My attitude towards E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey is much the same as my attitude towards sports. I am not now nor have I ever been a sports fan. But that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate the idea of sports, or many of the fascinating universally human stories that swirl around it. What an amazing, endlessly intriguing catalog of aspiration, endeavor and corruption, vice and nobility, folly and foible. Sports as an idea, and the issues it engenders, have inspired some of the most lyrical, insightful, funny and entertaining writing ever to be found, even if the games and players, fans and followers they describe are often venial, childish, banal, boring, and forgettable. I would far rather read Michael Lewis’ Moneyball, or watch Bull Durham for the twenty-fifth or twenty-sixth time than ever sit through one of the real-life games that inspired them.
So it is with Fifty Shades. The execrable writing, the shallow, jejune characterizations, the idiotic pop-psychology, the ignorant misrepresentations of BDSM, it’s the literary equivalent of fingernails on a chalkboard. But even as much as I despise—even hate—these books, I am interested in the ideas they have inspired. While the writing in Fifty Shades is simply too awful to ever get past the vetting process for inclusion on this site—notwithstanding the books’ enormous popularity—I must admit that the trilogy has inspired a good deal of highly intelligent discourse, and this superb, engaging collection of essays, Fifty Writers on Fifty Shades of Grey, offers a rich banquet of food for thought, some exceptionally fine, palate-cleansing writing, and many hours of reading pleasure.
To be honest, I have to say that some of my enjoyment was rooted in Schadenfreude. I most relished those pieces that supported or reinforced my own prejudices—the ones that put James and her trio of best-sellers down the hardest. And yet, I found a great deal of intellectual stimulation and even inspiration in many of the “pro-FSG” essays. There is a broad range of point-of-view, opinion, and style represented here, from scholarly monograph and high-brow criticism, to unapologetically treacley fan-girl fawning, and gossamer adulatory fluff. Fortunately, most writers have staked out an agreeably literate middle ground.
What all the contributors here seem to agree on is that Fifty Shades has become a “game changer” both for publishers and readers, though what this contagious little meme actually conveys is not always clear. In her introduction, Fifty Ways to Look at Fifty Shades, editor Lori Perkins refers positively to the trilogy, going so far as to gush, “I am awed to see the birth of a new erotic classic”, and hope “. . . that these books will usher in a publishing tidal wave of female-centered commercially successful erotica, giving women a new voice for sexual, political and financial choices.” In her essay, Fifty Shades of Change, Louise Fury claims that “. . . what The Vagina Monologues did for women and their vaginas, Fifty Shades has done for women and smut.” In a piece appropriately enough entitled The Game Changer, M. Christian seems reluctantly to agree, though he laments, “It would just be nice that the paradigm shift in literature and publishing would have been better written.” He goes on to say;
It’s still a total and complete game changer. For one thing, it’s pretty much the final nail in the old school old school world of print publishing. Sure, that model has been gasping and wheezing for a few years now, but for a teeny weeny and badly written book to do what New York dreamt of doing shows once and for all that they need to burn down their old ways and finally begin to embrace the lean, mean, and cutting edge world of e-books.
It’s also another shovel of dirt on another corpse; the concept of old-school marketing. Fifty Shades didn’t succeed because of its brilliant prose, it’s immense advertising budget, or inspired publicity. It scored that coveted number one spot because “mom” E.L. James jumped right in, feetfirst, to social networking and viral marketing with a dogged persistence that’s, frankly, a bit scary. The only bad side of this is—sigh—that for the next five to ten years we’re gonna be bombarded not just with Fifty Shades knock-offs, but all those authors trying the same tricks James did.”
“Some have wondered how a “classic” can be so “poorly written,” Perkins muses, “But I contend that it is not poorly written, but rather written in an everywoman’s voice, a necessary part of its success.”
This seems just a tad disingenuous, I wonder if a successful literary agent like Perkins would be so forgiving of James’ appallingly amateurish writing had the books not sold over 70 million copies. If something so poorly written—and I contend that it IS poorly written—by an unknown were to land on her desk, would Perkins be so quick to offer excuses for it—let alone anything other than a form rejection? Somehow, I don’t think so. Later in the collection, readers are treated to an apologia from no less a figure than Tish Beaty, the editor of Fifty Shades of Grey herself. Her “excuse” is that James’ already-established and rabidly protective cadre of fans demanded that no serious alterations be made to the self-published original. Beaty was, thus “under orders” from her publisher to treat James and her manuscript with kid gloves. So much for artistic and professional integrity.
The question of what Fifty Shades is and isn’t—softcore porn, “mommy porn”, "smut for women", BDSM erotica, erotic romance—is the basis for several of the collection’s most interesting and insightful essays. D.L. King’s Is Fifty Shades Erotica? Ask an Erotic Writer is particularly illuminating. While generally liking the trilogy—“. . . I had fun with Fifty Shades,” she says, “Anna’s annoying; she’s a little too naïve to be believable, but she’s patterned after Bella in the Twilight books. . .”—King readily acknowledges the books’ most serious flaws: “It’s two main problems . . . lay with a poorly drawn main character, and poor editing.”
“(Many) readers, critics, fans of romance—even erotic romance—see nothing but sex in the trilogy”, but, as King suggests;
“Is it erotica? I say no. I say the Fifty Shades books are erotic romance, and there is a definite difference.
Because there’s sex on every page (actually there isn’t. There’s sex on the vast majority of pages) and because Christian and Anastasia fuck like bunnies, the books have been billed as erotica. But whether erotic romance authors, editors and publishers wish to admit it or not, it isn’t the amount of explicit sex that makes a book romance or erotica; it’s the plotline and the happily-ever-after contrivance.”
“Erotica . . . is more about the sex than the undying love. That doesn’t mean that there can’t be undying love in an erotic novel, it just means the undying love isn’t the reason for the story’s existence, as it is in a romance. In erotica the sex is the reason for the story’s existence . . .”
“Here’s a little secret about the difference between erotica and erotic romance: you can take the sex out of an erotic romance and the story will survive just fine (although it won’t be nearly as much fun to read), but you can’t take the sex out of erotica. If you do, you’ll be left with nothing to hold the story together.”
Other essays trace the books’ literary antecedents through Twilight-based fanfic to the novels of Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters. (This is something I had not considered before.) In this context, the protagonist, Christian Grey, becomes the literary heir to Heathcliff and Mr. Rochester, as Jennifer Sanzo argues in The Byronic Hero Archetype and Christian Grey: Why America’s Favorite Sadist is Nothing New. Sarah S.G. Frantz: A History of BDSM Fiction and Romance is one of the five or six essays here, which are, alone, worth the price of the entire book, and Andrew Shaffer’s Fifty Shades of Grace Metalious draws intriguing parallels between the author of Petyon Place and the furor surrounding that book in the 1950s, with some of the contemporary reactions to James and her trilogy.
Also of great interest are the viewpoints of therapists, healing professionals, and real-life BDSM practitioners. Hope Tarr’s eye-opening piece, Because Love Hurts and Debra Hyde’s Wanted Fifty Shades of Sexual Wholeness offer healthy doses of realism to counterbalance what is, at root, a twisted fantasy. Grey may well be a twenty-first century incarnation of the Byronic hero, but he is also clearly a sociopath, a control freak, and a self-absorbed, abusive monster, which no self-respecting woman would ever truly want to get near. Lawyer Sherri Donovan explores the books’ now-infamous (and never-signed) contract in The Legal Bonding of Anastasia and Christian; and experienced lifestylers Master R (A Requested Evaluation of the Mastery of Christian Grey) as well as Chris Marks and Lia Leto (A BDSM Couple’s View) explore the deeper, real-world ramifications of a mature, healthy power exchange relationship.
A pleasant and most welcome surprise is the inclusion of several short pieces of fiction in the book; Judith Regan’s Fifty Shades of Play, which very cleverly explodes the Alpha Male mythos with a masterful twist at the end, and Laura Antoniou’s delightful, hilarious send-up of the trilogy, Fifty Shades of Holy Crap. As to be expected, Antoniou’s skewering of James is fast-paced and razor-sharp, laugh-out-loud and utterly brilliant. It may be one good reason this collection will stay on e-readers and bookshelves for years to come—perhaps long after the whole Fifty Shades phenomenon has passed into blessed oblivion.
In spite of my near-visceral dislike of the source material, I can (and do) enthusiastically recommend Fifty Writers on Fifty Shades of Grey.