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!