Jeannie Van Rompaey

Up close and personal: Fifty shades


I wrote this review last year and it was the most read and talked about blog on my previous web-site so thought it worth repeating on my new one.


A review of Fifty Shades of Grey, Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed

by E L James


Yes, I’ve read the trilogy that everyone’s talking about. Why? Because I like to keep up to date with books that are popular with readers and selling well. Not a bad thing for a writer to do. I’m marketing, I tell myself. So much has been written about these books already but I wanted to see for myself what was causing such a stir in the fiction world.  Truth is, like everyone else, I was curious.


I have to agree with the view expressed by many critics that Fifty Shades of Grey is not literature, but let’s face it it’s not trying to be. The question is not therefore is it literature but is it a good read? Clearly a lot of readers think it is.


The premise for the story, according to E L James on her website, was: what would happen if you were attracted to somebody who was into the BDSM life-style when you weren’t? For the uninitiated, including of course naïve little me, BDSM signifies bondage, discipline, sadism and masochism.


The trilogy was first picked up by The Writer’s Coffee Shop, an Australian publishing firm that specialises in Romantica – erotic love stories, soft porn with spice, but not hard edge erotica. In other words, non-consensual sex or violence, such as rape is acceptable. The criteria for being accepted by the Writer’s Coffee Shop is that the story must have a hot, good-looking, dominating male protagonist who knows what he wants and takes it. He loves his woman completely, but has one condition… she must love him just as completely. He puts her first in all things, even when he is not sure what it is she needs. He controls her in the bedroom and takes her to places she never knew existed. That just about describes the Fifty Shades trilogy.


The plot flirts with psychology, the abused childhood that led to Christian Grey’s need to dominate women and it does attempt to make Anastasia Steele a feisty heroine with her own agenda. Christian eventually says he loves her, not in spite of her disobedience, but because of it. Ah, what a break through. She encourages him to have a “vanilla” relationship, but because of her love for him and her curiosity about the instruments of torture in the Red Room, she does get drawn into some of the bondage and pain games he favours and finds she likes them, as long as there’s not too much pain.


Well, we don’t really know what goes on in real life between couples behind closed doors, but the latest American statistics indicate that the participation tendencies of 5 to 25% of the population involve some sort of dominance and submission. And who knows what happens between discreet, “we don’t talk about sex” Brits? E.L. James says her trilogy is her ‘midlife crisis, writ large. All my fantasies in there and that’s it.’ Maybe it’s the mix of sex and BDSM and romantic love between a hot, devastatingly handsome, sexually skilled and extremely rich young man of twenty-seven and an inexperienced young woman that appeals to readers.


As far as fiction is concerned, this genre of bondage and sado-macho-ism has been around in art and literature since the 14th century. In our own period, we have films such as Quills, The Piano Teacher, Beyond Vanilla and Bitter Moon and fiction such L’Histoire de O (1954) by Anne Esclos, inspired by the work of the Marquis de Sade. She wrote under a pseudonym. When the author’s real name was revealed it was a shock. People thought the book could only have been written by a man. The Story of O was made into a film in 1975 but banned in Britain until 2000. Other milestones in this genre were Nine and a Half Weeks (1978) by Elizabeth McNeill, Anne Rice’s trilogy, The Claiming of Sleeping Beauty, (1983) Beauty’s Punishment (1984) and Beauty’s Release (1985) and in Spanish, the erotic exchange of power in Pablo Neruda’s poems. E. L. James’s trilogy comes out of this tradition.


It is interesting how far we have come since Victorian times when “the angel on the shoulder” prevented female writers and some male ones from writing openly about sex. James has no such inhibitions. Neither does her heroine. In this sense the Fifty Shades Trilogy is liberating for both readers and writer. Anastasia relishes both sex and pain with Christian and the writer is not afraid to tell us in graphic detail what the couple do to pleasure each other. The fact that the sex and pain are consensual and part of a love story is perhaps what makes it palatable. A Cinderella story, spiced up with salacious soft porn, puts this trilogy into the same sub genre of BDSM romance as vampire novels and films and TV series such as The Twilight Saga, which James admits influenced her story.


As the critics never fail to point out, the Fifty Shades Trilogy is badly written, full of clichés and repetitious phrases and this is the real downside for the discerning reader. “Whoa” and “Oh my” are Ana’s favourite responses to sex and pain and these phrases are repeated over and over again. No writer can ever again use the verb “smirk”. Both Christian and Ana accuse each other of “smirking” over and over again, a punishable offence apparently. I make no excuse for the repetition of “over and over again.” I may even repeat the phrase later. Neither can any other author ever allow a character to roll her eyes or bite her lip. These annoying, but apparently lovable, habits dominate the novel almost as much as dominant Christian does. What passes for wit is childish repartee in the mouths of Christian and Ana and there were times (lots of times) when I wanted to lash out and slap that stupid girl’s face. See, the BDSM got to me. Problem is, if I had slapped her she’d probably have thanked me for it. She’s supposed to be a modern woman capable of thinking for herself. But, to be frank, her attempts to be independent just reveal her stupidity. Not one of the decisions she makes is well judged. I have sympathy with Christian’s “twitching palm” which is ever ready to spank her. To make it a more irritating read still, Christian and Ana call each other, Miss Steele and Mr. Grey and once they are married, Mr Grey and Mrs Grey. Really! It’s so naff. I feel my palm twitching again. I might have to slap them both. Hard.


Ok so it’s not literature, but did you enjoy the book, you ask. Is a good read? Well, the first book, Fifty Shades of Grey, was quite a page-turner, because I was curious to see what all the fuss was about and willing to give it a chance. I read it in a day or maybe an afternoon. Can’t remember exactly, but I knew that I didn’t want to pay any more hard-earned money to buy the sequels. Quite by chance, they fell into my hands and I thought – why not read them, then I will be able to legitimately write about them and express my opinion.


I skim through them quickly. The second and third books prove a drag. Each book seems go on forever. I am so bored with the characters and their petty lives. My tolerance level is stretched to the limit by the repetitious style of the author, the stupidity of Anastasia and the forced story lines. I flick over the pages just to see what happens. The answer is that after a lot of unlikely, melodramatic scenarios, they get married and have children. Shock horror. How can silly Ana be a mother and even worse what sort of a father will controlling Christian prove to be? Mr and Mrs Perfect Parents, apparently. Will the children beg to play with the toys in the red Play Room, I wonder. As for the couples’ sex life, it’s more of the same, over and over again…. I am subjected to a detailed description of Ana’s sore bottom, the contortions she can achieve with her body, as, hood over eyes, legs spread, the newly shaved section between her thighs exposed, her ever moist clitoris ensures that she is always ready for one more organism – if Christian will allow it. Ugh. Enough. I flick on. As the characters grow more and more in love with each other, the language becomes even more excruciating. Why do I subject myself to this torture? I breathe a sigh of relief when I finish. Would I read another of her books? Please, I’d rather stick pins in my eyes.


Of course, Mrs. James doesn’t care what I think. She’s laughing all the way to the bank. Vintage books have sold 31million copies of the Fifty Shades books, 20 million of them in the United States alone. The book has just been translated into Spanish and, surprise, surprise, Universal studios have bought the film rights. The film is cast and in production as I write.


Erika Leonard James lives in West London with husband Niall Leonard, her first editor. They have been married for twenty years and have two teenage sons, who, she says, have not read her books. She would be mortified if they did. Understandably. But how do you stop teenagers reading them when the books are spread like wallpaper all over bookshops, Face-book, Twitter and Amazon? And on second thoughts, why should she be mortified if the boys read her books? They should be proud that their mother has such a good imagination and that their family’s financial future is secure.


That there is a market for racy romantic fiction is quite clear. Don’t take any notice of the critics or of grumpy old me. Read the damn books. You know you want to. E.L James has had a dream ever since her childhood – to write stories that readers would fall in love with. Her dream has certainly come true.