Under this "Read more" is a fabulous post done by my dear friend Katherine about Fifty Shades of Grey. I only preface this post because it is about, you know, erotica. Some of you followers will cover your eyes and scream about how this is a YA blog and what have you.
But it's relevant, because it's not just adults reading this -- it's teenagers, too. And if teenagers are reading it, it's something I think about.
In which Nicole's friend Katherine reads and cries about "Fifty Shades of Grey" so you don't have to. You're welcome...
The other day I walked into my local book store and found a group of girls who looked about my little sister’s age (13-14) and they were crowded around the books with confused expressions on their faces. They sheepishly glanced over their shoulders and giggled and whispered about the “sex book” in front of them. Finally, the bravest of the group picked up a copy of the paperback with its stylized Twilight-esque cover and scampered off toward the register with E.L. James' Fifty Shades of Grey.
Now, don’t think I’m about to champion the “innocence” of the book store girls or some patronizing bullshit like that. No, actually, I’m torn in some ways about the popularity of this particular smut novel.
I want these girls to know that their sexualities are real things that matter and that they have nothing to feel ashamed of. I want them to know that being well-acquainted with their bodies is a wonderful and passionately fun thing that society shouldn’t scare them away from.
Then again, I also don’t want them to take cues about this important topic from this book. I want girls to know that it’s neither normal nor acceptable for a partner to be controlling or violently possessive. I don’t want them to internalize the “submissive” behavior as something that they should always embrace  in order to get another person to like them and I certainly don’t want them to think of these books as good writing.
Because it’s really not.
I’ll just call this book what it is. It’s porn. And you know what? There’s nothing wrong with porn. But, it’s not even good porn. It’s oddly sexist and unsexy porn written by a middle-aged woman who deeply fetishizes youth, virginity and money. Much like its source material (the Twilight saga) the book is problematic in its treatment of love, obsession and adult relationships.
The story follows a young college graduate named Anastasia (Ana) with oddly low self-esteem, no sexual experiences and some sort of nervous tick that makes her roll her eyes every ten seconds. She meets a rich and enigmatic businessman named Christian Grey while covering an important interview for her sick roommate who's an editor on their college's newspaper .
Christian speaks in an uncomfortably stiff way that is apparently supposed to show how rich he is (remnants from his humble beginnings as a fanfic Edward Cullen) and he also uses Ana’s full name (the one that she said she did not prefer to answer to) at least once per sentence. He wants her to be his personal submissive because he’s got a lot of issues and his mom was crack-whore so he likes to be dominant all the time (it makes sense if you don't think about it.)
Now, I happen to think that sexual relationships founded on one person’s psychological defects can’t be all that healthy or mutually satisfying to begin with. It allows that tired idea of a woman "fixing" and damaged man to live on and it makes excuses for the character's shitty behavior.
Oh, but it gets a bit weirder.
After Christian pays a creepy visit to Ana's workplace (a hardware store) to buy stuff for his
Eventually, he draws up a contract for the two of them that has a lot of bizarre rules involving what Ana could or couldn’t do if she were to take on the position as his submissive. It has a lot of weird things about doing whatever Christian says at all times and to be submissive to him in just about every part of her life.
I’m trying really hard to be understanding of different sexual desires and not sound off on people who like this sort of thing, but...what’s hot about this? Don’t be yourself. Don’t have feelings. Don’t be a human. I’ve been told this book is just an inaccurate depiction of a sub/dom relationship and I hope so because this sounds miserable and unpleasant.
To make matters worse, Ana seems to be afraid of Christian. She doesn’t seem to like him at all as a person and they tend to either be arguing or having sex in every interaction. Most of her narrative is lusting after his body or panicking about how he’s going to respond to her actions. It just doesn’t seem at all like a functioning relationship between two adults.
It’s easy to understand why she’s scared of him, though. He makes it very clear that he is financially the more powerful partner, flaunting his money at every turn. He goes as far as to purchase the publishing house Ana works for (the entire subplot of her workplace is ridiculous and could probably warrant it’s own post about the importance of researching what you’re writing about, but I digress…). Even when they later send raunchy emails to one another the overriding theme of all of them was Christian threatening to “punish” Ana (he talks about his palm twitching and I imagine he has some sort of bizarre nervous tick.)
Again, I’m a firm believer that consenting adults have the right to engage in whatever sexy-times they want because it is no one’s business but their own. But, since this is now a book that I see mothers and teenagers carrying around, I have to wonder what it’s teaching them about healthy relationship dynamics.
They could pick up that it’s okay for a man to keep them from pursuing what they want and attempting to control them in every way the way Christian does when he psychotically denies his girlfriend financial and social independence. They could take it that it’s necessary/preferable for a woman to remain celibate until she finds the right man like when Christian is bizarrely obsessed with the fact that he was the only one to bone Ana. They could also just take away that a functioning healthy relationship can be had with minimal communication and cooperation and obscene amounts of simultaneous orgasms, the way Ana and Christian's supposedly works (read: it doesn't)
There’s plenty wrong with this picture from a psychological perspective. Crappy published fan fiction or no crappy published fan fiction, the media we consume matters and the viral nature of this particular monster’s popularity is enough to draw a bit of concern.
Along with the numerous social problems in the book, it’s also got bad writing. We’re talking about that flash fiction piece you wrote in the eighth grade where you rambled on about horses for three pages kind of bad.
Okay, first paragraph in and we’re already starting with a pathetically veiled description of our narrator in which she’s staring at her reflection, obviously unsatisfied  with her apparently less-than-pretty appearance. This is a fairly common trope employed by writers who don’t exactly know where their stories are going; it’s easy (read: tactless) exposition that’s forced in early on because the author clearly does not care about the information. Also, I get annoyed when people describe their reflections as a “girl staring back at them.” Don’t be dumb; it’s you. You already said you’re looking in a mirror, we know it’s you .
Here’s a little excerpt. I want you to note the bolded words and tell me you’re not letting out a depressed sigh.
I scowl with frustration at myself in the mirror. Damn my hair – it just won’t behave, and damn Katherine Kavanagh 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.
Can we say heavy handed?
Now, I went into reading this book knowing full well about it’s kinky innards. However, I think anyone who’s sat through a ninth grade English class could pick up on the charged language in this passage. They all have these incredibly domineering connotations. They’re clearly not the words that would be used to describe grooming habits (and I won’t even touch the weird italic thought part other than to say I snorted like a thirteen-year-old boy in health class when I read it) and are a bit aggressive/extreme/awkward for my tastes.
Typically, I’m a fan of language mirroring its content. I think it’s a cool trick when artfully weaved into already clever narrative. An example of when this is done really well is in the opening theme from the TV show Dexter (not in writing, but visually it does the same exact thing). In the theme, Dexter is seen making his breakfast, but the camera work and choice of shots (dental floss, blood from shaving, entrails from breakfast meat/fruit) create this sinister vibe that parallels his life as a serial killer. His morning routine is equated with his murders in a very normal way that perfectly fits the tone and theme of the show.
This, however, is not the case in the passage from "Fifty Shades…” because the language is being used to talk about making her hair look presentable. While her hair could (and I’m truly stretching my literary analysis funk muscles on this one) maybe act as a metaphor for her sexual inhibitions or something along that line, I’m fairly certain this was just a cop out ploy to describe her appearance and set her as the plain-jane narrator as fast as possible so the author can hurry it up to describing her literary man-meat.
I get a feeling that something was intentional there, but it‘s just not working for me. It seems incomplete and clumsy.
Also, I’m under the impression that Ana (the protagonist) has yet to be introduced to her kinky lifestyle in the opening of the book. There’s the rub with first person narrative (especially this sort of present-tense-y, we’re walking with the narrator-style): she can’t know everything. Therefore, it’s pretty damn illogical for her brain to work that way (discussing her hair in this specifically sexually charged way).
Leading me to a segment I call…
I tend to think that when you have the choice between using the clear and concise word or the jacked up S.A.T. prep word, you should go with what’s better for communication: the simpler word.
So clearly, I’m already annoyed because this narrator is (within the first two lines) being extremely hyperbolic. Why is her roommate “subjecting [her] to this ordeal” instead of simply “making her do this” and why does she have to “gaze” at her reflection instead of “look” at it?
Getting back to this kinky language: I have to wonder why her mind would talk like this? Would she really “restrain" her hair? Or would she, like any other college-aged girl, just throw her hair up? (see segment title.)
It’s important to remember that your narrator’s language is assumed to be natural by the reader. Therefore, I assume that Ana is a total nutter who talks like she’s constantly right-clicking words on her word document (also, given the creepy overtones applied to brushing her hair, I‘d assume she was a serial killer.)
“She’s supposed to be a Literature student,” you might say. “She probably uses big words all the time and it characterizes her as smart. She’s not a ‘right-clicker.’”
I happen to disagree. Believe me, you can totally tell when someone is a right-clicker. The words sound unnatural and forced in the sentences (very square peg in round hole). Also, natural narrative (think when your friends are telling you a story) focuses less on the syllabic weight of the words and more on an interesting delivery of the content (that is what communication is about.)
I’ll be the first to say, I can barely focus on the actual story-telling of that paragraph because of the word choices. Not a good sign, man.
As far as characterization goes: I would think that a student (someone who, in theory, reads) would understand that the most fundamentally important part of writing is communicating and not attempting to impress. Though plenty of literature students flout this sort of language on papers (more often than not when they’re desperately trying to make up for the fact that they didn’t read the book), people who read generally know how to write sentences that make sense and communicate a point.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m all about using the sexy words when appropriate. But, when you pile several fifty dollar words on top of one another, you seem more like you’re trying too hard to sound smart (also pretentious). The key to sounding smart is to say smart things.
There are a whole lot of dialogue/narration problems all over this book. There are random intervals were we get what seems to be a childhood memory from Christian told in Ana’s narration. There are logistic errors like the blindfolded narrator making visual observations. And then, what really ground my gears: the dialogue.
I mean, how often do you say the name of the person you’re talking to per conversation? How often do you yell, exclaim, counter, grumble, whisper?
Apparently, a whole freakin’ lot.
I know, I know. Especially by now, we all get that Fifty Shades of Grey is bad writing inspired by bad writing. It’s erotica meant for dark rooms, dusty shelves and lazy beach days and it never claimed to be a new classic.
Why should we care enough to write and complain about it?
For me, it’s really important that we’re keenly aware of what our culture is paying attention to, what we’re spending our money, time and energy talking about and promoting. Even if it’s easy to dismiss what high school students and mom’s are toting around, we should care about what our soccer moms and teenagers are talking about because they matter. Enough people spent money and time on these books to make them a cultural phenomenon.
Shouldn’t we want to know why?
 As I understand it, there is a difference between the typical vanilla relationship and a sub/dom relationship. But, this book doesn’t exactly cover that and the mainstream doesn’t tread on that information either. Especially since the main character makes a point of saying that she is not a sub and just Christian’s lover. Readers of this book (especially the young, impressionable and inexperienced ones) may not realize that the typical submissive and dominant are two people who decide they want that sort of dynamic. These arrangements are not supposed to be like Christian and Ana’s relationship where the rich and intimidating former who grooms the inexperienced and love-struck latter.
 I work for a college newspaper. E.L. James clearly has no idea how they work. If someone was interviewing a businessman who was as (allegedly) important and difficult to reach as Christian Grey, they would not send an editor's roommate to cover the interview. That is not how you journalism, James. It's just not.
 Ha. Haha. Ha Ha. Ha Haa.
 It’s common in YA (and I suppose also in YA inspired-erotica?) to have a protagonist who’s attractive without knowing it. In some ways it draws on logical and normal self-esteem issues women (and men) have, however, in others, we’re creating this annoying trope that is annoying as it is illogical. The issues behind this “oblivious beauty” thought process is clear in the narrative that describes conventionally attractive features-- light skin, dark hair, large blue eyes. If this character is really so goddamn average, why does she have a bunch of unwanted and undeveloped suitors following her around? I’m already annoyed.
 Here’s the trick about that trope, I’ve seen it used successfully and effectively in the past when it’s exformative. If a narrator was describing a change to his/her own appearance that shocked him and maybe we were later told that his description of a sallow-skinned shell of a man was, in fact, his reflection… then the mirror-person would be effective. Maybe. Probably not. Otherwise, it just sets me up to think the narrator has a really weird detachment from her own body…like that disease where you don’t think you own your own limbs (Google time: Somatoparaphrenia).
 I get into arguments about this all the time, but I honestly just think it helps people not to sound like butt-trumpets. For example: use the word “use” instead of “utilize” for the love of God. If you can cut down the syllables in a sentence, it’ll probably read better and I'll probably cry less.
Katherine Speller is lucky to be Nicole's friend because she is allowed to occasionally rant about grammar and feminism on her blog. She cannot believe she read three of these books but firmly believes she lost a few brain cells in the process. She likes hairless cats, bearded men and journalism. Her writing can be found on her blog If Only He Had A Beard.