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.

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