On Fifty Shades of Grey: a non-review by an ignorant bystander

A friend today suggested that the Fifty Shades of Grey books would be good fodder for a review on This Charming Mum.  Not having read them, I dutifully accessed the first few chapters of the first book (free online at Random House) and I think I’m already over it.  On that basis, from a position of blissful and unapologetic ignorance, I present my non-review of E L James’ mega-bestselling erotic adventures.

Now, most of the books I review are sent to me by busy publicists keen to get a conversation happening about their new titles.  I’m thinking I may have missed the window to request a freebie and help give James’ little novels a bit of a leg-up  as this series has already sold over 10 million copies worldwide since its release in April last year; it is approaching the status of ‘best selling series of all time’ in some markets.  After starting life as a fan fiction e-book – a deliberate rewrite of Twilight without the vampires – word-of-mouth popularity soon took the book to new publishing heights, with it selling out of bookstores and lighting up Kindles all around the world.  The film rights have now been sold, with rumours of Robert Pattinson taking on the lead role.   This is far from the first example of erotic fiction and I can’t imagine that there is anything THAT different in its content (although it may be the quantity rather than the quality of sexual adventures in this series that has piqued everyone’s interest)   yet this book is leaping off the shelves faster than its readers can scream “take me, I’m yours”.

Fifty Shades tells the story of enigmatic billionaire, Christian Grey, who seduces college student, Ana, and draws her into his world of assorted S & M shenanigans.  Depending which review you read, it seems the trilogy is like Mills and Boon on Viagra:  essentially an old-fashioned romance where an unsuspecting maiden is swept off her feet by a dominant knight in shining armour, but with less of the dragons and more of the handcuffs…and ropes…and blindfolds, if you get my drift.   It seems that the Number 1 demographic for this sort of thrill seeking is middle-class mums who enjoy living an alternative life through its sordid pages before returning to their mundane realities.  One news article quoted a reader as saying “Motherhood is great but it comes with a staggering level of tedium”;  so if a little raunchy escapism keeps Mummy away from the vodka, then enjoy the ride, ladies.

But somewhere along the way someone referred to these offerings of vicarious pleasure as ‘mummy porn’, at which point the publishers were able to sit back and rub their hands with spinning cartoon dollar signs in their eyes while “We’re in the money” sprang from the radio.  These two little words changed Fifty Shades from a mere book to a publishing phenomenon because ‘mummies’ are big business.  You only need look at the range of products, from breakfast cereal to banking, that use a ‘busy mum’ as the central decision maker in their advertisements to understand the perceived buying power of the modern mum.     Add to this the fact that social media can spread a message faster than hand, foot and mouth through a daycare centre and suddenly the world is your book club.

A lot of people are having fun with this trilogy and although, to me, the storyline sounds derivative and the mummy-oriented news coverage is patronising, fun is, well, fun, so I don’t want to rain on anyone’s parade.  And I’m certainly not above a little low-brow entertainment from time to time (I mean, not Lara Bingle low, but low enough).  But if I was to put on my snooty critic’s hat I’d have to say it’s a shame that well-written books never attract this level of attention.

Even the most desperate of housewives can see that Fifty Shades won’t be winning any prizes for literary greatness.   A flick through the forums of review pages reveals comments like “written at a 5th grade reading level” and “repetitive and unimaginative”;  even on the positive side one reader says  “the writing isn’t up to a very high standard but it is still an enjoyable read”.   People seem to have been titillated at first, but then forced themselves to endure the rest of the trilogy out of obligation to the sisterhood.  I, too, found the writing repetitive and I didn’t even make it to the sex!

The entire first paragraph is about Ana’s hair, which gets several further mentions in the early pages.  When the teachers of Novel Writing 101 talk about building tension in the first chapter I don’t think they mean backcombing with a firm-hold spray.   The book is written from Ana’s perspective, so it’s fair enough for the language to reflect the way a young woman might speak, but variations on ‘holy something-or-other’ (holy crap, holy shit) appear so often you could be forgiven for thinking you’d stumbled into the Bat Cave.  Grey is said to be wearing the ‘ghost of a smile’ at the characters’ first meeting, which is a nice enough metaphor, except that the author uses the exact same description three times in the first 25 pages.  Doesn’t every computer have a built-in thesaurus these days?  Surely authors needn’t use the same adjective twice, let alone the same exact sentence.

But hey, here’s me with my little ol’ blog while E L James is raking in the millions, so who am I to decide what counts as ‘good writing’? And some sources say that books like this can break down taboos and encourage women to talk more openly about their bodies.  I know that not every text needs to be over-analysed and, if nothing else, people are getting a few cheap thrills (I note it’s down to $9.95 at Big W now). Plus there’s never been a more legitimate way to read porn on your iPhone while you’re waiting for your kid’s soccer game to finish.   One article even said that many women “admitted the books made them want to have sex with their husbands” – well, holy matrimonial harmony Batman!

This all makes me think of another book series which is actually called Porn for Women that has been overshadowed in the media circus around Fifty Shades.   In it, shirtless men smoulder at the camera while uttering things like “I’m not going to start assembling until I’ve read all the instructions” or “I might take the kids out for ice cream after I’ve done the ironing. Why don’t you just put your feet up?”  Now THAT, my friends, is hot!

12 comments for “On Fifty Shades of Grey: a non-review by an ignorant bystander

  1. July 30, 2012 at 9:31 pm

    Brilliant! I just discovered your work over at House Goes Home. Although I dont intend to read it, I’m fascinated by the 50 Shades phenomena. ( I’m the biggest Mad Men freak out there and I haven’t caught up with Season 5. I’m not going to waste Draper time on Christian Grey ). Here’s my very own non-review. BTW – yours is by far superior.
    http://mum-abulous.com/2012/07/12/50-shades-of-earl-grey/

    • This Charming Mum
      July 31, 2012 at 9:28 am

      Thanks very much for dropping by. I love House Goes Home – don’t know how she manages to write posts twice a day! Very admirable. I’m just popping over to read your post. I’m pleased there’s a bit of an anti-grey support group forming now 😉

  2. June 16, 2012 at 8:48 am

    This is a great review. I haven’t gotten into that book and I don’t think I will now. I had some similar issues with the standard of writing in a book review I did back in April: http://francescawriteshere.blogspot.com.au/2012/04/book-review-town-like-paris-by-bryce.html

    • June 16, 2012 at 12:04 pm

      Thanks for directing me to your review. That’s another book I now know to avoid! As I commented on your blog, it’s hard seeing poorly written material make it into print if you have aspirations to write ‘the great novel’ yourself. I’ve pretty much given up on my novel(s) for now though. I have enough trouble finding time to blog. Maybe one day?

  3. June 15, 2012 at 2:38 pm

    Your book reviews came in very handy when a friend asked for book club recommendations the other day (well, perhaps not this one, other than to avoid it!). Thanks!

    • June 15, 2012 at 4:28 pm

      Thanks Alana. I’m still chuckling about your Haley Mills comment today 🙂

  4. Enid Bite'Em
    June 15, 2012 at 12:05 pm

    I’m so glad you wrote this … I was beginning to think I was the only one!! I read the free excerpt from Random House and it almost did my head in – Christian GREY in his GREY suit with his GREY eyes, not to mention the grey (steel) lettering on the building. Gah!

    • June 15, 2012 at 2:27 pm

      Oh Lord, so do you think if I’d kept reading I’d have noticed the very literal inclusion of 50 things that are grey?? Though not in fact shades of grey, just plain grey. No, you are not the only one 🙂

  5. Tanya Gill
    June 11, 2012 at 8:32 pm

    On the one hand I am reading “The Gargoyle’ by Andrew Davidson. On the other hand, I have begun ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’…in the former I have beauty such as “Lick and kiss, drip drip drip dropped the drugs, hiss hiss hiss spoke the snake. The sibilant sermons of the snake as she discoursed upon the disposition of my sinner’s soul seemed ceaseless.” ( I had to read this several times, just to savour it!) and in the other we have, well, we have sexual tension that is realised, oh, how it is realised!! (And I am only up to page 120!) I’m no stranger to erotica, having discovered Anais Nin on the bookshelves at the University of Queensland bookshop way back forever ago. There ARE Australian authors who write erotica, and the Sunday Mail article mentioned that more money is coming their way, on the back of the popularity of ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’. I agree that it is a pity that, possibly, more well-written books do not receive more attention. But all authors have their niche and I think it’s great that my husband could walk into Big W and buy, for under $10, a book which would have been on the top shelf of Book World in other times. He did seem rather keen to buy the book for me..I wonder why that could be? It’s going to make for a very interesting book club get-together, anyway! I always enjoy your blog posts, Lara, and am looking forward to even more literary discourse as we both read, read, read!!!

    • June 11, 2012 at 9:00 pm

      I haven’t read The Gargoyle either but you have me intrigued about it now. I hope you and everyone in your bookclub love Fifty Shades – I’m sure you’ll have a good night dissecting it! It is certainly getting people talking and anything that encourages more people to read and discuss books has to be good at a time when we are all so easily distracted by other things. Thanks, I always enjoy your considered responses to my posts 🙂

  6. Margareta
    June 11, 2012 at 4:57 pm

    A great ‘non-review’. Thankyou.

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