Apr 032013

Perkins, Lori, ed. Fifty Writers on Fifty Shades of Grey. Benbella Smartpop, 2012 Amazon

Much like Christian Grey himself, the Fifty Shades trilogy is everywhere, overwhelming and relentless, dominating bestseller lists, metastatizing into countless imitators, and spawning an entire industry of gifts, CDs, boardgames and other branded merchandise, plus a feature film. Through sheer repetition and ubiquity, we find ourselves trying to accommodate it, even to make excuses for its flaws and offences. Some of the authors in this essay collection try too hard to put a positive spin on Fifty Shades. Even the collection’s  editor, Lori Perkins, says:

Some have wondered how a “classic” can be so “poorly written.” But I contend that it is not poorly written, but rather written in an everywoman’s voice, a necessary part of its success I once worked with an author who used plebian language…. When she returned my edits, she told me that she did indeed know the word “simultaneously,” but when she was fantasizing, she always used the phrase “at the same time as,” and she knew that her readers did as well. [Pg.3]

EL James’ prose is not “plebian” or “in an everywoman’s voice”, it’s just plain bad. You don’t need an MFA to read or write good prose or hot prose.

I  suspect that Perkins is being uncritical because she doesn’t want to alienate this collection’s target audience: people who love the trilogy and will buy anything related to it, a far larger group than those who are critical of it and will buy this collection. Even people who have been trying for decades to raise the literary stature of erotica, like M. Christian and Cecilia Tan and D.L. King, have to throw up their hands and acknowledge that, as one bookstore owner says, “Our customers are very smart and they say it’s badly written, but they are in the middle of book three.” (Pg. 17) Erotica’s bestselling breakthrough is here, and it’s written at the level of a dyslexic Grade 5 student. Might as well ride that wave as much as possible.

We may have to take it, but we don’t have to like it, or become apologists for it. I have to take issue with Debra Hyde’s claim that:

… [Ana] doesn’t sacrifice too much of her autonomy in loving him [Christian]. If anything, her autonomy grows over the course of the trilogy. [Pg.189]

In my reading, Ana steadily loses agency over the last two books.

Most of the essays appear to be written solely about the first book, which ends on the positive note of Ana leaving Christian, and its only in the latter two books that both the plotting problems and the abusive relationship becomes unavoidable.

Jennifer Armintrout’s “Every Breath You Take” essay is the most harshly critical of the Ana/Christian relationship, analyzing it by the criteria of partner abuse and in the context of our culture’s weirdly two-faced view of abuse. Armintrout cites the publicized Rihanna/Chris Brown case as an example of how people will excuse a violent man if he is famous and scorn his victims. In that light, the popularity of Fifty Shades and its ancillary media (“Why can’t my husband be more like Christian Grey?”) is frightening, suggesting a naked worship by heterosexual women of violent, controlling and unstable men as long as they are wealthy and privileged.

But is Fifty Shades of Grey actually “violence against women” as Dr. Drew proposed? It’s a fantasy– no one would want that relationship in reality, would they? The zeitgeist seems to believe otherwise.


The first step in correcting the misconception that the relationship portrayed in the novels is a romantic ideal is for fans to admit that the book is problematic. It would be enough to say simply, “While there are issues with the relationship portrayed in the books, I found them an enjoyable fantasy.” Acknowledging that Christian Grey exhibits trains common to controlling, abusive men isn’t admitting that the reader would like to be controlled and abused in real life.


Fifty Shades isn’t making people abusive; it’s symptomatic of our culture’s attitude towards violence, and sexuality. If it’s a teachable moment, it’s for teasing out the difference between the exciting fantasy of the “dangerous man” and the reality of partner violence. I hope that Sassafras Lowrey is right when she writes:

As backwards as it sounds, the book’s greatest strength is its popularity, and the possibilities that popularity suggests. We, as leather folk, are poised at a cultural turning point. The outcome may be unclear but what is clear is that, at this particular moment, we have an unprecedented opportunity. Millions of people are being exposed to BDSM, providing a gateway towards a moment of education. [Pg.157]

Midori’s “Fifty Shades of Snark” rightfully points out that the sneering derision that greets Fifty Shades among experienced kinksters (myself included) is just the old generation griping about the new generation.

That’s just snotty and condescending. It’s particularly offensive coming from people who espouse sex positivity and promote self-actualization through the examination of arbitrary sexual taboos imposed on us by society. [Pg.138]

No matter how hardcore kinky you are now, you were once a clueless newb whose ideas about BDSM were based on some ignorant mass media property like Penthouse letters, Gor novels, Nine and a Half Weeks or Mr. Benson. You learned  better, and so will other people. Suck it up and start educating the next generation.

For my purposes, there’s some great historical essays. Sarah S.G. Frantz’s “The History of BDSM Fiction and Romance” goes deep into Victorian flagellation fiction and the structure of romance. Anne Jamison’s “When Fifty Was Fic” puts the story in the context of the underground literary world of fanfiction, attributing Fifty Shades’ literary flaws to how, in order to make Master of the Universe commercially publishable, it had to sever vital connections to its parent text, the Twilight saga. Jennifer Sanzo’s “The Byronic Hero Archetype and Christian Grey: Why America’s Favorite Sadist is Nothing New” positions Christian in a long tradition of “mad, bad and dangerous to know” romantic leading men, including Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights and Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice.

Perhaps the most informative essay is by Tish Beatty, who edited the trilogy for The Writer’s Coffee Shop, its first publishers.

James had a huge following of readers prior to publishing Fifty Shades of Grey, and this helped in initial sales. It also made the task of editing the book and keeping it true to James’ intent very important. We knew James and her readers would not take kindly to an editor coming in and red-penning her story, and I was advised by TWCS to handle James and Fifty Shades with kid gloves. At times it was difficult for me to hold back my natural desire to make changes I thought were necessary; after all, I have been lovingly dubbed “Comma Bitch” by those I’ve edited. Looking back, I’m glad that I refrained from making drastic changes to the story and allowed the characters to speak for themselves, but agreeing to handle the manuscript and James delicately went against everything I stood for as an editor– and if I could do it over, I’d go with my gut instinct rather than sugarcoat the process for those involved. [Pg.301-2]

Reading between the lines, I get the strong impression that Beatty is salvaging her professional reputation by explaining how such a blatantly unprofessional work was commercially published on her watch. (Even a half-way decent copyedit would have improved the work.) EL James leveraged her status in the fanfiction world to shift the balance of power between writer and editor in her favour. (You can see a similar change in the later Harry Potter books, as JK Rowling became so successful that she stopped listening to editors.)

Pride of place in this collection definitely goes to Melissa Febos’ “Raising the Shades”, for putting her finger on what may be this book’s original sin:

I think it’s likely that Fifty Shades could have named the desire to submit to another’s power without endorsing the more complex and dangerous fantasy that one must be a naïf to do so. Need Christian Grey have been a wealthy businessman? Need Anastasia have been a virgin incapable of naming her own vagina? One can submit one’s body, to another human being, can submit to one’s own desires, without submitting all their worldly knowledge. I know this for a fact.

This equation is a dangerous one: that we must sacrifice our maturity to obtain our fantasies. That we must have all the power or none of it. The myth lifts the curtain with one hand and drops another with the other. Women have been negotiating this shitty deal for a long, long time. If there is an illusion here, it is that we must continue doing so. [Pg. 366-67]

Perhaps the key text for understanding Fifty Shades is not Pamela or Clarissa or even Beauty and the Beast, but Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Mermaid, in which the mermaid not only gives up her voice for human legs so that she can be with her human love, but experiences agony when she walks or dances on land. If Fifty Shades has created a teachable moment, that is what needs to be un-taught.

I hope that the people who contributed to this book get even a tiny crumb of the money flowing through the Fifty Shades multi-media franchise.

 Leave a Reply

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>



This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.