by Joff Brown
Let’s get something out of the way first: I am not the target market here. I am a happily married thirty-six-year-old straight male. If I ever had an inner single woman, she escaped long ago and went to marry a marine biologist. I am also vanilla as fuck. In fact, the only way Fifty Shades of Grey could be less targeted at me would be if I were an African elephant.
Full disclosure over with, here’s the verdict: I do not like thee, Fifty Shades of Grey. Like some kind of deep-sea organism that’s mostly teeth and tentacles, I respect your right to live and flourish in your own particular ecosystem. But I don’t want to go near you again. I got all the way to the end of you, of course, because you’re the Krypton Factor Assault Course for readers: an irresistible challenge for enthusiastic amateurs. But that’s it. No more.
I also admit that I’ve never read any fan fiction. My theory goes that when I’ve read all the ‘proper’ books in the world, I’ll move on to the fan fiction. (This might take me some time – I’m not a fast reader.) But I love the idea that people write extended riffs on existing fiction. I also love the idea that fan fiction can take on a life of its own and parturate from its parent organism, swimming happily into the text-o-sphere and gobbling up money. It’s all good. People should write what they want to. And, to its credit, Fifty Shades of Grey doesn’t feel like chopped, mechanically reconstituted Twilight. At least to me, it feels like its own thing.
Its own thing is pretty bad, though. Its own thing is the story of a hopelessly innocent narrator Anastasia Steele, who is seduced by superhot twentysomething millionaire control freak Christian Grey. She’s in her early twenties and never been kissed – or at least, not down there*. He’s a BDSM overlord who can’t bear to be touched. Will they find love? Or will they just exchange pleasantries in their first meeting and then go their separate ways, leaving four hundred pages of the novel concerned with her college coursework and his meetings about mergers? What do you think?
It’s Beauty and the Sexy Beast, then, and as such is the same as thousands of Mills and Boon plots about melting the heart and genitals of an icy man. The difference seems to be that here, the sex has moved more to the foreground.
After what seems like a thousand pages of longing gazes, hesitant caresses and execrable repartee – because Jane Austen had repartee, and Fifty Shades will be damned if it won’t have it too – Anastasia gets deflowered and finds out sex is great. Then the novel settles into alternate scenes of strange millionaire-flavoured domesticity and sexual ickiness. There is a helicopter. It’s less BDSM than you might think, by the way – not reading it because you don’t like bondage would be like not watching Singin’ In The Rain because you don’t like rain. It’s window-dressing, to an extent, although it seems to be approached from a knowledgeable viewpoint.
But listen. The sex. I’m sex-positive, okay? I don’t go around dressed in a full-body condom, shouting at men holding hands on the Tube. I don’t think Rihanna should buy a sensible skirt, or that teens should be celibate until they’re dull enough to know better. I also understand that there’s a whole spectrum of writing about sex, from porn to literature and back again. In this case, I was ready to have my boundaries redefined, my sensuality stretched, my brain bewildered by erotic possiblities. All that old shit.
Instead, the sex scenes engendered a feeling of almost physical embarrassment in me. They’re not even, by 21st-century porn standards, particularly involved or explicit. But my problem was that neither of the two characters were remotely attractive to me. They might as well have been sea lions, as far as I was concerned.
In fitting together, physically and spiritually, so well, they locked out anyone else. Imagine if, in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, instead of dancing across that great big ballroom, they’d just sat in a corner of it, holding hands and smirking. Instead of being romantic, it would have been slightly nauseating. Well, that.
It’s a strange thing, reading about sex between two people you don’t fancy. “Get a room!” I want to yell. But they have got a room, and I’m in it. I’ve literally paid to be in their room, right at the moment they’re having sex. They’re doing this for me! Oh god!
“Stop!” I want to shout in their sweaty ears, as they enthusiastically slurp at each other’s nethers. But they won’t, because I am not The Lawnmower Man and this is not a particularly loathsome virtual reality. This is a book that I am somehow trapped inside. I could put it down and not read it, of course, but they’d still be in there, wouldn’t they?
But really, the sex is a matter of taste – I’m sure (he huffs, like an uncomfortable biology schoolmaster) lots of people will enjoy it. What I don’t like, what leaves an unpleasant metallic taste in my mouth, is the story. This is wish-fulfilment genre fiction, so of course it has to do certain things. But here, there are too many empty calories of happy, and not enough high-fibre setback. There is a struggle, and it’s meticulously mapped out, but we just don’t buy it. We know how this is going.
Let me explain a bit about the characters, if for some reason you’re still reading this embarrassingly long rant. Christian Grey, exquisitely suited, usually topless, has internal struggles that push him from the inside – he’s a man whose passions seem to drive him along, even if they always drive him into Anastasia’s arms. He’s conflicted and taciturn, compulsive against his stricter nature. He is A Character In A Novel, with Motivations and Conflicts. Well done him. Also, abs.
It’s Anastasia who’s the real problem here. She’s a reader/author surrogate – our vessel into this sexy world. To attract this superhumanly hot man, she can’t be a simple 5/10 production-line standard human. But to keep the average reader at all bothered, she can’t be inaccessibly gorgeous either. She needs to be a loveable everygirl. But she’s too much of a Mary-Sue.
‘Mary-Sue’ is a term invented by fan-fic readers to describe a main character who’s so obviously an authorial wish-fulfilment stand-in that it’s embarrassing. Nothing goes significantly wrong for Mary-Sues. They get fallen in love with by the sexiest man. Every problem seems calibrated to be solved by their exact skill set. They have lots of internal doubts, mind you, because they don’t understand how awesome they are, even though every character in the book is telling them this on every page. Their biggest problem is which of the many sexy men around them to pick, or at least in which order.
Anastasia Steele could Mary-Sue for England. “I am besotted with you,” murmurs Christian every time they meet, but she doesn’t think he likes little old her. There’s a guy called José or Juan or something, who follows Anastasia around like a puppy, just to show how awesome she is. But nobody cares about this gelded sub-Jacob, and when he makes his move it’s a clumsy sexual assault that’s quickly slapped down by our all-powerful millionaire loverboy turning up at just the right time.
Anastasia’s also awesome at sex even though she’s never done it before, or seemingly thought about it beyond a chaste shudder. He buys her a car at one point. And a laptop. A really nice top of the range Apple one, described in loving detail. (I would sleep with Christian Grey to get the car and the laptop.) We get the feeling that this man falls in love with her just because she deserves it. Well, maybe we all deserve our dreams to come true. But so what?
Even genre fiction needs to be grounded. James Bond can’t escape Blofeld’s base by turning into a cockatoo and flying away. Gandalf can’t teleport Frodo into Mordor. Elizabeth Bennett can’t brainwash Darcy into being nice. It took four god damn ghosts to get Scrooge to buy one turkey. There are rules, people. And the heroine shouldn’t win the romantic lead just because she’s in the middle of the story. If she does, it’s harder for us to care.
I don’t think E. L. James is the world’s worst writer. I don’t like it when people scoff at popular authors just because they’re not Dostoevsky. I think she’s got a personable style and a real love for her characters. But I genuinely found Fifty Shades hard going. Many’s the time that I’ve sat in Starbucks, hoping nobody can see that I’m on a page where they’re soaping each other up in the bath, wishing it would just all be over.
All of this nonsense also begs the ultimate question: why am I reading about fucking in Starbucks? I’ve entered a twilight realm of fiction aimed at women, in which explicit sex is as unremarkable as putting the washing on. It’s a strange and scary place, but don’t get me wrong: although I don’t like Fifty Shades, I think the move towards acceptance of popular erotica can only be a good thing. Or am I just a filthy middle-aged man, rubbing his trousers and leering at dirty books over my latte? I can’t tell any more!
One final thought. Christian Grey’s name recalls Christian Bale, who’s best known for playing millionaire businessman Bruce Wayne, he of the secret rubber-suited crime-fighting life. (And Bale played the titular sharp-suited, secretive American Psycho, of course.) Christian Grey is occasionally referred to as – I kid you not – a ‘dark knight’. He, too, has cheekbones that could slice your hand open. He has access to infinite gadgets, amazing suits and impossibly shiny vehicles. He, too, has a secret sexy life of pain. Occasionally, he disappears mysteriously, as if into the night.
Forget about ‘mommy porn’. Did I just read five hundred pages of Batman porn?
*Sorry, did my use of the horrible phrase ‘down there’ give you a distasteful shiver? Get used to it, because it’s the way the narrator refers to her reproductive organs constantly throughout the book. Yeah.