On the last night of school before Reading Week, I stayed up until nearly 6AM scrambling to finish an assignment while also cramming for a midterm that I was surely going to fail. By the time I wrapped myself in a blanket for a few coveted hours of sleep, the sky had already become tinged purple, and I was able to—at least momentarily—remove myself from the anxiety and fatigue of pulling a near all-nighter and relish the utter calm that I felt while watching the sunrise alone in my room. My experience with Fifty Shades of Grey is, in a way, very similar to that night. I despaired my way through the book, and the only salvation came from moments when I removed myself from my source of exasperation (which increased in tandem with my progression through the novel). The novel is like an exam for which you are ill-prepared—it is completely hopeless, and it leaves you with a bad taste in your mouth.
For those who have somehow managed to elude its inescapable presence in the media, and therefore possess zero knowledge of the Fifty Shades trilogy or its author, the story originated as Twilight fan fiction under writer Erika Mitchell’s fan fiction pen name, Snowqueen’s Icedragon. It was then published as Fifty Shades of Grey under her second alias, E. L. James (I’m unsure as to why she didn’t opt for Snowqueen’s Icedragon—it rolls off the tongue so well!). Even though it has been repackaged and sold as an original erotica series, parallels between the novels and Twilight are abundant and difficult to ignore. Fuelled by James’s midlife crisis and her slew of sexual fantasies, Edward Cullen becomes enigmatic CEO, Christian Grey; Isabella Swan becomes Anastasia Steele, a mundane and innocent college girl just days away from graduation; and Twilight becomes an even more disturbing story that leaves readers feeling dirty in the worst possible way. Everything that is problematic in the Twilight series—the stalking, the emotional and physical abuse—is still prevalent in Fifty Shades of Grey, only it is so much worse because Edward Cullen—err, Christian Cullen, I mean Edward Grey, damn it!—Christian Grey is somehow allowed to hit an unconsenting Ana Steele in the name of self-pleasure.
The biggest problem with Fifty Shades of Grey is not BDSM itself but James’s complete disregard for the community’s guiding principles: safe, sane and consensual. The novel exhibits more coercion than consent with James’s portrayal of a young woman emotionally manipulated into entering into a Dominant/Submissive relationship. Ana has no comfortable space that she can inhabit, and even though Christian claims he has created a safe environment for her, she is still frightened that he will beat her. Although Christian thoroughly enjoys spanking her, she is not sexually aroused at all by the pain. She endures it at most and is subjected to it before she has even entered into a Dominant/Submissive relationship with him. There is a complete disregard for limits as they are something Christian believes can be worked up to despite Ana’s expressed opposition. BDSM doesn’t have to involve physical pain, though it can and often will—as long as it’s all consensual, which, in Ana and Christian’s case, it is not. Aftercare is also sorely missing from the book even though it is an integral part of BDSM because one may require comfort, reassurance and emotional support after intense physical and/or psychological activities. In reality, BDSM is not about having your way with another, but cultivating a relationship that is founded upon trust and communication, affection and pleasure.
Outside of the bedroom, Ana and Christian’s relationship is unstable and unhealthy. Both parties are incapable of honest communication and trust. They are also dependent on each other to the point where neither are able to unwind in their private spaces without the other’s interference. When Ana travels to Georgia specifically to distance herself from Christian, he nevertheless intrudes on her vacation even though he agreed to give her space. Ana is subject to a constant state of surveillance, and Christian’s stalking is only ever joked about in passing without any serious discussions about his invasions of privacy. Simply put, Christian’s control extends far beyond his established role as the Dominant.
To say the execution is juvenile would be an understatement. The clichés exhibited by both protagonists are dull and irritating, although it is expected that Ana should be clumsy and plain, and Christian poised and handsome because James lifted those traits straight from Twilight’s Bella Swan and Edward Cullen. The prose is choke-full of ‘tell’ rather than ‘show’. It is established that Christian Grey is gorgeous and it is reinforced through multiple characters’ unabashed gawking that he is gorgeous, but it takes more than a vague descriptor to convince readers that the character really is as handsome as everyone thinks he is. Beauty, after all, is subjective. The dialogue is stilted and awkward. On paper it’s passable, but when it is said aloud, the sentences sound silly and dated. James also has a tendency to plop in obscure terminology in an attempt to augment her poor writing skills. The resulting sentences are choppy, and if anything, her insertion of complex words detracts from the flow of the story. Fifty Shades of Grey is amateur fan fiction that never progressed beyond any marker of quality.
It is incomprehensible that such a novel can become a bestseller, because it is devoid of moving romance, character development, plot progression, and exemplary writing. The sex scenes are cheap and repetitive, and for an erotica novel, it certainly is lacking in sensuality. Frankly, there is nothing appealing about a man pursuing a woman who, despite her reluctance towards BDSM, is nonetheless manipulated into participating just to extend her time with him. If you’re looking for a portrayal of a healthy BDSM relationship between two consenting individuals, it would be best to look elsewhere. Meanwhile, I’m going to buy myself a cape because I am a superhero for trudging through this book without injuring anybody or damaging property, and then I’m going to reflect long and hard on the fact that Fifty Shades of Grey actually managed to put me off of reading. In the words of the ever-insightful Christian Grey, there is a first time for everything.