…and the U.K. And for everyone else who thinks that the Fifty Shades of Grey books are, well, books. Because at the end of the day, E.L. James’ best-selling series is really just erotic fan fiction whose pages happened to be printed out and bound together rather than relegated to the bowels of internet fan forums where they belong. But hey, good for her. She found a winning formula and made a killing… Well, actually she copied the winning formula already created by Stephanie Meyers and her Twilight series, which is also fan fiction – Mormon, Mary Sue, vanilla fan fiction, but fan fic all the same.
You know, I debated whether or not to publish this review because in doing so I would have to publicly admit to having read both the Twilight and the Fifty Shades series, but I felt some personal sacrifice of my literary street cred was necessary in order to educate the ignorant, swooning masses who think that these books count as literature. Because they don’t. Basically, I read them so that you wouldn’t have to. You’re welcome. [SPOILER ALERT: I am all about plot spoilers. In fact, I fully intend to divulge the entire plot of this story. It shouldn’t take long.]
Here we go…
E.L. James makes no attempt to hide the fact that her books originated as Twilight fan fiction and again, more power to her. I have nothing against fan fiction per se. In fact, I think it can be a great creative outlet for aspiring writers. Hell, I’ll even admit to having written a fan fic myself once. And I’ll tell you what, it was pretty frickin’ good and I had a lot of fun writing it. It allowed me to revisit a world that captivated me as a reader. I was able to hone my storytelling skills without all the bother of inventing my own characters, settings, situations, etc… otherwise known as, world-building. [Wow, I am really letting the nerd girl out today!] My problem is not that Ms. James has made a boat load of cash on the literary equivalent to string cheese, but that she did such a shoddy job of crafting her story and made almost no attempt at disguising her source material. Case in point, the following table (1.1) highlights the blatant similarities between the characters in Twilight and those in Fifty Shades of Grey:
|Leading Lady – Pale, skinny brunette who is smart, slightly awkward, sexually inexperienced, comes from a broken home and is not entirely comfortable with money. She also has a fondness for classic British Literature and works in a local, family-owned hardware store. She is completely unaware of her own attractiveness and is oblivious to the attentions of dozens of adoring men, save one…||Isabella ‘Bella’ Swan||Anastasia ‘Ana’ Steele|
|Leading Man – Impossibly gorgeous, obscenely wealthy alpha male who is older and more experienced in almost everything…except love. He is mysterious, brooding, deeply tormented and has major jealousy issues. He was adopted as a child and has an appropriately Waspy-sounding name. He is also athletic, extremely graceful, a talented pianist and loves cars.||Edward Cullen||Christian Grey|
|Equally handsome, but more down-to-earth; the dark, ethnic alternative to the leading man. Forever doomed to dwell in ‘the friend zone.’||Jacob Black||Jose Rodriguez|
|Wealthy and successful adoptive parents of leading man.||Dr. Carlisle Cullen & Mrs. Esme Cullen||Dr. Grace Trevelyn Grey & Mr. Carrick Grey|
|Overly exuberant adopted sister of leading man.||Alice Cullen||Mia Grey|
|Rough-around-the-edges, competitive and good-humored adopted older brother of leading man.||Emmett Cullen||Elliot Grey|
|Bitchy female character who is wildly jealous of leading lady.||Rosalie Hale||Lily Collins|
|Rather serious male character who is very protective of leading man.||Jasper Hale||Jason Taylor|
|Stoic father of leading lady. Enjoys fishing and knows how to use a gun.||Charlie Swan||Ray Steele|
|Flighty, many times married (and divorced) mother of leading lady.||Renée Dwyer||Carla Adams|
|Overly ambitious bff to leading lady.||Jessica Stanley||Kate Kavanaugh|
|Leading lady’s dad’s best friend who also happens to be the father of the ethnic alternative to the leading man.||Billy Black||Jose Rodriguez Sr.|
|Beautiful older woman who wants to bang leading man.||Tanya (of the Denali Coven)||Elena Lincoln (aka Mrs. Robinson)|
|Unassuming boy-next-door type whose family owns the local hardware store. Wants to bang leading lady.||Mike Newton||Paul Clayton|
|Antagonist who wants to kill leading lady.||James||Leila|
|Antagonist who tries to kidnap/kill leading lady to get revenge on leading man.||Laurent||Jack Hyde|
|Female accomplice who starts as a small, almost insignificant character, but is kind of a big deal by the end.||Victoria||Elizabeth|
|Unintended offspring of protagonists.||Renesmee Cullen||Theodore Raymond Grey|
Other not-so-subtle nods to the Twilight series: (I’m sure there are many more, but these were the ones that immediately jumped off the page at me.)
– Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights features prominently in the Twilight series and several comparisons are drawn between the Bella/Edward/Jacob love triangle and that of Catherine’s relationships with Heathcliff and Edgar. Whereas in Fifty Shades, E.L. James incorporates Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’urbervilles into the story. Ana frequently compares her experiences with the many sides of Christian’s personality to that of Tess Durbeyfield’s dealings with Alec D’Urberville and Angel Clare. Frankly, both comparisons make me want to barf.
– Bella inexplicably becomes a motorcycle enthusiast and gets Jacob to teach her to ride. Ana only speaks briefly about an instance when Jose tried to teach her to ride because apparently it didn’t turn out very well. I think the idea of either of these skinny bitches successfully operating a motorcycle is laughable at best.
– Bella refers to her unborn child as ‘little nudger.’ Ana calls hers ‘Blip.’ No snarky remark necessary.
– Bella drives an old jalopy of a truck until Edward buys her a Mercedes, but that’s just her temporary vehicle until he turns her into a vampire because then he gives her a Ferrari as a Happy Death Day present. Meanwhile, in another part of Washington state, Ana is driving around in an original VW Beetle named Wanda, but that’s only until Christian buys her an Audi A3 for her college graduation… before they even started dating. Later, when one of Christian’s crazy ex-S&M partners goes nuts and vandalizes Ana’s car, he buys her a Saab convertible in order to avoid the hassle of getting new tires and a fresh coat of paint for the Audi. Okay…I need to stop or my blood pressure is gonna go up.
– Both series end with the lover’s first encounter retold from the point of view of the leading man. As if it wasn’t painful enough the first time.
Which brings me to my next point of contention…point of view. In general, I dislike first person narration. I’m more of a third person omniscient narrator kind of girl. You’ve got to be one hell of a writer to effectively pull off first person POV, and unfortunately E.L. James is not. Not only does she write in the first person, but in the present tense for god’s sake – the worst of all possible tenses! The inherent tedium of having to listen to every thought that passes through Ana’s head made for an incredibly boring read. I’m guessing James wanted to use this particular voice in order to give the sex scenes a more exciting, real-time feel, which would have been a valid choice if it didn’t make the remaining twenty pages of filler so dreadfully dull.
Come to think of it, the sex scenes aren’t that great either because everything is filtered through Ana’s thoughts, which are beyond exasperating a vast majority of the time. Throughout the books, Ana is in a constant struggle with the voices in her head, namely those of her subconscious (who is inexplicably wearing half-moon spectacles – a nod to Dumbledore, perhaps? – and reading The Complete Works of Charles Dickens) and her ‘inner goddess’ (oh god I just threw up in my mouth a little bit) who is typically found dancing the tango for some unknown reason.
Apart from that it’s all eye-rolling, lip-biting and of course, BDSM. Look, if BDSM is your thing, that’s totally fine by me, but I do take umbrage with a book whose message involves idolizing a broken, emotionally unstable man who gets an erection by beating the shit out of his girlfriend with a belt. Just sayin’… But I’m not going to focus on the kinky sex because honestly, that was the least offensive part of the book for me. I was much more horrified by the bad writing. For instance, here’s the first paragraph of the first chapter of Fifty Shades of Grey:
I scowl with frustration at myself in the mirror. Damn my hair – it just won’t behave, and damn Katherine Kavanaugh for being ill and subjecting me to this ordeal. I should be studying for my final exams, which are next week, yet here I am trying to brush my hair into submission. I must not sleep with it wet. I must not sleep with it wet. Reciting this mantra several times, I attempt, once more, to bring it under control with the brush. I roll my eyes in exasperation and gaze at the pale, brown-haired girl with blue eyes too big for her face staring back at me, and give up. My only option is to restrain my wayward hair in a ponytail and hope that I look semi-presentable.
I already don’t care and there’s still another twelve hundred pages to go. Why I bothered to continue reading, I’ll never know. I suppose I was hoping to grow to care enough about the characters themselves that I’d be able to overlook the bad writing, but sadly that didn’t happen. In fact, it just got worse as I went along.
After only a few pages I was inundated with a slew of awkward phrases and odd word choices that seemed distinctly British and were really distracting in a novel that is supposed to be set in the Pacific Northwest. Now don’t get me wrong, I LOVE British culture. I consider myself to be a bit of an Anglophile, only so far as I enjoy Brit Lit and the BBC, and though I didn’t know the first thing about E.L. James, it only took me about two and half minutes to determine that she was British. Take another look at the first paragraph…and damn Katherine Kavanaugh for being ill. Americans don’t say that they’re ill. Americans get sick. Later on that same page Ana describes the office building that houses Christian’s company, ‘Grey Enterprises Holdings’ (which is an awful name by the way) and let me tell you, no red-blooded American would ever name his company’s skyscraper ‘Grey House.’ We would call it ‘Trump Tower’ or ‘Freedom Tower’ or ‘Fuck-You-Look-How-Big-My-Penis-Is Tower!’ And that’s only the first page! Ye olde English phrasing is all over this thing. Might I direct your attention to table 2.1:
|What E.L. James says…||What anyone with the slightest knowledge of American culture would say…||What a real American would say…|
|Stop being such an arse. (pg. 926)||Stop being such an ass.||Screw you, asshole!|
|…my eyes ringed with kohl… (pg. 1027)||…my eyes ringed with black liner…||What the fuck is kohl?|
|I turn off the tap. (pg. 936)||I turn off the faucet.||I just leave the water running because I’m an obnoxious American and I think global warming is a crock of shit. What are you gonna do about it?|
|Thank you, sir. I understand that you’re a keen fisherman… (pg. 202)||Thanks. I understand that you enjoy fishing…||I’m having sex with your daughter.|
|I must remember to take my pill… (pg. 322)||I have to remember to take my pill…||Oh shit, I better not be preggers…|
|…it smells of you. (pg. 936)||…it smells like you.||…it stinks to high heaven. Get that thing out of my face.|
|What the fuck are you playing at? (pg. 1058)||What the fuck are you doing?||WTF, bitches?|
|We should throw some shapes this evening. (pg. 1020)||We should go dancing this evening.||We should totes hit up the club tonight. (Unless ‘throw some shapes’ is actually something the kids are saying now. I wouldn’t know as it’s been years since I was last seen at a discotheque.)|
The other thing that gives Fifty Shades its distinctly British feel is the overall formality of all of the characters. I’m not sure how much time Ms. James has spent in Seattle, but if it’s anything like New York you’re gonna hear a lot less yes sir and no m’am and a lot more Hey, where’s that thing I need? They’ll be less please, thank you and you’re welcome and more no big deal and no problem, unless of course there is a problem, in which case you can be damn sure you’re gonna hear about it. I’m not saying these are admirable traits by any means, but if she was going for accuracy, E.L. James missed the mark by a mile.
However, the most British aspect of the book by far was the flagrant overuse of personal titles and surnames. It’s not often on this side of the pond that people go around addressing one another as Mr. or Mrs. Surname. It almost never happens. If I go to the doctor for instance, he’s not going to say, “Hello Ms. I’m-Not-Sure-I’ve-Ever-Used-My-Last-Name-On-This-Blog-So-I’d-Prefer-Not-To-Start-Now.” No. He says, “How are you today, Sarah? Good. Now, if you’ll just turn on your side I’ll have this rectal exam over with in no time.”
But the one thing that absolutely never happens in the good ol’ U. S. of A. (at least not with people in their twenties living in the Pacific Northwest) is a husband referring to his wife as ‘the missus’ or in this case, Mrs. Grey. If it only happened once or twice I might be able to let it slide (probably not) but how can I not mention it when Christian refers to Ana as Miss Steele/Ms. Steele or Mrs. Grey (after they’re married) a whopping six hundred and eleven times in just over twelve hundred pages of text? That’s more than once every other page! And that’s not counting all the times that other characters refer to her in such a formal manner. Sorry, but we’re a helluva lot more casual ’round these parts. Get a new editor.
If it were merely a matter of too many distracting Britishisms I would offer a simple solution like changing the location from Seattle to London or something, but alas, it is not that simple. There are so many other linguistic inconsistencies in these books, that half the time I don’t know what planet these people are on, never mind what country.
In addition to the aforementioned formal Britishisms, occasionally the protagonists’ vocabulary devolves into that of a sixteen year-old girl. For instance, almost all of the main characters (the younger ones anyway) end their conversations and emails with James’ trademark, ‘Laters, babe.’ Other times, Ana becomes more like a walking thesaurus than a twenty-two year old woman when she busts out with words like, holophobe and punctilious. I love me some SAT vocab as much as the next person, but somehow in these instances it feels gratuitous and out of step with the rest of the language.
There are a few phrases that are just so bizarrely out of place, I wasn’t sure what to make of them:
You’re a mighty fine sight, Mrs. Grey. (pg. 945)
Yes, we done good today. (pg. 947)
What is this, the old west? *Shakes head in disbelief* I’m sorry, but choose a country, a region, an era and fucking stick with it. It’s called attention to detail. Get on it.
Another element of this series that I found irksome was the formulaic nature of the writing. The following is a rough sketch of the entire plot:
* They meet.
* There’s some witty(ish) banter.
* He stalks her a little bit.
* They have sex. (Don’t worry you won’t have to slog through that much pointless exposition to get to the smutty part. There are only about a hundred pages of build-up and then they jump right in. I mean literally, he gets right in there.)
Then it’s a steady stream of:
*Conflict (real or imagined, typically the latter.) You know, things like car chases, a crazed killer with a gun, a helicopter crash or a Days of Our Lives-esque hostage situation involving Christian’s hitherto unknown ex-foster brother. But more often it’s something like…
– Ana wants to go out to lunch.
– Christian thinks this is too dangerous an activity for Ana to undertake on her own.
– Ana goes anyway.
– Christian gets really mad.
– Ana says something defiant, rolls her eyes or bites her lip.
– Christian gives her a look, smoldering or otherwise.
– They have kinky sex.
* Then there’s a declaration of feelings.
* Sex again.
* Food, sleep, repeat.
Occasionally they do cool rich people things like riding in helicopters, ordering around the help, taking lavish vacations, wearing fabulous clothes (because what fantasy romance would be complete without your own personal shopper at Neiman Marcus?)…but mostly it’s a never-ending string of sex scenes described in vivid detail. Actually, it’s more like the same scene over and over again just in a different locale…on a boat, in a car, on a pool table, in Christian’s ‘playroom,’ on the piano, in the bedroom cabin on Christians’s private jet…the usual. Though the sheer number of times they have sex in this book is ridiculous, even for fantasy. Despite the fact that I’m pretty sure the human body isn’t capable of that level of…usage, Christian and Ana make it happen. Not only that, but Ana orgasms on command! Every. Single. Time. I mean, good for her, but seriously? Come on! Oh wait…there she goes again.
It’s not just the repetitive nature of the scene structure that irritates me, but her overuse of several key words and phrases. They say in order to have a basic understanding of a language you’d need to learn about two thousand words, but if you want to get through Fifty Shades, you’d only need about seventy-five because the same words and phrases just get repeated over and over and over again, with the exception of a handful of those pesky SAT words. Here are a few of my favorites:
– Christian says, ‘We aim to please, Miss Steele/Mrs. Grey’ a total of ten times. I know it’s supposed to be some sort of inside joke between Christian and Ana, but it’s not funny so stop it.
– Ana describes herself as ‘wanton’ eleven times.
– Christian and Ana both say, ‘Fair/Good point, well made’ (which might also classify as a Britishism) sixteen times.
– Ana describes Christian as ‘mercurial’ no less than twenty-two times. Hey, mercurial is a great word. Very evocative. Once.
– Christian reminds Ana that even though he loves her, he’d still like to beat the crap out of her by referring to the code words ‘twitchy palms’ at least twenty-three times in the book.
– The infamous ‘Laters/Laters, babe’ appears forty times throughout the text.
– Ana refers to her ‘inner goddess’ one hundred and seventeen times. It happens three times on page 155 alone.
– Meanwhile, her ‘subconscious’ gets a bit more attention with a total of one hundred and seventy-five references.
– In case anyone forgot the title of the story, E.L. James has helpfully peppered it throughout the course of the three books. The phrase ‘fifty shades’ appears a total of fifty-seven times, while other references to the number fifty or the nickname Fifty (as used by Ana’s inner monologue) appear one hundred and thirty-five times, for a total of one hundred and ninety-two mentions. Thanks, E.L.!
– But my all-time favorite repetition? The abundance of smirk.
|The Fifty Shades of Grey Smirk-O-Meter|
|Character||# of smirks|
|Christian (The clear winner)||134|
Then there are the lines that I’m eternally grateful only had to happen once:
Sometimes I wonder if there’s something wrong with me. Perhaps I’ve spent too long in the company of my literary romantic heroes, and consequently my ideals and expectations are far too high. (pg. 30)
It’s just…it’s just sometimes I’m overwhelmed by how much I love you. (pg. 944) Incidentally, Ana gets overwhelmed seventy times throughout the story.
Fifty Shades of Awful does have at least two redeeming qualities in my estimation. For one thing, they spend a good deal of time talking about alternative energy sources and sustainable building materials. I thought that was great. There was also that one car chase scene that was kind of okay…
Inspired by the success of E.L. James, I’ve decided that I’m going to write a fan fic based on Fifty Shades. There’s obviously going to be a prequel where we learn all about Christian’s previous sexual exploits in gruesome detail. Then the whole bit with Ana where there will have to be many more babies. By that point, I’ll already be working on the sequel where Ana and Christian’s devastatingly handsome, smart, rich and talented son falls in love with Kate and Elliot’s equally attractive (but somehow doesn’t know it), smart, rich daughter. I’m going to call it Black and White and Dead All Over…cause they’re also going to be zombies. So you’ll all have that to look forward to.