By Donna George Storey
I finally read Fifty Shades of Grey. I’ve avoided doing so for years. The youngest of three daughters, once I figured out I didn’t have to do everything my older sisters did, I’ve been fairly stubborn about following my own path. Just because everyone else was reading the book, for pleasure or market research, didn’t mean I had to. The disappointed, and often scathing, reviews by people I respected certainly supported my boycott. And I knew enough about popular literature to roll my eyes when someone insisted I had to write my own trilogy that was “better” to show the world what really good erotica was and thus earn myself more money and glory than E.L. James could ever imagine.
Then, this past Christmas, someone close to me bought me a copy of Fifty Shades of Grey. As a gag gift. Ha, ha, ha, I laughed. But as I stared down at that glossy gray tie on the cover, affixed with a label that the book was “Soon to Be a Major Motion Picture,” I decided that this was a sign from the universe that I must judge this publishing phenomenon firsthand.
So, what do I think?
I can see why so many readers find the story appealing. And, while it’s not the greatest book I’ve ever read, I’m finding it raises interesting questions for me about writing, and is even, at times, a compelling story.
Granted I came into the experience with rock-bottom expectations. But I understand why a classic story of a rich, handsome man discovering that an unassuming young woman is the one person on earth who can truly touch him would find a wide audience.
Mind you, all the criticisms of the book are true. The characters are unbelievable. The plot is uneven. The endless repetitions of lip biting, eye rolling, and capering inner goddesses are seriously annoying. The real endurance test for me is the overuse of “mutter” and “bemused.” Holy crap, what’s wrong with the beautifully invisible “said”? And could you dig a little deeper for some other reaction from your characters? My writing group would have had a field day with the prose and likely would have had poor Ms. James in tears.
I have no doubt the book gives an inaccurate portrayal of BDSM, an area in which I have no expertise. Any of the things I do know about—majors at Princeton, for example—are equally inaccurate. Then again, I can’t tell you how many times people told me they “learned a lot about Japan” from Arthur Golden’s equally fantastic Memoirs of a Geisha. Talk about enduring pain.
I know that there are many, many erotic books that are better written in every way and are far more authentic representations of the BDSM world. But for better or worse, E.L. James wrote the first erotic blockbuster. Try as we all do to learn the dark secret of its success, I’m not sure anyone really knows why. If we did, the publishing industry could seamlessly move from one mega-bestseller to the next, yet the next phenomenon always takes us by surprise.
Above all, reading this book underscored a lesson I’ve been learning since I began to seek publication. An individual editor may insist that every word be chosen with the care of Flaubert, but The Market doesn’t give a rat’s ass about the “quality” of your prose. It wants a story that grabs readers’ hearts. Fifty Shades got the romance audience with its Twilight sensibility spiced with explicit sex scenes. It roped in the not insignificant group of readers who thought they might be getting a glimpse into an unprecedented world of forbidden sexual delight and decadence. A lot of the scathing reviews judged an unpretentious romance as literature, an erotic fantasy as some earth-shattering sexual breakthrough. Of course the book would disappoint on these terms. The results are what you’d expect from the restaurant critic for The New York Times giving McDonald’s a serious review.
Now, I have very much enjoyed the snarky as well as thoughtful critiques of Fifty Shades. But on another level, why judge the book as if it wants to be more than it is? It clearly doesn’t. If we want it to be more, then scolding or mocking Ms. James or her fans won’t help. The only thing an erotica writer can do is take it upon herself to write the book we want it to be. More believable? More critical of capitalism? A female character that a self-respecting twenty-first-century woman can relate to? All worthy, but, sorry—I’m talking to you, my friends who want me to get rich–that book will not make anyone a fortune.
The good news is that now I know what I’ll tell people the next time they ask me what I think of Fifty Shades of Grey, as they always do when they learn I write erotica. I’ll say I thought the book was Jane Eyre, modernized, sexed up, without literary pretension (except a few references to Tess of the D’Urbervilles). Okay, maybe there’s a generous dollop of Heathcliff thrown in, too. Basically it’s a riff on the classic stories that lie at the heart of all novels with a huge readership—redemption (A Christmas Carol), an underdog who prevails (a personal favorite and always popular), a quietly lovely girl with a good heart who wins a powerful, yet lonely alpha male (most romances ever written). And perhaps on a broader level, the book allows all of us to play out in fantasy a deeper social truth: that we’re all getting screwed by our plutocrats, except, unlike Ana, we don’t have any choice in the matter nor do we get at least three orgasms a day in the bargain.
Another happy outcome is that I have a new appreciation for E.L. James. Apparently she didn’t set out to make millions nor to give ordinary women the world over the permission to admit they’d read a book with explicit sex scenes—which may indeed be the most lasting impact of the book. James simply devoured the Twilight series in “one sitting” and was inspired to write her own romantic fiction. In a 2012 interview with The Guardian, her husband (not coincidentally pimping his own novel) said somewhat defensively that she wrote Fifty Shades to entertain herself and a few friends and that she had a lot of fun writing it. As a writer, I sense her commitment to and pleasure in the story. This is not always the case with more “important” literary novels I’ve read.
So, yes, having finally read it, I won’t and can’t write a “better” Fifty Shades of Grey. I will continue to write stories that express my sensibility in both content and style, and I will continue not to give a damn about how much money I make from writing. Yet I can still share with E.L. James the love and joy of writing a tale that I hope will give those readers I do touch, however many or few, a pleasurable reading experience.
Donna George Storey is the author
of Amorous Woman and a collection of short
Presents the Best of Donna George Storey. Learn more about her
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