After being asked by friends, Twitter followers and the woman in charge of beautifying my twinkle to write something about best-selling clit-lit novel, Fifty Shades of Grey, I have finally bothered to read it. Off my Blackberry, actually, because I was too embarrassed to read the hard copy on the train, not because of its smuttiness, but because it is so poorly written I’d hate for anyone to think my taste in literature was that terrible (turns out I’m not completely shameless after all).
Anyway, the verdict: although it is undeniably trashy, misogynistic, painfully clichéd and filled with some of the most wooden dialogue I’ve ever read, I do not particularly have a problem with it. EL James did not set out to win a Booker prize or become the next Sylvia Plath (or at least I hope she didn’t; if she did then she is going to be bitterly disappointed), she set out to get pulses racing and gussets frothy. Her books, which are selling faster than any of the Harry Potter series, were never intended to be studied by academics or schoolchildren (!) in fifty years time. Getting upset over the literary merit (or lack thereof) of Fifty Shades of Grey, a book written purely as wanking fodder for middle-aged ladies, is like getting upset that American Pie doesn’t have a very sophisticated plot or an original score by Hans Zimmer.
However, although I can pardon James’ abysmal grasp of the sentence structure and dialogue, there is absolutely no excuse for the boringness. Yeah, there are lots of very sexy passages that aren’t so much titillating as full-on graphic, but in between trysts the plot is neither original nor exciting, and the characterisation is so dire it’s difficult to even summon the energy to be frustrated with the insipid protagonists, let alone empathise with them.
James is nearly fifty, and it shows. There is nothing wrong whatsoever with writing about characters twenty-five years younger than you, but if you’re going to write about people outside of your generation then you need to do the research and ensure you understand them, otherwise they’ll lack credibility. For example, the heroine has an iPod, a mobile phone and attends university, but doesn’t have her own laptop or even an email address. In fact, Grey sets her up with her very own Macbook Pro (sly bit of name-dropping there, to show James is down with the cool kids) and email account so they can send each other ridiculous emails with subjects like ‘My issues? What about your issues?’ What kind of 22 year old doesn’t have an email account and some sort of computer? How can you even get through college without them? I’m so dependent on my email I consider a trip to the lavatory wasted if I don’t take my Blackberry with me, so how on earth has this girl gotten by without even a Hotmail address? The mind boggles.
The protagonist, full name Anastasia Rose Steele (barf), not only doesn’t own a computer, but is also a grade A wet lettuce and all-round boring bastard. Now, I’m not saying that you need to drink alcohol or slag about to be a fun person, but if you are 22 and a teetotaller then you probably either have very strong ideas about alcohol and not drinking it or you have a serious health problem. Or maybe you just don’t like it, I guess. Either way, if you’re only ambivalent towards booze, you just don’t get to that age in our society without having even tried it. It’s not realistic. Despite a lifetime of teetotalism, though, Ana takes no persuading whatsoever to get completely wankered when she finishes her finals. We are led to believe that although she’s a good-looking girl attending university, she has never had the opportunity to drink. I mean, aside from anything else, she’s doing an English Literature degree. I did an English Literature degree, and I know for a fact that even if you go to Oxford you only have about four lectures a week and there’s bugger all else to do except drink yourself to oblivion every other night.
While she’s at the bar discovering alcohol for the first time ever, Christian Grey, the improbably successful 27 year old billionaire, arrives to whisk her away and do unspeakable things to her (‘”I want you sore, baby,” he murmurs. “Every time you move tomorrow, I want you to be reminded that I’ve been here.”‘) She goes to leave, but then remembers she’s left her best mate Kate inside. Hurrah, good for her, we think, chicks before dicks and all that. She returns to the bar to see Kate copping off with some strapping young Adonis and starts to genuinely panic that she hasn’t given her friend the ‘safe sex lecture’. I mean, what the fuck? ‘Oh Kate’, she laments despairingly to herself. ‘Even in my inebriated state, I am shocked. She’s only just met him!’ Yeah, get real James. Welcome to twenty-first century student life.
The book is written in first person, and Ana’s thoughts are mind-numbingly tedious. Considering she is supposed to be a student of the rich and varied English language, she has a very limited vocabulary and also seems to reside in a permanent state of awe. The phrase ‘holy fuck’ appears throughout the novel 23 times, ‘holy crap’ 31 times and ‘holy cow’ 19 times. ‘Holy hell’ is used on 13 occasions and ‘holy shit’, her favourite, 53. A holy something-or-other appears on literally every other page. It’s very dull.
Another thoroughly irritating quality of Ana’s is her total lack of appetite. There seems to be this thing in trashy women’s fiction where not eating is considered the ultimate sign of femininity, and these girls really do not consume anything (except vast quantities of spaff, obv). They are never hungry. A decent fraction of the book is spent drawing attention to how little Ana eats (‘I take a small bunch of grapes. This I can manage.’), and how Grey tries to make her eat more. Not in a caring way, of course, but in an EAT NOW BITCH BECAUSE I SAY SO sort of way. It’s as though James is under the curious misconception that a good dicking can replace food entirely, but really it just conveniently combines a typical, revolting convention of fem-trash with something else that Grey’s character can try to manipulate.
While we’re on Grey, he’s clearly a tosser. Let’s take away the exterior that makes him so fascinating to women. We can start with the wildly successful business he built from scratch, which apparently employs 40,000 people and is still privately held in its entirety by Grey, who is twenty-seven years old. We know nothing about Grey Enterprises Holdings Inc. except that it’s in the telecommunications sector and runs so smoothly its CEO earns billions and still has every single weekend free to spend violently porking his sub with his ‘impressive erection’. With that goes the helicopter rides, free clothes and gifts of $40,000 Hardy first editions. Then let’s subtract his model good looks, piercing grey eyes, spectacularly-proportioned body (oh yeah, Grey also has loads of time to spend in the gym honing his muscles to perfection while single-handedly heading his business empire) and his ‘considerable length’. How the heroine has anything to compare it to I’ve no idea; she loses her virginity to Grey and denies having ever cracked one off on her own so this could well be the first penis she’s ever seen, but never mind. Once all that is stripped away we’re left with a man who is arrogant, emotionless and controlling not only in bed, which is fine between consenting individuals, but in every aspect of his sub’s life. She’s not his girlfriend, but she’s not allowed to sleep with anyone else. She has to exercise when she says, wear the clothes he says, eat from a list of prescribed foods dictated by him. I know control is a huge part of the dom/sub thing, but having somebody tell you when you go to the gym or what you can and cannot eat is really fucked up. How is someone so jealous, controlling and hard-faced considered so sexy? Because the women reading this are enchanted by his glamour. Even in name, he’s a modern-day Dorian Gray.
The weirdest part is when he gets the ‘best gynaecologist in the country’ to come out for a home visit…’on a Sunday!’ Ana marvels. ‘How much must that have cost!?’ This bird’s been drafted in not because Ana is bleeding to death from a rare and mysterious gash-related ailment, but because Grey reckons she ought to go on the Pill. Fair enough, but is there really any need for that? Just get yourself to a Brook clinic, you silly bitch, it’s free! I know that James, who is British, chose for some unfathomable reason to set her book in Washington, but even in the States getting hold of contraceptives does not require a house call. After the celebrated gyno leaves the house Grey is all ears and wants to know exactly what kind of Pill Ana got and how she has to take it. IT’S NONE OF YOUR FUCKING BUSINESS, IT’S A PRESCRIPTION, you nosy, meddling git.
Ahem. Anyway, all that aside, it’s no secret that the only reason anyone reads this stuff is for the smut. It’s like Lady Chatterley’s Lover in the 1920s, although DH Lawrence wrote his dirty bits in such flowing, poetic prose that nowadays, despite a generous smattering of ‘fucks’ and ‘c*nts’, they’re not so much as erotic as comic. Yes, the accompanying love story is nice, but I don’t think anyone would deny that the main event is that famous scene where Lady Chatterley and Mellors are going at it on the forest floor. Regardless, even if you’re into this sort of thing, James manages to ruin the effect by using various HIDEOUS phrases with a cumulative cringe factor of about a billion. For instance:
“He positions the head of his erection at the entrance of my sex.”
Pardon me, his what? Your what? Your sex? That’s what we’re calling it now? Oh, okay. Gross.
“My very own Christian Grey flavoured popsicle.”
This has got to be a boner-killer, right?
“The muscles inside the deepest, darkest part of me clench in the most delicious fashion.”
Sounds a lot like hard work.
“I had no idea giving pleasure could be such a turn-on, watching him writhe subtly with carnal longing. My inner goddess is doing the merengue with some salsa moves.”
And my personal favourite:
“My insides practically contort with potent, needy, liquid desire.”
Good lord. That last one was about two thirds through, and it was at this point I finally gave up because I had absolutely no desire whatsoever to read about how Ana takes a liquid dump all over Grey’s crisp, top-of-the-range sheets and how he’d subsequently beats the living shit out of her as ‘punishment’, which is what I assume happens next. My advice? Don’t bother with Fifty Shades, just YouTube the dirty bits from the Lady Chatterley movie instead.