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Fifty shades of retrograde

LiteratureArts and CultureNewspaper and MagazineChicago Tribune

My first thought, on hearing about the runaway success of “Fifty Shades of Grey,” the erotic e-novel by (female) British television executive E L James, was something along the lines of “Woohoo! Women embracing their sexuality! Let's hear it for feminism!” As I learned more about the book, dubbed “Mommy Porn” by the media, my enthusiasm waned somewhat: “OK, so it's based on the ‘Twilight' series! But it's helping women rediscover their sexual desire! Always a good thing!” Then, a few days later, I was asked to actually read the book.

That brought a swift end to my enthusiasm, which was almost immediately replaced by melancholy, bordering on low-grade depression. Seriously, people? Of all the erotica published in the last couple of years, this bizarrely conservative sexcapade is the one anointed by a seven-figure movie deal?

Why has this book, of all the thousands of books released this year, caused such a sensation? Why are so many people — mostly women — reading it? Honestly, I'm not sure. It could be that American women are tired of listening to presidential candidates and radio hosts chastising women for having sex. It may also be that e-reader technology allows readers to download even the world's most inane books without revealing the reader's terrible taste to fellow commuters or people waiting in line at the DMV. Whatever the cause of the book's popularity, one thing seems certain: It has nothing to do with the book itself.

Let me be clear: There's absolutely nothing wrong with "Fifty Shades of Grey" as a concept; erotic fiction can be, and often has been, beautifully written. It's the book's execution that's problematic. Well, the execution and the characters. And the writing. And also the plot.

It seems that amid all the talk about "Fifty Shades of Grey" — as a cultural phenomenon or a tipping point for electronic books as a viable alternative to print — a simple, fundamental truth has been lost: "Fifty Shades of Grey" is a book. As such, it deserves to be judged alongside other books. By that measure — and frankly, pretty much any other measure I can think of, other than the cringe-inducing fiction 14-year-olds tend to submit to literary magazines — this is a pretty dreadful book. Put simply, author E L James — who is now officially invulnerable to criticism because she has more money than God — is not a very good writer.

Her dialogue is stilted, the descriptions of place overwrought, and the characters and plot so predictable that a reader could theoretically skip over several dozen pages of text and still be utterly unsurprised by new developments. (Hey, what do you know? They're having violent sex again. And both appear to feel vaguely conflicted about the violence aspect, but apparently not conflicted enough to actually stop doing it).

Aside from their decidedly untraditional sex lives, the main characters in "Fifty Shades of Grey" (embarrassingly named Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey) hew close to worn-out romance novel archetypes: The young innocent who is surprised by the depth of her own carnal desires, and the wolfish (slightly) older man with some kinky predilections who is incapable (or so he believes) of true love. James' often alarmingly purple prose isn't the worst in the history of published books, but I'm afraid that's not saying much.

Anastasia, as she "struggles" with the implications of her racy new love life, defers consistently to what she calls her "inner goddess." This internal voice is (rather conveniently) very much in favor of demeaning sex acts: cheering Anastasia on whenever a new opportunity (ahem) arises, and falling asleep, disgusted, whenever our heroine asserts herself by doing anything other than having sex.

As far as the sex scenes go, it's almost impossible to choose just one example of the most egregious (and lurid) passages, and not only because most of them are not suitable for publication in a newspaper:

"…My heart is pounding, my blood singing as it courses through my body, desire pooling, unfurling ... everywhere."

"His breathing is mounting, his ardor … Holy cow."

"Fifty Shades of Grey" is sprinkled liberally and repeatedly with asinine phrases. Some of my favorites: "My/his breath hitches" (signal to reader: impending sex scene), "Jeez" (signal to reader: Anastasia is just a kid and/or has a very limited vocabulary for expressing wonder/shock/amazement), and finally, "Holy (insert expletive of choice here)" (ditto).

To be fair, the book's source material isn't great literature either. James initially wrote her book as fan fiction, an outright homage to the "Twilight" series and its inexplicably retrograde take on sexual politics. A quick refresher course: Ostensibly Cool, Smart Girl Meets Sexy Vampire Dude; Girl is both repelled by and inexorably drawn to Sexy Vampire; Girl, immediately following her graduation from high school (high school!), gives in to her darkest urges and marries Sexy Vampire. Then she gets pregnant with his demon baby, and that's when things start to get a bit weird.

It has been said before: The story of Bella and Edward is arguably the most anti-feminist portrayal of love — and eventually, sex — imaginable. The same can be said for Anastasia and Christian's "relationship." And yet, millions of young (and now, thanks to James, not so young) women are reading this stuff and idealizing Sexy Vampire/Billionaire Sadist's disquieting hold over the Girl. (Who, in Bella's case, goes from being kind of a badass to being a teen mother — of a demon baby, people! — with an emotionally withholding husband). It's not exactly the dream outcome for any young woman with half a brain.

Ditto Anastasia: Freshly graduated from college with an awesome GPA (as readers are frequently reminded), this book-smart virgin falls into the clutches of a rich, psychologically stunted guy who buys her a car and a laptop and lingerie. He flies her around in his private jet! Oh, and he wants her to sign a contract (which is inexplicably reprinted in its entirety as one full chapter in the book) giving him the right to slap her around (and then some). James does allow Anastasia some second thoughts on the whole submissive thing, but they're fleeting and quickly overruled by her hopeless inner goddess. In the end, Anastasia's doubts are no match for the sultry erotic power of Grey's really fabulous hair and his judgmental and controlling eyes (which "blaze" at all times, except when they are glaring sensually).

It's all quite depressing.

Women have always loved escapist fiction: romantic, erotic or a combination of both. And women — of all ages, orientations and yes, predilections — should absolutely continue to enjoy and even revel in the genre. But regardless of our tastes, I hope we can all agree on this much: We deserve better than this.

printersrow@tribune.com

"Fifty Shades of Grey"

By E L James

Vintage, 528 pages, $15.95

 

This piece first ran in Printers Row Journal, delivered to Printers Row members with the Sunday Chicago Tribune and by digital edition via email.

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