I do not like Fifty Shades of Grey.
Maybe it’s important that I get that out ahead of time, since “Having An Opinion On Fifty Shades” seems to be a key part of being a kink writer. Fifty Shades, in fact, holds the dubious honor of being the first and only book I have ever stopped reading and thrown out; somewhere around ninety percent through the first novel I realized I just couldn’t fathom dealing with the rest of it, let alone another two books, and so I deleted it from my e-reader and moved on to something else (for the record, that was Bending, by Greta Christina, which was at least an interesting read, if not always completely successful). I haven’t so much as touched another Fifty novel since- though I do have a tendency to start bitching when I see them on store shelves- and my contact with the series has been restricted to little more than the quotes that appear in the writings of others (Jenny Trout’s downright hilarious and in depth recapping of the series being the inspiration for what I’m doing right now, for example.)
For those of you who aren’t familiar with Fifty Shades (and I suspect there’s at least a few of you who haven’t had at least some exposure to it: recent religious deconverts, newly sentient wombats, that sort of thing) here’s the gist: it’s the story of a rich, kinky man who meets and begins a relationship with a meek virgin.
That’s the nice way to say it.
The less nice, though far more accurate, way to say it, is that it’s the story of a sexually ignorant, virginal dullard, who is stalked and taken advantage of by a millionaire sociopath with pretensions of being some kind of dom mastermind, at the behest of an author with only the barest of ideas of what kink is, who rejigged her Twilight fanfiction into a bestseller, through some arcane pop-culture prism that I have yet to fully understand. E.L James continues to insist that her series is harmless kink, and she has a horde of fans willing to argue that too- in the process equivocating between what the books ostensibly are and what is being objected to, but we’ll return to that later- but the weight of evidence in favor of Team Creepy-Stalker only mounts as the series goes on, along with a growing collections of highly objectionable implications about kink, to the point that when one is asked what made one conclude that the book is about abuse and not kink, one could only point to the book itself. Using any one scene as an example misses the forest for the trees.
Despite all the objections and back and forth, I know which story I’d seen.
And what I’d seen had honestly been enough for me; all I’d read confirmed my feelings on the first book, and in fact revealed it to be far more joyless, kinkless and downright troubling than I’d initially surmised. A pattern of overbearing, privacy evading borderline abuse from the dominant in the tale, inflicted upon a clueless and unlikable submissive whose ignorance of that whole area had been taken advantage of, though her weird, moon-eyed commitment to the whole thing makes it hard to sympathize with her. I had no particular interest in engaging with the series again, let alone writing about it, but then, well…
Oh god, no.
Another book happened. Another book, this time with author E.L James attempting to convincingly portray a dominant as the narrator. Given that I myself am (mostly) dominant, it seems to me that I’ve got sufficient experience with that area to take on what I see there, with the benefit of personal experience. I’ve never been in Ana’s position, but I’ve certainly been a conflicted dominant struggling with what that might mean for me as a person, and so I’m at least equipped, in that way, to engage with Christian’s perspective… and to see the flaws therein.
So this, dear readers, is what I’ll be doing for a while. I intend to be more informative than entertaining, writing from (what I perceive to be) a proper and ethical dominant approach to kink, pointing out the areas where E.L James’ writing goes awry, rather than simply making fun of this ridiculous, ridiculous franchise. With that out of the way, let’s begin:
I have three cars. They go fast across the floor. So fast. One is red. One is green. One is yellow. I like the green one. It’s the best.
And what an… ominous beginning it is!
Yes, Grey, an erotic novel, begins with a dream/flashback to his childhood. That’s awfully unorthodox.
I can understand the intent here- sort of- but ultimately it doesn’t pay off: Grey’s past is central to (what might nominally be called) his character, in fact it’s from whence the majority of the conflict issues, but this tiny slice of prologue suffers from two problems that cripples any chance it has at being effective: it’s too vague, and it doesn’t make sense.
The former issue robs it of its impact; though it’s made up to be this recurring nightmare that Grey keeps on having, nothing actually happens in it, much less anything memorable or worthy. This is supposed to be the outline of Grey’s neglected childhood, but aside from a single insult from his mother, the scene has little to indicate this. Moreover, this is the beginning of the novel, ideally you want it to grab the reader’s attention and get them asking questions, but this scene peters out without any form of point or purpose. There’s nothing here that’s particularly attention-getting, just a kid playing with toy cars and, eventually, not being able to get to one.
And the fact that this is a dream and not just an unconnected prologue scene means that it doesn’t make sense, because the writing style is childish and simplistic, and that’s not really how dreams work? What, does Grey just mentally regress during all his dreams? Such a big perspective shift is hard to get across in a story as committed to immediate first person narration as Grey is, and ultimately I get the feeling that E.L James didn’t even try to make it work, because as it stands, it just doesn’t.
Thankfully we don’t linger too long here and Christian wakes up, but it’s here that something becomes immediately apparent: the prose here is perfectly willing to just tell us things about how Christian is feeling, rather than making it implicit through his actions and word choice:
Dismissing it, like I do most mornings, I climb out of bed and find some newly laundered sweats in my walk-in closet.
Like that: Christian just dumps a little bit of exposition on us, rather than allowing it to organically crop up in his speech (“I shake my head to dislodge the thought; it isn’t any more welcome today than it had been any of the others,” off the top of my head.) Christian is the narrator of this story, but at times he almost seems to be recounting the story informally, rather than creating a narrative for a reader; he just kinda tosses out these throwaway pieces of information that, while relevant to the story, are just injected at the point that the audience needs to know them, rather than coming up organically as things progress. That quote up there is like the second sentence in the book after the prologue, but it’s a huge warning sign right out the gate; in all my work with editors, the constant refrain I heard was “show, don’t tell,” and for something as rudimentary as this to slip by the editors this early on?
An utterly irrelevant and flat scene follows; for some reason E.L James thought we’d all be interested in knowing that Christian Grey works out in the morning, and carries that on through a passage that’s both too short to be worth including, and utterly devoid of any useful information except for that we learn that Christian’s personal trainer is called Bastille, at which point I ended up muttering “oh, fuck you E.L James,” under my breath.
The other thing that was on my mind during this scene is that the whole thing is clearly written for people with a good bit of familiarity with the other books, which is I guess fine, in the sense that I doubt newcomers are the big target audience for this one, but at the same time I can’t help but feel that there’s a bigger market there than one might think; one book is an easier commitment than three, after all.
Things finally start to happen after the third unnecessary scene break, though we do have to hear about how Christian isn’t the best person in the world at golf first, when our nominal heroine Ana enters the scene, having come to interview Christian (the big shot, though nebulously defined, CEO of a vaguely sketched multi-million dollar company) for her university newspaper. Ana face-plants her way into Christian’s office, and those of you with a particular interest in narratology or media tropes might have pegged this as the beginning of their Meet Cute right away, given how closely it sticks to the standard formula of that. Christian is even appropriately Tsundere in his reactions to her, and this is something you should remember because it’ll come up again pretty soon, and it highlights the single greatest flaw with this entire enterprise, in my opinion.
So Christian is irritated with this random woman blundering into his office, he helps her up with attendant irritation, and then this happens:
Clear, embarrassed eyes meet mine and halt me in my tracks. They are the most extraordinary color, powder blue, and guileless, and for one awful moment, I think she can see right through me and I’m left…exposed. The thought is unnerving, so I dismiss it immediately.
First of all, we’re clearly going for a Love-At-First-Sight angle, which is formulaic but acceptable enough, but here again we have Christian just announcing his feelings on a given topic. The latter point is an annoyance, the former point is about to start grating enormously, because this is the very next thing Christian starts thinking:
She has a small, sweet face that is blushing now, an innocent pale rose. I wonder briefly if all her skin is like that—flawless—and what it would look like pink and warmed from the bite of a cane.
This is a Meet Cute, featuring Love-At-First-Sight, where the narrating party immediately begins to have sexual fantasies about his prospective mate. And not just the once, either:
“It’s shrewd business,” I mutter, feigning boredom, and I imagine fucking that mouth to distract myself from all thoughts of hunger.
Over the entirety of their first meeting, Christian makes constant reference to kink and Ana, and as the scene goes on- and it does go on- I found myself getting more and more frustrated on like three different fronts. Most obviously, this kind of thinking from Christian is gross, and objectifying, and establishes his character as a huge creep, but there’s more here:
This is a kink novel in which the protagonist only seems to think about kink, and this is a problem. Actual kinky people don’t always think about kink, and the immediate one track mind that Christian displays on this issue demonstrates one of the bigger problems with this entire novel: E.L James doesn’t really understand a whole lot about kink.
Granted, I fully understand that humans are complex creatures, and that making blanket statements about groups of them is counterproductive at best, but there’s such an instantaneous lack of nuance to Grey’s (far too sudden) approach to sexuality that it raises big ol’ red flags. He sees a sexy girl, and boom, riding crops. It’s far too binary.
And frankly, it belies an approach to the writing that doesn’t match what the book is actually supposed to be: this is supposed to be the events of the beginning of a relationship, as told by the other party in it, but the way it happens here indicates that E.L James’ priorities were entirely different. She’s approaching this from her own perspective, and not the character’s; the sexy stuff is what was popular in the original books, so therefore that’s what Christian starts thinking about the moment he’s in the same room as Ana, despite the fact that this is extremely sudden and jumpy, and not an organic development of the character and situation. Or maybe it’s just that Christian is such a strange, sociopathic character that it’s hard for a normal person to gauge what is an organic development for the character, because…
Heh, we’ll get there.
To be honest, not a lot actually happens in this chapter; beyond Christian’s absolutely riveting early morning workout routine, his interview with Ana takes up the entirety of the thing, and it drags on interminably, with Ana asking questions completely unaware of Christian’s increasingly gross thoughts about her, and it doesn’t give us too much of an insight into either character, since Christian’s answers are all about control, reinforcing his completely flat characterization (do you get it yet? He’s into bondage!) and his focus is more on Ana’s physical attributes than anything else. It’s almost like you’d have to read both versions of the same scene, the one in Grey and the one in Fifty, to get any sense of both of the lead characters together, which is kind of a trouble spot for a self contained novel, but we do get this reaction from Christian, which is interesting:
“Are you gay, Mr. Grey?”
What the hell!
I cannot believe she’s said that out loud! Ironically, the question even my own family will not ask. How dare she! I have a sudden urge to drag her out of her seat, bend her over my knee, spank her, and then fuck her over my desk with her hands tied behind her back. That would answer her ridiculous question.
“How dare she intimate that I’m gay! I ought to show her I’m not by sticking my totally heterosexual peepee her! That will show her for her insolence!”
Isn’t it nice, seeing the usual homophobia and alpha male insecurities in a character that’s supposedly so different and romantic?
Very little else occurs from there: Christian continues to fantasize, and his constant insistence that he’s making Ana all flustered begins to read as desperate wishful thinking rather than something that’s actually happening, and then Ana leaves. The moment she’s gone, Christian does something that confirms all of the worst thoughts people have had about this series, as the author herself, who has spent her time after the series insisting that what she wrote wasn’t abuse and stalking, reveals in sharp relief just how much worse it is than anyone else had ever imagined.
“Welch, I need a background check.”
Immediately after Ana leaves, like, literally just after the elevator doors close, Christian is ordering a background check on her. I’ll get into this in more detail in the next recap, since what happens there grants a good deal more context that, somehow, makes this even worse, but for right now, can I just say what an enormous warning sign that is? He has no reason to believe he’ll ever see her again, their contact is officially cut off, and yet he’s willing to invade her privacy without her knowledge for purposes that, it’ll become increasingly clear if you’ll join me again next time, are nefarious purposes.