So, I read it.
It was ok. Perhaps not as awful as some people told me it was, but I think it's the subject matter rather than the quality of the writing that has helped it achieve the status it has. But I suppose that's the thing about culture, you never really know what might strike a chord or spark a blaze at a particular time.
While it is tempting for me to tear into Fifty Shades of Grey, I don't really want to (too much!), mostly because a lot of other people already have, and in a far more eloquent and hilarious manner than I could. But also I just want to give my opinion, rather than a criticism. Fifty Shades author E.L James has said that this book, and the others that followed it, are "my mid life crisis, writ large....all my fantasies in there, and that's it." So if we're looking at what the author intended, which I think is very important, if this is just a fantasy then I think she has mostly succeeded. Fifty Shades is not a realistic book, at all. I think most women would have run a mile from Christian Grey the minute he started mentioning S&M, let alone handed you a contract spelling out all of his terms and conditions of the arrangement, including specifying workouts with a personal trainer four times a week, a strict diet and no masturbation. So many times over the book's 514 pages Ana asks "should I run?" and every time I thought FUCK YES! RUN! RUN AWAY NOW!!
A few reviews I read voiced the concern that impressionable young women, particularly teenagers, might read it without the benefits of experience and wisdom and think that Ana and Christian's abusive (him) and submissive (her) relationship is cool or sexy or something they should try out for themselves. I must admit that thought crossed my mind too. Horrifyingly, there were a few aspects of Ana's character that reminded me a little of myself ten years ago - ie, very very naïve. And I know when I was properly single for the first time I fell under the spell of several inappropriate people, men who were good looking and powerful and knew it. All those adventures (nothing like Fifty Shades though, I hasten to add!) led to the gaining of hard-won wisdom, something I'm grateful for now, but mostly I look back at that time and laugh! :) As a 31 year old woman I did not find the character of Christian Grey appealing in the slightest. But I could see (only just) why a naïve, inexperienced 21 year old whose knowledge of men extends to Alec d'Urberville and Angel Clare might.
So, my verdict is....it was ok. It was a bit of fun that I occasionally rolled my eyes at. Nothing more. I am not interested at all in reading the next two books - I just don't care enough about what happens to them! A lot of things grated on me and irritated me. There were a lot of clichés and a lot of repetition. I will be happy if I never hear the words "inner goddess" or "Holy Moses" ever again! I didn't think it was particularly well written, sexy or exciting. It was just interesting to see what all the fuss was about.
As a piece of fantasy, however, it kind of worked. So I hope that's how people read it, as a fantasy. Something that doesn't have to be consistent, or make sense, or have any bearing in the real world, just a piece of pure escapism. But as a lover of words and a trained editor I find it hard to escape into a piece of writing that is riddled with inconsistencies and unlikeable characters....hence I will continue to escape elsewhere!
If you can suspend your disbelief, ignore the lack of editing and resist the urge to slap Ana Steele yourself, maybe you'll like it! The questions it raises about sexual politics will ensure we haven't heard the last of it, certainly not for the time being.
For much funnier reviews of Fifty Shades than I could ever write, check these out for a laugh:
BUT if you want erotic fiction that is beautifully written and incredibly sexy to read, stories that are not just about sex but about human nature, interaction and life, may I recommend the following:
The Bride Stripped Bare by Nikki Gemmell
Originally published under the name "Anonymous", this book really did shake up the landscape of erotic fiction by women over the last decade. It is a raw, honest, compelling, relatable and thoughtful meditation on female sexuality and marriage. Nikki Gemmell's writing is like poetry, so fearless and original. She was very quickly outed as the anonymous author of the book, and her reasoning behind it was that she felt that if she knew her name was going to be attached to it she wouldn't have been able to write the book the way she had, fearlessly and without inhibitions. That amuses me, given how people have reacted to Fifty Shades of Grey which is far more graphic and coarse than this. I think Gemmell's tone, and choice of the second person narrative, creates a real intimacy with the reader and narrator that Fifty Shades just doesn't have, and hence it perhaps feels more revelatory, more close to the bone. It's exquisite and heartbreaking, and remained with me long after I finished it. I've not read Gemmell's latest, With My Body, yet but I plan to.
Lady Chatterley's Lover by D.H Lawrence
There's a reason why this book was banned and people who dared to read it wrapped the cover in thick brown paper! Written in 1928 and banned in Britain until the 1960s, it's a saucy, thrilling, sensual and very poetic read which I studied at university and have never forgotten.
Anything by Anais Nin
I discovered the journals of Anais Nin when I was about fifteen. Discovering her and her work changed my life. There is so much I could write about this woman, and indeed I've tried, but to be a woman writing erotica in a time when erotica was not in the mainstream and definitely not written by or for women, shows what a brave and resourceful soul she was, and also how much things have changed and how, despite everything, I think the dialogue about the popularity of Fifty Shades is a good thing.
But this was the late 1930s and no one would publish her work so Anais bought a second hand letter press and hauled it on to the subway to her office, where she proceeded to set the type by hand and then print copies of her book herself. She challenged every single notion about what women writers should be and what sort of writing they should produce. Her work, while powerful and erotic, is about characters, interactions and relationships too. I heartily recommend "Fire" from A Journal of Love, A Spy in The House of Love, Delta of Venus, Henry and June....any of them really. Her diaries are also excellent, and I really want to read A Woman Speaks as well.
Lace by Shirley Conran
Probably the first "naughty" book I ever read which has just been re-released (coincidence?) as "the scandalous classic that defined an era". I haven't read it probably since I was 15, I wonder if I'd find it as racy and scandalous now - I certainly did at the time! A very glamorous and decadent book indeed, with quite a few kinky twists (well, they were very kinky to a 13 year old! I seem to remember something about a goldfish).
Written on the Body by Jeanette Winterson
This is a gorgeous book, so beautifully written. A genderless lover is engaged in an affair with a married woman and the situation becomes complex and confusing for both lovers. It's very erotic but also very philosophical as well. It's almost about being in love with being in love, exploring the very nature and capacity of human beings to love, what it all means. It's not just about sex, it's about beauty, about commitment, about fidelity, about life. People are not simple, and love is not simple, and I love how this novel meditates on those ideas. I want to read it again and again.
“What kills love? Only this: Neglect. Not to see you when you stand before me. Not to think of you in the little things. Not to make the road wide for you, the table spread for you. To choose you out of habit not desire, to pass the flower seller without a thought. To leave the dishes unwashed, the bed unmade, to ignore you in the mornings, make use of you at night. To crave another while pecking your cheek. To say your name without hearing it, to assume it is mine to call.”
- from Written on the Body by Jeanette Winterson
I can only dream of writing like that.
I think something we can be pleased with about the Fifty Shades frenzy is that it's got people talking about erotica written by and for women. Considering how many really GOOD examples of it are out there, this can only be a positive thing. There have been scathing reviews about how this sort of book sets feminism back...well, maybe, if you choose to see it that way. But when I think about what writers like Anais Nin put up with, fought for and fearlessly brought about, the fact we can now have public debates and discussions about erotica, about sex and sexuality, about boundaries, about what it means to write about these things; to have a piece of erotic fiction written by a woman be as popular as Fifty Shades of Grey has been; that women can write these things and not have to remain in the shadows any more....I think this is all very, very positive indeed.
And you might be wondering....yes, I wrote a few erotic scenes for my own novel. It was fun! At first I was worried they were a bit lame but the people who've read it so far have told me otherwise, so.....hmmm! I might just ask my parents and grandmother to skip those chapters if it eventually makes it into print! I don't think I'll be trying to rival E.L James as an erotic fiction writer any time soon but....never say never ;)
Have you read Fifty Shades of Grey, or any of my favourite alternative reads? What do you think?