Review of “Fifty Shades of Grey” by E. L. James

A while back, I had drinks with one of this blog’s best commenters, and he strongly recommended this book (he also provided some thoughts, some of which I’ve taken).

The recommendation came with a set of warnings, which should be heeded. To put it bluntly, the book is quite horrible. I merely repeat the obvious by saying that the writing is poor (it’s not just not good, it’s prole, it’s juvenile, it’s absurd), the characters are unbelievable, etc. Consult a mainstream review for more on these obvious aspects of the book.

And yet . . .

There’s clearly something about the book. There’s tons of erotic fiction, but this sells very well. And, as much as I might be embarrassed to admit it, I was intrigued by the book. So, the question is: what is it about the book that pulls everyone in?

The obvious answer is the erotic scenes. But I don’t think that’s the right answer. They aren’t as good or as juicy as I’d been led to believe by what I’d heard about the book. See the quotes at the end here for a sample. Terrible.

I think the answer must be that the book takes the reader inside the mind of a woman. Not just any woman though. This woman appears to be entirely devoid of values of any kind (I don’t think this can be excused away by bad writing). She seems vaguely to want a “relationship” beyond the extremely physical, but she has absolutely no idea what this means in any practical sense. Is she, perhaps, the quintessential modern female?

The main character in the book is Anastasia Steele (apparently porn names aren’t taboo in the erotic fiction genre). The next two most important characters are her “subconscious” and her “inner goddess.” They often engage in conversation with each other. One “character” might be excited by a certain situation while the other is crying in the corner. It is their interaction that is impossible not to watch, like a car accident.

Their interaction creates one character (Ana) who is impossibly whimsical. The book goes on and on about her various concerns and emotions and thoughts. Then, suddenly, she makes some absurdly impulsive decision.

For a long time, I thought one of these characters might be her rationalization hamster. Eventually, you realize that she doesn’t have one – she’s fully modern in the sense that she’s progressed beyond the need to even rationalize her completely emotional, directionless decisions. The inner goddess wants to be whipped, the subconscious thinks maybe she should go on a real date first, and the body just does what it’s feeling at any given moment.

Behold, the modern woman fully unleashed!

Beyond these most interesting bits, it’s worth reflecting on some other aspects of the story.

In the story, Ana (who is in her early 20s) has never been attracted to anyone she has met. Until she meets Christian Grey. Her attraction to him is described as entirely uncontrollable, something she just can’t help. It definitely can’t be explained by his physical beauty, epic financial success, or generally mysterious demeanor. Here are some words she uses to describe him:

Confusing, confounding, mysterious, puzzling, elusive, threatening, “gives nothing away”, wicked, possessive, sphinxlike, riddle, dangerous, intimidating, “keeps changing direction”, “feel like I’m being interviewed for a job”, cryptic, controlling, dictatorial, overbearing, amused, bemused, “I have no idea what he’s thinking”, “laughing at me”, entertained, high-handed, antagonizing, difficult, complicated, pompous ass, secretive, unreadable, telepathic, spooky, dark knight, irreconcilable, intense, confident, teasing, frustrating, unfathomable, alien, playful, smirking, “not a man I want to cross”, aloof, distant, masked, distracting, all-consuming, “I am plagued with questions”, surprising, unpredictable, “claiming me”, menacing, etc.

The feminist sites seem to think this “emotional connection” is what makes the book so irresistible to women. How lame and predictable is that connection though?

We live in the age of universal democracy. The masses have spoken, and they love this stuff.


21 Responses to Review of “Fifty Shades of Grey” by E. L. James

  1. asdf says:

    My last GF read 50 Shades like 50 times. I don’t even think that’s an exageration. Demon in the sack but basically lacking any other redeeming qualities. Was cheating on a guy and breaking up her family (with kids) to fuck me.

    She was the last in a series of D/S relationships that convinced me that women don’t have moral agency. I don’t think this is a modern women problem either. Simply that women were never in the past allowed to make moral choices so it didn’t matter that they lacked moral agency.

    • Anonymous says:

      “Was cheating on a guy and breaking up her family (with kids) to fuck me.”

      To the extent the story is even remotely true, it appears you lack moral agency too.”

      • asdf says:

        Didn’t know. Met her on the internet. You only know what they tell you. Dumped her when I found out.

        I will say this though, she marked the end of a pattern of cheating I found in online dating. Beware.

  2. Jehu says:

    Crappy literature that nevertheless sells very well is the only real way to get a look into the recesses of the societal ‘gut’. I wrote about this on the Chariot a little while ago.

    • Mark says:

      One thing that needs to be taken into consideration is that women are more herd animals than men. Men can be conformist too but there’s more variation among men and men are more likely to have out of the mainstream interests. So if women are all reading the same thing it does possibly offer insight into the average female mind but at the same time they might all just be reading it because every other female around them is also reading it.

  3. Handle says:

    And there’s so much more. There’s her need to be his savior. There’s the need to rationalize his “badness” (and justify her attraction to it) by giving him the childhood trauma excuse. And it goes on.

    Ignoring the deplorable quality of composition, the basic sexual-selection / attraction science and psychological content of the book would be a work of uncommonly insightful genius if written by a man, but as produced by a woman, it is a produce of a brutal honesty just as rare. Like I’ve said before, every man who wants to improve his game can benefit by a critical and enlightened reading of the book, and understand that he will benefit by being less nice and more temperamental and aloof like Christian Grey.

    Very few men actually read the book, but if you’re looking for an awesome conversation opener with a woman or even a group of women, casually mention that you just finished it. And, like asdf implies, you’ll discover, perhaps to your surprise, that they’ve all read it and it’s all their favorite and they love to talk about it, especially with the extremely rare man who’s read it and really gets it. Look, it’s up to you – the game is yours to lose.

    I could write an entire book that is to Fifty Shades of Gray as Steve Sailer’s America’s Half-Blood Prince is to Obama’s Dreams From My Father. I’m all ears as to title suggestions.

    • spandrell says:

      mmm “Why you should whip your woman”

      • Handle says:

        When you read the book, you’ll see how utterly inconsequential the actual D&S stuff is, and how, I’d argue, the author almost always seems to be in a hurry to get past it and move on as “the relationship” evolves. It’s possible it wasn’t originally meant as such, but it functioned well as an effective marketing hook, better in fact than as a plot device.

        Only one of the many women I’ve talked to about all this has admitted any kind of interest at all in experimenting with this stuff (more out of a general fondness for role-playing, I believe), and I mostly get the, “eww!”, “recoil in disgust” face when they think of actually doing these things themselves (the counterpart of the straight-male reaction to thinking about buggery).

        Within the structure of the story, however, the disgust factor shuts down and they mostly “don’t mind” these things being in there, because it’s in the context of the relationship. Heartiste once referenced a study that’s on point about this subject. Anecdotalyy, I find that there’s almost nothing a girl won’t do so long as she feels it really pleases the man she loves. Some will even really get into things they previously would have been disgusted by, and insist on continuing to do it with future relationships, trying to physically resuscitate that memory of those five minutes of alpha she once enjoyed though a mistaken association with the deviant sexual act. But it’s never really satisfying to her, because you can’t get enough of what you don’t really want – which is really the alpha, not the alpha sex.

        Anyway, the real point of the whips, etc. is the unfamiliarity, the mystery, the taboo, and being utterly at sea in your ignorance, innocence, and naivety, but in the capable hands of an experienced master and having to merely “submit” and relax and go with the flow and let the man lead you on the path he knows best.

    • spandrell says:

      Instead of religion you should ask Japanese people about this book. Way better feedback. Do they sell it over there?

      • Handle says:

        You know, honestly, that never occurred to me, and it’s a good idea. I’m going to guess that it will be much more difficult to open up a frank discussion of the topic with the mostly middle-aged women I know, but, what the hell, I’ll give it a shot. I’m go check out a local bookstore too, but I don’t know if they’d have the same cover design.

    • spandrell says:

      What about ” Zen and the art of rationalisation hamsters”

  4. Handle says:

    I’d also add that Orwell, naturally, had some interesting things to say about the sex and violence trashy but popular literature that was emerging out of his era such as Chase’s famous 1939 No Orchids For Miss Blandish. The British stuff (of which the 50 Shades in a recent species) has always, curiously to me, seemed particularly fond of S&M these. I know the French tend to make fun of the Brits as all being closet subs, but then again, I’m not exactly an aficionado of foreign erotic fiction, so maybe it’s less a peculiar national trait than I think.

  5. […] Foseti has a go at “Fifty Shades of Grey.” […]

  6. […] An interesting review of 50 Shades. […]

  7. David says:

    I couldn’t agree more. Out of all the erotic fiction out there…why this book?

    I realize this is almost as sleazy as Christian Grey himself, but I’d like to invite you–shamelessly–to plug my own book, a parody of such works as 50 Shades.

    I wanted to let you know about a giveaway I’ll be hosting this weekend of a book of my own which was inspired, to some extent, by the illiteracy of the 50 Shades series. The book is ludicrous–purposefully so. Here’s a bit of a link, if you’re interested…

    thanks for your consideration, and I apologize in advance for so shamelessly, brazenly asking you to plug my thing in the comments section of your blog.


  8. Neisha Chetty says:

    I don’t believe this is a love story nor is the true ending a happy one. I think there must be a reason why EL James uses symbolic references like Icarus, Tess, The Doomed Courtesan. Why is she referencing tragedy ?

    How can someone like Christian change in such a short space of time ? How can a person change in 26 days (since they met to the time he proposes to Ana) ? Tell me does that sound logical to you ?

    “How can your compulsion just go, Christian? Like I’m some kind of panacea, and you’re—for want of a better word—cured? I don’t get it.”
    He sighs once more. “I wouldn’t say cured . . . You don’t believe me?”
    “I just find it—unbelievable. Which is different.” Fifty Shades of. Grey Darker.
    See what I mean ? Ana doesn’t believe it too !

    There must be something more to it. In fact I believe the BDSM is a distraction for the real issue.

    Here is my theory to explain the absurd timeline and to prove to people it isn’t truly love and Christian’s apparent change (“As we talk. It strikes me that he’s turned from Hardy’s Alec to Angel. debasement to high ideal in such a short space of time”). I had to go down to the subtextual level like I would with any Hardy novel- look at subtextual and intent and read all the clues. Tell me what do you think ?

    Christian’s Pov
    “Are you gay, Mr. Grey ?”
    Shit! that’s going to be in a newspaper. People are going to start questioning, maybe they’ll find out about my lifestyle. Fuck !I don’t want that – it could really tarnish my perfect public image and it would be bad for business. Okay, damage control… Let’s see .. I can’t use any of subs or give them more because they are trained and people would recognise them as belonging to that LIFESTYLE – maybe I’ll use Ana Steele – she doesn’t have one assertive bone in her body- she can be trained as my sub, she’s a virgin, no boyfriend -never had one (press would think we dated all along in secret) and she looks like my crack whore mother- perfect. I will take every photo opportunity to pose with her so the press would know I am not gay. I will give her more … “Have you had to sacrifice your family life for work, Mr Grey” – Fucking great idea, bag yourself a trophy wife and a family say in five months- the world would love the wholesome family man image. Make this trophy wife believe in this illusion( remember the poster on the wall The Matrix, Fight Club, Truman Show). She is an idiot who can’t put two and two together anyway. Strong woman ?!!! What woman needs an assistant to take care of scheduling her own birth control shots ???

    All this is merely Christian’s diabolical plan to conceal his BDSM lifestyle. Ana is just the woman who walked in with the right criteria at the right time to be his fulfil the trophy wife role. This adequately explains the short space of time and his so called change.

    Grey solved … And that’s romantic hero, ladies !!! Christian doesn’t give Ana the space or time to think clearly.

    Trouton Abstract may hold a clue.
    “They are exquisite – a series of mundane, forgotten objects painted in such precise detail they look like photographs. Displayed together, they are breathtaking.”

    Look like photographs – deception -image of something- superficial view (Ana’s)- erotic romance

    But painted – has some real element or truth behind the illusion (Christian’s) – a diabolical plan of deceit.

    Forgotten objects- when we let our desires over rule our jugdement – Icarus- we lose our true selves, our moral core.

    Tess represents – true self.
    Angel – image, idealism. Public self
    Alec – corruption

    Ana – desire
    Christian – corruption of the truth, image and illusion.

    Ana can be easily corrupted because her values are misplaced – her inner Goddess is actually her libido.

    Appearance versus reality.

    Ana should have ran away – like Icarus she was she so overcome by that giddy feeling of desire that she couldn’t see danger ahead. That’s the recklessness of youth – if only she listened. “A strong woman who recklessly throws away her strength, she is worse than a weak woman who has never had any strength to throw away.” Tess of the D’urbervilles – Thomas Hardy

    If you want the tragic factor, look at the history behind Elena, history always repeats itself to Hardy.

  9. Brian Carter says:

    Any reader who liked 50 Shades will LOVE the new novel Starbucks Bitches. Well, for the most part, any female!

    Its longer, has more depth, better characters, better romance, better sex, better everything. It is based in Dallas, Texas, and is coffee centric. Here is the description from the website

    Five very diverse women band together to form an unlikely, but unbreakable circle of friends, collaborating and scheming their way to better relationships and better lives. When one of them vanishes suspiciously, the others must work together to find her before she disappears forever.

    With a wide range of emotional and complicated relationships that span the highs (and lows) of life, Starbucks Bitches takes the reader on a wild ride that is deeply touching, thought provoking, and intensely romantic.

    One of the most erotically charged and overtly sexual novels of the century, Starbucks Bitches is an unprecedented adventure in love, lust, and unconditional friendship.

  10. sarahbailey says:

    loved reading your review! Check out mine on this book if you have the chance 🙂

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