Monday, September 17, 2012

Masked Mom's Media Monday: Fifty Shades of Snobbery*

"Criticism is a word with blood on its teeth because we know that one definition is 'the act of finding fault.' Criticism's unsavoriness was drummed into us by our parents: 'If you can't say anything nice about someone, don't say anything at all.'

But who obeyed? A person who doesn't have anything bad to say about someone may be a saint, but he's more likely a bore. We define ourselves, in part, by the discriminations we make. The value of what we love is enriched by our understanding of what we dislike."
~~David Ansen, Self magazine circa 1994

"He really is a fine specimen of a man. Looking at him is very, very arousing."
~~E L James, Fifty Shades of Grey

[Blurt Alert: This post contains non-graphic, non-specific mentions of S-E-X and a couple of "bad" words. Also? I say mean things about a very popular book. Read at your own risk.]

Fifty Shades of Grey was a phenomenon before I'd ever heard of it. When I first heard of it, I knew it was only a matter of time before I would end up having that awkward conversation I, as a chronic reader, am forced to have every couple of years when some new Bestseller! attracts the attention of my non-reading friends (they are legion). Because, for many of my friends, I am their friend who reads the most (for some of them I am their friend who reads at all), I am the first person they think of when a book (of all things!) catches their attention.

While I read widely, I rarely read phenomenon-type books for a variety of reasons. I like to say it isn't really a judgment of the quality of work behind many mega-bestsellers--that there is no bad or good writing, exactly--just people with different tastes. I like to say this because I don't want to hurt anyone's feelings and I don't want to sound like the pretentious, snarky bitch I really am deep inside when it comes to reading. There may be no such thing as bad writing, but there is such a thing as writing that makes me feel like scooping my eyeballs out with a tomato corer. And, more often than not, it's that exact kind of writing that sits at the top of the New York Times Bestseller List for months at a time. Worse, it is often that kind of writing that friends of mine fall deeply in love with--so in love that they want to share the joy. And then they ask me to read it and when they ask me what I thought of it, I struggle to come up with something diplomatic to say. (Hint: When said out loud, "The Da Vinci Code has an intriguing plot, but is spectacularly poorly written." is not as diplomatic as it sounded in your head.) 

I've been burned before, obviously. I've learned some stealthy moves to get out of the "Have you read..." type conversations without, I don't know, being too much myself, I guess, but I'd still prefer never to have those conversations at all.

So, when I started hearing rumblings about the Fifty Shades trilogy, I steeled1 myself against the inevitable dreaded question. It came in mid-June in a text from the friend I refer to as Miss Unattainable here on the blog (here's why). She said, "Have you read the Fifty Shades books?"

I cringed, not just inwardly but all over.

Stealthy move number one: deflect attention. "Nope. Have you?"

"Not yet. Daughter read them and just passed them along. She loved them. Said the sex scenes were amazing."

Keep deflecting: "I've heard that too. Hope you enjoy them!"

"I'll let you know what I think. Do you want them when I'm done?"

Urgh. Stealthy move number two: vague truth. "Not sure. Heard the writing was pretty bad."

"I heard that too. I don't read enough to know the difference, probably."

Stealthy move number three: distract from the original question, while gently strengthening my position. "Saw the author in an interview and she basically said they weren't very good herself. But I'd love to hear what you think of them."

Bullet dodged. Or so I thought.

This past Friday, Miss Unattainable texted me a lunch invitation. After we'd nailed down the time and place, there came another text: "U want me to bring the Fifty Shades books or are u sure u don't want to read them?"

Stealthy move number four: Give up entirely, but still try to manage expectations. "You can bring 'em. I will give them a try."

This conditional surrender was not enough for Miss Unattainable, so she had to whip out the exclamation points: "U have to be a little curious!!"

And she's right, I am curious. I'm curious about why I'm such a party pooper. A buzzkill. A literary snob. Why can't I just enjoy an "entertaining" read on its own terms instead of judging it by lofty literary standards to which its author likely did not even aspire? (Even that sounds sorta snotty, doesn't it?)

Clearly, clearly, clearly I lack the enzyme required to convert clumsy writing into entertainment. Instead, the influx of clunky phrasing and craptastic cliches will cause toxins to build up in my system until they explode in a spewing spray of unstoppable snarkiness.

And here we are.

Fifty Shades of Grey is a train wreck of a book. (Speaking of craptastic cliches...) Of course, I'd collected a heap of evidence against the book before I ever cracked the front cover. Not just a bestseller, it was a bestelling romance. An erotic romance to boot. It is what Little Sister and I used to laughingly call a "smut book."2

In addition to the genre issue, I'd seen the British author, E L James, in an interview in which she admitted being a Twihard and appeared utterly baffled and even sheepish about the success of the book. Not exactly an auspicious beginning.

Still, as objectively as possible, Fifty Shades of Grey is a train wreck of a book. It is the story of the 21-year-old not just virginal, but actual virgin who has never even been "really" kissed, Anastasia Steele and her hot (!) romance/erotic relationship (sealed with a non-disclosure agreement--so chivalrous!) with hot (!) twenty-seven year-old self-made billionaire Christian Grey. These caricatures, er, characters don't just smile, they "quirk" their lips up. Predictably, moods are unfathomable, loins are girded, stares are smoldering, penetrating, unnerving. Two sentences in a row, our heroine is "besieged" and she's not even in the presence of our hero, let alone in bed with him at the time!

Is it just me or are there certain words that show up considerably more frequently in smut books than they do anywhere else? Luxuriate, mercurial, wanton, myriad. I swear I've seen "inexorable" ten times in smut books for every one time I've stumbled upon it out in the wilds of literature. Is there some sort of special Smut Book Thesaurus that's mandatory reading for smut book authors?

The story is told in first person, present tense and we are often treated to Ana's internal monologues which are heavily peppered with Holy cow, Holy Moses, Holy crap, Holy shit, Holy fuck. Holy exclamations, Batman! She also goes in for lots of "Boy!" and "Oh my!" and "Wow!" and "Jeez!"--not only are these particularly empty exclamations, but they do not in any way seem natural when attributed to a 21-year-old college graduate (an English literature major, to add insult to injury).

Futhermore, though Anastasia is allegedly American through and through--she's living in Vancouver, Washington at the time our story opens and, within weeks, moves to Seattle; at one point (as her cardboard roommate is planning a trip to Barbados), she bemoans the fact that she herself has never "left the continental U.S."--she nevertheless often speaks and thinks in a distinctly British fashion. Words like "keen" and "clever" and even the penultimate Britishism "bloody" are sprinkled throughout her speech and thoughts--as are constructions like "a bit of time" and "I do hope" and "you've not..." (rather than "you haven't"). It's a small, nit-picky sort of thing, yes, but it contributes to the overall mess that is Fifty Shades.

Another distraction (though there is little to be distracted from)  is the relationship Ana has with her anthropomorphic "subconscious." Apparently, our narrator and her creator have failed to grasp the significance of the prefix "sub" in "subconscious" as Ana's subconscious is practically a character in the book: "My subconscious taps me hard on the shoulder..." " subconscious mocks me." "I think my subconscious has fainted..."

A few times, James seems to acknowledge the absurdity of this device by tacking the words "figuratively" or "metaphorically" on to some action the subconscious has taken: "Stop now! my subconscious is metaphorically screaming at me..." "My subconscious is figuratively tutting and glaring at me over her half-moon specs..."At one point, Ana's subconscious is so appalled she goes to hide behind a couch...any subconscious worthy of the name would've stayed there.

What sent Ana's delicate (yet pushy) subconscious scurrying behind the couch was sex, of course--and not just any sex but the fabled rough BDSM-light sex that helped make Fifty Shades a scandalous international bestseller. The sex nearly sent me scurrying behind the couch, too--not because it was scandalous, exactly--unless, of course, you are scandalized by the travesty of poorly written sex scenes3 in which hollow, exaggerated characters have hollow, exaggerated reactions to one another's every move.

So over-the-top is the writing in these sections (and the book is mostly these sections) that any heat generated quickly dissipates into hilarity and in rapid succession to annoyance. Word to the wise to E L James, and smut book authors everywhere: A little hyperbole goes a long way; a lot of hyperbole goes nowhere.

When it comes to the male appendage, though, James does get credit for her sensible solution to the what-to-call-the-body-part problem. The choices range from excessively euphemistic at one end of the spectrum ("member") to the unnecessarily vulgar at the other (the "c"-word that I am not going to use here--I'm already really pushing my luck in the undesirable search words department) with the coldly clinical in between ("penis"). James wisely settles on "erection" for almost every reference to Christian's, er, doohickey. Not perfect, perhaps, but certainly one of the better options available.

No such luck when it comes to the female genital area, though. In spite of the fact that Anastasia is apparently well-acquainted with human anatomy (she makes no fewer than three references to her medulla oblongota) and has no trouble throwing around the "f"-word, both as an expletive exclamation and as a verb in direct reference to the sex act, she refers to her own, um, nether regions as the absurdly euphemistic and juvenile "down there" (italics hers). She eventually graduates to referring to it mostly as "my sex"--better, but there is still something forced and unnatural about that terminology, especially coming from a college-educated woman in 2011.

So...a train wreck in so many ways. The only way the book succeeds is as an unintentionally satiric commentary on the fantasies of discontented women everywhere (about which, don't even get me started). I feel kind of bad4 saying so--but I am confident that the millions of dollars and millions of fans E L James has made (and will no doubt yet make) with the Shades of Grey trilogy will be of great comfort to her in the face of my petty criticisms.

Masked Mom's One-Word Review: Bestselling!

*This cannot be considered a proper review of Fifty Shades of Grey since, as of this writing, I have made it only to page 337 of 528 pages. I will carry on to the end, despite my considerable reservations, because the suspense is killing me--not about what will happen to the paper-doll characters, but about how many more mean things I can think of to say about this book.

1. Ha! Ha! "Steeled!" Get it? That's a pun for all you Fifty Shades fans out there.

2. The fact that we referred to them as smut books did not deter us from procuring and reading as many of them as possible--especially around the time I was 13 or 14. We would read the steamy parts aloud, gasping with hysterical laughter. Once, we tried to make an amateur version of a book-on-tape of one particularly memorable smuttish book, Golden Empire by A.E. Maxwell, reading into a tape recorder a scene in which the lovers rolled on to their sides "still joined." A few sentences later when they walked to the shower, I added "still joined." Sweet lord, I thought one of us was going to require emergency medical intervention (just as our lovers would have if they had, in fact, walked to the shower still joined).

3. It is hard (pun acknowledged though not entirely intended) to write sex well, but it is not impossible. One example that always comes to mind when I get into this conversation (which, blessedly for everyone, is not often) is Scott Spencer's Endless Love. Though the sex is quite graphic, and even disturbing at times, it rings true to the extent that it actually advances both plot and character. That said, it is not necessary to judge E L James's sex scenes by the Spencer standard in order to find them wanting (pun acknowledged though not entirely intended). It's been a long time since I've read a smut book, but I don't recall the sex ever being quite this ridiculous--though it was often close. Two authors who did write decent (though not Spencerian National Book Award-nominee level) sex were Judith Krantz (particularly in Princess Daisy) and Rosemary Rogers (in The Wanton, the title of which is especially hilarious if pronounced like the Chinese takeout staple). I think the primary difference between decent smut book sex and the sex going on in Fifty Shades is that, whether in or or out of bed, the responses of James's characters seem entirely disconnected and out of proportion not only to our reality (which is common in smut books) but to their own.

4. Not quite bad enough to stop me from hitting "publish" on this post, of course. But really? I understand that it takes a tremendous amount of effort and courage to put your work out there and I admire that--whatever I may think about the quality of the resulting product. To the extent that this book (and no doubt its sequels) can be viewed as a failure, it is more a failure on the part of the editors and publisher than on the part of James, who, by many accounts, had no inkling that her work would find such a large audience and, therefore, so much (mean) scrutiny.


  1. This is hysterical, MM! I swear we are sisters on so many levels. I pretty much ignore the best seller lists - based as they are on sales and that's a sucky way to evaluate a book! I was not even remotely interested in wasting my precious reading time on Fifty Shades b/c I had read some of the hype and I knew, BINGO! not for me. I guess I am a snob too? But, no not really. I just like different kinds of books. It's like television.... a good 95% of what is on tv is garbage (my own estimate). I am so not interested in wasting my time with that. I will watch television but not unless I think it's worth it.
    GREAT review. You are so funny and review so thoroughly!

    1. Thank you, Gracie. I'm with you on the TV, too. Half the time, even when I think I really want to watch something, I fall asleep in front of it.

  2. I am laughing so hard right now. The 2nd footnote alone is worthy of its own post! I have yet to have read the 50 Shades Debacle, but probably will for many of the reasons you put forth. (I am still getting over my bitter resentment at having read the entire Twilight series.)

    This struck me: "...there is no bad or good writing, exactly--just people with different tastes." I pay lip service to this notion, as well. As a writer, it feels better to be kind to what people are willing to put out there. I find myself becoming, instead, incensed with editors and publishing houses and the New York Times and Barnes and Noble and white men in general. Books like Twilight and 50 Shades are obviously for entertainment, not for their great literary achievement, but does that mean they need to be 4000 pages long, seemingly completely unedited? Wouldn't it do the writers (not to mention the readers) a service to get in there with a red pen and make some changes before sending it wildly out to print? Perhaps I am just fusty about this. I know I am, underneath it all, a literary snob, but sometimes with these bestsellers, I wonder if anyone actually read them at all before designing the jacket covers and selling the movie rights.
    I struggle with this very same "snobbery", but I wonder how "mean" it is to point out that someone hasn't written very compelling characters or hasn't thought clearly about the language they've used, etc. Isn't that the very point of storytelling? Of writing? To use language to convey the actions and emotions of characters?
    I will never cease to be baffled by the whole bestseller thing. At least people are reading? Maybe?

    1. It reminds me of when my kids were younger and liked the Goosebumps formulaic "horror" books. Not great stuff, obviously, but you never know where the reading bug will lead. Some reading is better than others, I guess, but any reading is better than none.

      The person who "recommended" the book to me is someone I've known for nearly 20 years and in that time she has read two books--one of them I practically forced upon her (Alice Hoffman's Here On Earth). Since she finished the Fifty Shades triology in June, she has read four additional books and has actually started a list of stuff she wants to read. So that's something.

    2. I agree that getting people reading is an accomplishment. My daughter hated reading (to my HORROR) until she was 13 and discovered the Twilight books. She is now a voracious reader, rarely without a book in her hand. I have to thank Stephenie Meyer for that, though her series now sits on a shelf collecting dust.

  3. I am also a 'pretentious, snarky bitch' when it comes to reading and I have not read this book. Like you, I don't want to and after reading your post I REALLY don't want to. :) Thanks for the back up!!

    1. Happy to take one for the team on this one, Leanne.

  4. :-D you make me laugh MM. Loved this post and agree with most of it, it's no Jane Austen! Do I admit now that actually didn't mind them as a bit of a reading distraction (oops did I say that out loud, please don't hold it against me!)

    I do however think the use of 'doohickey' in the actual books would have been hilarious!!

    1. Of course I don't hold it against you that you enjoyed the books for what they are. It's so funny that you said that because in one of the versions of this post, I actually ended with the line: "To all my Fifty Shades loving friends, I still love you even though you love the book. I just hope you still love me even though I don't." :)

      The what-to-call-the-body-part issue is not one I would ever want to have to deal with--there are no good solutions, I don't think. Just less bad ones. It reminds me of the teen novel Forever by Judy Blume in which the male character's penis is named "Ralph."

  5. So I am a fan of Cozies ( which probably leaves me out of the "literary snob" or "pretentious, snarky bitch" category. If a writer can evoke an emotion from me, allow me to escape from my already overstuffed mind, and make me care about their characters as if they were real,then they have done their job for me.
    Okay, so those are my credentials.
    Onto 50 shades. Not interested. Mainly because I couldn't imagine what this author could reveal about sex that would be shocking and or exciting to anyone over the age of, what is it now about 12?
    Besides, at the end, "Who done it?"
    Onto your review. I laughed! I escaped. I wanted to read it a second and third time. I wanted to recommend it. I wanted to post it on my facebook timeline
    and tweet it.
    So, IMHO, you MM are a good writer.

    1. Thank you--that's a high compliment as far as I'm concerned. :)

  6. My problem is I don't want to follow the masses when it comes to reading. If Oprah slaps a sticker on a book, it is the kiss of death for me. If the book is on everyone's must read list, I refuse to read it. I'm very contrary like that. The only exception was Harry Potter, and I only started reading that five years after the first one was published, after my church came out strongly against it. Again, I'm contrary. If you tell me I can't read it, I'm going to. Luckily, no one has told me I can't read 50 Shades. The only good thing to come out of this current craze is my daughter uses the phrase "50 shades" to describe everything. Currently she is 50 shades of exhausted!

    1. I have that contrary thing a bit, too and when I was working my way up to reading Fifty Shades, I was thinking that while it's "wrong" to read something just because everyone else is reading it, it's probably just as "wrong" to not read it just because everyone else is reading it. Look where THAT bit of open-mindedness got me.

  7. I've heard the hype, but had no interest in the books. Hearing your take on them baffles me. How do people get such drivel published? Is it the sensationalism? The shock factor? Or just sex?
    Reading this makes me just a bit giddy, though, because of the nice things you've said about my book. If someone who is as knowledgeable and 'picky' as you can find virtue in it, then there's hope.

    "for some of them I am their friend who reads at all" That made me laugh because I know how you feel. I have a friend, who, when I asked if she'd read something, she said, "I don't really read." I don't even understand what that means.

    1. Oh, Jewels, I utterly believe there is absolutely hope for your book.

      The reading friend thing--it's still kind of weird to me that I have good friends who don't really read at all. It would seem like a serious stumbling block in the compatibility department. ;)

  8. It's funny. I can relate so much to this. I never even considered reading 50 Shades. And I'm not exactly an English Lit major. I'll stoop to reading youth fiction—if I think it's GOOD—and I have found some books entertaining that were less than literary genius, but I have to draw the line somewhere, don't I? I loved this post.

    1. Thanks, Tara. I'm actually kind of glad I read it--I haven't had this much (mean) fun writing a review in a while. :)