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Fifty Shades of Ambivalence

I’ve vowed not to write today’s post about the hot new novel Fifty Shades of Grey. My goal this week is to be the only book blogger in America not writing about what Katie Roiphe in a Newsweek cover story calls this “watered-down, skinny-vanilla-latte version of sadomasochism. “ I would have thought not writing about this novel would have been easy. After all, I spent great swathes of my 20s engaged in the activity I thought of as Not Writing My Dissertation.

Fifty Shades of Grey book coverBut for those who follow the seismic rumblings of the Webverse there’s an odd fascination for anything that goes viral; even a proud fossil like myself can feel the pull of the numbers. I first noticed the groundswell a week or two back when one of my Facebook friends, a married woman in her 40s with teenagers to watch over, asked this question of her Facebook friends: “Anyone read Fifty Shades of Grey AND WILLING to discuss it? Perhaps privately?”  Within a half-hour she got 33 responses. To an observer it was as if a shy, benevolent school of barracudas had discovered a trawler dumping fish guts overboard. No matter how delicately couched the responses it was a feeding frenzy all the same.

Then, as I often do when I want to examine a book I suspect I do not want to own, I checked my local library. Fifty Shades was headlined on their front page as the #1 New Release. The library had 30 copies available, but when I signed up to reserve it, I was #387 on the list. (As of today, I’ve moved up to #382 of 575 requests.)

The library’s online  info was helpful in learning more about 50 Shades, though. Here’s the publisher’s description of the 514-page novel:

When literature student Anastasia Steele is drafted to interview the successful young entrepreneur Christian Grey for her campus magazine, she finds him attractive, enigmatic and intimidating. Convinced their meeting went badly, she tries to put Grey out of her mind – until he happens to turn up at the out-of-town hardware store where she works part-time. Erotic, amusing, and deeply moving, the Fifty Shades Trilogy is a tale that will obsess you, possess you, and stay with you forever.

Hmmm. Given my well-known aversion to romance novels and my strong belief that no novel written in the 21st century should be more than 300 pages, this does not sound like my kind of good read. I decide to give it the one-page test. My theory is that reading the first page of any piece of fiction offers you a surprisingly accurate gauge of whether you’ll  be able to stomach the story. 

Photo of E.L. James

London TV exec, wife, mother, and author E.L. James.

The first page of Fifty Shades is not as bad as I expected it to be.  E.L. James writes with a certain fast-moving energy. The level of detail as the protagonist grapples in the first paragraph with how to tame her unruly hair (perhaps some symbolism there) is on the mark. It is not till we get to page 5 that we hit the first truly cringe-inducing sentence as Anastasia waits to meet Mr. Grey in an intimidatingly tall office building.

Beyond that, there is a floor-to-ceiling window with a view of the Seattle skyline that looks out through the city toward the Sound. It’s a stunning vista, and I’m momentarily paralyzed by the view. Wow.

Wow, indeed. There’s no need to belabor the point. Stunning vistas described this way ain’t my kind of writing, and I suddenly remember the money quotes in Katie Roiphe’s piece, which she reserves till her grand conclusion:

In fact, if I were a member of the Christian right, sitting on my front porch decrying the decadent morals of working American women, what would be most alarming about the Fifty Shades of Grey phenomena, what gives it its true edge of desperation, and end-of-the-world ambience, is that millions of otherwise intelligent women are willing to tolerate prose on this level. If you are willing to slog through sentences like “In spite of my poignant sadness, I laugh,” or “My world is crumbling around me into a sterile pile of ashes, all my hopes and dreams cruelly dashed,” you must really, really, want to get to the submissive sex scene.

So I set out NOT to write about this book, and I’ve already given you 700 words’ worth. Very sorry about that.  And I haven’t yet come near such vital questions as whether the author has been influenced by William Empson’s Seven Types of Ambiguity, Wallace Stevens’s “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” Paul Simon’s “50 Ways To Leave Your Lover,” and Martin Luther’s 95 Theses.

Photo of two actors in the play Venus in Fur

Nina Arianda and Wes Bentley in Venus in Fur.

I also meant to probe the matter of why sadomasochism is ludicrous when depicted tamely to avoid the dreaded NR film rating, as in A Dangerous Method, the recent biopic featuring Jung, Freud, and a crazo Keira Knightley, who has both an obsessive need to be spanked and to become a psychoanalyst, and, conversely, why the old von Sacher-Masoch game of contracting one’s mistress as one’s slave can work in an interesting ways if merely suggested, as in David Ives’s Broadway hit, Venus in Fur. But, really, who cares?

11 Responses to Fifty Shades of Ambivalence

  1. So, I start reading this post, expecting you to actually start writing about all that Grey stuff and ended up howling of laughter. You sunnamagun, you really got me there. Brilliant.
    Who cares? I most certainly don’t.
    PS To take revenge on your ‘aversion to romance novels’, I just may post the first page of MY ultra sensual romance novel here, but I bet you’d delete it :)

    • Thanks, RDR. The title of this post is close to literally true for me. Clearly, this is not my kind of book, yet I’m curious about what’s driving its popularity. You’re probably right about my hitting the delete button – Kaze and I, being gentleman of the old school in terms of our sensibility, try to run a PG blog.

  2. Caroline Altman Smith Apr 24, 2012 at 11:28 am

    I opened this book at random a few times and read a sentence or two, and each was more unbelievably awfully written than the last. This whole “50 Shades” phenomenon is completely baffling to me–how could someone make it all the way through this drivel? If someone is so starved for S&M stories, presumably there are infinite web sites where one could read up on this, if one was so inclined–but for this book to become the country’s #1 bestseller is just bizarre.

    • Well said, Caroline. I’m equally baffled, except to say that I suspect that you may have grown up in a house with high literary standards, an upbringing shared by very few these days.

  3. Bad writing never stopped The Da Vinci Code, of course.

    What’s puzzling is that readers can go to a hugely popular site like allromancebooks.com and discover the term “romance” is largely a misnomer. These books — with flame icons for their “heat” rating and lips for “sensuality” — are basically erotica with varying levels of explicitness. Their BDSM category alone lists more than 1,800 titles. Some are for a gay audience, but still, the readership for allromancebooks is overwhelmingly female. The days of chaste Harlequin Romances is long past.

    • Thanks for the clarification of the genre, hacwriter. Despite my desire to claim all storytelling as the province for this blog, I have a terrible time actually reading more than a paragraph or two of this stuff. Put another way – my tolerance for camp is minimal. The Da Vinci Code comparison is apt. My attempt a few years back to read a page of that mega-seller by Dan Brown was an epiphany-like moment for me: I suddenly realized that the reading masses seemed to have no sense of literary quality whatsoever.

  4. Knowing the ethical standards of the publishing industry, why does anyone believe that this sweet cheeked young woman is actually the author? Isn’t it more likely to have been written by two or three paunchy, balding, middle aged smokers who, if pictured, would kill the book fast? DeVere would be so proud.

    • Wait a minute, ET. Are you blaming Shakespeare for this? But on the matter of the true author of Fifty Shades: having read a half-dozen pages, I can assure you that no male – paunchy or otherwise – could have written this stuff.

      • Sorry, I’m just suspicious of everything. There seem to be so many ghostwriters, pseudonyms, the selling of authors names, publications well after an authors death, etc. that I am very suspicious of everything, especially when there’s big money involved. Why the next thing you know, we’ll learn that our presidents don’t write their own books. Can you imagine?

  5. George, what passionate responses here! A few thoughts: I believe we are similar in that you and I see the process of things perhaps more intriguing than their outcomes. I found it curious that this book entered my world, through the news and social sites I visit routinely. I did not seek it. I did not search it, or stories like it in some seedy adult toy store on line or downtown. It came to me. This gave me some sort of moral and social ‘permission’ to investigate something I would never otherwise seek. The fact that in a few clicks of my iPhone, the book was tucked quietly on my iBooks bookshelf, along side my volunteer, carpool and Zumba schedule, was very exciting for me! No one would ever have to know!
    While on spring break at the beach, I sat quietly on the sand reading this book, while my boys skim-boarded and wrestled in the ocean. Having never read anything this sexually explicit (yes, call me naive), it felt like reading this was a dirty, sneaky secret. Especially since my husband was nearly 600 miles away at work paying for it all.
    There is no way I can defend this book critically. It is drivel. There were parts that were pretty unbearable. But, there are the right books for the right time and this one seemed to fit my beach mood. And, since this subject was new to me, yes, I was willing to read through the poor writing and repetitiveness. I’m sure you would agree there are books we read at different seasons of our lives, then there are vacation books!
    As it turned out, I needed to return to the beach later the following week as my Dad was hospitalized there. After long days of visiting him at the hospital, I returned to the beach house each night searching for any distraction I could. Stripping dated wallpaper, gardening, and power washing just didn’t fit the mood, neither did finishing these books. They are totally inappropriate for the occasion.
    There did seem to be a frenzy to my original fb post. Although I was hoping to delve into other aspects of the book, no one really bit, not even privately. Analysis spoils wholes. Simply put, it was a fun beach read. I was happy to be home with my husband. Perhaps I’ll finish the series in June.
    As always, your blog posts are thought provoking, George. I learn something new with each one.
    And BTW – don’t be a hater of romance novels – they fill a need, too. There are millions of single, middle-aged, multiple cat owning women that drop in 3 times a week on their elderly parents, who rely heavily on them…

    • Thanks, Robanne, for putting 50 Shades of Grey into a more interesting context than I would have imagined. Also interesting that nobody on the Facebook page wanted to get into a meaningful discussion of the book. As you said, this is the kind of book I find fascinating in the sense of trying to figure out what the roots of its popularity are. There’s a sense in which I have a strong populist bent on storytelling – the more people reading fiction, any kind of fiction, the better – but then the other side of my brain – call it the drivel-detector – kicks in.

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