the stage where I’m discussing periods and where babies come from with my girls (and here’s hoping they’ll never want to discuss handcuffs and stuff, yikes!). Second, because, however distressingly badly written the book is, however thin the personalities of the silly pair, Anastasia and Christian, it’s the girl who has the upper hand in the whole silly story.

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