I was not going to pick on Fifty Shades of Grey, not ever. I wasn’t. But it seems I have been left with little choice. Author E.L. James will soon be releasing a book purporting to teach women (or men; let’s not be sexist) how to
write terrible mommy porn release their inner goddesses onto paper. That’s right, everyone. Coming May 1, E.L. James is going to teach you how to spill out your own Fifty Shades of Grey onto the printed page. As Anastasia Steele herself would say: oh my. OH MY.
I can’t let this pass without comment. But I also I can’t explain why this is a horrible, terrible, no-good-very-bad thing without discussing the awfulness that is Fifty Shades. And as I have mentioned, I WAS NEVER GOING TO DO THAT. Why? Well, there are a few reasons.
Why I Left Fifty Shades Alone Till Now
It’s heinous, but I’m glad it’s popular.
While I know, objectively, that Fifty Shades of Grey is an awful book (more on that in a bit), I would not go so far as to say that its popularity is a bad thing. In fact, I think the fact that it is so wildly popular is a good thing. Wait, I can hear you thinking. How does that even make sense? You just said it was an awful book. Yes. Yes I did. Because it is. But it is an awful book that has been read by a lot of people, women specifically, many of whom I suspect hadn’t read anything for pleasure in years. Maybe ever. (Side note: I think this is why so many of them don’t recognize its awfulness.) And if a mere 20 percent of those readers said to themselves, “Hey, this reading … I like it,” then that is, in balance, a good thing. Because they’ll read another book. And another. And eventually, simply through exposure, they will get a much better idea of what a “good book” really is, in addition to getting all the benefits of being readers. If that happens, and I really believe it could, then E.L. James may have actually done the world a great service. (It almost physically hurt to write that.)
Elitism is wor—almost as bad as terrible writing.
Another reason I’ve hesitated to poke fun is that I really don’t like elitism; I don’t like to criticize a thing just because a lot of others are doing it, or simply because said thing is popular. It feels too much like pulling wings off flies. It’s … it’s mean-spirited, and I really try not to feed that particular inclination, because The Beast That Mindlessly Snarks never seems to be sated. I’m happy to say whether I liked or disliked something, but only if I can explain why. “Because it sucks” is not a good explanation. I will snark if doing so seems to be called for; my Goodreads review of Twilight is pretty snarky, for example. But as a general rule, I don’t, because hey, no one died and made me the arbiter of good taste. As I’ve pointed out before, art requires the participation of the audience, and who am I to say someone else shouldn’t connect with a particular book? No one, that’s who.
Also, I walk to the beat of my own drummer just enough to make me suspect that me telling other people what to read might be a little like my friend who likes ketchup on ice cream telling other people what to eat. I occasionally dislike things other people really like. I didn’t much care for the very popular and critically acclaimed The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, for example. And there are books I absolutely adore that just didn’t seem to connect with a wider audience. I loved, loved, LOVED The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, but you can see by looking at its Goodreads and Amazon reviews that it is far from universally admired. I’m not saying I’m wrong and that other people are right; I’m simply saying that “a matter of taste” is a valid concept, and, well, I’m kinda weird.
Still, sometimes it’s easy to define horrible. Does Fifty Shades of Grey deserve to be mocked? It does. It’s just not my habit to point and laugh. Not in public, anyway.
Because Aesop’s fables, the fox, and sour grapes.
As someone who loves to write, who would love nothing more than to be in that place where bunches of people love to read what I write, I would be lying if I said it doesn’t sting a bit to see something that is the literary equivalent of half-cooked Hamburger Helper topped with undissolved, gritty cheese powder take over the reading universe. It makes me doubt what I do, feel unmoored. In a world where something so crazy happens, does my stuff even have a chance? There are a lot of great books out there that struggle to find their audiences, and there are a lot of writers who struggle to get published. Yeah, depressing.
It’s been done so well already.
Speaking of other writers, some talented peeps have poked holes in Fifty Shades already. (I suppose actually they’ve just pointed out the holes that were already there.) Just ask the Google, and he will tell you everything you want to know about how awful it is. My favorite is this intensely amusing blog series, by author Jennifer Armintrout, that lays bare the whole messy mess (warning: NSFW). There were times she got tired. Times she felt too defeated to continue. But she did it. (Which is awesome because that’s where I got most of my info on the book.) That’s what I call suffering for your art. Thanks, Jennifer. You took one for the team so we didn’t have to.
Slamming It Anyway
But despite all that, I’m going to put the smack-down on Fifty Shades of Grey anyway. Because E.L. James is about to publish a book purporting to teach us, the unwashed masses, how to write. Are you kidding me? That’s like someone who can’t even scramble eggs writing a book about how to create the perfect souffle. No. Just no. Look, I know about wanting to be a writer. BUT THIS IS NOT THE WAY TO DO IT. You cannot learn how to write a good book from someone who only writes awful ones. How is Fifty Shades of Grey an awful book? Let me count the ways.
It’s bad fanfic of a mediocre romance novel.
Fifty Shades started its life as self-published fanfic, or fan fiction, of Twilight. Twilight, another book undeserving of its wild popularity (although not nearly so bad as Fifty Shades of Grey), is a one-note romance novel that reminded me distinctly of the Harlequin bodice rippers I used to sneak out of my mom’s room as a kid, the main difference being the sparkly vampire shtick. The best description I’ve read of Twilight (commonly attributed to Stephen King, but actually apparently from music producer Andrew Futral) is this: “Harry Potter is all about confronting fears, finding inner strength and doing what is right in the face of adversity …. Twilight is about how important it is to have a boyfriend.”
And then there’s the self-publishing thing. I think sometimes self-publishing can work (my good friend Ron has an interesting take on the trend), and it’s certainly easier than it used to be. But that’s perhaps part of the problem. It’s easy for anyone to publish an e-book these days. Too easy. Look, editors and publishers exist for a reason. They know, mostly, what is likely to sell and get read, and they know, mostly, how to help make your book as appealing as possible. Much of the self-published work that I’ve read is simply not ready for an audience. Fifty Shades is no exception; the fact that it found commercial success is a fluke. Generally, writing like that, especially fan fiction, deservedly disappears into the mists of time.
The language/logic mangling. O the humanity.
It’s hard to know where to even start here. A mastery of English is not necessarily, er, necessary to produce an enjoyable novel, and a stunning command of the language by itself will not ensure a successful end result. BUT. COME ON. James is a little confused about commas and dashes and such; I’m letting that pass, however, as long as the text basically makes sense. But then there’s stuff like this that’s so hard to ignore: “So young—and attractive, very attractive. He’s tall, dressed in a fine gray suit, white shirt, and black tie with unruly dark copper colored hair and intense, bright gray eyes that regard me shrewdly.“ That is one creepy tie, yo.
And then she does this thing with the dialog where she will have one character say something and in the same paragraph have another character perform an action, so that it becomes very confusing who is saying what. Also, Anastasia does things like this: “My mouth pops open as I gasp and swallow at the same time.” I am pretty sure that in real life that would end up in an ER visit or at least a very intense case of the hiccups, but in this book it’s just par for the course. So that’s language madness.
And then … logic. The lack thereof, actually. There are a few things here, like vanishing and reappearing underwear, and rooms that are both opulent and minimalist, that I won’t go into. I can’t let this go, though: E.L. James is extremely confused about what a subconscious is. Here let me help: sub = below, and conscious = awareness. Your subconscious is the part of your brain that works in the dark. People spend decades in therapy trying to figure out what their subconsciouses are doing in there. What they are not doing, for sure: yelling at you. Talking directly to you in any way, in fact. Dancing the hula, the lambada, or even a tame but flirty waltz. Sub. Conscious. Subconscious.
The characters are flat as flounder. Pancakes. Old soda.
From what I’ve read of the book, there are two main characters that have any kind of effort put into them. Those are Bella Swan and Edward Cullen. Oops, I mean Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey.
And how do we meet our plucky heroine? Like this, starting from the first line of the book: “I scowl with frustration at myself in the mirror. Damn my hair—it just won’t behave … I must not sleep with it wet. I must not sleep with it wet. Reciting this mantra several times …” Yeah. Those ellipses? Those are mine, and they do indicate the removal of several syllables of dumb. I’m not going to quote the whole first paragraph, because it’s 130-plus words of bad hair day. (Some day I will write a post about great first sentences. “I scowl with frustration at myself in the mirror” is exactly the opposite of a great first sentence.) What else can I tell you about her? Her favorite phrases are “Crap,” “Double crap!”, “Jeez,” and the ever popular “Oh my.” Like most idiotic romance novel heroines, including Bella Swan, she cannot imagine what any guy could ever see in her. I’m just going to quote Jennifer Armintrout on that, because I cannot possibly improve on what she said. “I think that if Ana were a real person, every time she opened her mouth to speak, it would just make a sad trombone noise. Every time.”
And Christian Grey … Ah, Christian. He is: a self-made man, independently, insanely wealthy, runs his own business (at which he claims to work very hard, but he sure has time for a lot of S&M shenanigans with Ana). A helicopter pilot. A concert-level pianist. A philanthropist. (He is ending world hunger, y’all.) He’s achingly handsome. And he has a Red Sparkly Room of Leather Pain or some such. All at the age of 27!
These are not characters. They are caricatures. Cartoons. The only feeling I can muster up for either of them is irritation. I want to punch them both, and not in a sexy S&M way, either. Those are not the feelings you want your readers to have about your characters, future writers. But if you write like E.L. James, that is what is going to happen.
Girl meets boy. Girl digs boy. Girl “knows” boy can’t like her. Boy does like her, but boy has issues. Boy abuses girl. Girl stupidly thinks she can change boy. Sex.
Yeah, that’s pretty much it.
So look. I don’t know much about the S&M scene, but from what I understand, it’s supposed to be consensual. In Fifty Shades, Anastasia is intimidated, fattened up like a Christmas goose, tracked, imprisoned, told she can’t even think about someone else because she “belongs” to her feeder/captor, and when the kinky stuff is happening, she doesn’t like it. But she doesn’t say anything because she’s trying to “keep” him. And this book pretends that that is not only just fine, but some kind of fantasy ideal. Really? Yuck. You don’t want to perpetuate that kind of thinking, right? Right.
And There You Have It
If you read all this and still want to write like E.L. James … fine. Buy her journal thing. Write about all the crazy things your subconscious does when you aren’t watching it like a hawk. Write about the inner gurgling of your belly that might be passion or possibly just Irritable Bowel Syndrome. Just please don’t tell me. Let me be ignorant. Let me be happy.
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