Friday, March 30, 2012

Book Review: Fifty Shades of Grey by E. L. James

By Sara N.

Fifty Shades of Grey, the erotic novel by E. L. James that I wrote about a few weeks ago, has become a publishing sensation, topping bestseller lists, inspiring scads of stories in various media outlets, and even landing on the cover of Entertainment Weekly. I'm sure I'm not the only one who was curious to know if the book was any good. So for you, dear Stellar Four followers, I have read the book — and survived to warn you all away from it.

I wanted to like this book. I really did. I wanted a BDSM erotica novel that began life as fan fiction — Twilight fan fiction, no less — to end up being sexy, dangerous fun. I wanted it to show all those stodgy types that creativity on the web can be as high quality and entertaining as works that flow from a traditional publishing source.

Well, my friends, I'm sorry to tell you that Fifty Shades of Grey is a terrible book. It made me want to put the book in a car, set that car on fire, then push that flaming car off a cliff. As I was reading it, I had only one question: Did a single editor cast her eyes on any these words?

First, the sexy times scenes: They're well done. If that's what you're reading the book for, dive in and enjoy. They're steamy, and the kink level pushes the limits of traditional romance novel sex scenes. But literally every other part of the book is problematic. Sure, you've got your typos and your punctuation problems that any good copy editor should've caught. But worse than that, the book was a repetitive slog. Ana bites her lower lip 40 times in the book, and every single time, it drives Christian into a sexual frenzy. Every. Single. Time. (Gads, she must spend a lot of money on lip balm.) People — primarily Christian — were described as smirking 39 times. No way is anybody that smirky going to be the sex god he's made out to be; no woman would spend enough time with that smug bastard to let him get any practice in. These and the many other tiresome repetitions demanded an editor's pen.

Pictured: Fodder for creepy mental images.
Some of the awfulness of the writing is downright comical. James is British, and her slang is so veddy English that it sounds ludicrous coming out of the mouths of characters who are 20-something residents of Washington state. Do you mean to tell me that the publishing house couldn't spring for an editor to read through the manuscript to catch obvious Britishisms such as "He always catches me on the back foot" and "I didn't know he existed until last Saturday week"? Also straining credulity is Ana's technological naivety. She's a recent college graduate who doesn't own a computer or have an email address. Let me repeat: She does not have an email address. I don't even know how to process that. A more clever author might've had Christian mocking Ana's ancient AOL email address, then setting her up a new one as, or some such thing.

To be fair, the book shows flashes of witty writing, but they're buried in an onslaught of redundancies and descriptions of Christian's tousled copper hair. I suspect the bigger reason that the books are so successful is the same reason Twilight succeeded: That guilty, heady thrill that comes from reading about the impossibly handsome, emotionally remote man who's baffled to find himself falling in love with the plain Jane woman. However, the well-done sex scenes and the secret shame of loving a Mary Sue story just aren't enough to overcome the shaky, amateurish writing.

Seriously, publishing houses, who is on your payroll? I don't care how small an operation you are; you are publishing books. Books contains words, and words frequently need editing. Did you know there's a job shortage out there? Can't you find a few unemployed editors who could read a manuscript and pick it apart with a red pen before you peddle it to the masses and expect them to drop their hard-earned dough for a saggy, laughable, amateurish piece of work? This isn't fan fic's fault; it's the fault of a publishing house that didn't properly prepare its manuscript for publication.

Recent news stories indicate that James sold the movie rights to the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy for a rumored $5 million. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to go scream into a pillow.
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  1. I have friends that love it, but I'm really not surprised. A certain other wickedly famous paranormal romance series garnering a huge following suffers similar failings IMO.

    Thankfully, I gag when anything strays into the love zone. I'll stick with my kick-ass heroines.

    1. I suspect the people who enjoy it do so because of the sex or the Mary Sue aspects and can overlook the rough, repetitive spots. I did enjoy those parts but couldn't forgive the rest.

  2. Ha, that made me laugh. I got a really nasty review on A Gift of Ghosts this week that starts with complaining about how many times Akira bites her lip (either 17 or 19 total in the book, I counted but have forgotten already which it was) -- perhaps I'll just hope that lip-biting is the ticket to a best-seller! It goes on to complain about how many times she applies lipstick (exactly once) -- any chance that happens a lot in Fifty Shades? Alas, I never let my hero smirk, so that probably ruins my chance. Well, that and skipping the whole BDSM-thing!

    1. Please. Would the Bella Mary Sue character ever fuss with lipstick? She's far too klutzy and down-to-earth adorable for that ...

      I think in the hands of a more skilled writer (which you are, by the way!), a repetitive action because a character trait and not a writerly crutch.

      Also, the Kindle has made it far too easy to do word counts.

  3. I must admit that I'm still not too clear on how a fan-fic is allowed to be published (and converted to film) without treading right into plagiarism issues.

    Unless the author of the "fan-fic" also happens to be the author of the original series and is just trying to cash in. From the descriptions above and the little that I've managed to read of twilight, there doesn't seem to be much of a difference in the writing.

  4. What? Fifty was Twilight Fan Fic? Huh. Go figure.

    1. haha, I didn't know that when I read it, either. I was like, "Man, this chick seems totally like Bella. Is this some kind of knock-off or what?!" My twitter timeline was like, "Uh, well, Laurie..." ;)