Dispatches | July 24, 2012

So, I read Fifty Shades of Grey.

Maybe you’ve heard of it?

I am neither a “mommy”, nor particularly interested in porn I have to shell out money for, so I set about reading it out of curiosity: what’s so enchanting about a Twilight rip off with all the sex that was lacking from the original? I haven’t read Twilight, either, or I tried and couldn’t get past the first five pages without giggling so hard I accidentally ripped the book in half with my tremors, but I saw the first two movies while drunk so that makes me an expert on all thingy shiny vampire. From what I understand, the plots are different enough to avoid lawsuits, but similar: crazy cardboard powerful man wants to get it on with a crazy cardboard oblivious female, both females are virgins (because female virgins are the best females, ain’t that right literary tropes and myths? I’m looking at you, Daphne) and the audience simply wants the protagonists to have sex. Sadly, in Twilight, the sex doesn’t happen until the end. In Fifty Shades, there is so much sex it gets tiresome for the reader, and I wasn’t even involved in their romps. You can read a concise, profanity-laden summary of it here if you’re interested in a breakdown of the plot. 

Basically, it’s awful, and not just because it’s completely unrealistic and ridiculous. The writing is so, so bad.  Some choice lines include:

“Ana, baby!” he cries, and it’s a wild invocation, stirring and touching the depths of my soul.

Worst. Invocation. Ever.

  He kisses me, and I inhale his sexy Christian smell.

Adjectives are so hard.

My subconscious purses her lips in disapproval. I roll my eyes at her, grateful that a certain twitchy-palmed control freak is not in the room, and resolve to ask him about the personal trainer. That’s if I sign. My inner goddess glares at me in desperation. Of course you’ll sign. I ignore them both

Let’s be clear that she is talking to people in her head, who she often looks to for life advice as opposed to, say, a real human being, about a sex contract she is going to sign with the male protagonist. ROMANCE.

I’m in this fantasy apartment, having fantasy sex with my fantasy boyfriend. When the grim reality is he wants a special arrangement, though he’s said he’ll try more. What does that actually mean? This is what I need to clarify between us to see if we are still at opposite ends on the see-saw or if we are inching closer together.

This is not how you do a metaphor, for the record. Your sex life is not synonymous with riding a see-saw.

The characters are wooden and impossible to relate to, the plot trite, and, worst sin of all, the writing is hilariously bad, my favorite example being a line where the Edward Cullen (sorry, Christian Grey) character bemoans the fact that his mother was a crack whore and the protagonist wonders openly to herself, What does that mean??

It means his mother was a whore. Who sometimes enjoyed crack. Come on, Ana, I know you’re a virgin and that makes you completely irresistible to all the male characters, but that’s no excuse for not using context clues. Sadly, she never comes to understand what a crack whore is, but he keeps bringing it up, in case any of us forgot about the back story of a sad twenty-seven year old CEO who just hates being touched. COOTIES.

I’m not interested in covering how abusive or obnoxious the relationship is between the lead characters (Jennifer Armintrout, a legit romance writer, does a much better job on her blog than I ever could) but, rather, what does the popularity of such a poorly written book mean for literary and genre authors?

Originally, before Vintage (of Random House fame) picked up the series, it was published in print through The Writers’ Coffee Shop, an Australian print-on-demand and e-book publisher. I’m hazarding a guess that this is the most popular novel that’s come off the press, and possibly the most, if not one of the most, successful vanity publications. Jezebel.com recently reported that E.L. James is making one million dollars a week on the books, which, if we believe in that trite that we vote with our dollars, James will be president of our hearts and libidos soon enough.

Buy the book, says her luminous eyes. Buy the damn book.

I don’t think we can write off the success of this book purely because it’s filled with sex, or even ‘deviant’ sex, though certainly, if Naked Came the Stranger is any proof, if you write something with a bunch of bodies gyrating against one another, people will buy it, and they’ll buy it often.

However, it’s not just the sex, and it’s not just the aggressive marketing, though certainly both of those tactics really help drive up the numbers. This novel, poor in every aspect though it is, is doing something right:

Literary works are about subverting the fantasy. Even in a world of magic or monsters, when it’s done right, there is the sense that you cannot separate what you know is unreal from the reality you are familiar with. Even through a zombie, the most ridiculous of creatures, we can see ourselves, and we are ashamed -like Kafka’s frustrating bug-hero, we wake up and see that we’ve been monstrous this while time. Genre, however, simply presents fantasy with its hands gleefully tied behind it. Fifty Shades romances the reader into a lulled state where everything is easy, and that is the worst thing about this book, even though Christian Grey talks about taking a dive into the protagonist’s anal cavity (gross, Christian, gross. And not humanly possible, I hope). But more than that, it is action-packed, and I don’t mean that it’s action packed as in Christian is always packing it into the protagonist, but besides the excessive “oh my god moooom, I don’t know if this abusive guy who is always hounding me really likes me or not” inner dialogues of the protagonist, things are actually happening. She’s gossiping with her Terrible-Advice mother, she’s commenting (annoyingly) about the crazy sidekicks that live in her head, she’s working sometimes, she interviews for a job, and she had a lot of sex – it’s not much, granted, but enough to keep the wishy-washy plot going to the next sex scene.  Yes, most of the tensions are made up by the protagonist because she doesn’t know how to have a real-life conversation with a normal human being.  It dwells on its own bullshit often, but it knows better than to dwell on it too long.

It is not an issue of Fifty Shades being simple or there being plenty of sex, but rather that E.L. James caters to satisfying a simple urge and doesn’t try to do anything greater. It sells a fantasy without remotely considering the consequences of the fantasy, or that the fantasy is always, always, always less exciting and heartbreaking when it becomes real. Take, for example, Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro, who gives us the fantasy – organs, free organs for everyone! – which is quickly made real and painful and so much better when you see how, exactly, the free, healthy organs are harvested.

Not pleasantly.

I’m curious what concern writers, or artists or whatever we fancy calling ourselves, have for our readers. Partially, I think Fifty Shades is entertaining because it doesn’t ask much from me emotionally. I’m not invested in the characters or the plot. It’s the green Swedish Fish in the bag when I really just wanted the red ones.  However, even though I thought McCarthy’s The Road to be one of the most excruciatingly emotional adventures my eyes ever took on a page, I thoroughly enjoyed myself. And yes, I did enjoy myself more than Fifty Shades of Please Remember Female Protagonists Have To Use The Bathroom Like Everyone Else Sometimes. The difference between the two is obvious, but there are elements that are the same. Both engage with tropes in their respective genres, the post-apocalypse struggle or powerful dude wants to seduce the ingénue, to accomplish its goals. One, guess which, does a much better job, and it all comes down to the sentence.

Here is the opening of Fifty Shades of Grey:

 I scowl with frustration at myself in the mirror.

I often scowl with joy and kittens, so I’m glad that was clarified.

Here is the first line of The Road:

When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he’d reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him.

Mood, setting, and an introduction to the two main characters in one concise sentence. And you know, you just know, they’re not on some crap camping expedition. There is a quiet desperation already, just in the act of making sure the child is still beside him when he wakes up. He’s nervous, and we’re nervous for him.  But it’s not only literary work that accomplishes setting up an interesting story in one line. Here is the opening of Dune by Frank Herbert:

 In the week before their departure to Arrakis, when all the final scurrying about had reached a nearly unbearable frenzy, an old crone came to visit the mother of the boy, Paul.

Immediately there is a sense of urgency introduced and we know that the characters are going to go on a journey. The choice of the word “crone” indicates a fairy tale element – we know this is a society that is like ours, but not quite ours. There’s magic, but we recognize it from our own history of story. See? Genre writing doesn’t have to be bad.

But what do we learn from the first line of Fifty Shades? Ana Steele dislikes looking at herself in the mirror. Neat.

If any of you are like me, then you struggle when writing a sentence; you want it to be beautiful, and meaningful, and move the plot, but sometimes being poetic means that you spend a lot of time crafting a sentence that sits in its own stagnation; it only creates a mood, sometimes one that is separate from the protagonist and unidentifiable to the reader. The danger of mood writing is that it becomes boring very quickly.  Often when reading really moody works I skip over a lot of those emotional sentences because I want to know what happens next; what does the main character do with all of these feelings, man?

There should be a marriage of the strengths of plot in genre fiction and the careful consideration of sentence in literary work, and I don’t think anyone should be particularly concerned with defining themselves in a genre when they set down to write. I do think that we should be concerned about the person who has to read it, though. Separate yourself from the work. Are you bored when you go over the work? Then it’s boring.

That is not to say that we should not take it easy on our readers, they should be as challenged by the work as much as we challenged ourselves writing it. But spending so much time in dead space, where nothing happens beyond personal reflection or a great diatribe about what the room looks like, grates on the nerves. There should be interaction; we do not exist in a vacuum and neither do our readers unless, of course, that is somehow the point.

I have heard people bemoaning the state of literature after the popularity of these books, and other romance ones, and I do think it’s sad that Fifty Shades sells so well and a lot of independent authors who write phenomenal novels and collections of stories will never get the same kind of audience, but partially I think that’s because indie writers are writing for a specific audience that is often trained to like this sort of writing. Genre writers are creating uncomplicated sentences and standard plots that have the potential to be elevated. Can’t everyone get along like Christian and Ana do?

Pull your knees up,” he orders softly, and I’m quick to obey. “I’m going to fuck you now, Miss Steele,” he murmurs as he positions the head of his erection at the entrance of my sex. “Hard,” he whispers, and he slams into me.

“Aargh!” I cry as I feel a weird pinching sensation deep inside me as he rips through my virginity.

Look at all that getting along.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ll be writing my Harry Potter fanfiction with an excessive amount of the balloon fetish, because I think that will be the next big thing for mommys. Pop, pop, Ka-ching.