Monday, May 18, 2015

2012: Fifty Shades of Grey by E. L. James

The Author:

Erika Mitchell (1963-    ) was born in London.  She was raised in Buckinghamshire where her father was a BBC cameraman.  She went on to study history at the University of Kent, and later became a television producer.  She married screenwriter Niall Leonard in 1987.  She became active on and in 2010 began publishing a series of erotic stories under the username Snowqueen's Icedragon, rewriting Stephenie Meyer's Twilight series with Edward as an S&M billionaire playboy.  She originally called it Master of the Universe in what I can only hope is the most bizarre Bonfire of the Vanities reference ever.  Mitchell rewrote the series enough to avoid an intellectual property lawsuit and published it under the title Fifty Shades of Grey.  The first two books in the series, Fifty Shades of Grey and Fifty Shades Darker, were originally published as an e-book or print on demand by Australian vanity publisher The Writer's Coffee Shop, and the third book, Fifty Shades Freed, was published in 2012.

The Book:

Length: 514 pages
Subject/Genre: Christian's unremitting gaze/erotica

Well, this was it.  From the very beginning, since that first post back in February 2013, this was my white whale. (And I realize I just passed up an opportunity for a 'grey' pun, but no.  I am better than that.) While I'd honestly rather have reread all the damn technical chapters from Moby Dick than any of the technical details about Christian Grey's dick, sacrifices must be made.  Here goes.

Think about a Twilight erotic fan fiction story where Edward is replaced by a billionaire who's into bondage.  Actually, don't think about it.  It's awful.  I know because I read the result.  And the fact is, a lot of the fanfic carried over.  Bella Anastasia, the narrator, is clumsy and describes herself as plain and uninteresting (the first and last any reader of 50 Shades can attest to).  Though she describes herself as such, for some reason, just like that vampire groupie who shall not be named (lest the Meyer estate sue), every one is in love with her. Seriously, every guy that gets more than five lines and isn't her stepdad wants to bone Anastasia, despite the fact that she is downright awful.  She has absolutely no personality.  She's an English major in Vancouver, Washington with a part-time job in a hardware store. She and her roommate/best friend plan to move to Seattle when they graduate.  So what does Anastasia want to do?  She plans to get a job in a publishing firm, but does she want to be a publisher? An editor?  What are her opinions on anything besides 19th century literature and Christian Grey's omnipresent gaze.

(And as for the gaze, how many hundreds of times is this specifically mentioned throughout the book?   It's like if the billboard of T.J. Eckleburg in The Great Gatsby were trying to mentally undress Daisy every other paragraph.)

And Christian isn't much better.  Despite what 50 Shades of Grey fans may think, 'well-hung' is not a character trait.  He and Anastasia are blank slates for readers to imprint their kinky fantasies on.  (On an unrelated note, the copy I picked up from a used bookstore has slight water damage.)

The obvious response is: well, it's porn.  To which my response is: Yeah, but it's terrible porn.  Anaïs Nin and Marguerite Duras and Henry Miller and, I assume, many others (I don't know much about erotica as a genre), have shown that libertine writing/erotica can still be (gasp!) well-written.  I literally just opened up to a random page and found these gems:

"Holy Moses, he's all mine to play with, and suddenly it's Christmas."

"'It's deep this way,' he murmurs."

"I thought I was in charge. My inner goddess looks like someone snatched her ice cream."

I don't mean to be hard on James, though.  She was never trying to write anything more than her sexual fantasy (which just happened to star the cast of a YA paranormal romance novel),  and when it got some popularity, she thought she'd make a bit of money off it.  That it became an international sensation (pun intended) was never anticipated.  And I'm not exaggerating when I say international.  Last November I was in Prague, and walking down a street I passed a sex shop.  I wouldn't have even noticed it were it not for a big poster advertising the author-approved Fifty Shades of Grey sex kit.  No, this wasn't some scuzzy central European Taken-esque trap, but an official, very real product.

"You've read the book, now insert it into an orifice!"

There was an attempt at making a porn parody of Fifty Shades of Grey (because apparently everything from the Adam West Batman series to 30 Rock has gotten porn parodies), but the lawyers got it shut down because they argued it was not transformative, i.e. the original was too close to porn anyway.  Also, the above links are SFW to youtube trailers, and, I shit you not, the advertisement that played before the latter was for the DVD of 50 Shades of Grey.  I can't make this up.  (I mean, I could, but I'm not.)

Speaking of the movie, the adaptation was released on Valentine's Day, 2015.  It stars Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan and was directed by Sam Taylor-Wood (her second film, her first being Nowhere Boy (2009)) and screenplay by Kelly Marcel (her second film, her first being Saving Mr. Banks (2013)), because apparently someone thought making a John Lennon biopic and a film about Tom Hanks being charming  asWalt Disney was good background for bondage porn.  While there may never have been a chance, I'd be remiss not to point out that Bret Easton Ellis (author of American Psycho and Less Than Zero) publicly declared his desire to write the screenplay, but nothing ever came of that.

I'm not quite sure who is supposed to like this movie, besides the executives and their accountants, of course.  The whole point of the book is literally being porn, and even a good movie like Blue Valentine barely escaped an NC-17.  The whole selling point was, It's a porn book! but that doesn't really carry over to a movie (or, at least not to the type they screen at your local cineplex).  On the other hand, the characters range from fucking dull to just fucking, so when you eliminate the latter, you end up with boring characters.  From the get-go, there was no way this movie would satisfy any of it fans (pun intended).  

In conclusion:

Holy shit, is this bad, but holy hell, is it erotic.  I mean, is it erotic?  I tend to think there's a difference between graphically sexual and erotic.  To steal from Nin, writing to the mysterious benefactor who paid her a dollar a page to write erotica, but constantly demanded 'more sex, less poetry,':

"You do not know what you are missing by your microscopic examination of sexual activity to the exclusion of aspects which are the fuel that ignites it.  Intellectual, imaginative, romantic, emotional.  This is what gives sex its surprising textures, it's subtle transformations, its aphrodisiac elements."

So I guess, what I'm saying is, screw this book (and I think I need to point out that this is not a recommendation to literally screw this book).

But seriously, you can derive everything beneficial from the experience by watching the following (SFW, except for language) video.

Bestsellers of 2012:

1. Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James
2. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
3. Fifty Shades Darker by E.L. James
4. Fifty Shades Freed by E.L. James
5. Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins
6. Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins
7. Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Third Wheel by Jeff Kinney
8. Fifty Shades Trilogy Box Set by E.L. James
9. The Mark of Athena by Rick Riordan
10. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Also Published in 2012:

The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson
Bring up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel
Railsea by China Miéville
Home by Toni Morrison


Boog, Jason. "The Lost History of Fifty Shades of Grey." GalleyCat. Adweek, Nov. 21, 2012. Web.

Brennan, Zoe. "E.L. James: The Shy Housewife Behind Fifty Shades of Grey." The Telegraph.
     Telegraph Media Group, July 07, 2012. Web.

James, E.L. Fifty Shades of Grey. 2011. New York: Vintage Books, 2012. Print.

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