50 Shades – an apology

My name’s Claire and I’m a book obsessive. I mean I own about a thousand. I like the smell, the feel. I get shivers when I walk into a book shop. I spend most of my work and leisure time writing, reading, thinking about, or talking about books. But I’m well aware that other people don’t feel the same. They’re like: ‘A book…is that that thing that’s shaped like a DVD, only bigger, and you don’t get deleted scenes?’ So I was very surprised earlier this year to find people – non-book people – talking, debating, and above all buying in shedloads, a humble book. At the time of the worst 50 Shades hysteria, I decided not to read it (I’m more inclined to jump off the bandwagon), but a week ago something snapped and I decided I had to give this a go. I can’t formulate an opinion on it without reading it – though that doesn’t seem to stop everyone else.

I’ve been amazed at the backlash. Ranging from ‘I couldn’t get past the first paragraph’ to ‘I will hide all your Facebook posts until you finish that book’ to ‘you are dead to me’ (joke…I think?) you’d think I’d been delving into Mein Kampf or 100 Days of Sodom, not a romance novel. It seems to be me there are two main criticisms of it. 1: This book is badly written. It does not deserve to have done so well; and 2: this book is anti-feminist. I’ll leave aside the ‘she doesn’t deserve her success’ argument as it’s moot. Books don’t sell because they deserve it. They sell because people want to read them, and talk about them, and pass them on to friends. 50 Shades has been a genuine word of mouth success, and for all those decrying its poor prose style, someone’s sure buying the thing in truck-loads. So.  Don’t be bitter. I’m quite bitter most of the time anyway (I’m told it’s one of my most charming features), but I’m not jealous of EL James. This is a one-off event, a publishing Black Swan. No one can predict them. She was lucky, to a large extent, and she struck a chord (Unlike Mr Grey, who strikes a cord, ho ho).

So, point 1. This book is badly written. To be honest, I don’t see it. Sure, the prose style won’t be troubling the Booker judges any time soon (but seriously, did you read Sense of an Ending? I’d rather go in the Red Room of Pain than wade through that turgid rubbish again). It’s clichéd – tablecloths and wines are always ‘crisp’, every secondary character is ‘an immaculate blonde’, and Christian’s business seems to consist of shouting into a phone at someone called ‘Bob’. It’s repetitive – he always smells ‘divine’, the orgasms are always ‘earth-shattering’, and that whole inner goddess thing is deeply, deeply annoying. She says ‘jeez’ and ‘oh my’ and ‘holy crap’ and even ‘crapola’ a lot. But, you know, Ana is 21, and at 21 people are often quite annoying. As for the good points, it flows well, the story bubbles along nicely, and it ends on a cliffhanger that I thought was quite clever, and means I’ll probably read the sequel, which I hadn’t planned on doing. There are some nice email exchanges that made me smile. And I found out lots about music and interior décor.

I’ve heard people say ‘but nothing happens’, and again I’d dispute that. It’s a romance novel. If you’re used to crime, then sure, there’s no dead bodies or autopsies or plot twists, but those aren’t common in most books anyway. Girl meets boy, girl and boy agonise over things, then get together, is the basis for most romance novels. So if you don’t like that, don’t read the genre. I found 50 Shades more interesting that a ‘women’s fiction’ book I read recently, in which the entire plot was ‘a woman is sad because her husband has died. She gets a new job and shags someone and is a bit less sad. The End.’

In conclusion – it’s a perfectly decent example of a specific type of book. It’s not the best-written one ever, but it’s definitely not even the worst-written I’ve read this month. At least I finished it. I’ve discarded about twenty other novels this week alone.

Now point 2 – it’s sexist. Being well-known for my feminist views, this interested me. When it comes to spotting sexism, I’ve been there, done that, and I do quite literally own the T-shirt (a feminist one). I scoured the book very carefully for signs, and I believe it comes (sorry) down to this – do you think it’s possible to be a feminist, and still enjoy being beaten by a man? I think it is, because sex is something different, with its own rules, and if we only got aroused by the right wholesome things this would be a very different world (and I doubt 50 Shades would have sold so many copies). It’s made clear that Ana always has a choice, and what she can expect is unequivocally set out in a contract. Incidentally I don’t think a contract is a bad idea for relationships. Imagine – ‘my hard limits are: misuse of apostrophes, wearing white socks, and voting Tory. The rest we can discuss.’ He only hurts her properly one time – which she has asked him to do, so she can experience it – and when he does she finds it painful and degrading and immediately breaks up with him. It’s also not an explicitly gendered thing – we’re told he too has been a sub, for a woman. It’s a sex thing, not a sexist thing, I would say. There is a difference, I think.

I’d say it’s his other behaviours which are more worrying. Telling her what to eat, what to wear, and who she can spend time with are all classic early-warning signs of domestic violence. I think it’s possibly a little dangerous to set up the idea that if a man does this, he will stop when you ask him, just because he loves you. Or the idea that a man who’s so keen to hurt you would change all his rules so quickly. A sample issue in the book is resolved thus:

Christian: I want to hurt you.

Ana: I’d rather you didn’t. Can we cuddle instead?

Christian: I don’t do cuddling. I am tortured.

Ana: Oh. I’d like it, though. Holy crapola, this is confusing.


Christian: OK then. Shall we just snuggle? Seeing as it’s you. You’re hot. Let me buy you another Macbook.

However, it’s also made clear that when she asks him to stop, he does stop (I’m not sure this would happen in real life, but it’s a romance novel). And I don’t think EL James invented these dichotomies. She’s just reflecting issues that probably do come up for real women all the time- where’s the line between chivalry and control? There are plenty of women who want to be bought presents, flown in helicopters, and have a man look after them, just as there are plenty who’d vomit at the thought of being told they couldn’t pay in a restaurant because it’s ‘emasculating’ (seriously, you’re meant to have a massive knob. A woman buying you coffee won’t cause penile shrinkage, Mr Grey).

Now, the sex – it is frequent, yes (and yet at no point does Ana come down with a nasty bout of cystitis. Clearly this is the most unbelievable part of the story), but it’s not THAT kinky. I’ve read much filthier stuff in mainstream Jilly Cooper, which I started on at the age of thirteen, and no one minded, even my mother, who banned Neighbours on the ground of inappropriateness. There’s never any other people involved, for a start (not something dear old Jilly could say), and although Christian says he will never spend the night with her, he does it ALL THE TIME. All mouth and no trousers – typical. Perhaps it’s damaging to suggest to young women that they will have three orgasms the first time they have penetrative sex, but I don’t think EL James is alone in peddling that particular myth. So no, I don’t think it is sexist. I think she has written a slightly stereotypical hero (rich, tortured, hot), but you know, that’s why people READ romance. Isn’t it? Women DO fancy rich, hot, tortured men. Otherwise, again, no one would have bought the book. So it’s not like James invented sexy, unsuitable bastards. To go back to Jilly C, her main hero, Rupert Campbell-Black, is an utter twat, who beats up women and horses, shags everything that moves, forces his pregnant wife into a foursome, and has dinner with General Franco (to be fair to Jilly, it was the seventies, when fascism and foursomes were socially acceptable)…yet we’re still supposed to drop our La Perla knickers for him – hello! Whereas Christian Grey is SAVING THE WORLD FROM HUNGER, by, er, doing something in Darfur involving Bob mumble mumble no one read those bits anyway did they?

Essentially, I think this is a love story, about a young woman who falls for a man with very serious flaws that keep them apart. We’ve all been there. Even if he doesn’t want to tie you up in his Red Room of Pain, he’ll probably enjoy watching cricket or vote UKIP or blow his nose loudly or something. Getting past the flaws of people we love is an issue we can all relate to, surely. Clearly, the millions of readers of 50 Shades have done.  I don’t think it’s the best book ever, or even the most erotic, but I quite enjoyed it and I didn’t feel violated as a woman or a feminist. Believe me, if someone was sexist-ing me, I’d definitely notice.

So, in conclusion, stop hating, start masturbating. If you want to, I mean. If you don’t just watch telly or read something else or have sex a man called Kevin who owns a push-bike and makes you pay for your own Pot Noodle. It’s your choice! That’s what feminism is.

One Comment Add yours

  1. Always a pleasure to read your posts Claire and this one is superb – very funny and with a refreshing viewpoint too. Let’s push aside the jealousy towards Erika James, she’s got people reading, that’s the main thing, now it’s up to us writers to run with it and really give people something to think/talk about!

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