WELCOME! If you enjoyed this post, consider subscribing (it’s free) to get new bookish posts (about 3 a week) in your favorite feed reader or email box.
Fifty Shades of Grey is an erotic novel self-published by first-time British author E.L. James in 2011 which has already spawned two sequels and, maybe, a movie deal. I just read it and have, naturally, fifty things to say.
Updated 10/12 to add: Vintage is publishing all three books in the trilogy in e and paperback:
Now American publishers have just concluded a battle over the rights to re-release the book in the blockbuster fashion they think it deserves. This week, Vintage Books, part of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, known for its highbrow literary credentials, won a bidding war for the rights to all three books, paying a seven-figure sum.
On Monday, the publisher will release new e-book editions of the trilogy. Weeks later will come a 750,000-copy print run of redesigned paperback editions.
Adults, read on:
1. The blurb:
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 too – 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 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.
2. The cover is perfect for the novel. Why are we stuck with such literal cover art for contemporary erotic romance?
3. As reported in Publishers Weekly, Fifty Shades of Grey started as Twilight fan fiction. I have seen the first three Twilight films, and read part of the second Twilight book (it was a DNF), and, despite looking for it, detected almost no resemblance. If I hadn’t seen a link to the PW article, I would never in a million years have guessed the provenance of this book.
4. That said, for some readers the issue isn’t how closely Fifty Shades hews to Twilight, but the author’s use of the Twilight fan fiction community. Amazon.com reader Jennifer offers a good summary of the argument in her comment on Amazon.com:
In what was her most unethical act, EL James (aka Snowqueens Icedragon) also borrowed Twilight’s large fanbase on the condition that she would not profit from her fanfiction. She didn’t have to run marketing campaigns like Stephenie Meyer and other legitimate authors must do. She knew that people would buy her book due to her success in the fanfiction world, a celebrity that she attained under the deceitful pretense that she was simply honoring Meyer’s work and nothing more.
I would need to know more about timing and motivation to comment on this. To hatch the whole plot from the start would be pretty crafty. Jami Gold, a PNR author, asks When Does Fan fiction Cross an Ethical Line?
5. The price for, $9.99 for the ebook (see Amazon), from a debut author, self-published, is outrageous.I read Fifty Shades thanks to the generous Kindle lending of a friend.
6. Having read romances for the last five years, I’ve noticed BDSM romance, and BDSM elements, becoming more mainstream within the genre. With the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, it’s obvious that someday a BDSM erotic romance would break out and become a phenomenon the way Fifty Shades has.
7. For evidence of the phenomenon, see Pornography for Mommies, an article about Fifty Shades in the Huffington Post. Or don’t, if you don’t want to be annoyed by the condescension (but it’s self-condescension, so maybe that’s ok? Or… maybe that’s the oldest and most hypocritical trick in the book? You decide!) in comments such as:
Also, I have been so busy reading “real” books that, no, I have not read anything dumb and erotic like this since college. And I think that’s true for many of my women friends. We read the latest historical fiction bestsellers (like The Paris Wife, or The Help, which are definitely not bodice-rippers) and then we sip wine and meet for book club. So that’s why it is fun (and funny) to rediscover this stuff in our 40’s. Not sure why this one was the break-out erotica to “trip” on, as you say, but it has certainly crossed over.
8. People get mad at you if you like this book: You don’t know good writing! You are part of the horde who encourage the publication of poorly edited books! You don’t care that the author ripped off her Twilight fanficdom and/or Stephanie Meyer! You are promoting work that encourages the stereotype that folks who are into BDSM are “damaged”!
9. And they get mad if you don’t: You’re an elitist snob! You don’t get it! You are some crazy Twihard who can’t bear the thought of Edward with a whip! You’re sexually repressed! You are trying to tell women which sexual fantasies are ok and which aren’t!
10. Boy, is this book popular. Check the number of reviewers on Amazon (4.5 stars, 180 ratings, 190 likes) or Goodreads (4210 ratings, avg rating of 4.41 out of 5). Just compare that to the latest book by New York Times bestselling romance writer Nora Roberts, The Next Always (published around the same time, also priced at $9.99): Amazon (3.5 stars, 197 reviews, 1014 likes… the last number showing Roberts’ strong Facebook presence, something James can’t now, or perhaps ever, compete with), Goodreads (3687 ratings, 3.88 average rating).
11. But wait! Fifty Shades is not, technically, a romance novel (no happily ever after, although there is one at the end of the series). It’s not published by a romance publisher. The cover is certainly not romancey. And, I could be wrong, but I don’t think it was primarily romance readers that first discovered this book: it was members of the author’s fan fiction community. Indeed, my romance reading “friends” on Goodreads give it a much lower average review.
12. If you want more Fifty Shades, you can read the next two books in the series, Fifty Shades Darker (supposed to be pretty good) or Fifty Shades Freed (supposed to suck).
13. If you need even more, people are saying you should try Beautiful Disaster by Jamie McGuire, or The Realm of You by Tara Buckley. I don’t think it’s quite accurate to assume that readers of Fifty necessarily want more BDSM books. I think there are several themes in Fifty that readers are gravitating to. I have a long list of suggested post-fifty books suggested by this blog’s readers here:
14. The author repeats certain phrases and adjectives over and over. For example, Christian’s “long” fingers, the “unbelievably sexy way” his pants hang off his hips, how “beautiful” he is, Ana’s “flawless skin”, even the word “fuck” (Ana’s constant “Holy fuck!s”, Christian’s frequent, and decreasingly erotic, threats to “fuck” her “hard”). Here’s a tip: people notice the use of unusual words like “fractionally”. They really notice them after five or ten times.
15. Someone needs to take this author’s thesaurus and hide it someplace safe.
“Anticipation hangs heavy and portentous over my head…”
“‘So I brought you here,” he said phlegmatically.
“The ceremony takes another hour to conclude. It’s interminable.”
“Another mercurial mood swing; it’s so hard to keep up.”
“I’m lost in a quagmire of sensation.”
“I revel in his possession, his lust slaking mine.”
“Trepidation lances through me.”
“He’s got right under my skin, literally.”
Edited to add:[I CAN'T BELIEVE I FORGOT THIS ONE!] “I turn into my pillow and the sluice gates open.”
These words… I do not think they mean what the author thinks they mean.
16. The author had some rather– erm — creative ways of surmounting the inherent narrative difficulties of first person: Anastasia has a subconscious that’s not very sub:
“My subconscious is behind the sofa again, head hidden under her hands.”;
“I look to my subconscious. She’s whistling with her hands behind her back and looking anywhere but at me.”;
“My subconscious is nervous, anxiously biting her nails.”;
“My subconscious has her Edvard Munch face on again.”
17. She also has an “inner goddess”:
“My inner goddess is jumping up and down, clapping her hands like a five year old.”
“My inner goddess stops jumping and smiles serenely.”
“My inner goddess shakes her head at me.”
“My inner goddess pops her head above the parapet.”
18. 80 references to Ana’s subconscious. 59 to her inner goddess. I’d say there are four main characters in this book.
19. There’s a lot in Fifty Shades that reminded me of romance. In particular, the hero has some classic alpha traits, like the characters in Presents: controlling, possessive, jealous, wealthy, sophisticated, more experienced, sexually and otherwise. Like J.D. Robb’s Roarke, Christian insists on doing things for Anastasia: buying her an Audi, a Blackberry, a Macbook.
20. The references to brand names (see #13), be it food and drink, clothing, cars, furniture… is very unlike the typical romance novel. These things will date the novel but for now, they give it a more contemporary feel than most contemporary romances I have read.
21. Christian is not just alpha, he’s a tortured alpha. His claim that he cannot “make love”, but only “fuck…hard” echoes Zadist from J. R. Ward’s Lover Awakened. The tortured alpha whose childhood abuses prevent him from having a normal romantic relationship is such a common theme in romance, especially in paranormal romance, that I’m surprised more PNR romance readers aren’t flocking to this book.
22. In contrast to a lot of alpha heroes in romance, especially of the Presents variety, Christian is often surprised, saddened, and amused by Ana. He is sometimes scared, vulnerable, needy. And he can be genuinely funny. Reading Fifty Shades made me realize how limited an emotional repertoire many romance heroes — especially alphas — are allowed to have.
23. One of the things I liked about Anastasia was her tendency to say what she was feeling, both in the moment, and via email. She also teases Christian, shocks him, baits him (she compares it to “shooting fish in a barrel”), ignores him, forgets about him. I don’t think it’s insignificant that he asks her to sign a BDSM contract near the beginning of the book, and at the end, she still hasn’t signed it. My surprise at her actions and reactions made me aware that I had some different expectations for this kind of story. In short, these things made the book feel different to me than many contemporary romances I have read.
24. Despite #23, I don’t think Ana’s a model of the strong, autonomous heroine (too much of her behavior comes off as the bratty backtalker to daddy).
25. This book contains the line, “it’s the sub that has all the power.” I’ve seen that before and I don’t get it. It seems to contradict the common assertion that the Dom/sub relationship is built on mutual respect and equality.
26. I’ve read a few other erotic romances with BDSM, including books in which one party was introduced to the lifestyle/orientation. In other books, the narrative is one in which the protagonist “uncovers” the hidden D or s. The transition is pretty immediate. I thought this narrative was different — Ana enjoys the fantasy, to some extent, but she’s not a sub — and pretty interesting in its way.
27. 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.
28. Christian’s status as a Dominant was not portrayed consistently, regardless of whether you read him as “Dom because he’s built that way” or “Dom because he was damaged as a child”. I think they had more vanilla sex than BDSM. And the complete control threatened by the Contract never materializes.
29. Fifty Shades felt different, or fresher in some ways, than a lot of contemporary erotic romance. A scene at a college graduation. The heroine works in a hardware store. An actual job interview. Etc.
30. I’ve never read an erotic romance in which a tampon is mentioned, let alone removed by the hero. Also, an ob/gyn exam.
31. I haven’t mentioned secondary characters. They exist. And that’s about all I can say about them.
32. The pace was very, very slow. I found Fifty Shades a slog after 50%.
33. I think a professional edit could have made a big difference.
34. Ana’s personality was often conveyed through her attitude towards food. If she was nervous, she wouldn’t eat. If she was aroused, she couldn’t eat. If she was tired, she wouldn’t eat. If she was feeling adventurous, she tried oysters… This was an attempt by the author to characterize the heroine, but Ana’s relationship with food is very concerning.
35. On the other hand, I do think college graduation is the perfect time for an English major to get wrapped up in an intense relationship. I’m not kidding.
36. 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.
37. I had no problems with Ana’s age. Many people get married right after college graduation, never mind having a serious relationship. I’m puzzled by some readers’ complaints along these lines. Christian is less than ten years older than Ana. Am I missing something?
38. The emails between Christian and Ana were very effective and well done. They moved the relationship along and showed that the medium and the message, if not identical, intersect in interesting ways.
39. On the other hand, it is unusual for college students to use email in personal relationships. Students see email as formal communication, with parents and professors. They text in personal relationships. Perhaps the author was trying to make a point about Ana’s attitude towards Christian? Or not?
40. Thanks to Kindle, I can share some popular highlights, like “Never trust a man who can dance.”
41. The hero likes classical music, opera, and also Kings of Leon. Kindle readers highlighted each song named.
42. The most popular highlight is “‘Flower Duet’, by Delibes, from the opera Lakme“.
43. The most popular non-song highlight is a quote from Dale Carnegie: “A man who acquires the ability to take full possession of his own mind may take possession of anything else to which he is justly entitled.”
44. That reminds me … in one way Fifty Shades is very much like a lot of contemporary romance, especially Harlequin Presents: love of wealth. There’s a lot of vague protesting, but the reader is treated often to Ana’s joy in the perks of dating a wealthy man: private dining rooms, penthouse suites, upgrades to first class, etc.
45. 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.
46. Stay tuned for a second post with 47-48. Then a third post with 49-50. ;)
Edited to add: Dear readers, there will be no additional posts on this book. I was trying to make a joke playing off the way the narrative ends so abruptly (really, it just ends), despite the fact that 90% of the traditional romance arc has been completed, and then two more books drag out what, in a romance, would be the last two chapters.
Edited to add: A new New York Magazine article about the phenomenon of 50 Shades.
Another Edit: More coverage in the New York Times
If you enjoyed this post, consider subscribing (it’s free) to get new bookish posts (about 3 a week) in your favorite feed reader or email box.