The Nexus of Pop-Culture Fandom

Fifty Shades of Good Characters, Bad Prose and Wasted Potential

Written by: Phoebe Raven, CC2K Staff Writer

CC2K’s Book Editor Beth Woodward is out this week. CC2K TV Editor Phoebe Raven fills in for her and takes a look at the wildly popular Fifty Shades of Grey books,  which are currently all the talk on the internet.

A large part of me does not want to write this article. Because this large part of me is ashamed that I am in a position to be able to write this article. And the other part of me is chastising the ashamed part of me for genre bias, which is a problem our resident Book Editor Beth Woodward has raged against time and time and time again.
See, here’s the root of my dilemma: I recently read Fifty Shades of Grey. Then I read Fifty Shades Darker. And then I read Fifty Shades Freed.
Yes, I admit it: I read the entire Fifty Shades trilogy by E.L. James in a span of less than two weeks. And now I don’t know what to do with myself.

For those who don’t understand why this is throwing me—lover and defender of literature with great language and lofty subject matters that serve to make the reader think—into emotional turmoil, let me give you the background to the much buzzed about Fifty Shades books.
They started out as fan fiction. And what’s more, as Twilight fan fiction. That right there should be enough to scare me off. But when the buzz around these books just wouldn’t stop and even Alexander Skarsgaard said in an interview that even though he hadn’t read the books, he would consider starring in a movie version of them, which is in the works right now, I just had to see what the hype was about. Besides, my classes for the semester were over and all I had left to do was move to another continent. Perfect timing to read a bit of BDSM romance, no?

Oh, did I not tell you that part? Yeah, the “controversy” surrounding the Fifty Shades trilogy not only stems from the fact that it is originally a fan fiction romance based on Twilight, but that it depicts sex scenes inspired by the world of BDSM. Even though one has to say that the book hints at some more “extreme” sexual acts, the actual sex acts that do occur in Fifty Shades aren’t all that hardcore BDSM. They may not always be “vanilla sex” either, as one of the central characters calls sex without toys or role-playing etc., but the book is far from shocking to anyone who knows the first bit about their own sexuality.

The actual story of Fifty Shades goes as follows: naïve, albeit witty, college graduate Anastasia Steele, who is a virgin, meets successful, mysterious business man Christian Grey, who was adopted as a small child and suffers from childhood trauma. He compensates this by shutting people out emotionally and relieving his tension as a Dominant in BDSM relationships. For these relationships he requires his Submissive to sign contracts and a non-disclosure agreement. He is incredibly rich, incredibly handsome, an incredibly good lover and incredibly messed up. And sweet little Anastasia is blown away by him. Can her love save him from all his inner demons?

The set-up for the story is trite and convenient. The fact that Anastasia is a virgin makes her an “easy target” for Christian Grey’s proposals, since she has no frame of reference and hence has to trust what he tells her on the subject of sex. The fact that Christian is unbelievably rich takes care of a lot of every day nuisances Joe Normal would have to deal with, but which are boring to read on the page. Plus, it offers the opportunity for luscious settings and adventures, such as helicopter rides, trips around Europe on expensive yachts and outrageous gifts like new cars and designer clothes.
In many aspects Fifty Shades is a teenage girl’s fantasy made manifest on the page and I suspect only teenage girls will truly be “shocked” by any of the sex acts described in the books.

Yet whether or not the sex is really as controversial as it is made out to be by some of the more prudish readers (and let’s face it, Twilight was written with those kinds of people in mind), what really is infuriating about the Fifty Shades trilogy is the abhorrently bad prose and writing style. If I hadn’t been reading the books on my Kindle, I would have thrown them against the wall, repeatedly. Possibly until some of the pages had fallen out of the book by their own accord. E. L. James’ vocabulary is so limited and so juvenile that it seriously hinders the depths she can lend to her characters or her scenarios. I could make a long, long list of words and phrases she repeats ad nauseum—and I mean that literally, some words occur more than thrice in the span of two pages—and I would love nothing more than taking my red pen to her manuscript and giving it a good work-over. If E.L. James needs anything, it is an editor. A harsh editor. And then maybe she’s got something going here. She falters specifically in her descriptions of body language and facial expressions, falling back on the same phrases time and time again, offering no variety and hence making many of her scenes interchangeable in the reader’s mind. Instead of being absorbed by the scenes, which sometimes are quite heavy and psychologically deep, I was torn out of the story by the terrible language and I yearned for better descriptions of the characters, so that I could learn more about them.

Let me clarify my complaint: I fully endorse publishers branching out and looking for fresh authors in the realm of fan fiction, because there is no reason why someone who writes fan fiction can’t be a good writer. If you think that, then you are just genre biased. And E.L. James’ story, which was originally posted under a nickname on a Twilight fanfic forum, has potential, if not merely for its somewhat controversial sex scenes, then also for the depth she attempts to give her characters, if barred by her limited ability to express herself in language. With a good editor, these books could have become infinitely better. Even a pleasure to read, I believe.
The problem is that the Fifty Shades books are published by a small online publisher, The Writers Coffee Shop, based in Australia, who I suspect did not spring for a thorough edit of James’ books before they went to print/release.
(The publisher also announced in March that the Fifty Shades trilogy is no longer available through their publishing house, because British E.L. James has signed a deal with a big U.S. publisher.)

A clear sign that E.L. James is a “young” (in terms of experience) writer is that the prose gets marginally better as the trilogy moves on. Every writer improves with every sentence they write and re-write, every chapter they draft and redraft, every story they finish and refinish.
This improvement process, in my opinion, should happen before an author is published, at least to a certain level of skill and expertise. After all, we don’t want to watch a tennis player practicing his serve for years until we finally see him play a match either, right? And even if a writer remains somewhat limited in certain areas of their writing, that’s what a good editor or a writing workshop is for: to help with those problems that remain.

Nevertheless, as irritated as I was with the language, I was interested in the characters, particularly in the character of Christian Grey. As slowly but surely in the course of the trilogy his personal history is revealed and we learn more about the way he thinks of himself and his place in the world, he becomes quite endearing and sympathetic. And knowing everything he has had to endure and how self-flagellating he has become as a result gives a different quality to his actions in the first book, which I am currently re-reading.

The character of Anastasia Steele is less intriguing, because she is not drawn as a convincing, modern day college graduate. She doesn’t own a computer or a cell phone when she meets Christian Grey and she is claimed to not only be a virgin but to never even have masturbated in her life. She objects to Christian giving her expensive gifts because she says it makes her feel cheap, yet she mooches off her friend Kate and Kate’s parents’ money by moving with Kate into an apartment in Seattle that Kate’s parents have bought.
Since the whole story is told from Anastasia’s perspective, there is no getting away from her thoughts and the way she deals with things in her head. As a reader I quickly tired of the italics that are supposed to give her thoughts on events, yet often don’t extend beyond a breathless “Oh…”. And I couldn’t take another reference to her “inner goddess”, who is always in favor of “kinky fuckery” (term from the books) and her studious “subconscious” (a term the Freud student in me violently objects to anyway), disapprovingly glaring at anything sexual or daring Anastasia does. Again, these are weaknesses in E.L. James’ writing and they prevent her from making Anastasia as endearing a character as she ought to be. Most of the time she is just annoying, but we have to endure her if we want to learn anything more about Christian Grey.

I won’t go into the ridiculousness of the blackmail and kidnapping plot in the second and third book here, I have bagged on James enough. The mechanics of language and plotting undoubtedly give her away as an inexperienced writer living out teenage fantasies on the page and I object more to the former than the latter. But she obviously does something right as well and gives a voice to the teenage part of a lot of female readers. That is the basic point I am trying to make: the Fifty Shades trilogy is a very specific piece of writing that will appeal to only a very specific kind of audience in its current state, meaning female readers who have held on to some of their teenage fantasies of love and a frog that turns into a Prince.
I fundamentally believe Fifty Shades does not appeal to men and even with the heavy editing I would put the books through this wouldn’t change drastically.
I definitely wouldn’t recommend reading these books to any of my friends. They are far too infuriating in their language and some of their morals to be thoroughly enjoyable as literature.

I would, however, be interested in a movie version of these books, given that the central focus is shifted away from Anastasia and onto Christian and the right actor is cast for the part. What I personally love most about the character is that he is copper-haired. If the movie version could stay true to that, I would be a happy camper. But it’s Hollywood. We’ll end up with Miley Cyrus and Alex Pettyfer or worse. And that’s what ultimately remains for me in relation to anything Fifty Shades: disappointment. Because it can and should be more and better than what it is, but it isn’t and it will never be.