Earlier, funnier reviews of Fifty Shades HERE
Thank you to everyone who’s taken this ride with me. I’ve had so much fun writing the reviews. I wish I could say the same about reading the book. I’ve come to the decision that I really cannot read anymore, and I’m only about half way through. I’ve enjoyed writing these reviews, but I also have more important things to do in my life than try and finish a book that is irritating me so much. Even my husband said ‘don’t forget your own writing’.
I wanted to add some final thoughts. If you’ve come here looking for a laugh, things might get a bit serious in this bit. So if you don’t want to end this series on a downer, I’d suggest you go back and read the original reviews. I should probably add a disclaimer that these final thoughts are based on what I’ve read so far. I know how the story ends because I’ve been told, but I’ll only comment on my impressions of it so far.
At times it’s been hard to come up with funny things to say, because some of Christian’s behaviour disturbed me. I may not be an expert on BDSM, and I’m not some armchair psychologist, but I have been a witness (as a child) to abuse, so I sort of know what I’m talking about.
This book isn’t about a young woman finding her sexuality and learning how to be liberated through spankings followed by great sex. Christian is an abused child who’s grown into an abuser. Despite James’s best efforts to depict him as a Dom, taking part in a consensual BDSM lifestyle, that’s not how it came across. He tells Ana, the morning after she got drunk, that if she were ‘his’ she wouldn’t be able to sit down for a week. We’re supposed to see this as sexy, I think. The threat of a bit of playful spanking as a precursor to sex. Ana clearly sees it that way judging by her inner goddess or subconscious or whatever inner something she’s deferring to at that moment. But in reality it’s a threat of punishment because she’d done something of which he disapproved, and he wants to punish her so hard that her mobility will be impaired. That’s what abusers do.
By getting Ana to sign the non-disclosure agreement, he effectively cuts her off from her family and friends, and therefore an important support network. She can’t even talk properly to Kate about losing her virginity, nor about any non-sexual aspect of her relationship with Christian. If and when things get really dark, she most certainly won’t be able to discuss that. I’m guessing, though I don’t know, that most people into BDSM have like-minded people they can talk to about their experiences. Ana has no one she can turn to. In one scene she’s about to phone Kate, but doesn’t because she sees that Christian, who thinks she’s calling Jose, doesn’t want her to. It’s a slippery slope to never phoning her friends again. She’s on her own. It leaves her completely reliant on Christian and Christian alone. And as his judgement is coloured by what he wants, he’s still going to be leading her in the direction that gives him what he wants, regardless of her psychological and physical well-being. That’s what abusers do.
Christian switches from being angry to kind, angry to kind all the time. He’ll snarl at her one minute then do something nice for her the next. He’s conditioning her to be pathetically grateful for the times he’s good to her. Because she has no self-esteem to begin with, all her future self-esteem will be tied up in pleasing him, and taking the few crumbs of kindness he hands out. He secretly mocks her because she’s ignorant about his BDSM lifestyle. This in turn makes her feel as if he’s laughing at her (which he is). So it crumbles her self-esteem a little bit more, and makes her feel even more worthless. That’s what abusers do.
Let’s look at the contract he wants her to sign (and with a rare bit of common sense she doesn’t). His idea is that she spend three nights a week as his sub. She manages to negotiate that in return for this he spends one night a week as her proper boyfriend. And this is supposed to be a victory and proof of the sub having all the power. But let’s look at the contract closer. She may only spend three nights a week giving in to his sexual desires, but for the rest of the week she has to eat what he says, exercise when he says, and if she behaves in a way that he deems inappropriate (and given what a short fuse he has, that could be anything!), he gets to punish her. Again, this to me is about abuse and control and not sexual gratification.
I understand that if she signs this contract she’ll be consenting to all this, so that should mean there’s no abuse. But let’s look at the way Ana is portrayed in the book. Not only is she barely ready for a traditional sexual relationship, at times she’s barely functional as a human being. She doesn’t have the maturity or the intellectual and psychological capacity to get into such a contract.
Christian tells her that he only has women in the red room of pain. I think this is supposed to prove he isn’t gay (when personally I just don’t think he’s got the balls to hit a man). What it actually proves is that he has a deep seated desire to punish women for the wrongs done against him. So not only is he an abuser. He’s a misogynist abuser.
I’d like to think that E.L. James knew this is what she was writing, but somehow I don’t think she did. Or if she did, she must now be feeling upset that it’s been taken the wrong way. We’re clearly supposed to be as enamoured of Christian as Ana (and James) is, but for me it didn’t work. Maybe because his behaviour reminded me too much of what I witnessed as a child. I accept I’ve probably brought my own prejudices to this, and they may have coloured my judgement. But I still think my reasons for feeling disturbed by the book are valid.
As a few people have said to me, girls are going to read this book and think that this is how a romantic relationship should be. So she’ll keep forgiving her boyfriend for belittling her and hitting her, because it must mean he loves her, right? So before, where we worried that women would aspire to be hookers, in the hopes that Richard Gere would come and sweep them off their feet, now there’s the concern that young women will aspire to become some rich man’s sub, entering into what is really an abusive relationship because it’s depicted so glamorously in the book. What they’ll actually do is end up in some grotty bedsit with some lout who probably has several STDs.
People knock Mills and Boon books for selling an unrealistic view of romance. But in Mills and Boon books, female sexuality is celebrated. The onus is always on the man to make sure the woman has a good time, and his own pleasure is secondary.
The hero in M&B novels, even if he is flawed, always treats the heroine with respect and always protects her from harm. If he gets ever gets it wrong, he’s soon taught the error of his ways. He actually has to earn her love, and become the man she deserves, rather than it being the other way around. So even if it’s unrealistic that every woman is going to end up with a gorgeous Italian billionaire or Arab sheik, what is true is that by reading them she learns that her happiness is just as important as his. So even if she ends up marrying a bus driver (as some of us do…ahem), she knows she’s still got every right to expect to be treated with love and respect. It’s the emotional quality of the relationship that matters. Not the trappings surrounding it.
Fifty Shades teaches women to give in and do whatever the man wants, because God forbid at the age of 21 they should end up an old maid surrounded by cats. And that’s exactly how Ana thinks of it. She really believes that Christian is her only chance of being happy and that if she doesn’t go along with what he wants, she’ll be alone for the rest of her life. Now I know it can seem like that when you’re desperately in love with someone. But in real life we do get other chances at happiness. Especially at the age of 21! And as I’ve already said, how is being an old maid with cats worse than being some rich playboy’s whipping girl?
So no, I don’t personally think this book is about female liberation through sex. It’s about a girl with no self-esteem who’s willing to do practically anything to hold onto her boyfriend, because she truly believes that he’s her only chance to be happy.
Quality of writing
As far as the quality of writing in the book goes, I don’t have to tell you all about the clunky sentences, unrealistic dialogue and tedious repetition. The ‘oh mys’ and the ‘holy cows’ and the ‘biting lips’ . It’s been well documented elsewhere. I don’t know why the editors of the big publishing house, who took this on, didn’t insist on some proper editing. I can’t help thinking that they were so hung up on getting the sales, they didn’t care if the book was properly edited, and that’s an atrocious way to go on.
But as E.L. James is apparently saying she wants to keep some artistic control over the intended film (God help us!), I imagine she had the same rule with the books, and her previous sales gave her that power. The question is can she still keep churning out the same badly written novels and make money? For a while maybe, but the bubble will burst (but by then she’ll be rich enough not to care). Either that or every teenage girl who reads this is going to think that this is how you write and we’ll have years of badly written erotic books at the top of the charts whilst better writers barely manage to skim the outer edges of the book charts.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve got nothing against trashy books and I’m not sitting up here on my high horse. I don’t pretend to write anything other than light romantic fiction which is meant to be (mainly) read in one sitting. At best my books are meant to get someone over a boring Sunday afternoon. I don’t mind reading trashy books either. Sometimes, when I’ve been working on my own writing all day, I just want to switch off and let the writer do all the work. But the majority of trashy books out there are much better written than Fifty Shades of Grey, because they’ve gone through an editorial process that ensures they’re at least publishable, even if they’re not everyone’s cup of English Breakfast Tea.
Fifty Shades of Grey is nowhere near to publishable standards. It’s at least two times longer than it needs to be for a start. Just because people on ff.net said things like ‘That’s awesome. It should be published’, they weren’t necessarily right. People have said the same about these reviews. I’m flattered and I think they’re lovely people for saying it. But I also know that these reviews are too self-indulgent and, as I write them on the hoof, not up to the standard of articles I’d send out to publishers. And as one brave soul pointed out in the comments, my reviews are too biased. Plus, if anyone were to analyse my reviews closely they’d see that I also repeat myself too often. Just count how many times I’ve said ‘I’m relieved’ or ‘I’m surprised’ or ‘As far as I can tell’. But don’t count the ‘thoughs’ and ‘buts’ as I fear their overuse will end my writing career altogether.
Then again, FSOG has been published and sold millions, so what the hell do I know? In which case, my book, Fifty Shades Deconstructed, comes out next week (not really).
Fanfiction and Plagiarism
We all know that plagiarism is a major problem, especially in these days when writers put so much of their work online. It seems that every week I read about someone on the Net having had their work plagiarised. Now I’m not suggesting that E.L. James is guilty of plagiarism. That would be for Stephanie Meyer’s lawyers to decide and they seem to be remarkably quiet about all this. In fact a lot of people don’t know this was originally a Twilight fanfic.
She’s just borrowed some of the characters. But if someone can take someone else’s characters, rename them and put them in different situations, as she has done with Twilight characters, it does blur the lines somewhat. How are people supposed to know what they can and can’t do when someone can come along and make millions by taking a fanfic and then presenting it as an original work of fiction?
When someone told me they felt I’d gone a bit far with these reviews, and made the valid point that I wouldn’t like this done to me, I explained that had James not taken a fanfic and sold it as original work, I probably wouldn’t have done this. No one should write fanfic with a view to making money from it. I don’t mean elevated fanboys/girls who go on to write official spin off stories for popular series such as Star Trek and Doctor Who. At least they’re not taking Doctor Who and renaming him Doctor What.
The most worrying element of this is that publishers who want in on this phenomenon are now going to be scouting fanfiction.net for other works that can have the characters renamed then sold as original fiction. Those of us who do write original fiction, at least until this bubble has burst, won’t stand a cat in hell’s chance of interesting a publisher.
Ana Steele: What can I say that I haven’t already said? She’s just too dumb to live. She doesn’t behave like a modern 21 year old woman would. My daughter is a few years older than Ana, so she’s been my reference for all things Ana. She wouldn’t put up with half the stuff that Ana does. Ana is not just a Mary Sue. She’s less than that, because most writers when they use author avatars do give Mary Sue some positive traits. Ana doesn’t have any. She leeches off her rich friends. She swoons at things that most of us would just shrug off. She has no direction in life, despite having spent four years at college. And she has the same attitude to sex as a Jane Austen heroine. In fact, I’m probably doing Jane Austen heroines a disservice there. I can just imagine what mincemeat Lizzie Bennett would have made of Christian Grey.
Christian Grey: I don’t get the appeal, honestly I don’t. I know that not all heroes are going to work for all women, but look at his life. He has, as I’ve said before, a very dangerous sexual history. He likes to cause pain to women. He’s humourless (unless the joke is at someone else’s expense) and he has no natural charm or charisma. The only time he does nice things for Ana, as I’ve said above, is when he benefits from it. He’s nowhere even approaching a hero. Now people who know me know that my sort of hero is the type who can take out all the terrorists in the Nakatomi building and still have energy to take his wife home for some torrid make up sex. What? You didn’t see that version of Die Hard? That’s because it’s not out yet. It’s called Die Hard – The Sally Quilford Cut and it’s coming to a cinema near you soon. If I fancy a bit of variety in my heroes, I’ll settle for one who’ll kill everyone in Paris to save his daughter from white slave traders. So it’s not as if I’m asking for much in a hero. Perhaps my own bestselling book – when I have one – could be called Fifty Shades of Die Hard, closely followed by the sequel Fifty Shades Taken.
Anyhow, getting back on point here, Christian Grey is no-one’s real idea of an alpha male. He’s pretty, he’s rich and he can play the piano. They’re his supposed good qualities. But he’s abusive (as set out above), selfish, domineering (well duh), mocking and supercilious to all around him. He also lacks the intelligence and work ethic he’d really need to become the rich and powerful man he’s supposed to be.
I can’t say too much about the other characters as they’re even less defined than Ana and Christian, though I did like Elliot simply because he acted like a normal person. Yet strangely, Ana thinks he’s odd because he calls her ‘Ana’ and is so easy going. She’s also disapproving that he slept with Kate within hours of meeting her. To me, he’s acting like a normal young male, and his and Kate’s relationship is much healthier than Ana’s with Christian.
The sex (at least as far as I’ve read) is a major let down, given the reputation of this book. If the contracts were meant to add stimulation they failed abysmally. The sex fails mainly because of James’s treatment of sex scenes. There’s a distinct lack of sexual tension. Plus, Christian, as I’ve noted before, only has one repertoire. Rub lower lip. Check. Tweak nipple. Check. Touch her ‘down there’. Check. For a man with his own Red Room of Pain he’s remarkably unimaginative in bed.
Okay, occasionally I’ve read a sex scene and thought ‘now she’s getting it’ (excuse the pun). Then James ruins it all by throwing in an ‘argh’ or an ‘ugh’ or mentions of gag reflexes and chocolate fudge brownies (which I don’t think I’ll ever eat again). Odd times I’ve really wondered if the sex was written by someone who’d never actually had sex. Women, no matter how responsive they are, do not orgasm after having one nipple tweaked. And yes, I realise this is supposed to be a fantasy, but normally in sexual fantasies aimed at women, the men have to work much harder than that.
If women are going to take any mistaken message from this book it won’t be that if she bites her lip for long enough she can become a squillionaire’s plaything. It’ll be that she can achieve orgasm after only three seconds of nipple tweaking. I feel sorry for the man (i.e. every man in the whole wide world) who fails to live up to that standard. Even allowing for this being a sexual fantasy, the idea is ludicrous.
I think all I can do now is congratulate E.L. James. Because as bad as this book is, I’m talking about it and it’s engaging me in discussion about the sexual politics, though I really don’t think that was her intention. We (I!) probably give this book far more attention than it deserves considering it was originally written just to please the Twilight fangirls on fanfiction.net and it’s very unlikely that James wrote it as a serious comment on modern relationships.
Other people are talking about it too. Even after reading my not so flattering reviews, people tell me they are buying it. So yes, well done E.L. James. Not for being a good writer, because I’m afraid you’re not, but for being damn good at marketing. And at least she’s succeeded in making Stephanie Meyer look like a good writer, which was no mean feat.
One thing I’ve always stressed here, and I’ll say it again, is that I’m not knocking the people who have read and enjoyed this book. Their reading experience is just as valid as mine, and I know they forgive the clunky bits because they engage with the story. That’s what reading is supposed to be. Losing yourself in a story.
Final final word
Thank you to everyone who’s commented, tweeted and Facebooked these reviews. I couldn’t have kept it going without your constant encouragement. At least that’s what I’m going to tell the judge when E.L. James sues me.