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Taking No Prisoners – My View of Fifty Shades of Grey

Posted on the 30 May 2012 by Isabel Costello @isabelcostello

Warning:  This article makes reference to sexually explicit material.

Taking No Prisoners – My View of Fifty Shades of Grey
By the time I finished the first chapter of E L James’s Fifty Shades of Grey, two things were clear:  everything I’d heard about the writing was true, and it wasn’t going to be a long read.  One of these was regrettable, the other a blessed relief.  I’m not writing this piece as a Book Review because I’m not recommending this title as a good read.  I wouldn’t be able to review it properly anyway because I have no context for it, as I don’t read romance, erotica or pornography.   (After leaving university I turned down a job translating German porn into English.  My life could have been so different…  My reaction at the time was, ‘There are words?’)

I digress.

So this is my entirely personal, subjective view of Fifty Shades of Grey.  You may disagree.  You may think this is the hottest thing you’ve read since the last hot thing you read.  If you are curious you’ll have to see for yourself.  I felt I had to when a friend, following a discussion of Booker prizewinner The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes, no less, said she thought any woman would get something out of it.  I got this article, see?

The trilogy is a global publishing phenomenon, currently occupying the top 3 slots in the New York Times Bestsellers.  The first volume, and subject of this piece Fifty Shades of Grey, is the number 1 bestselling fiction title in the UK according to Nielsen BookScan.  There’s an interesting background to the success being enjoyed by British female author E L James (a pseudonym) – the books were originally written as a online serialised Twilight fanzine under a different pseudonym, Icedragon’s Snowqueen, then all references to vampires having been expunged it went on to sell well in e-book format before being picked up by Random House.  The author is said to be as surprised as the next person at her success, which began not in liberal Europe but in America, and is now spreading faster than you can say sado-masochism.

For that is the subject of these novels.  Student Anastasia Steele meets and becomes entangled with the stunningly good-looking, attractive, gorgeous, copper-burnished, fragrant and above all grey-eyed (because the title wouldn’t make sense otherwise) business magnate Christian Grey.  He tells her he’s no good for her (he’s really not kidding) but she is powerless to resist.  He wants the kind of sex where he is the Dominant, intent on punishment, and she is the Submissive, and he has a luxuriously appointed Red Room of Pain to prove it.

Maybe it’s not considered important in these genres but neither of the main characters seemed real.   Anastasia does scoop the prize for most irritating female protagonist though.  Aged 21 and having never previously experienced even the faintest stirrings of sexuality, she is propelled into a state of such insatiable and constant arousal that it gets in the way of other things, a plot, for example.  Remarkably little action takes place in the Red Room of Pain but a near identical sex scene of a more conventional nature takes place every few pages because although Ana shatters into a thousand pieces/splinters into a million pieces with every orgasm, she then reassembles to do it all again.   As all writers (should) know, sex scenes must be approached with great caution.  There’s a lot to be said for the power of suggestion and letting the reader fill in the blanks with their own imagination.  You can kill it dead with explicit detail – too much grinding and filling and it can end up sounding like A Day in the Life of a Dentist.  This felt to me like it was written by a man.  I have no problem with female sexual desire being explored in fiction (the subject comes up in my book), but I do have a problem with the portrayal of men performing violent and degrading acts on young women who can’t think of anything they’d rather do.  Ana has no self-respect.  In the book blurb this novel is described as ‘liberating’.  Am I missing something?  What’s liberating about being blindfolded, bound and gagged?

Ana is styled as feisty and unsubmissive (for Grey says so many times) and yet she goes along with almost everything he wants, including accepting several extravagant gifts she has just said she can’t accept.  The only thing she won’t do is sign his pointless unbinding contract detailing the Terms and Conditions between the Dominant and the Submissive.  Without the tedious machinations about this damn contract the book would be half the length.  There are interminable exchanges of e-mails so embarrassingly puerile it’s like Anastasia and Grey are about 15 and horribly bad at flirting.   For someone who has spent years studying literature to be as vacuous as this girl is a real achievement, and that’s despite having three personas: herself, her ‘subconscious’ (so shallowly buried that she thinks about it all the time) and her ‘inner goddess’ who appears no fewer than 65 times – thank you someone else for counting, it felt like hundreds.

My inner goddess sighs with relief. I reach the conclusion that she rarely uses her brain to think but another vital part of her anatomy…

That explains a lot.

There were aspects of the story that I presume will play some part in the second and third books.  There are discussions about contraception and Ana not taking her mini-pill at the right time of day – exciting stuff! – if only this had happened earlier in the book we would have been spared dozens of sexy opening of condom packet moments.  There is a trip to Georgia to visit Ana’s mother which seemed to contribute very little – she goes to get a break from Grey, he follows, cue more of the same.  Actually, there was a particularly gross sex scene, come to think of it.

But let’s be honest here.  Most writers dream of what’s happened to E L James.  For all the sneering, mine included, the success of these books is down to people buying them, something to think about as we choke down those sour grapes.  Last week I heard an agent say that other publishers are falling over themselves to bring out a sex series of their own.  So if, in a year or so, you come across A Day in the Life of a Lady Plumber by ‘Stella Belle,’ go on, take a chance.  No inner goddesses, promise….

I’m dying to know what you think – have you read the books, are you tempted or would you run a mile?


As the 4 day Diamond Jubilee weekend and half term approach, there’ll be no post next week, but if you’re looking for a great and topical read, I DO recommend Book Review – Jubilee by Shelley Harris


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