I’m following through with my twitter threat to write a piece on Fifty Shades of Grey. I did warn, it will be boring.
What lessons can we learn about human nature, the culture and the media from the success of the books and film?
None. Really, it’s unimportant and irrelevant.
That suggests it’s not worth writing a piece about, but I just got too annoyed by all the stupid things I read from people who don’t even know what the books and film are about.
I do know, because I read the books. I quite enjoyed them too. That isn’t important either—I read popular light fiction by the bucketful, and I’m not fussy about literary quality, so my book reviews are not going to be terribly valuable to my readership. This isn’t a review, it’s more a case of “I read it so you don’t have to”. There will be spoilers.
Much of what’s written about the phenomenon appears to have been written by people who not only haven’t read it, but haven’t read any fiction at all. I’m thinking particularly of the spectacularly moronic piece by Matt Walsh.
He is outraged by the narrator’s description of her own thought processes in terms of her subconscious doing a hula dance and so forth. He points out that amongst other faults “it’s not accurate from a neurology perspective”. No shit, Sherlock. It’s almost as if the character is a silly 22-year-old arts graduate and not a neurologist at all.
My purpose is not to defend the novel’s literary style—which really is quite poor—but to put it in context. I grew up reading Isaac Asimov and Harry Harrison. It’s better prose than either of them. I read a lot of thrillers now. This is better written than Dan Brown. It’s better than Jack Higgins. It’s not as good as Michael Dibdin. Better than Agatha Christie. About as good as Lee Child.
In the world of contemporary light fiction for women, the writing is not as good as Stephenie Meyer and about the same as Suzanne Collins. It’s better than 90% of pulp romance fiction.
It’s perfectly possible to say that all of this stuff is shit. That is indeed the normal opinion of the intelligent and well-educated, and I freely admit that I have no taste. But it is bizarre to pluck “Twilight” or “Fifty Shades of Grey” out of the morass and express shock at the lack of literary quality, when they are completely unexceptional by the standards of the rest of the bestseller lists.
Anyway, I will pass on from the literary merits, and consider the content.
The books are loaded with explicit sex. So are about 20% of the occupants of the bestseller lists. Harlequin / Mills & Boon have whole colour-coded lines of books which revolve around explicit sex, mostly written much more badly than E.L. James does. I don’t generally read respectable modern literature, but I understand there’s quite a lot of it in that too, much of it equally perverted.
There’s the BDSM angle. I have seen quite a bit of criticism along the lines that the books (or film, which I haven’t seen) normalise or justify that lifestyle. Well, they don’t, except in the sense that Dennis Wheatley’s books “normalise” Satanism by drawing attention to it. I jokingly tweeted “someone should write a novel that portrays BDSM types as dangerously mentally ill,” because that perfectly describes “Fifty Shades of Grey” The title comes from the hero's early description of himself as “fifty shades of fucked-up”, and the point of his character is that he is severely emotionally damaged by his childhood, and that his fetishistic behaviour is an expression of that damage. His psychiatrist does not discourage him, because he sees it as a way of coping with his past, but nowhere is it suggested that his behaviour is normal or healthy. The woman who introduced him to BDSM is one of the villains of the story, and of the ex-sexual partners who participated in his sex games, the only one we see as a character is also severely damaged and ends up in a mental hospital. And the heroine never goes along with it. He asks her to sign a contract binding herself to him, and she considers it, but she never does accept or sign it.
The FetLife people really really hated the books.
There has been a lot of criticism of the violence-against-women aspect of the story. In the whole series, Grey only deliberately hurts Ana once, and she immediately leaves him (at the end of the first book). That is the pivotal moment of the series, where he determines to overcome his sadistic desires and have an entirely different relationship. They get married in the second book and the third book is basically an action thriller.
As far as the feminists will be concerned, he remains overly dominant and controlling, and some “red pill” commenters think it remarkable that this is portrayed as attractive by the books. Once again, in this respect he resembles literally 100% of mass-market romance-novel heroes. The film doesn’t represent any new trend or backlash at all.
I promised that this would be boring. The general lessons to draw from the books and the film are that there aren’t any. It’s just another bit of fairly ordinary popular entertainment that happened to catch a wave of hype, as things do from time to time.
It’s actually most interesting to read in the context of the Twilight books (which I enjoyed reading a lot more than I did 50). The pattern of the relationships between the characters is exactly duplicated. I assume it was originally an attempt to rewrite Twilight without the supernatural elements: Christian’s wealth takes the place of Edward’s vampire super-powers, and his sexual/emotional damage takes the place of Edward’s inability to give Bella normal human love. Christian’s controlling jealousy and guilt are exactly the same as Edward’s. There’s far more subtlety to the novel looked at as a variation on an existing theme than there is taking it as a story standing on its own.
I still feel the need to make excuses for why it is I read all this shit. One factor is that I read extremely fast—I read the fifty shades trilogy in a couple of days last year—and as a result of that I tend to find television very frustrating in comparison because it goes so slowly. I think I’ve watched about three hours of television so far this year, plus a handful of movies on Netflix (but I'm quite likely to have a different book open while I’m watching a movie). Reading light fiction is what I do to turn my mind off and relax. If I don’t have something to read I will pick up just about anything I can lay hands on and give it a try.
Another side is I’m attracted by story, and I may have been actively put off good literature as a result of too many books without a satisfactory complete story. There was some related discussion last year on Eric Raymond’s site about “literary status envy”, with a lot of interesting comments.