I’m happy (and I’m sure you are as well) to introduce to you our first guest blogger, Dawn W. Petersen—wherein our heroine, Editor Extraordinaire, goes on a quest to intellectually stalk the Best-selling Beast, The-Book-That-Must-Not-Be-Named…
Who among us has not heard the buzz about Fifty Shades of Grey since its debut in 2011? Where have you been? For three days running, everywhere I went I overheard conversations about this book, some from behind cupped hands in whispers punctuated with snickers; others in indignant, disgusted tones accompanied by much gesticulation. I caught the phrase “mommy porn” in three separate instances.
I became curious (plus I always pay attention when things happen in threes). What had E. L. James written that seemed to have everybody’s panties either moist or in a bunch? Why had this book penetrated so far under our thick 21st-century skin, landing it in the company of controversial books such as D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover in the 20th century, Kate Chopin’s The Awakening in the 19th, and back and back to the beginning of recorded history? How did Fifty Shades of Grey become a popular-culture phenomenon? And what is this new genre, mommy porn, anyway?
In graduate school, working toward my M.A. in English literature, I was taught that the primary rule of literary research, textual analysis, and generally knowing what one is talking about is: Go to the source. This means the primary source, if at all possible, or secondary sources as close to the primary source as possible, if the first option is impossible. This is the same law we live by at Blooms in what we do. So I decided to buy Fifty Shades of Grey and find out for myself.
I have to admit, I felt a little self-conscious standing in line at Barnes & Noble with the book under my arm. To assuage my discomfort, I tried making chitchat with the bookseller, a woman with gray hair and glasses, as I handed my purchase across the counter.
“This book has certainly stirred a lot of controversy.”
“Yes, it has,” she replied, rolling her eyes. (If only she knew what would happen to her if she rolled her eyes like that at Christian Grey! But I didn’t know this yet, either.)
“Have you read it?”
She snorted. “No; I wouldn’t read that book.”
When I began to read Fifty Shades of Grey, the first thing I noticed was how poorly written it is. I don’t mean this in a mean-spirited way; this is simply not writing with an eye to the beauty of language or of the illuminating metaphor. Okay, it’s a lot worse than not just that. In fact, by about page 35, I didn’t think I could read the book. If the heroine flushed or blushed, thought “Holy cow!” or “Holy crap!” or rolled her eyes once more, I was going to retch. I had to put the book down for a few days.
But pick it back up, I did. And pushing on I found that in many ways Fifty Shades conformed to a checklist for a classic novel of the romantic period. Christian Grey is a casebook Byronic hero, with a few twists, a soft one being that his hair is not dark black or brown but a dark copper red. The seed of the mysterious circular scars on his body, the presumed cause of his inner angst, is planted early in the tale. The heroine, Anastasia (Ana) Steele, is textbook as well—young, virginal, and blue-eyed—except instead of cascading blonde curls she has unruly brown hair. Ana is an English literature major about to graduate. She has never had a boyfriend and contemplates whether she might have “spent too long in the company of literary romantic heroes.” She wonders if Grey qualifies as one. Yes, Ana; yes he does.
Here’s where the hard, 21st-century twist comes in and the author subverts the dominant paradigm: This romance takes place within the world of BDSM (and if you know exactly what that acronym stands for, you know more than I knew then). This was a world I knew almost nothing about, and I found it fascinating. Submission is more my idea of a nightmare than a fantasy, however. Still, the book did compel me to wonder: What is that thin line between pleasure and pain? But the constant sex quickly became redundant and an interruption from what really did interest me in the story: the alchemy of these two characters’ energies encountering the Other. In this sense, the love story in Fifty Shades of Grey, had the same effect as classic romances, without being well written.
Despite this truth that is indisputable to me but still argued amongst some others, I recently saw a post on Writers Write’s Facebook page citing Nielsen data comparing 100 of the leading best-seller lists of 2012 that showed the Fifty Shades trilogy holds spots one, two, and three on every one of them. Following this link back to the source lead me to an article in The Guardian sporting all sorts of facts and figures. Here I learned that these books sold 10.5 million copies in 2012, this being 8 million copies more than the next trilogy on the list, The Hunger Games.
Wow. Really?!? I never would have guessed. But I’m pleasantly surprised. If millions of mommies are making time to read and to entertain sexual fantasies amidst lives stuffed full of taking care of business, more power to ’em. You go, Mommies! It’s important for mommies to have “me” time.
I was also surprised to discover that one can buy this book off a shelf in the local grocery store. Make no mistake: Mommy porn—whatever that might be—this is not. Fifty Shades of Grey is not a book children should stumble upon, and it’s exactly the sort of book a curious young me would have lifted from my parents’ bookcase. I believe it should be shrink wrapped in stores and not sold to anyone under 18, and kept out of reach of children at home. For adults: If you want to read the book, read it; if you don’t, don’t.
Would I recommend Fifty Shades of Grey? No, I wouldn’t, except perhaps to a particular person for a specific purpose. There truly are a few nifty tricks inside. And I don’t regret the time I spent inside the book’s world. I wouldn’t encourage anyone else to go there, however. Seriously. Not well written. But I am glad that E.L. James did write it; I can appreciate a good transgression. And I’m delighted that millions of people—women, men, daddies, grandmas, adults of whatever stripe—have enjoyed her books for whatever reason, which, now that I have formed an informed opinion, I still don’t know exactly what that is.
Dawn W. Petersen is an editor and a writer for TBR, and is an independent editor and for more than 20 years has been a book coach/doctor. She received her MA in English literature from the University of Colorado in Boulder. Though she is sheepish to admit it, she ended up reading the entire Fifty Shades trilogy; she just had to know how it all turned out.