Gray on ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’

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.

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  • Crissy and Mags

    Pleasantly surprised by your review. I thought it was fair and honest and I’m glad you picked it up again after you initially put it down.

    • Dawn W. Petersen

      Thanks so much for your endorsement, Crissy and Mags. I’m pleased that you thought my review was fair; coming from you I consider that high praise.
      The review was also picked up by a fansite in Brazil and translated into Portuguese.

      • Crissy and Mags

        Too many reviews shows signs that the book either wasn’t read or it was read without an open mind. I can appreciate a review where the book wasn’t loved, but was at least given a chance. Crissy

  • Pingback: 50 Shades of Grey BR | Sua 1ª e melhor fonte sobre 'Fifty Shades of Grey' no Brasil! » Blog Archive » Cinza sobre “Cinquenta tons de Cinza”

  • Ryan from Brooklyn

    Dawn, great review. I haven’t read the books and my wife hasn’t either. But she just went on maternity leave with our first child, and I kind of want to buy them for her. The books are part of the (mommy) zeitgeist, which in our household is sometimes reason enough to buy a book! or at least an ebook.

    • Dawn W. Petersen

      Thanks, Ryan! Are you by chance the father of the splendiferous Della, Her Most Serene Highness? If so, great job to you and your wife!
      I suggest you start by investing in only the first book first and see what happens. Of course, the first book ends in he middle of critical action, so you then have to get the second one to see how that turns out. And then, of course, the second one does the same, and you have to get the third. That is, if you can get through the first book first.
      I’d be very interested to hear what you guys think.

  • ChristinaLJohnson

    The best book in the mommy porn genre is “Starbucks Bitches”, which IMO is much better than 50 Shades of Grey. Really great characters, great loves, great romance, and great sensual scenes.

  • Wondernight

    This is probably the first blog that I’ve read that is not a hate post :P i’m not even gonna lie and say that i hated it; in fact i am totally a big fan of this book. Haters, don’t judge, i’m not a pro reader/writer and i read it for fun and i find it entertaining. But all i ever heard people say about this book is that it’s “terrible” without really describing their point because they are too busy hating over it. Really appreciate your honest review here. I have to say that i agree with almost all of your points. The wordings are definitely repetitive and a little too crowded with sex scene. Nevertheless it’s quite a refreshing book to read and i still suggest my friends to read it :) i’m excited that the movie is coming out (but worried that they will ruin it D:) and it’s sad that people are hating it so much. If it was just another common book i can probably tell people i like it without being judged so badly :(