It’s the novel everyone is talking about. An explicit romance, E. L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey tells the story of a Literature student, Anastasia Steele, who meets Christian Grey, a young, rich, intelligent, predictably handsome entrepreneur and hedonist. One is tempted to compare him to Dorian Gray, but instead finds it hard to see any effects of the emotional turmoil that James’ insists Christian is hiding.
This is yet another story of a frustratingly weak female protagonist developing an obsession with a cliché, a perfect, yet elusive, ideal man. It is not surprising that this trilogy, written and published within a single year, started out as an alternative narrative of Twilight. I began, in search of some redeeming feature, and found the first nine lines focussed on the main character’s “unruly” hair and plain, “pale” face. Her lack of self esteem becomes more apparent as she attacks her friend Kate for having “chosen today … to succumb to the flu” and for miraculously appearing “gamine and gorgeous” regardless. It seems that every character is Hollywood beautiful, save for Ana, (who still manages to attract a perfect billionaire, not to mention the affections of two other wonderfully attractive men). Anastasia Steele is so maddeningly self-conscious that she almost says “I told you everyone is better than me, and don’t you dare try to prove me wrong because I’ll only give you another reason why I’m crap.” Throughout the book she is continually asking herself “why me?” even though she is told the simple and obvious reason time and time again: that she is, in fact beautiful. So beautiful in fact that Christian sends her first edition copies of her favourite book with a note comparing her to the main character, the pure, ethereal and stoical Tess Durbeyfield.
I have to say that the continuous references to Tess of the D’Urbevilles are nothing
more than impudent. James consistently compares Ana to Hardy’s most famous heroine, but the likeness is poor. Tess experiences far stronger emotions and far greater challenges than E. L. James is capable of portraying, such as painfully unjust rejection, social stigma and the death of her child.
The parallels with Twilight, however, are suffocating. Aside from Miss Steele being so insecure and clumsy that she trips over on her way into Christian’s office, Mr Grey expresses a feeling of being drawn to Ana. There is, predictably, “something about” her that he can’t explain. As if that isn’t enough, he even warns Ana to stay away. So: Mr Dangerous meets Miss Innocent-and-Clumsy, to whom he is inexplicably attracted and who can’t read him. She then discovers more about his life than she wants to, is afraid of him but can’t stay away and pursues him in the name of “love”. Not only is the plot just as thin as Twilight’s, the writing style is just as clumsy and superficial.
As I am reading, I grow increasingly disappointed with E. L. James’ storytelling. She breaks the fundamental rule of “show, don’t tell” and makes outright statements like “she’s articulate, strong, persuasive, argumentative,” “he’s so controlling,” etc. etc. Even James’ description of Christian’s offices is dull, repeating the words “glass”, “steel”, “white” and “sandstone” at least five times each before getting round to calling the place “clinical” (though I’m not sure just how “clinical and modern” sandstone floors can be). The descriptions leave nothing to the imagination, nor to interpretation, and often interrupt a crucial build-up of sexual tension, detailing things one wouldn’t care about in the heat of the moment.
So what is the appeal? While James repeats phrases like “the ghost of a smile” twice in the space of a few pages, as though proud of a phrase she did not coin, there must be something upholding this underdeveloped piece of single-minded rambling. And of course, it’s the sex. I am a firm believer that everyone is just a little bit dirty, and with his “Red Room of Pain”, the very idea of Christian Grey is an easy way for reserved, middle class women to explore their repressed sexual urges. But how far? When I told my sister how superficial the writing was, she said “isn’t erotic fiction meant to be?” At the time, I was reading a description of a table, hardly sexy, but further into the book, I am still searching for something other than an accurate account of what goes where, but aside from the equally bad boring bits in between, there isn’t much.
The Fifty Shades trilogy has brought erotic fiction into the mainstream, with many newspapers reporting of the Mummy-Porn phenomenon, and how thousands of women are now jumping their lovers as soon as they get home, unable to satisfy the desire sparked by this book. Far be it from me to lie and suggest that the raunchy scenes didn’t get my blood pumping, but this book is not erotica. Erotica is literature, and Fifty Shades is no better than the pure visual stimulation of pornography.