50 Shades of ShockingApril 11, 2012
There’s one book that customers keep asking me about, but only in whispers or over email. It’s called Fifty Shades of Grey, and it’s the current darling of such harbingers of great literature as The Today Show and Entertainment Weekly … okay, so they’re not so dependable for great book recommendations. But they do have everyone talking, especially about this story: the book they’re calling “mommy porn.”
When I heard that moniker, I assumed it was an exaggeration. I figured the novel was basically Twilight with maybe an extra sex scene or two (if you want that book, by the way, it’s Discovery of Witches). Fifty Shades of Grey is a little more … intense. Let’s just say, if you’re not ready to get comfortable with terms like handcuffs, riding crop and spreader bar (don’t ask), you won’t enjoy this book.
As it turns out, I wasn’t totally off in my Twilight comparison. E.L. James started writing Fifty Shades of Grey as Twilight fan fiction (which should tell you something about the quality of the writing). The subjects of the book, Ana and Christian, aren’t so much developed characters as they are blocky archetypes, and their dialogue is so artificial that it’s often laughable. The prose is incredibly repetitive, and as purple as the bruises on Ana’s … well, nevermind. I’d have liked it more if Ana submitted a little less to Christian and a little more to a good copyeditor.
Even the plot and characters are pretty clear parallels of Meyer’s Twilight cast. Both books feature an ordinary woman (Ana/Bella) who entrances a more beautiful, more powerful, more graceful man (Christian/Edward), and both take place in foggy, rainy Pacific Northwest (as our bookseller Michelle says, “Is this what Vitamin D deficiency does to people?!”). For James, setting her book in America was probably a mistake: Throughout the entire series, she puts British idioms and dialect quirks in the mouths of her allegedly American characters (using a phrase like “throw my toys out ofthe pram,” when an American would say “throw a fit,” for instance).
So Fifty Shades of Grey, like its parent story, Twilight, is not good literature. But, really, who cares? When books are this popular, it’s a mistake to write them off and dismiss the people who read them as silly. Say what you want about their writing styles; both Meyer and James are talented storytellers. Fifty Shades is strangely addictive, in part because it’s 80% sex scene, and that’s one thing James does write well. She doesn’t shy away from the physical aspect of sex like most writers do, hiding behind literary fade-outs or cheesy euphemisms. Her writing is very visual and very frank, and the sex scenes are creative and abundant (and, um, educational). And her readers are thanking her for it.
There’s been lots of talk of an anti-feminist message in both Fifty Shades of Grey and Twilight— after all, both series are, arguably, about a woman giving up her power and her freedom to a man (or, you know, a male vampire). I understand the argument, but I don’t think Fifty Shades of Grey is that black and white. The fantasy of this book isn’t really the kinky sex. It’s the idea that someone outstanding could love you even when other people think you’re nothing special. That you can let go of your self-criticism, self-consciousness and responsibility and give it to another person for awhile. That you can relax and let yourself be taken care of, and even protected. And I don’t think wanting that, or at least reading about it once in awhile, is dangerous, bad, or anti-feminist.