28 May 2012

James’ ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’

Let’s be honest. E.L. James is never going to be confused with Henry James, or P.D. James, or for that matter Etta James: subtle, she is never, and her artistic purpose is not lofty. But I admit I’ve read writing worse than that which I found in her bestselling erotic novel, Fifty Shades of Grey, which according to news reports has gazillions of women throughout the English-speaking world feverishly scrolling through their Kindles — so that no one sees the cover of such a scandalous book in their hands. If I quickly lost patience with Fifty Shades, the reason I suspect lies as much in James’ inspiration, and in her refusal to deviate from her chosen model, as in any fault of her own craft.*

In a sense, I’d read this book already. James originally conceived of her novel as fan fiction, taking the principal characters from Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight and putting them into new adventures. Once you know this, you have unlocked the mystery of Fifty Shades: where Edward Cullen is a vampire, so Christian Grey is a sexual dominant whose kink stems from a mysterious past and addresses not just a taste or an interest but a need.

And pretty quickly, the rest of the book falls into place, a long series of echoes, equivalencies, and embroideries. For example, Fifty Shades’ Ana Steele is every bit as naïve and lacking in self-confidence as Twilight’s Bella Swan, and neither girl can believe that such a hot guy likes her so much. Edward is obsessed with Bella’s smell; Christian goes comparably nuts whenever Ana bites her lip.** Edward has superpowers; Christian has money. Both guys, flawlessly beautiful, live in the Pacific Northwest, and are adopted into families that are just a little too perfect-seeming. Both women come from broken homes.

Most importantly, both books depict couples who talk — and talk — and talk about their relationships. Just as Edward goes on endlessly about how much he loves Bella but can’t have sex with her because he might hurt her, so Christian goes on about all the sex he’s going to have with Ana, even though he can’t love her and really does want to inflict pain. Reflecting on the book’s popularity while I read, I began to wonder whether American women are so desperate for conversation with their lumpen boyfriends and husbands that they don’t care what the guy actually says, so long as they can talk about their feelings.

Really, the entire phenomenon of Fifty Shades of Grey has done more to correct me than any of the angry e-mails I received after describing Twilight as a book for teenage girls. No, no, I was told, grownup women are Twilight’s biggest fans — and I see that clearly now.

You always hurt the one you love.

The discussion of feelings is hardly limited to conversations. Both books are presented as first-person narratives, recounted moment to moment by their respective heroines. These young women not only tell us what’s going on, but they also dissect and analyze every single word and gesture. Ana admits (repeatedly) that she has a tendency to “overthink,” and basically Fifty Shades of Grey is just one long overthought — and overwrought, at that.

Ana has so very, very much to tell us about her feelings that she has to divide the labor among three selves: her present narrative voice, her “subconscious” (of which she is minutely conscious), and what is ultimately the third principal character in the book, her “inner goddess,” meant (I think but am not certain) to represent Ana’s pride and her sexuality — but that’s ultimately a writer’s conceit that wears out its welcome very fast.

Other critics have expressed alarm that the popularity of Fifty Shades, with its depiction of a dominant man and a submissive woman, bodes ill for feminism in contemporary society — “You’ve come a long way, baby,” but not in a good way. Honestly, I see far more alarming signs of the demise of feminism every time I pick up the newspaper, and while the sub/dom politics of Fifty Shades make me uneasy, I see nothing wrong with a little fantasy. That women are reading this book doesn’t mean that they’re reenacting it; and so long as women don’t submit in the boardroom, or the classroom, or the courtroom, what they do in the bedroom is really not my business.

We know that Fifty Shades is erotica and not pornography largely because of the language James uses in the book’s many sex scenes: her descriptions are purplish but never rude, give or take Christian’s random expletive in moments of passion. Notably, the word “penis” appears nowhere in this book; James favors “erection” instead, and the word choice is telling. A penis is part of a man, with him always, whereas an erection is just something that happens to him occasionally. It’s as if Ana or James herself is trying to disengage Christian’s character from the kinky sex or to excuse him for it. “It’s not really him, it’s just his erection.”

That said, the sex is mostly vanilla, as Christian calls it, and those hoping for a primer in submission, bondage and discipline must settle for the lengthy, appropriately legalese contract in which Christian spells out what Ana agrees to let him do to her, provided they ever get around to it. If that’s not spicy enough for you, then you may have to wade through the two sequels, Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed, which have been published already. Count me out, though.

Ana graduates from college with a passionate interest in 19th-century British fiction, and this book abounds with references to other, better novels, notably Tess of the d’Urbervilles. But there are hints that even this book might have been superior. It turns out that E.L. James is reasonably witty, far moreso than Stephenie Meyer as it happens, but the only place you really see the wit is in the teasing e-mail exchanges between Ana and Christian. I’m rather sorry James didn’t chuck all the feelings and navel-gazing and write an old-fashioned epistolary novel instead. Maybe next time.

At the end of a business trip last week, I purchased Fifty Shades of Grey at Washington’s Union Station, believing, like Gwendolyn Fairfax, that one should always have something sensational to read on the train. I regret to say that, despite my attempted provocation, not one person stopped to ask me about the book. I will however endorse Fifty Shades’ e-book edition — since the trade paperback I bought cost a whopping $15.95 and is printed on exceptionally cheap paper. You’re really better off with the electronic version.

All the way to the bank:
E.L. James on The View.

*DISCLAIMER: In this essay I sometimes refer to the book’s title with the abbreviated Fifty Shades, which is the preamble for both sequels to Fifty Shades of Grey. As I suggested above, I have not read Fifty Shades Darker or Fifty Shades Freed, and I don’t intend to, despite my suspicion that the character of José, who yearns to be Ana’s boyfriend, is going to turn into a werewolf.

**NOTE: Ana bites her lip far more often in a single volume than any person ever has in the history of the real world. (That includes Kristen Stewart, by the way.) At least in Bella’s scent Meyer chose a trait that’s naturally continual, rather than contrived.


Anonymous said...

I'd still like to hear your thoughts on Gary Indiana's Scar Tissue.

-- Rick

William V. Madison said...

At the Strand the other day I didn't find a single book by Gary Indiana -- but I did take your recommendation to heart, Rick, and I have been looking around. (Something short of ordering online, yes, but looking nevertheless.)

Anonymous said...

I can't believe they didn't have a single title by Indiana. Last time I was there (in the fiction stacks, furthest from the entrance) they had Resentment, Gone Tomorrow, The Shanghai Gesture, and Scar Tissue. His stuff doesn't move that fast.


-- Rick

William V. Madison said...

I promise, I didn't see anything!

Elizabeth said...

"Overthought - and overwrought" are a perfect summation!