So everyone’s talking about the 50 Shades of Grey series by E.L. James, and today I’m no different. Despite the many reviews and comments I’ve seen on this series, I too want to weigh in. So here’s my take: “50 Shades of Grrr” – so-named because there were so many things about this series that, well, irked me.
First, some alerts:
THIS POST IS ON AN ADULTS-ONLY BOOK AND ONLY INTENDED FOR READERS 18+.
Oh and there are spoilers hidden below – so give the page a moment to finish loading before reading on, or you might see them.
Now for some vital stats for the whole trilogy:
Fifty Shades of Grey, Fifty Shades Darker, Fifty Shades Freed (side note, you can pretty much piece together the story from the titles)
Author: E.L. James
Publisher: Random House
RRP: $17.95 (AUD)
Fresh out of college and naive to the ways of the world, bookworm and romantic Anastasia Steele finds herself falling for the handsome and eccentric billionaire Christian Grey. He turns out to have some pretty dark tastes, but their graphically described love affair makes them both learn things about themselves they didn’t know before.
How I liked it
Well, I didn’t really, I’m afraid. But before I get to that, there is one thing the books do really, really well. Sell. So hats off to the marketing of this series and the fact that E.L. James, like a hallowed few others, has managed to take a very specifc genre and get the general population reading it.
And I concede that the books are very easy to read. (Though not sure that’s a positive thing. See Item 4, below.) There were also elements of the characters and plot that I felt could have been interesting if more had been done with them. More on that below, too.
Ok there’s my constructive criticism. Now for the things I didn’t like. Now I know I’ve loftily professed that this site is not about book bashing. And it’s not. But it is about book critiquing and part and parcel of that is being honest when I don’t like something about a book. These books I found wanting for a variety of reasons, but to spare you the boredom of trudging through an actual 50-deep list (I doubt I could come up with that many anyway), I’ve chosen my top 10 issues with the series.
As follows (*clears throat*):
1. The control thing.
The treatment of Christian’s whole “need for control” in this series really bothered me. And I’m not talking about the sexual aspect by the way. That’s Ana Steele and Christian Grey’s business; whatever floats their boats. I’m talking about the emotional control that Christian exerts over Ana – and which she allows to infilitrate and change her lifestyle and personality. (I mean come on, when Ana gets her first job out of college, Christian actually buys the company (yes he does), so he can keep a better eye on her. Oh and then his absurd actions are vindicated when her boss turns out to be a sexual deviant who’s planning to coerce Ana into doing him on tape. Phew, thank heavens for Christian. Vindication and handshakes all round.)
I dunno… it looked a lot like emotional abuse at times from where I was sitting. And by all means write about it. Again, I have no problems with that. The books are a product of the imagination; they’re fiction. I get that. I just personally found it a little off-putting that this type of control freakishness, while given the mental “tsk tsk” by Ana at times, also seemed to be frequently romanticised in the series.
Whether deliberately or not, it seemed to me that the heroine Ana was compromising her principles left, right and centre out of a mistaken belief that she must (and could) help Christian emotionally, and that we as the reader were supposed to be happy she was doing so. Except that I wasn’t. Sure, scenes like the one where Christian spanks Ana till it hurts to sit down (against her will) are a bit off, but it was the part where he then brought her vaseline to make it all better that really creeped me out. Or lines like this:
But for the first time since he left for work this morning, I begin to relax. Just being in his company is a soothing balm, and all the shit from Jack, and the snarky emails to and fro, and the nuisance that is Elena fade into the background. It’s just me and my control freak in the back of the car.
Aw shux. Her widdle contwol fweak. How sweet.
2. A love story? Really?
This leads me into problem number two. The reader is also supposed to believe this isn’t just a story crammed full of graphic sex scenes involving blow-by-blow descriptions of sex toys and their uses, but a story about the redemptive power of love and the journey of a tortured soul from the darkness into the light. Except that the only reasons I could find for Ana’s so-called “love” and devotion to Christian were that he is (and I quote) “so freaking hot” – an epiphet literally repeated ad nauseum - and that she feels like she can save him. Ah, the timeless story of libido and the lure of emotional baggage. So much for soulmates. I can’t help but wonder how differently it all might have gone, had Christian been just “okay looking”.
3. Vampires and werewolves.
50 Shades started as a fan fiction for the Twilight series, and despite some clear plot changes (romantic old-school vampire becomes billionaire BDSM-lovin’ CEO, for example) and different names, it still felt far too much like Twilight for my liking. Now I read Twilight, and I’ll even go so far as to say I quite enjoyed it at the time. I certainly found it very readable. That said, I can’t see myself reading (or particularly enjoying) Twilight a second time, and I certainly wouldn’t class it as high quality fiction. The long and the short of all this? Its conversion into erotica frankly results in a pretty mindless reading experience.
4. WTF? And other witticisms.
Oh, and it also reads as though we’re still in teenager-land. We’re supposed to believe Ana Steele is a smart college grad who almost exclusively reads British classics, and yet her internal monologue abounds with inane adolescent exhortations like “freaking hot” and “holy crap”.
Speaking of British classics, if Ana really had the discerning literary taste she claims to, the writing style of 50 Shades would make her have a fit. From the first sentence it’s apparent you’re not going to be picking up any new vocab in these books. Weeell, maybe the occasional BDSM term, but other than that, it’s, well, Susan Schoenberger’s apt gummi bear imagery says it all really. I’ll let you read her thoughts for yourself, here.
Coincidentally, I’ve come up with a few numbers of my own to supplement Susan’s list. For simplicity, these are just from Book 1:
- Number of times Christian or Ana “find their release”: 10
- Number of times Ana expresses her feelings with “oh my”: 69. (How apt.)
- Number of times Ana mentions Christian’s smoldering eyes: 6
- Number of times Christian asserts ownership over Ana: 18 (like I said, a little creepy)
- Number of times Ana is a quivering mass or mess: 4
- Number of times characters murmur: 199
- Number of times they mutter: 50
- Number of times they whisper: 190
- Number of exclamation marks: 294 (!?!?!)
- My personal favourite… Number of times Ana and Christian “fist” each other’s hair: 2 in Book 1; 18 in the series. I make special note of this, because “fisting” someone’s hair?? What does that even mean?
5. Cliches and aspirations.
The cliches are thick, fast and, most frustratingly of all, repetitive. If you’re going to litter a book with cliches is it too much to ask that you vary them a little now and then? Also on variety – characters don’t have to “whisper”, “mutter” or “murmur” every word they say. Sometimes the most apt verb for the task is simply “said”. Reading this series I got the distinct impression the characters never uttered a single syllable in a normal tone of voice. It’s wearing, and takes away from the action.
6. Stuff happens. Doesn’t it?
Speaking of action, for my part a book is best when something happens. And whilst the characters did get a lot of action, I felt this was at the expense of the reader. It felt like nothing happened for a good three-quarters of this series; book one in particular. Maybe if the author had spent less time writing about what went on between the sheets there would have been more time for some actual character development and a few plot devices.
Now admittedly I don’t usually read romance/erotica, so what would I know? Maybe this is par for the course in this genre? But even if it is, I think it’s safe to say this series has broken genre bounds by the sheer magnitude of its readership and sales figures. Given that, would it kill us all to have something actually happen in it?
7. Character development = missed opportunity.
While I found the story weakly written, it wasn’t devoid of potential. Few storylines are; in the right hands. The problem here, I think, came down to the character development. Or lack thereof. I found this frustrating because there was certainly enough scope to have made the characters more than the cardboard cutouts we got.
So for example I felt like we had a potentially interesting character in Christian, if his motives and back story had been explored in a more sophisticated way. And Ana – it’s clear the author thought her full of interesting character traits but she was written with too many contradictions to be believable. (And the contradictions didn’t feel deliberate either. I’m talking things like her being described as intelligent but then saying and doing a lot of really unintelligent things. It just felt like the characters had been imagined one way but executed in another.)
Most annoyingly of all, it felt like any time the characters were on the point of doing or saying something genuinely interesting, a sex scene promptly jumped in and evaporated any chance of a decent plot device.
8. A little less (banal) conversation.
Some pithy, plot-advancing dialogue wouldn’t have gone astray either. Yes, couples say silly, cutesy, bantery things to one another when they’re hanging out or engaging in foreplay. But these conversations are generally not very interesting to a third party; certainly not enough to sustain one’s interest for hundreds of pages. I for one would have been mighty glad for a little less of the “Why Miss Steele, whatever do you mean”s.
9. Show me.
It felt like the reader was passively told a lot of things that could have been shown far more interestingly through dialogue or action. To take just one example, rather than telling us that Ana has “instantly warmed to” xyz character, why not show us through the portrayal of their actual relationship? While the use of first person narrative can be a very effective way to get the reader to empathise with the protagonist, in this case I felt like we were getting a lot of inner monologue that we could have done without. Though maybe this was just because Ana’s adolescent head was a little much to be inside 24/7.
10. My contribution.
Aside from feeling like reading this book wasted precious time I could have spent reading something enriching, creative and/or unique, one of the things I’m most irked about is that I’ve contributed $30 to the 50 Shades franchise. (Would have been more, but I bought the cheaper, e-reader versions).
Worse still, I’ve also contributed to the hype. Ironically even by writing this less than flattering review I’ve contributed to it, and let’s face it - each sale this series racks up will only cement in the minds of the as-yet uninitiated the notion that these books must somehow be worth reading, because everyone is reading them.
I know this, because this is why I read them. I’m the first to confess, I fell for the hype. I didn’t know a great deal about the franchise until I’d already bought and started the first novel, but I knew it fell into a genre I don’t usually read. Yet the pull of the hype was irresistable. Surely, thought I, if so many people are reading it, there must be something to gain from reading it myself? Gah, gah, and double gah. I was wrong. I didn’t gain anything from this reading experience except the confirmation that hype is sometimes just that.
Funnily enough, since succumbing to said hype, I’ve spoken to several people who also read it because everyone else was, and who have similar views on it to my own. More fool us!
That’s it for now. Till next time!