Monday 23 September 2013

Fifty Shades of Grey: Dull and Sad

Fifty Shades of Grey bores and saddens me rather than titillates me. A person only needs to read two Dan Savage columns to get up to speed on kinky sex. The book's sex scenes are hilarious rather than erotic or sexy. Here is a "hot kiss" in an elevator:

"My tongue tentatively strokes his and joins his in a slow, erotic dance that's all about touch and sensation, all bump and grind" (78).

"Touch" AND "sensation": those two people are off the hook.

It turns out that Christian Grey, the supposed kinkoid, just likes cuffs and light whipping--no blood or drugs--and he insists he and his current partner are monogamous. What a sissy! This is not the book to get your naughty on, or even any sex at all. I suppose, though, there are enough people out there who just need to see words that relate to sex to get turned on. But that's easy enough to arrange. No one needs to read a five-hundred page book for that: kiss kiss intercourse intercourse kiss kiss intercourse intercourse climax. There. For those who just want a hug and a cuddle, here: hug hug cuddle.

With its supposed entertainment value gone, the novel does not offer more than what a run-of-the-mill Harlequin Romance does. The names of the main characters in Fifty Shades of Grey give away its genre:  Christian Grey (the kinkoid) and Anastasia Steele (the sweet yet spunky heroine--well, not too spunky or she'd be too uppity--change that to "borderline lobotomized heroine").  These are TV soap-opera names, or the pseudonyms of romance writers, interchangeable with each other. The goal of this genre of fiction is to create a situation where a woman can marry a wealthy, handsome man from an aristocratic or old-money family. The woman's qualifications are that she must have the potential to be a beautiful, sexually compliant, fertile wife with just enough education and manners to make a pleasant impression at a reception at a senator's house. (Oh, spoiler alert! They get married in Book 2. By Book 3 they have two babies.)

The narrative has no subplot, either, so the entire story revolves around the dragged-out courtship of Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele. This means that even when Christian tells Anastasia that he can't see her anymore, he has to see her again within five or six pages. Anastasia calls Christian a stalker, but Christian has to be a stalker, structurally, to get the novel past page 4. Anastasia must also be able to run into Christian in all sorts of weird places. Christian shows up at a home hardware store, a university student bar, a restaurant--just because he has to show up for there to be any novel at all. He has to be distant and conflicted to make a cat-and-mouse courtship possible. And for god's sake, he can't be gay (that would be sick).

As well, Anastasia has to be totally hot for him (something Christian will require, being the man, since men "need it") and yet give him every opportunity to make her dependent on him (this genre of romance values traditional gender roles). In other words, the dominant/subdominant trope in the novel is the same one that all Harlequin Romance novels have. The female protagonist has to be poor (well, middle-class--who wants street people in a romance novel?) so he can buy things for her that she can't afford. (He buys her a laptop, which is too bad, since the readers then have to read their stupid emails to each other--did you know that dominants like to use smiley faces in their emails?) She has to be clumsy so that he has the opportunity to catch her in his arms every time she stumbles around (drunk or sober, it doesn't matter). Oh yes--she has to get drunk at a bar so she can drunk dial him on her cellphone and thus summon him two pages after she makes the phone call (how? he has cellphone tracking software on his computer, of course!).  She can't be a slut (yuck), but neither can she be mousy: all the other men in the novel have to throw themselves at her so people don't think she is unattractive or a lesbian.

The novel's blurb claims this book is witty. I struggled to find any sign of intelligence in its characters or its writing. A novel has to do more than mention Thomas Hardy or Jane Austen in passing to be witty.

I found many more examples of witlessness. For example, at one point Anastasia says her face turns "the color of The Communist Manifesto" (28). What colour would that be? The original manifesto, first published in 1848, was printed in a black and white pamphlet and soon after in a newspaper (in those day only printed in black and white). But whose face turns black and white, or even greyscale? The copy of the novel I'm reading has a grey cover. Hey, maybe Fifty Shades of Grey is a crypto-communist parable! Naw. Okay, then. Maybe the cover is pink, since Anastasia blushes and flushes, and people who blush (and, I suppose, flush) might get a pink face. Why would Anastasia think The Communist Manifesto is pink? What a weird association. Sometimes romance novels for women have pink covers--does Anastasia think The Communist Manifesto is chicklit? That's one possibility. What else? Maybe she thinks the book cover is red. That could be it too, since cliched writing often describes blushing (or flushing) faces as being red. A twenty-first century book publisher might indeed makes the cover of Marx and Engels's book red to associate it with the red of the socialist movement and later the communist movement and government of the USSR. A glance through showed some publishers put red on the covers of the book, though not all of them do, and some of the covers have red details only, not fully red covers (only one publisher has done that). Huh. Maybe Fifty Shades of Grey is more complex than I thought!

While I was reading the book, I came to understand how non-readers think. A nonreader will pick up a book, read one or two pages, and say, "Wow, I really don't care what's going on here. Who cares? What's the point? How can this book make my life any better than it already is? I really don't want to read this."

 This book contains all the lessons on not what to do that I tell my writing students about. Too bad. If the author is able to publish and make money off this crap, it's difficult for me to explain why, for example, using the word "very" all the time is stupid, or why cliched writing strangles creativity and removes the specificity that distinguishes not just one event from another, but one writer's work from another's.

James has made a swack of money on this book and its two sequels and movie deal, and she doesn't deserve it. When people say, "Talent will out," I usually just shake my head; now I can laugh, point to this novel and respond, "Well, shit will out too."

What's next on my list? It can't be worse than this.

Friday 20 September 2013

Fifty Shades of Grey: First Chapters, First Impressions

I have entered a world where everyone is "smartly dressed"--no, make that "very smartly dressed"--and where a woman's knee-length boots are "sensible." It's also a world where a writer can write this sentence:

     "It's a stunning vista, and I'm momentarily paralyzed by the view."

and then follow that sentence with



Popular Fiction Read-in: Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone

The story of Harry Potter was a natural choice for me to put on my list of eight books. Many (most?) people I know have read at least one of the books. One friend has become an attender of Potter conferences and reader of Potter fan-fiction.

Younger people in particular have most likely read the book in school, either by desire or by force.  One day at my cellphone store, I watched the TV screen near the customer service desk, which was showing one of the Harry Potter films (I don't know which one), and my family and I discussed the merits of the different famous actors who were in the Harry Potter films (we compared Michael Gambon and Ralph Fiennes), and my husband (who has read four of the books) was struggling to explain the details of a running joke about the revolving door of professors who teach a particular class at Hogwarts. The young man behind the sales desk helpfully filled in the blanks (the course is Defense Against the Dark Arts).

I don't think I will ever get to the fan-fiction point, and I am not sure that I will even read any of the other books, though I do have a copy of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. My husband bought the first four books when the older kids were around, and now only that book remains--the other books have dissipated into the aether, so I am reading a library copy.

I have seen parts of all the movies on television; I know I have seen all of the last film, which is the only one that I went to the theatre to see. The film was grim because the story had reach the point where the iterations of Voldemort had led to a villain able to walk around on his own and use his various acquired resources to attack the heroes full force. Because I saw the last film, the suspense in the first book was slacker than it likely would have been otherwise. I know Snape's secret, for example, and I know that Voldemort will continue to grow strong. I also know who lives and who dies.

Nevertheless, I am a fan of this book. In fact, I liked the book very much.

The first chapters remind me of Roald Dahl's books, with the parents and supervisory adults trying and failing to drive the naturally good child to their level of small-mindedness and cruelty. The book is in favour of family, but it does not assume that all families are created equal--good people stick together, and if a family isn't good, it is not worth supporting wholeheartedly.

Once Harry is on the Hogwarts Express, he leaves the Dahl world. The world of the Muggles is a netherworld or hell, and the world of the wizards is more like the real world. Not everyone is nice, but there are enough nice people around who make life worth living and even make life fun. Each school year, Harry must negotiate hierarchies of students and school staff, and he learns which rules he shouldn't break and which rules he has to break.The book is quite a bit like the books set in schools, such as Captain Underpants and Diary of a Wimpy Kid, that children like to read; adult versions of this kind of story are called campus novels.

The novel is not a work of realism, though. It borrows from genres of fantasy. Harry comes out of the folk  tradition of the secret prince, a child orphaned early in life and only after a series of adventures learns that he is not an ordinary person at all, but an extraordinary person, by virtue of his parents. His natural superiority makes him noticeable to all those who are able to notice it--at Hogwarts, most people know Harry is superior to them, though a small number of people are resentful (the Malfoys, for example). The Star Wars films have this aspect of folktale about them, too, such that Harry Potter is a version of Luke Skywalker.

For Harry to have turned out so well despite having been treated so badly by his foster family defies plausibility in a work of realism. In a fantasy story with folkish roots, Harry is perfectly consistent, though. The stories are formulaic, since these genres are formulaic (as genres are). In that sense, when I reached the part of the story where Harry and his friends try to find out what is going on below the trapdoor, I had a sense of deja-vu from the bits of the movie versions I have seen. A trusted person turns out to be a villain, or a suspected villain ends up being a person willing to sacrifice himself for Harry.  This deja-vu also comes from folktale formulas that structuralist analyses of folktales by people like Vladimir Propp have revealed . I suspect the Rowling books conform to these formula.

The characters are appealing, even the villains. Harry is good, but not good to a fault. He has cunning, and he knows that he can do things other people can't, so he will break rules to achieve his goals. Hermione is the pure one at the start of the book, but by the end she decides that she needs to work the system in order to achieve meaningful goals--rid the school of evil influence and support her friends.  

Even though I was not expecting a plot surprise, I still had surprises. The novel is full of imaginative details and subplots. I liked the flying keys, and I liked Hagrid's troubles while he tried to raise a baby dragon in his hut. I also liked how the book portrays the children and their normal obsessions: candy, cliques, sports (whether football or quidditch), and the balance between keeping on the right side of authority and getting into trouble. I was also surprised with Rowling's light touch. The movie I saw in full was pretty serious and glum.

I was surprised, but in a disappointed way, that the philosopher's stone didn't make itself more present in this book. Its extreme powerfulness turns out to be too much for even wizards to handle, and, for the sake of happiness and world peace, the inventor agrees to its destruction before anyone really gets to use it.

I worry about reading the other books. I think the books are about a boy who lives in a recurring nightmare in which he spends months of suffering among his cruel family, escapes after much struggle, and spends several more months in a world that has less cruelty and more pleasure, yet which ends with his having to confront the force that destroyed his real family. He achieves victory, but only after some great loss, and then he must return to his cruel family for a space of time so that the nightmare cycle begins. Unlike most books out there, wealth and power isn't everything. Evil is more powerful than good, but moral goodness trumps power.

I suppose that these stories may be a parable about life, but it is not a naive view of life, necessarily, although the overall lightness of the adventures, the giddy silliness of it all, is a way that the novel shows their overall optimism.

I am ready to move to the next book, Fifty Shades of Grey. It is waiting for me at the public library.

Monday 16 September 2013

Popular Book Read-in: Harry Potter and the Philospher's Stone

First Chapter, First Impressions.

What strikes me from the first page is that this is a children's book. The writing is pitched at a child, not an adult, even though this book is popular with adults. What also strikes me is that the book is suspicious of  middle-class adults. Mr. Dursley is a caricature of a stolid office worker: a seller of drills at a grumpily titled company ("Grunnings"), he deliberately chooses "his most boring" tie for work. Mrs. Dursley fears what her neighbours might think of her eccentric sister Mrs. Potter, and her obsession with knowing what people are doing and what they may think of her has led to her acquiring a Lamarckian long neck developed for over-the-fence snooping.The wizards are hippies.

Tuesday 3 September 2013

Web blog Series: Popular Fiction Read-In

Wall of Ideas, Berlin
No book by any author listed on this monument is on my list.
I am embarking on a popular fiction read-in. I have avoided reading bestselling popular fiction, and now I want to read them to see what drives people to read books that I would not ordinarily read. The list is below: 

1. Harry Potter series (just the first book) by J.K. Rowling
2. Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James
3. The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown
4. Twilight series (just the first book) by Stephenie Meyer
5. The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
6. The Shack by William P. Young
7. The Game of Thrones series (just the first book) by George R.R. Martin
8. The bestselling fiction book at the time I get to number 8 (if it is not one of the above 7) as listed by the Globe and Mail.

I chose these books because they have been bestsellers of the last decade. I decided to stay with fiction rather than nonfiction (though The Shack may be a work of creative nonfiction--the use of fiction techniques in nonfiction, though I won't know until I read it, I guess).  I chose eight books because five seemed too few and 10 too many.

I may go to 10 books based on people's suggestions. Right now, however, I plan to read eight.

I plan to cleanse my palate between these books with other reading. Right now I am finishing a book of Anton Chekhov's short novels, and I am on Day Eight of Giovanni Boccaccio's The Decameron.  

I have preconceptions about the interaction of the palate-cleansers and the list. For example, I expect that my Chekhov reading will be enhanced by Hosseini, while I think The Decameron will prepare me for Fifty Shades of Grey

Some of these eight books I look forward to reading; others I dread. Some I expect I will rather hate; others I think I will like. I will try to be fair to all of them, but I can't hide my own reading habits, which have gotten more particular over time. The more good books I read, the more I lose patience with things such as sentimentality, misogyny, racism, sensational violence, and substandard writing skills. I dislike cliches, but I have more patience with plot cliches than with language cliches. Books that hit one of my negative hot-buttons will likely not get a positive reception from me. 

I will start with Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone.