Fifty Shades Might Have Been Good

Sep 18, 2015 | The Publishing Industry

Well, I can’t read Fifty Shades of Gray. I doubt I’d manage to get through the first chapter, seeing as I couldn’t get through even the first Twilight book. Therefore, I am experiencing it the only way possible: by listening to Mark Oshiro read it, and watching his head explode every five minutes.

Everything about the series is still as bankrupt as ever. And yet, I’m seeing the glimmers of what might have been some worthy ideas, buried under layers of total bullshit, bad porn, and some of the worst prose ever penned by a human with working fingers. Don’t get me wrong – I’m sure it was accidental, and my opinion of E.L. James is still pretty low, but it’s there.

There are few common threads running through the first book.

Ana is astonishingly immature, ignorant, and outright antagonistic towards Christian.

Christian is highly abusive, both mentally and physically, to Ana, as well as being controlling and completely lacking in any kind of respect for her as a person.

Ana talks like a bloody teenager, and it gives me the kind of rage that could set every copy of this horrible book from here to Jupiter on fire.

Christian doesn’t have a goddamn clue what BDSM is. E.L. James doesn’t have a goddamn clue what BDSM is. But that doesn’t stop him/her shoving a metric ton of irrational, hateful rhetoric about BDSM at the reader.

Whenever Ana brings up some of her very valid concerns. Christian uses her newfound libido to completely derail her attempt to discuss them.

It’s fan fiction. By Odin and all His Ravens, it is SO VERY fan fiction. Damn near everything that happens in this book, from start to finish, is because it’s fan fiction and fan fiction almost demands certain tropes. There is no actual plot here, just a series of fan fiction chapters loosely strung together.

The sex is purple prose dogshit. (I feel completely justified in writing that sentence.) Speaking as someone who has read more than one romance book, and a not inconsiderable amount of fan fiction porn-without-the-vaguest-semblance-of-plot, I can say with some authority that the sex in Fifty Shades of Gray is awful. It’s mechanical, at best; lacking almost every scrap of true human feeling, and used as a club to beat the reader into submission. I am not kidding when I say that I have read better sex between imaginary tentacle monsters, if only because imaginary tentacle monsters are not afraid to call their goddamn genitals by their actual names, and not ‘DOWN THERE’.

Towards the end of the book, there’s a sex scene in almost every chapter, and it’s always the same inane scene played out: Ana and Christian argue about something, then they’re both overtaken by animal lust and they screw as if self-control is something that they left in their other pants. It is so, SO boring. SO BORING. E.L. James tries to mix it up with different positions, activities or kinks, but she can’t hide the fact that these two characters have nothing in common other than their libidos.

And so on and so forth, but I think if I write any more about what’s wrong with this book, I’ll just put myself into a bad mood for the rest of the year.

But what if Fifty Shades was good?

I don’t even know how to describe this.

Fifty Shades of Gray might have been a good series. There’s a faint outline of what might have been, and I think that outline describes a very different book than the dross we’re stuck with. So let’s delve into some… hypotheticals, for now.

Christian is a survivor of childhood abuse. He embarked on an ill-fated affair with Elena when he was a teenager, who most certainly took advantage of him instead of getting him into therapy, but that’s all ancient history. His coping mechanism was to forgive and forget, because her actions did help him to deal with his trauma in some way even if they were wrong. Besides, their relationship is complicated, and he’s never really stopped needing her. He flirts with the BDSM lifestyle without really understanding it, believing himself to be too broken for a normal relationship, but also being unable to maintain a respectful kink relationship.

Ana’s been sheltered her whole life, and never believed herself to be a sexual creature. She’s ignored her sexual side for years, all through college – but now, on the cusp of her finally stepping out into the world, she finally meets someone who truly threatens the safe little bubble she’s been living in. It’s terrifying, but intriguing, and she doesn’t push him away.

Christian is drawn to Ana in a way that he has never been to any other woman. Most other women have been scared away because he unsettles them, but she has a core of innocence about her – a certain willingness to believe the best of him, in spite of the red flags. She should run, like the others, when he makes a few clumsy and horribly stalker-ish motions to get closer to her, but she doesn’t. She actually finds him fascinating enough to eventually fall in love with him. The chemistry between them is frightening, and he starts to believe that she might be the redemption he’s been searching for.

But Christian doesn’t know how to have a regular relationship, and Ana has no experience. All he can do is try to connect with her through the sham of BDSM he’s constructed for himself, and she can’t process how he has been damaged by abuse, or separate it from his kinks. Their conflicts all stem from their inability to behave like normal people in a normal relationship, or to recognize when the stuff they do is very messed up (especially in Christian’s case).

The story themes revolve around the evolution of each character, and how they help each other in their individual process. Christian lets Ana into his inner life, and with her love and more therapy, he finally lets go of his trauma and with it his need to engage in fake BDSM. Ana is challenged and brought out of her shell by Christian, and gains insight, self-confidence and wisdom through her relationship with him.

The horrible thing is that I think E.L. James was going for something like this. She was definitely invoking the ‘healing your man with the force of your love’ trope with Ana. But the book is crippled – absolutely crippled – by the need to include so many sex scenes as per the norm for fan fiction, the author’s utter inability to tackle such complex themes, and her complete ignorance of the nature of kink. Then she threw in the billionaire nonsense because everyone else was doing it, and the vastly unrealistic sex because fan fiction is nothing if not completely over the top, while her own actual skill with writing is woefully under-developed. What we’re left with is the gigantic hot mess that is Fifty Shades of Gray.

What might have been, my friends. It could have been a gem; an honest, deep examination of the nature of one’s sexuality, and how it’s shaped by history and current events. It might have been amazing.