I can’t believe I actually read this book. Not just that I volunteered for it, but that I managed to drag myself all the way to the end. God, I hope there aren’t more movies. I don’t know if I could survive reading the second or third. At least this one ends on a promising note. Good lord. Okay. Diving in.
The Book: Fifty Shades of Grey by E. L. James
Genre: romance, erotica
First impressions: You are probably familiar with this book, at least in passing. It sold 100 million copies in 53 languages worldwide–that’s what we usually call “hard to miss.” But if you aren’t familiar, 50 Shades is a BDSM erotica story, which started its life as Twilight fan fiction. It follows the relationship of naive recent college graduate Anastasia Steele and broody business prodigy Christian Grey as they try to balance love and BDSM sub/dom culture. The book has come under a lot of well-deserved criticism for glorifying abusive relationships; Grey is a textbook abuser, complete with stalking, limiting Ana’s relationships with her friends and family, violent jealousy, overwhelming her with lavish gifts that she doesn’t want and has to feel guilty about, controlling everything in her life down to what she eats and how she dresses, mood swings that keep her perpetually afraid that he’s going to hurt her, etc. etc. The power and experience imbalance between them verges on the pedophillic. Basically, it’s domestic violence disguised as BDSM (it has been soundly debunked and rejected by the actual BDSM community, who were pretty much universally disgusted by it), and everything about it is gross.
Leaving aside the incredibly problematic nature of the “romance,” however, this book is still terrible. First of all, it’s poorly researched. It’s set in Seattle, but often confuses distances, place names, and social norms; Ana is suppose to be a college graduate focusing on English in 2011, but she doesn’t have a laptop or cell phone until Christian buys them for her (against her will), and the only books she’s read are a handful of British classics. She’s also suppose to be a big tea drinker, but her favorite tea is Twinings English Breakfast, served weak, which–I just–ugh, I digress.
On a prose-level, this book fails, too. There’s no variation in sentence type or style, with the exception of occasional five-dollar-words that are so out of place it’s obvious James just went through the text with a thesaurus and replaced words at random to try to make Ana sound smarter. Ana’s inner monologue is littered with references to her “subconscious” (who isn’t subconscious at all, but rather openly critical and constantly present) and her “inner goddess,” which are kind of like shoulder angels but far more annoying and cartoonish. They do shit like morph randomly into the scales of justice to send Ana a message. You think I’m kidding but that actually happens. Also, like 70% of their “relationship” develops via emails included in-text, which is a very fan-fictiony thing to do and doesn’t work at all as a device for the story. And the pacing is terrible.
Add in the fact that despite the high volume of detailed sex scenes in this novel, never once does Ana refer to anybody’s genitals by an appropriate term (once she says clitoris, but only once) and you have a travesty of a text that would be funny if it didn’t have such deeply disturbing social implications.
Will it adapt?: Here’s the thing, though: it could adapt. Not a straight adaptation; if they make the film straight, it’ll be shitty for all the same reasons the book is (although we’ll get a reprieve from the shoulder angels, which is a relief). They could, however, make a movie that critiques the novel, concluding with Ana recognizing the ways in which Christian is manipulating and abusing her. Even a satire adaptation (complete with parodic shoulder angels) could be good. But neither of those things is going to happen. They’re going to adapt it straight, and it’s going to be just as gruesome as its source material.
Should I read it?: No. For the love of all that is wholesome or depraved, do not subject yourself to this monstrosity.
“I never have to see him again. I’m immediately cheered by the thought.” -chapter 2, page 18, where 50 Shades of Grey should have ended
P.S. Live-tweets for this book are collected here. Enjoy.
This post is part of my I Read It First series.