Is “50 Shades of Grey” brilliant, entertaining erotic literature, or misogynistic horror-show? Either way, the technique of the author is outstanding.
‘I only finished the first volume,’ my friend says. ‘It was so badly written. And boring.’
‘I disagree,’ I say. ‘I think the writing is brilliant. It hits every target for a best-seller. I read all three volumes. But I ended up hating it.’
What to make of 50 Shades of Grey? Last time I looked, it had sold 150 million copies in 52 languages and spawned a hit movie series. The book has 85,000 reviews on Amazon.com with an average of 4*, and a further 21,500 on Amazon.co.uk – also averaging 4*. A lot of people love it. Why?
The following review contains spoilers. Links in bold italics are to other blog posts on this site.
Each volume of “50 Shades” is substantial
Here are 5 things I found brilliant about the 50 Shades trilogy:
(i) everything is big. In her book “How to write a blockbuster“, Sarah Harrison says a bestseller must have glamour in the sense of absolute, undeniable, gobsmacking allure… with all the maidenly restraint of Joan Collins on speed. It’s got to be BIG, she says. Everything about 50 Shades is big – Christian Grey is not just rich, he’s mega-rich. He isn’t just talented; he is a concert-quality pianist and outstanding skier and linguist who excels at martial arts. He’s not only a good person: he wants to help poor people around the world. He’s not just handsome – every woman he passes is entranced by his charisma. As Ana sums him up:
I sense his passion for fixing problem companies, his hopes for the technology he’s developing, and his dreams of making land in the third world more productive. I listen, enraptured. He’s funny, clever, philanthropic and beautiful, and he loves me.
What does Ana think when she sees the engagement ring Christian gives her late in volume 2?
It’s beautiful, an oval diamond in a platinum ring. Whoa – it’s big…
In every way, Christian Grey is as big as they come.
(ii) Anastasia Steele is a narrative voice with whom many women will identify. She analyses things ceaselessly, in a way reminiscent of the maddening Lee Fiora, first person narrator of Curtis Sittenfeld’s “Prep”. Despite apparently letting Christian have his way on numerous occasions, Ana often rejoices in her power, as here during sexual activity:
I am trapped. He’s everywhere, overwhelming me, almost suffocating. But it’s heavenly, too; this is my power, this is what I do to him, and it’s a hedonistic, triumphant feeling.
By volume 3, she feels confirmed in her power:
…it occurs to me that I always think of Christian as strong and dominating – yet the reality is he’s so fragile, my lost boy. And the irony is he looks upon me as fragile – and I don’t think I am. Compared to him I’m strong.
You might argue that this is wish fulfilment: actually Christian is better than Ana at everything – music, languages, travel, art and even something she is supposedly great at, billiards. Conversely, it is a fact that in many real relationships both sides hold a substantial degree of power; and many people feel an urge to “nurture” their partners. Some readers of my thriller Blood Summit (not a romance) argue that the heroine, Helen, is not sufficiently feminine because she does not care enough about her estranged husband.
(iii) a powerful strand of romance runs through the book. For most of the first two volumes it seems Christian is incapable of loving Ana or anyone else. In the middle of volume 1, Ana recalls Christian’s words (in italics) when he said he could not love her, and resolves to bring about his salvation:
I don’t do the girlfriend thing. I am not a hearts and flowers kind of guy. I don’t make love. This is all I know. And as I weep into my pillow silently, it’s this last idea I cling to. This is all I know, too. Perhaps together we can chart a new course.
By the end of volume 1, she has identified the problem:
It’s true, and in a moment of startling clarity, I see it. It’s very simple: I want his love. I need Christian Grey to love me… The BDSM is a distraction from the real issue. The sex is amazing, he’s wealthy, he’s beautiful, but this is all meaningless without his love, and the real heart-fail is that I don’t know if he’s capable of love.
Come the middle of volume 2, they are making progress. The idea that Ana cannot physically touch parts of Christian’s upper body is a metaphor for him being unable to love, and her efforts to change this:
‘Don’t cry, Ana, please,’ he murmurs against my mouth. ‘It was long ago. I am aching for you to touch me, but I just can’t bear it. It’s too much.’
Later in volume 2, however, we are in full-blown love territory…
‘I can’t bear to hurt you because I love you,’ he adds, gazing up at me, his expression one of absolute sincerity like a small boy telling a very simple truth.
He’s completely guileless, and he takes my breath away. I adore him more than anything or anyone. I do love this man unconditionally.
… and by volume 3, there is loving going on all over the place:
‘Oh, Christian, I love you. I will always love you.’
‘…it’s just sometimes I’m overwhelmed by how much I love you,’ I whisper.
‘I love you, Ana,’ he whispers close to my ear…
This adorable, complex, flawed man is in love with me, and I with him. Joy bursts unexpectedly inside me…
‘I love you, too,’ he breathes. And he kisses me sweetly, tenderly, like a man who adores his wife. ‘I’ll try to be a good father,’
Job done, Ana.
(iv) In fact, 50 Shades goes beyond romance to satisfy what I have heard described as the ultimate female fantasy: that a woman can change a man. I speak here in the spirit of Len Deighton’s master spy Bernard Samson, who says in the thriller London Match: The tragedy of marriage is that while all women marry thinking that their man will change, all men marry believing their wife will never change.
Ana not only transforms Christian’s ability to love; she changes him through her love. She makes him accept that they will have a real relationship, as Christian acknowledges in volume 2:
‘I have spent all my adult life trying to avoid any extreme emotion. Yet you… you bring out feelings in me that are completely alien. It’s very…’ He frowns, grasping for the word. ‘Unsettling.’
By later in the same volume, she is astonished by the transformation:
He’s come a long way, as have I, in such a short time. It’s almost too much to absorb.
By the end of volume 3, Ana has rebuilt Christian entirely, restoring a sense of worth destroyed in childhood:
‘And you’re precious to me, too. You do know that, don’t you?’
His stills (sic), looking lost.
Oh, Christian… my sweet Fifty.
‘Believe me,’ I whisper.
‘It’s not easy.’ His voice is almost inaudible.
The idea that Ana has tamed Christian, or changed him for the better, is powerful and – to many – appealing.
(v) taking all this together, I would argue that the 50 Shades trilogy is brilliantly written. Sure, it breaks many writers’ “rules”, eg by using lots of adverbs and adjectives. The story, including lengthy descriptions of what Christian and Ana get up to, will not appeal to everyone (see below). But 50 Shades is so cleverly structured to please so many readers that it thoroughly deserves its success.
Here are 5 things I hated:
(i) the conservatism of the story made my flesh creep. You may argue that the romance genre is inherently conservative. But 50 Shades takes conservatism to extremes. For example, once Ana has changed Christian enough to say he loves her by the middle of the second volume, the whole story begins to revolve around whether they will get married:
‘What can I do to make you say yes?’ he asks fervently, throwing me off balance once more.
Eventually she agrees. Her birthday gift to him is a keyring with LEDs:
The word YES flashes on and off on the key ring. ‘Happy birthday,’ I whisper.
In volume 3, once they are married, both make constant references to their marital status, calling each other Mrs Grey and Mr Grey at every opportunity. Do people really talk like this? A few examples:
‘Husband of mine’.
‘You are so beautiful… wife.’
‘Ah… wife of mine.’
‘Husband, I want you. Please.’
Even when they rush to hospital to visit Ana’s desperately sick father, Christian obsesses about Ana’s marital status when a medic addresses her incorrectly:
‘I’m his daughter, Ana.’ ‘Miss Steele – ‘ ‘Mrs Grey,’ Christian interrupts him.
It gets worse. Like a primitive potentate, Christian repeatedly tries to stop Ana working throughout all three volumes. He assumes she will change her surname to his after they marry – despite the fact they have never discussed the issue – and flies into a petulant rage when she resists. She gives in – as she does in most cases where Christian gets angry.
A further crisis is triggered when Christian overreacts to Ana going for a drink with a (female) friend – because she disobeys him. He then punishes her in vile ways, a fact he acknowledges. This ghastly sequence of events is like a parody of a conservative man punishing a woman for his own, random definition of misbehaving. Worst of all, Ana apologises:
‘I’m sorry I didn’t call you. I won’t be so selfish again.’
Christian’s actual cruelty, as opposed to the (arguably, see below) cartoon cruelty of the BDSM scenes, is nowhere more chilling than when he apologises after torturing her:
His lips twist in a sad smile. ‘Yes. I don’t want to hurt you. I got carried away.’ He reaches down and kisses me. ‘Lost in the moment.’
Who would put up with Christian after this point? Maybe the scariest thing in the 50 Shades trilogy is that, in reality, millions of people stay in abusive relationships because they fear the alternative – ending the relationship – would be worse. Or maybe because they think that by staying, they can change their partner (see “ultimate female fantasy” above).
The conservative control culture surfaces again when Christian is enraged that Ana chooses a skirt which is too short:
‘So be a good girl and don’t bend down, and you should be fine.’ ‘You approve?’ I whisper. ‘No, but I’m not going to stop you from wearing it.’
How can it be acceptable for Christian – presumably a character we are supposed to like, or desire – to stop Ana wearing what she wants to, or for Ana to accept this as a possibility?
Finally, given the reputation of 50 Shades for raunchiness, I had to laugh when it was made clear that Christian and Ana, both in their 20s, wear pyjamas in bed:
‘You seem brighter,’ Christian says cautiously as he pulls on his pajamas.
It doesn’t get much more conservative than that, unless, perhaps, it is Ana’s present to Christian on their wedding day: a pair of cufflinks.
(ii) I am avoiding details of the sexual aspects of the book. But I find troubling the way the detailed depictions of BDSM activities between a violent, domineering man who enjoys inflicting pain and a woman who initially resists ritualised violence but eventually accepts and comes to relish it, 50 Shades flirts with normalising some pretty unpleasant behaviour which in reality, is not about sex but about power.
The book teems with examples of this. Most would require more graphic detail than I want to put in this blog, but by in volume 1, Christian says:
I will discipline you, because you will screw up. I will train you to please me.
Later in the same volume, he begins undressing her:
Very slowly, he pulls down my sweatpants. Oh, how demeaning is this? Demeaning and scary and hot.
Christian’s violent mood swings throughout the book are another classic way for people to exert power:
How does he switch so quickly from one mood to the next? He’s so mercurial…. It’s hard to keep up.
Anxiously, I try to assess his mood…Oh, what is he thinking?
By the end of volume 2, Ana is engaging in full-blown BDSM activity – weeks after meeting Christian as a virgin. And by volume 3, she herself is encouraging Christian to install what is euphemistically described as a “playroom” in their new family house. On the same page they have “a detailed discussion on bathrooms and separate walk-in closets” – not just achingly conventional, but equating a BDSM dungeon with a walk-in wardrobe.
(iii) 50 Shades has the most blatant product placement since Will Smith and his Converse All Stars in the movie I, Robot. Nothing wrong with a bit of product placement, but the extent of the references in 50 Shades is grotesque:
At 12.55 p.m. precisely, I pull into the garage at Escala and park in bay five… The Audi SUV and R8 are there, along with two smaller Audi SUVs… hmm. I check my seldom-worn mascara in the light-up vanity mirror on my visor.
‘She had an Audi A3. I buy one for all my submissives – it’s one of the safest cars in its class.’
It’s not Twinings, but some cheap nasty brand, and it tastes disgusting.
The novel’s real porn is possession porn: endless detailed descriptions of houses, cars, yachts, and private planes. Christian may, supposedly, want to help the poor, but his altruism has its limits.
Not all the product placements work. Since the book was published in 2011, some brands have become old-fashioned – Blackberries, anyone? – or quaint, such as references to the extraordinary power of an Apple laptop (eh?) or the way the little doors on a Bang & Olufsen stereo – shock, probe – open by themselves.
Indeed, the dated feeling engendered by Ana and Christian sending each other pages and pages of playful e-mails, rather than texts or WhatsApp messages is a lesson to us all to avoid stuffing a contemporary novel with hot new technology. It ages fast.
(iv) brilliantly-constructed romance apart, the story is dull. Nothing much happens outside Christian and Ana’s relationship. A kidnapping and murder-threat sub-plot involving a character called Jack Hyde feels as if it was bolted on afterwards. Unless you are a romance fan or fascinated by what makes a best-seller, 50 Shades is not an easy read.
(v) finally – and perhaps a trivial point – I was disappointed by the several references in volume 1 to Thomas Hardy’s excellent Tess of the d’Urbervilles (subtitle: A Pure Woman Faithfully Presented). The references perked me up. Might there be thrilling plot parallels? Tess also features an innocent girl in thrall to a violent, exploitative rogue. But the Tess references in 50 Shades soon peter out; and the end of the book in no way echoes the jaw-dropping climax of Tess. Moral: if you want a stormy romance which makes 50 Shades look tame, try Tess of the d’Urbervilles. It’s free, on Kindle.
All in all, then, I disagree with those who argue that 50 Shades trilogy is rubbish. The writing is brilliant, and I admire E L James not only for writing it but for stuffing it so full of controversy (see all the above) that it has become one of the most successful books of all time. But the conservatism grated; and Ana’s transformation into someone who enjoys pain and subservience – however calculated – bothered me.
For: a brilliantly-constructed romance filled with enough controversial sexual activity to make it stand out.
Against: sometimes disturbing, often a slow read.