I am now on p. 164 of Fifty Shades of Grey, and have some observations about it that would take too long to tweet, so I decided to put them here instead – I have a blog, so I might as well use it occasionally!
1) Fifty Shades is incredibly gripping. I read pages 1-164 in about 2 hours last night and only stopped reading because I needed to sleep.
2) It has a sophisticated title, which always makes me award a book extra points. It’s not called Shag Time. If one were to go to ‘Genre Title Converter’ on one’s laptop (the literary equivalent of Currency Converter) Fifty Shades of Grey’s crime fiction title equivalent might be A Demon in my View, or even Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? This is a good sign. If the novel had been called Shag Time, I wouldn’t have wanted to read it, just as I rarely want to read books called Deady Dead Bloodsoakedness.
3) People have been saying E L James is a bad writer. I’m not sure I’d agree with that, not entirely. Her writing certainly has flaws – overuse of annoying phrases like ‘Holy hell!’ and ‘Holy crap!’ – but in some ways the writing is excellent in one crucial respect: it does the job it sets out to do; it grips the reader. Writing an unputdownable book can’t be easy, judging by how many putdownable books are written and published, and James’ unadorned, naively breathless, straight-to-the-narrative-point style works brilliantly with her subject matter. Also, some of the characters are drawn to perfection for a novel where story and fantasy is everything: they aren’t too real or individuated, so they can remain semi-archetypal in the reader’s imagination. They are blurred enough for the reader to be able to ‘be’ the protagonist, and clear enough that we can totally imagine them; they certainly aren’t formless vacuums on the page as the characters in books by really bad writers are. We care about Ana and Christian enough but not too much. We have no trouble picturing them, and Christian is sufficiently mysterious and intriguing, a well-judged mixture of harsh and sensitive… All of which suggests James can write. Someone just needs to tell her to avoid cliche and repetition (‘Holy crap! The Katharine Kavanagh Inquisition!’) Also (obvious but worth pointing out): if millions of people the world over want to read your book, you must be doing something right as a writer, if only the story-telling.
4) I don’t understand why 50 Shades is described as mommy porn. The heroine is a young childless university student. I happen to have two kids, but I’d have enjoyed this book just as much if I were a childless 20-year-old.
5) People have said the novel isn’t erotic. I don’t agree. Which brings me back to the writing. The BDSM stuff must be well-written because, in the book, it comes across as risky and intriguing and quite sexy, whereas in real life, without exception, men who produce accessories and start explaining their particular bizarre fetish ALWAYS do it in a way that renders them instantly risible and makes one think, ‘Oh, God, he’s getting out his bag of stuff. How ridiculous!’ (When I say ‘without exception’, I could be wrong – you may know of exceptions in real life. I don’t.) But Christian Grey and his grey tie actually works. I thought I’d hate this book because of my ‘bag of stuff’ prejudice, but I have totally bought into it. E L James’ sheer enthusiasm and commitment to the story makes it plausible, and I am confident that she will contain Christian’s proclivities within non-risible boundaries for the remainder of the book – and that’s extremely hard to do when describing a sexual whatnot that lots of people would run a mile from.
So, I’m enjoying it a lot, basically, though it will never make me change my mind about accessory-bag men. But Fifty Shades is highly entertaining and, also, relies on sexual suspense almost more than narrative suspense: the ‘oh, my God, what’s he going to make her do next?’ syndrome.
Oh, I nearly forgot: I know some people object to this book from a feminist perspective. The heroine is very submissive, true, but what’s she doing there in that book? She’s there for the benefit of women, not men. She is fuelling the fantasies of lots of not-at-all submissive women who wouldn’t dream of allowing men to control them in their non-sexual lives (or even to suggest they might like to do something a little differently!) The idea that women might want to be sexually dominated while still retaining full control and authority in the rest of their lives is wholly compatible with feminism, I think.