Sunday, 22 April 2012

Review - Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James

Fifty Shades of Grey - in which the heroine falls in love with a rich control freak with a bondage fetish because she is an idiot.

Okay, now that I've got that out of my system, I'm going to talk about what has been one of the most remarkable stories to come out of the publishing industry in recent times. Erika Leonard, was a London based fan fiction writer who worked for a small television production company. In 2009 she penned a Twilight fan fiction titled Master of the Universe under the pseudonym Ice Queen Dragon and published it on fanfiction.net (a truly awesome website--look hard and you'll find some real gems in there). The fan fiction, which took a number of liberties with the plot, most notably with its suggestion that Edward Cullen has a fetish for a watered down version of sadomasochism, became a hit, leading to complaints about the sexual content. Leonard then removed the story, changed the names of the characters to Christian Grey and Ana Steele, and the title to Fifty Shades of Grey and republished it on her own website under the pseudonym E.L. James. Eventually, Fifty Shades of Grey led to a sequel, Fifty Shades Darker and the third and final book in the series, Fifty Shades Freed. The three books were subsequently published by The Writer's Coffee Shop, an Australian based Print on Demand company. The trilogy was so successful that it was eventually picked up by Random House for a seven figure sum and the film rights have now been sold. All in all, this is an incredible achievement and one that deserves much respect. How many writers go from posting a fan fiction to selling a trilogy based on that story to a major publishing house? For that, E.L. James, I salute you. 

The Random House edition of Fifty Shades of Grey was released in the United States in early April, with an international version following a few days later. Almost immediately, the book flew to the top of the best seller lists. (At the time of writing this post, Fifty Shades of Grey is number one on the New York Times Best Seller List. Fifty Shades Darker is sitting pretty at number two and Fifty Shades Freed comes in at number four.) Again, these are wonderful achievements by a debut author and they deserve our respect. But what the hell is it that makes this book so successful?

To be honest, I really don't know. Much of the hype surrounding the novel suggests that this is a dark and mysterious novel about an innocent young woman seduced into the world of BDSM by a wealthy control freak. In fact, I can almost hear the gasps and whispers. Ooh, Kathryn is reviewing a sex novel. There is also the more troubling suggestions that Fifty Shades of Grey is liberating or 'Mummy Porn'. (And no, I'm not talking about porn that features Egyptian Mummies having sex. Though I'm sure that actually exists, somewhere out there in cyberspace, I wont be googling it any time soon.) 

My own gut instinct about Fifty Shades of Grey (and I hope that I'm not being too harsh here,) is that the novel is overlong, the characters are underdeveloped and the sex scenes are kinky, rather than shocking or erotic. The vocabulary was limited and readers were treated to the same dialogue over and over again. I get that Christian Grey is good looking. There is also the more troubling relationship that Ana has with her own body. At 22 she has never touched herself 'down there' (I'm guessing that she's never trimmed her pubic hair or inserted a tampon either,) and cannot bring herself to even think perfectly normal words such as vagina, vulva, labia or, wait for it, clitoris. (This makes me cast my mind back to primary school, where all the girls were taken out for a special sex education lesson, led by the legendary Mrs Devitt. We were taught that there was nothing wrong with having a vagina, or referring to it as such. Ana Steele needs a Mrs Devitt in her life.) The author herself recently said that, "I'm not a great writer." (Watch the interview in this link. What really comes through is just how lovely, and how down to earth the author really is. I'd love to interview her on this blog, but doubt that is going to happen any time soon.)

The relationship between Ana and Christian is quite odd. I suspect the appeal isn't that much different to what drew many readers to Twilight. Just as Edward Cullen could offer a father figure, riches and eternal youth (thus meaning that Bella never has to grow old,) Christian represents an older and richer father figure who can shield Ana away from the scary new world she has just discovered outside of university. She does not have to stand on her own two feet, think for herself or make her own mistakes. Even her attempts at rebelling (such as not eating when she is told,) seem shallow. And we know that even when she leaves him at the end of the book, that they will come together again in the sequel. It's very much a fantasy. The reader isn't going to want a relationship like this in real life, but it might be fun to read about it for a while.

A dark and mysterious book? Well,  not really. It's very much a sexy novel for those of us who don't read erotica, but want to escape into a fantasy world for a while.

That, the book is a readable, lightweight romance and the concept is an interesting one. I'm not sure that Fifty Shades of Grey is worth all of the hype, though its journey from fan fiction to the top of the New York Times Best Seller List is a remarkable one and certainly worthy of respect. 

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