Fifty Shades of Grey is the worst book I have ever read. Full stop. It is absolutely atrocious. And I’m not talking about the sex. I’m talking about it as a book.
I have never imagined a more annoying character than Anastasia Steele. Her baffling inner monologue first amused me, then confused me, then enraged me. I kept reading in the vain hope Grey would suggest some erotic asphyxiation that would go horribly wrong (or right, depending upon your point of view).
The prose is worse than the characterisation. These gems can be found in the first fifty pages:
His voice is warm and husky like dark melted chocolate fudge caramel… or something.
‘Listen here, Jose Rodriguez, if you want our newspaper to cover the opening of your show, you’ll do this shoot for us tomorrow, capiche?’ [sic]
I can’t find a single thing about this book I like. The characters, plot, style, structure and narration are all awful. And I’m not alone in questioning its literary merit. It has been so universally panned that I’m bothering the flies as I flog this decomposing equine.
But the book is enormously popular. Why? Is it simply the BDSM? It’s possible, but I see nothing to recommend this over other such erotic novels aimed at the female audience. There is a thriving industry in this ‘Mommy Porn’ genre, with big publishers, small niche players, and individuals self-publishing erotic fiction for women. I’ve read some of this, and almost all that I’ve seen is better than Fifty Shades of Grey. So why did this become a bestseller?
One reason, I think, might be its roots. It started as Twilight fan fiction, where Bella and Edward get a bit naughtier than in Stephenie Meyer’s series. This is strangely popular: some people want their characters to be more sexually adventurous than originally portrayed. Ten years ago, when the Lord of the Rings movies came out, fans shared their stories of how Frodo and Sam did a lot more together than take the Ring to Mordor.
E L James and / or her publisher have tried to wipe from the internet this old fan fiction, Master of the Universe. However, the internet doesn’t forget, so one can find it, if one wants. I read part of it, curious, and found the foundations for Fifty Shades. It was as terrible in its first incarnation as it is now:
I sigh and shake my head. Oh Edward… my possessive, jealous, control-freak Edward.
When he’s finished he slaps my behind.
-You’ll do, wench.
His ever-present, ever-active BlackBerry buzzes. I frown at him and he smirks at me.
-My eyes only, Mrs Cullen. He raises his eyebrow in playful warning, slaps my backside once more, and sits back down on his lounger to take the call.
My inner goddess purrs. Maybe tonight we could do some kind of floorshow… for his eyes only, she smirks knowingly. I grin at the thought and drift back into my afternoon reverie…
It is conceivable that Fifty Shades started with this Twilight fanbase, and when it went legitimate it brought these fans, and more, with it. It is also conceivable that this was simply a fluke, a lighting strike, something unexplainable. Sometimes strange things happen, like unexpected books becoming enormously popular. Artists often wonder about this. According to legend, the Beatles considered performing while wearing masks to see if people would come to their shows for the music and not the Beatles hype. Stephen King worried about it, wondering if he was really as good as his sales suggested, and famously published under the pen name Richard Bachman. For the record, the Bachman books didn’t sell as well as the King books.
I can’t explain the great success of Fifty Shades. Maybe others can, people who know more about markets or the female psychology. History might eventually consider the book as an important milestone in our on-going sexual revolution, and give it a place of honour next to other artistic works such as Flowers in the Attic, I Am Curious (Yellow), Playboy, and Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Then again, maybe not.