Gleefully shitting on Fifty Shades of Grey became its own pastime as soon as the books started climbing up bestseller lists. But as easy as it is to lambast a trilogy of books written from the standpoint of a sexual idiot savant with a fifth-grade reading level, there's something smarmy and inauthentic about knocking something you haven't read. So, recently, I read them.
To understand my journey into the darkest recesses of the lowest common denominator, it helps to understand how Fifty Shades of Grey came to be. In 2010, a British mother of two who called herself Snowqueen's Icedragon posted the first chapter of a book called Master of the Universe, a smutty Twilight fanfic starring Edward and Bella. (Why name yourself the inscrutably possessive "Snowqueen's"? What is an Icedragon? I'd be a pretty cocky shit about that ruffly fanfic pen name right now if I weren't ridiculing a zillionaire who obviously knows something about humanity that I don't.)
But Snowqueen's wasn't alone in producing her magnum opus. Perfecting MOTU was a group effort, edited and punched up with the help of her legions of devoted fans (very, very horny members of Team Edward who offered her pointers on American slang and dirty-talk). Because a trilogy of books about Twilight characters fucking like S&M rabbits is less marketable than an
"original" trilogy of books about new, original people (that just so happen to resemble Twilight characters) fucking like S&M rabbits, our scribe Snowqueen's Icedragon "reworked" and extended MOTU before marketing it as the Fifty Shades of Grey we've been taught to know and loathe.
Whether or not the first installment of Fifty Shades was actually changed all that much at all has been called into question; one fan analyzed chapter one of FSoG against chapter one of MOTU and found an 89 percent similarity between the text of both; essentially, only the names of the characters had been changed. Furthermore, as the Fifty Shades wiki notes, there is a direct correlation between almost all of the characters in Twilight and almost all of the characters in Fifty Shades of Grey, right down to Christian's exes.
(Unfortunately for amateur Snowqueen's Icedragon archeologists who wish to further examine the two literary masterpieces' similarities, all traces of the original MOTU—with the exception of a few precious screengrabs featured in this fascinating 2012 article on AdWeek—have been scrubbed from the web. Their truth is lost to the digital ruins. Who says the internet is forever?)
As Master of the Universe changed to Fifty Shades of Grey, so too did Snowqueen's Icedragon turn into E. L. James, entrepreneurial writer of sophisticated erotica which was definitely not just Twilight fanfic with the names swapped out. Books one and two of the trilogy were released by an Australian self-publishing house in May and September of 2011, respectively, and Book three followed in early 2012. Fans ate them up like Christian ate Anastasia's asshole in Book two: disgustingly, and with no regard for the shit they were putting in their face. Major publishing houses took notice of the book's virality, and in April of 2012 the books were re-released by Vintage. The rest is Burn Your MFA history: 20 weeks atop the bestseller list, James surpassing J. K. Rowling as the most popular writer of all time on Amazon UK. A million and a half giggly morning show puff pieces. A billion finger-wagging pieces from both ends of the political spectrum about how the books glorify abuse and are capital-B Bad. Now, a movie that promises to get women to seductively open their hot, wet wallets.
It's been a full-blown cultural phenomenon for years, and I could no longer deny the fact that I had to read it or risk being a fake-ass hack.
I start this journey by downloading the first book to Kindle, because like hell I was going to kill trees in the name of a snickering hate read (and like hell I'd be caught dead reading Fifty Shades on a train where I once definitely saw Martin Amis). I begin book one on the day after Christmas.
Having fully expected the book to be bad, I nonetheless feel truly unprepared for the degree to which the first book sucks. By the time I've gotten to the part where Christian Grey—a 27-year-old billionaire shithead who has a company that may as well be called Business, Inc.—signs Anastasia Steele, 21-year-old virgin about to graduate from college with a degree in English, up for her first email address (in the year 2011), I feel so smugly vindicated that I begin highlighting the passages that read exceptionally badly to me. I highlight, giggling to myself, the part where Christian asks Anna to sign a multi-page legal contract detailing her role as his sub, and his as her dom (one requirement: sub shall not snack upon anything other than fruits, because Christian Grey loves spanking but hates Type II diabetes.) I highlight the scene where Ana comes so hard she has to be carried to bed, like tiny baby Ariana Grande. The first time Christian Grey's S&M playroom is called "The Red Room of Pain" gets highlighted, as does the part where Anastasia astutely notes that Edward looks like a model in "some glossy magazine" and was wearing "some expensive cologne." This book is so descriptive. Reading this, I can picture exactly what "some expensive cologne" might smell like.
I suppose it's unfair for me to describe Anastasia as a single character; in Book one, she is actually three characters: Anastasia the human person, Anastasia's "inner monologue," an uptight librarian-type who is always peering over half-moon spectacles in judgment of Anastasia's moral choices, and Anastasia's "inner goddess," a sex-crazed Cathy cartoon who shows up during the middle of sexual encounters to like, do the merengue. Occasionally, Anastasia's conscience shows up to chastise her, but she's not near as cunty as the inner monologue. Incongruous and jarring doesn't even begin to describe the effect of this writing style.
The fucking in Fifty Shades is mildly boring—a difficult feat, when the act being described is an orgasmic deflowering following heavy nipple play. Things take a nosedive as Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele continue to fuck, endlessly, for 400 more pages, and as every single love scene reads like a magnetic poetry version of the first. Reading them one after another has the cumulative effect of rendering my pussy drier than an economic policy lecture delivered by Aubrey Plaza. Grey's penis interminably "springs free" of his boxer briefs, a description that I suppose is apt if not exactly alluring. Anastasia refers to her ass as her "behind," her vagina as her "sex." Her juvenile exclamations of "Jeez!" and "Oh, my!" and "Hmmm" are interspersed with the least specific descriptions of Christian Grey—the guy who threatens to beat her up for mouthing off or misbehaving—as the hottest man in the history of men. "He's just sex on legs," Anastasia says on page 316. From that point forth, my brain will read the remainder of the trilogy with the vocal inflection of the mother from Bobby's World.
It's bad. It's a bad book about bad people written badly. It glorifies the sort of domineering masculine violence that lands women outside of James's jill off fantasyland in the hospital, in domestic violence shelters. Perhaps most unrealistically, its male protagonist is a 27-year-old man living in Seattle who wears ironed shirts, cleans his room, and has his shit together. I'm far from the first person to realize this or to write this. But, somewhere in the first book, I realize I have been hooked.
Over the next two dreary end-of-December days, I find myself seeking out solitude with my Kindle and the ridiculous world of Christian and Ana. This book doesn't make me want to masturbate, as so many winky writeups on Fifty Shades have suggested. I'm much more concerned with the general welfare of Anastasia Steele, the poor sexually gifted moron, instantaneously perfect at blow jobs, owner of the best-tasting pussy in the world, who is apparently so simple and uncurious that she can't be bothered to worry about her personal safety. I'm worried about Anastasia Steele as a cagey shopper worries about an unrelated five-year-old child wandering unsupervised around a store. I'm not titillated; I'm terrified for the naive sex-baby Snowqueen's Icedragon has unleashed into a world intent on harming her. My inner goddess is calling the police.
At the conclusion of the first book, Kindle prompts me to read the second book, and without hesitation, I buy it. I do this of my own free will. I submit willingly.
Unfortunately, in Book two (ominously called Fifty Shades Darker), the book tries its cramped hand at a plot centering on bad women trying to steal Christian away from Anastasia. We meet former sexual partners of his driven mad by his magical dick (none of his exes seem to think he's a jerk) and determined to have him back, an older woman who Christian says seduced him at age 15 (who Ana refers to as "The Bitch Troll"), random waitresses who cannot stop eyefucking him. "Yeah girl, he's mine!" says Ana's inner monologue in response to all of these women who want to steal Christian from her like he's an Edvard Munch, which makes the book read as though it were written by a defensive guest on an episode of Jenny Jones.
But Ana's not the only one suffering from suffocating bouts of jealousy; subplots in Fifty Shades Darker center around the men who try to steal Anastasia away from Christian, too. These men include Jack, a predatory and beponytailed editor at the publishing house that employs Ana; Jose, the underdeveloped and hopelessly friendzoned Latino Jacob the Werewolf of the Fifty Shades series; even Christian's bodyguards get little crushes on sexy baby Ana. She's just so bland and irresistible. I love you, Ana! Christian says constantly. Anastasia, like a squirrel with a head injury, in turn wonders whether or not Christian loves her. Could it be love? "I love you, Anastasia," Christian would say, again, and Ana's horny rodent brain wonders anew if it was, in fact, love. Then she'd "misbehave," and Christian would hiss that he wanted to beat her up, and Anastasia would get super turned on, but also scared. For a thousand pages.
But all isn't lost. In the second volume, Anastasia is less of a fuck noodle; she gets to kick a guy in the balls, steals her crooked boss's job, throws a drink in a woman's face, and agrees to marry Christian after they've been dating for only five weeks. By this point, even E. L. James is getting bored writing dozens of sex scenes for the pair, and so she mercifully ends a few of them once the foreplay starts. I find myself skipping past the sex scenes James does manage to see through to the end, out of sheer boredom and desire to make sure that Anastasia doesn't accidentally wander into traffic. I hate literally every single character in these books.
And still I remain, faithfully reading, so accustomed to James's style that the snarkily highlighted passages grew fewer and further between. Still, I run to the book during every free moment. I'm reading the book as the clock strikes midnight on New Year's Eve. Only a week after starting Book one, I worry that Anastasia's speech patterns have seeped into my brain. I forget to pick up eggs at the store one day before making a recipe that required them, and said to my boyfriend, without thinking: "Oh, crap," an expression I haven't used since I was in elementary school and was still scandalized by the word "shit." I realize that Snowqueen's was getting to me in ways I hadn't bargained for. My inner goddess self-immolates.
I worry that, just as reading excellent writing can make one a better writer, reading shit writing could make one worse, and that when I came out of the other side of the books, I'd be a mental Anastasia, muttering Oh my… to myself as I enjoyed anything. I try to take a mental break with The Goldfinch, but when I got back on the subway with my Kindle, I find myself back to the trilogy. I can't stop myself: I'm drawn, like a moth to slobbering descriptions of Christian Grey's dick.
In the same way I'd worry that I worried the book was making me worse at thinking, reading, and writing, I worry that all of the bad sex writing in would make me worse at sex. I worry I've been so immersed in the desperate hair-grasping world of Christian and Anastasia, the deep frenching, simultaneous orgasms and near-complete lack of pre-intercourse blow jobs that I'd start fucking like a thirsty 21-year-old who just lost her virginity. Would my sex life become the scene in Forgetting Sarah Marshall when a desperate Kristen Bell fakes a theatrical orgasm atop a horrified Russell Brand? Would I be able to become sexually aroused without thinking about the scene when Christian shaves Anastasia's pussy because she didn't do it right? During foreplay one night, a passage from Fifty Shades Darker involving vaginal weights pops into my head and it takes all of my mental strength to banish it.
Book two ends with Anastasia and Christian engaged. In mental tatters. I purchase the final installment, Fifty Shades Freed, immediately.
Book three commences promisingly, with the pair on their honeymoon in Europe. Anastasia sunbathes topless, which infuriates Christian, so he covers her boobs with hickeys, and Ana gets mad and throws a hairbrush at his head. Christian buys her a $50,000 bracelet to cover up the marks left by handcuffs and won't let her pee before sex because, he explains, it will make her orgasm better if she's gotta whiz. Romance! Meanwhile, someone is stalking them. WHO COULD IT BE? wonders Ana's overheating brain, failing to recall mere weeks ago, when she kicked her bepoyntailed editor in the balls and effectively ended his career.
Somewhere during Book three, it's clear that the dum-dum masterpiece lightning that Snowqueen's Icedragon captured in the first book has long fled its bottle for greener pastures. Both the inner goddess and the inner monologue have disappeared, never to be mentioned again. The sentences are more smoothly constructed, the vocabulary more grown up, Anastasia less of an idiot, Christian more of a nuanced prick than a yelling emotional teen. James's prose has improved from comically terrible to boring and banal. Violently awful writing is so much more interesting than barely passable writing; an Anastasia who doesn't say TRIPLE CRAP after stumbling on a loose carpet isn't the Anastasia whose personal safety I became accustomed to fearing for. Married Christian is boring. I no longer give a shit about Anastasia finding out who Christian used to date and throwing it in his face like a child.
Snowqueen's Icedragon's masterpiece and I drift apart. I procrastinate by spending weeks reading takes on Jonathan Chait. When I force myself to slog through what remains of the trilogy, it reads like a right-wing fantasy. Anastasia just, like, forgets to get her birth control shot for four months in a row and finds out she's pregnant and is like "WHELP GUESS I'M HAVING A BABY NOW!" Christian's sister gets kidnapped and Anastasia saves her, using a gun her stepfather, who used to be a Marine, taught her how to shoot real good. Christian changes his mind and is all, "Sure, I guess this human who cannot get it together enough to attend a birth control shot appointment every few months is 100 percent equipped to care for the life of a human baby." Anastasia looks in a mirror and says she feels old. Anastasia is 22. And then, right before the epilogue, comes this scene:
"I want in your mouth." His voice is soft and seductive. My body, ripe and ready, clenches deep inside. The pleasure is sweet and sharp.
I moan. Turning to face him, I pull his head down to mine and kiss him hard, my tongue invading his mouth, tasting and savoring him. He groans, places his hands on my behind and tugs me against him, but only my pregnant belly touches him. [...]
He grasps my head, stilling me, and I sheath my teeth with my lips and push him deeper into my mouth.
"Open your eyes and look at me," he orders, his voice low. Blazing eyes meet mine and he flexes his hips, filling my mouth to the back of my throat and then withdrawing quickly. He pushes into me again and I reach up to grab him. He stops and holds me in place.
"Don't touch or I'll cuff you again. I just want your mouth," he growls. [...]
Christian lies beside me, his hand caressing my belly, his long fingers splayed out wide.
"How's my daughter?"
"She's dancing," I laugh.
"Dancing? Oh yes! Wow. I can feel her." He grins as Blip Two somersaults inside me.
"I think she likes sex already.
"BANANA!" I call out to empty living room. Banana is my safe word. Sexual beating of a pregnant woman is too much for me to take. Snowqueen's Icedragon has finally gone too far.
I started reading the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy convinced that it would be the Killer Klowns in Outer Space of literature, and Shakespeare it wasn't—but by the end, I wondered if its stupidity was deliberate, perfect, and therefore, genius. If E. L. James is capable of writing smarter characters than Anastasia, as evidenced by the more intelligent voice used to write during the rare moments in the books that the story is told from Christian's perspective, is she a bad writer or a good writer with a virtuoso grasp on stupid? If the latter is the case, Fifty Shades of Grey is the literary accomplishment of our time, the Great Idiot American Novel, told from the perfectly captured perspective of an idiot, written about an idiot and available to be enjoyed, primarily, by idiots.
Fifty Shades nails how idiots think and (apart from the physical violence) how adolescents love. I winced with familiarity when I recognized that Ana saw Christian with the same retrospectively embarrassing adoration I remember lavishing on the first men I ever thought I loved. Christian traipses into the room wearing a particular pair of faded, loose-fitting jeans that sound like the sartorial equivalent of a wearable dog turd, and Ana feels a sexual clench in her stomach. Christian, in sunglasses, says "Gotta love Bruce" as Springsteen's "I'm On Fire" plays on his car stereo, something that would make me want to tear my face off now, but cartoon hearts erupt from Ana's head—the same cartoon hearts that erupted from my head when my college boyfriend insisted on playing 50 Cent while we had sex in his lofted dorm bed. Christian is an uptight dork at his best and an abusive monster at his worst, perhaps the least chill man in human history, but Ana loves him because she's an emotional baby with no self esteem. Like we all were. My inner goddess deletes her LiveJournal.
Weeks ago, I began a painful journey that promised to walk the line between pain and pleasure and ended up here, with a reluctant admission: no matter how much reading PG-rated mom-swearing in the context of a graphic penetration scene made my brain flinch, no matter how incomprehensibly it smarted to read a book written by a woman and narrated by a woman that would fail the Bechdel test—that, in the end, I would give in. There would be times during the process I didn't think I could take it; I'd want to put my head in a blender and light my Kindle on fire. There would be times I'd avoid finishing the task, that I'd nearly give up. But in the end, I'd finish all three books, 1,600+ pages of what I'd sneered at as mindless drivel with a terrible moral outcome when I could been reading smart things by good writers. I'd soldier through the beaten-to-death linguistic cliches, a surprising amount of footplay, Anastasia talking about that time Christian put stuff into her anus. I'd allow myself to be assaulted by Anastasia Steele's relentless dullness until I broke through my disgust and found myself in a dark new place, one I didn't know existed inside me. By the end, I—in a fucked up way—actually liked how it felt.
Image by Jim Cooke.