Carv's Thinky Blog I'm an author with a focus on satirical sci-fi and agnostic commentary.


Fifty Shades of Crap

This morning I did something I've almost never done: quit a book in the middle. And I want to tell you why.

When I was a kid, I finished every book I started, hundreds of them, just to appease my sense of OCD completism. Then, in grad school, time got mercilessly short, and I taught myself to speed-read. (It comes in handy these days only during intense periods of research; I prefer to enjoy every clever turn of phrase.) In my thirties, after a couple of odious clunkers, I made myself a deal: I'd give any book one hundred pages. If a book hadn't somehow impressed me by then, I could ditch it with a clear conscience. Even then I made it all the way through most books, even critical failures like Hannibal or anything Michael Crichton slapped together after 1996.

Then I made a promise to my friend Heather H., a perfectly rational adult lawyer in Oklahoma, who begged me to read the first Twilight novel cover to cover so I'd understand her shameless addiction to it. It took her about a year to coax that promise out of me, another two years before I honored it. Let me tell you, I've never regretted a promise more. Twilight is execrable. If you like it, you're wrong. It's just that simple. I'm sorry for my dogmatism, but sometimes the truth needs no defense. In the first chapter of Twilight, pallid protagonist Bella Swan insists she's "not the most interesting by any standard," then spends five hundred pages proving it. Despite Bella's fundamental inanity plus a serious blushing problem, THE HOTTEST VAMPIRE IN THE WORLD falls for her and spends four long books defending her from the advances of THE HOTTEST WEREWOLF IN THE WORLD, who also just happens to attend her high school in Forks, Washington, a rain-drenched burg with a population of 3,500 people.

Fast forward to 2011, when a London TV executive named Erika Leonard, writing under the ludicrous nom de plume Snowqueens Icedragon, posted a series of erotic Twilight fanfic tributes to various message boards. Encouraged by praise from utter imbeciles, none of whom found her and slapped her for calling herself Snowqueens Icedragon, she changed Stephenie Meyer's character names from Bella and Edward to Anastasia and Christian (because Isabella and Edward just weren't silly enough), split her efforts into three books, and released them as an ebook first dubbed Master of the Universe. That was May of 2011. That ebook, now called Fifty Shades of Grey, became a runaway bestseller--offering further proof, as if any were needed, that there is no God and the universe is driven by purely random nonsense. Fifty Shades has now sold over twenty million copies.

Let me put that into perspective for you. I also wrote a series of online pieces, compiled them into an ebook, and offered my efforts (now dubbed Rereading the Bible) for sale at the lofty cost of 99 cents. How many copies is twenty million? Well, if you printed a stack of the ebooks I've sold, then stacked all the books Erika Leonard-cum-E L James (no dots, please--she's British) has sold, her stack would be about twenty million times higher than mine. Give or take.

To be fair, Ms. James's book is at least as well written as Twilight, in that it is better written than the average Weekly Volcano article. To be equally fair, though, most of those articles are written while drunk or high. About the time I decided not to finish reading Fifty Shades of Grey, a novel I started reading purely to keep up with the zeitgeist and see what other authors were getting away with, I dogeared one page just to illustrate why I couldn't make it to the end. If you own the mass-market paperback, turn with me to page 155, please. First line: "He gives me a don't-be-stupid stare." Okay, that's acceptable. But keep reading.

The sixth sentence on the page is "Holy shit" (italics hers). Again, that'd be perfectly okay, except that--as Katrina Lumsden made instantly notorious in her animated-GIF-besotted Goodreads review--narrator Anastasia Steele (I honestly can't type that without grimacing) says "holy (something)" 172 times (italics mine). In one book. People also speak. In short. Staccato. Sentences. Too. Effing. Often. And this leads me to my main complaint about the book, which somehow, against all odds, is neither its impossible characters nor its preposterous setup. It's the writing itself, which is (with thanks to Ms. James for her repeatedly inelegant but, in this case, bon mot) utter crap.

In Fifty Shades of Grey, THE HOTTEST BILLIONAIRE IN THE WORLD falls for an oft-blushing virgin in Vancouver, Washington, a rain-drenched Portland suburb with a population of 161,800 people. Apparently convinced only telepathic centenarian vampires fall for virginal high school students, Ms. James upped Ana's age from 17 (how Mormon) to 22; yet Ana still bites her lower lip with psychotic frequency and possesses a much-discussed hymen. (Upon its demolition on page 117, she cries, "Aargh!" before climaxing from Christian Grey's "merciless,...relentless" pounding less than a page later. Like you do.)

Back to page 155. Christian is describing the loss of his own virginity while ordering Ana to eat, an action he engages in with inexplicable determination. "'I'm really not hungry, Christian,'" she replies, then apparently thinks, "I am reeling from your disclosure" (italics hers). Because, you know, that's how people think in their heads. People like, I don't know, nobody who ever goddamn lived.

"His expression hardens. 'Eat,' he says quietly, too quietly."

Too quietly! Looks like I picked the wrong week to quit sniffing glue!

"I stare at him. This man--sexually abused as an adolescent--his tone is so threatening."

I'm sorry, but does that parenthetical phrase seem oddly located to anyone else? "Boy, I sure am enjoying this--I may have killed a hobo last night--taco."

"This is what it will be like if I sign," Ana thinks, referring to a bizarrely intricate BDSM contract, included in its entirety, "him ordering me around. I frown. Do I want this? Reaching for my knife and fork, I tentatively cut into the venison. It's very tasty. 'Is this what our, er...relationship will be like?' I whisper. 'You ordering me around?'"

You know...ordering her around?

See, that's just lousy writing. And if you don't understand why, then for God's sake, you have no business reading books for grown-ups. On page 160, only five pages later, Ana says of her hotter and, frankly, more interesting friend Kate, "She cocks her head at me and raises her eyebrows in a what-do-think-stupid look." Gentle Reader, if that was a typo, it was James's, not mine. I don't know what the hell a what-do-think-stupid look is, but when I read that, I probably displayed one.

The book's first Acknowledgement thanks James's husband Niall (another stupid name, but apparently genuine) for "tolerating my obsession, being a domestic god, and doing the first edit." The first edit? It had more than one? Who did the last one, Sarah Palin? (Cheap shot, Governor Palin. Sorry about that. We all know you didn't write your own book.) As the book evolved through three different media, did it somehow never pass through the hands of a single qualified editor?

And then there's that "domestic god" remark. See, Ana has an internal "domestic goddess" (referred to 58 times) because despite her obvious average-ness, she's really extraordinary. Well, that's the basis of all fantasy, right? Luke Skywalker is an insignificant farmboy, until he discovers he's the savior of the galaxy. Frodo Baggins is simply a mere Hobbit, until he discovers he's the only being in all Middle-earth who can handle the One Ring without slipping into murderous megalomania. Jesus is a carpenter's kid from a Palestine backwater who...well, never mind that. The point is, I get it. We like our supposedly nondescript fantasy heroes, because they allow us to project ourselves into those heroes. Except eventually, Clark must don the cape and turn into Superman--by which I mean you have to give the character significant qualities. You can't just leave him or her boring for 1500 pages. It misses the point of the whole grandiose exercise.

My problem with E L James is she simply isn't prepared to be a writer, yet she's reaping those rewards duly commensurate with being a very good one. I'll leave myself out of this. What about my friend Davee Jones, whose Finless is a work of BDSM erotica but superior to Fifty Shades in every possible way? Why hasn't Davee sold twenty million copies? You say, feeling sorry for Ms. James, that she must be prepared to be a writer, because she wrote a highly lucrative book. But here's the thing: Ms. James doesn't have a working English vocabulary. For the love of all that's, well, holy, she uses the word "crap" over a hundred times in 514 pages. She says "oh my" 79 times. Isn't Ana Steele supposed to be an editor? And really, isn't that the crappiest irony of all?

Shakespeare used a vocabulary of over 29,000 words. (Granted, he made 1700 of them up, but he did such a fine job of it that we still use Bardisms like gloomy and amazement four hundred years later.) The average American knows about 4000 words. So why is Ana's vocabulary so limited and infantile, not to mention jarringly British? It's as if you went to the hottest restaurant in town, but discovered the "chef" only knows how to cook using hot dogs, hamburger, French's mustard, and Ragu Pizza Quick Sauce. Yet Fifty Shades has now surpassed Harry Potter to become the fastest-selling paperback in the history of publishing. Aargh!

Before you accuse me of adding to the problem, I borrowed the book from my sister-in-law, who was given it by someone else. But seriously, if you're into this sort of thing, go spend the five bucks to buy my friend Davee's book Finless. You'll enjoy it a lot more, and you'll be done a lot faster--plus she name-checks Christianity so you won't feel like such an irredeemable pervo. If you're not into that sort of thing, you could always read my books. Start a trend! Or, failing that, you could read dozens of novels I've wholeheartedly recommended: Ender's Game by Ms. Meyer's hero Orson Scott Card, A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan, The Submission by Amy Waldman, Ready Player One by Ernie Cline, Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon, literally any of the I'm-not-kidding-500-plus works of Isaac Asimov...

We really have to raise our sights, people. This is getting depressing.

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  1. Amen, brotha. I struggled through Fifty Shades recently just to see what all the fuss was about, and was sorry I did. I wanted to reach through the pages and bitch-slap Ms. Anastasia Virgin But Orgasms Every Five Seconds Steele every time she uttered the words “Oh my.” Which was often. I cannot for the life of me understand why this book series is so popular, other than there must be greater numbers of desperately horny housewives out there than the world realizes.

  2. I was urged/bullied into reading The Bridges of Madison County. I’d like to say it was the worst book a friend made me promise to read, but no. That honor goes to The Celestine Prophesy. Vapid.

  3. I’ve read The Celestine Prophecy, and vastly preferred it to either Twilight or Fifty Shades.

  4. If I ever had any intention of reading Fifty Shades of Grey you would have convinced me not too. But I never had any such intention thanks to comments about it posted by various friends on Facebook, most notably our mutual friend Jennie Jenks.

    Oh, as a fellow Weekly Volcano scribe I must say I hope you meant to say “it is better written than my average Weekly Volcano article.”rather than ” the average Weekly Volcano article” (imagine italics, mine, on “my” and “the”). Damn, that was an awkward sentence.

    BTW, I never read any of the Twilight series either, but I did read Kavalier & Clay and loved every bit of it.

  5. THANK YOU! Every time I tell someone how much those books suck (I’m ashamed to admit I read 1 and 2) they act like there is something wrong with ME. i.e. elitist, asexual, a buzz kill etc…

  6. Ha! Yeah, I’d heard the writing was atrocious so never jumped on that bandwagon.

    I like the disclaimer about the mental state most/many/some Volcano articles are written. Since those states of being never apply to me . . .

    I couldn’t finish “The Golden Bowl” and quit halfway through. I have blocked the plot out of my mind but I remember hating it and forcing myself to read it until I got to the second section. I felt a little guilty at first but that quickly changed to irritation at time wasted on a book I didn’t like/found fault with.

  7. The tongue-in-cheek-ness of my Volcano comparison may have been unclear…

  8. Carv, I’m speechless in an amazingly good way with your review of Finless and mere words fail to fully describe my appreciation, yet, it’s what I offer you. Therefore, first, I say a huge thanks for the HUGE shout out.
    now, on to your review. I loved it! was rolling laughing at your usual wit and crispness of description. You nailed it head on to how some of my friends felt about the book. However, others of my friends absolutely loved it and I’m stunned.
    I’ve not read it, have been both advised for and against it, depending on the camp I talk to. Like you, I thought maybe I should to get in touch with readers’ hunger. However, if the errors, edit horrors, and the like are as rash as you spell them out to be…frankly, I would not want to write that way-even if it meant twenty million copies sold.
    (Did I really just say that? Ugh, now, to determine if I’m lying to myself or not.)
    Thank you again, Carv, for yet another entertaining and blog worthy experience!

  9. Bravo, well said.
    I am an author of the M/M genre which has writers of a calibre far higher than the hapless writer of Fifty Shades of Shite, as it should be called.
    Everyone appears to be in a frenzy over this book because it involves a bit of tie me up, tie me down which in my opinion goes to show how ridiculously narrow-minded people can be.
    Seeing the ridiculous gushing over a book as poorly written and edited as this one, when there are books with intricately woven plots and beautifully written stories in the M/M genre that are ignored (according to one ridiculous commenter on a post I made myself a few nights ago – it’s because M/M caters to a small group – not quite sure the gay community consider themselves a small group), quite frankly makes me want to hurl into the nearest bin! Which is where Ms James’ drivel belongs.

  10. This made me laugh out loud a number of times. I am disgusted that this drivel is doing so well when there are BRILLIANT authors out there like Cassandre Dayne and Kim Faulks. Not to sound full of myself but I write better than E L James (and that’s without reading any of her FSOC).
    To add on to Lisa’s comment: the M/M genre isn’t limited to the Gay Community, which is by no means small. I have read a couple M/M novellas (by aforementioned Cassandre Dayne) and was so hooked, I did lose track of time. Some of my absolute favourite reviews!
    People need to learn to think for themselves when it comes to books and movies. Just because it’s shoved in our faces DOES NOT mean that it’s good. Same with music, to be honest. Heck, I’ve heard that even E L James herself said Fifty Shades of Grey was crap! I’m going to go have a read of the free sample, but I’m not expecting to read more than a couple pages…
    THANK YOU for this straight up review! Glad to see there are many intelligent people still out there!

  11. (PS. On the M/M comment, I meant to add I’m straight!)

  12. Hey, folks,

    I’m pleasantly stunned by how quickly and admiringly this post has been passed around. Although I may not have time to respond to every comment individually this weekend, I have read, enjoyed, and appreciated every one. Thank you so much for reading and sharing, and I hope you dig previous posts and other areas of the site. I’d apologize to Ms. James for bashing her work in what’s turned out to be a very public forum, but let’s face it: she can cry all the way to the bank.

  13. Sitting in the dentist office waiting for my son last Monday, 2 middle aged women were reading “Fifty Shades of Grey” and one younger woman the final installment in the “Twilight” series.

  14. Pug, that is depressing. :o)

  15. I find it utterly appalling how horrific the most popular lit is… makes me wonder why I write, if people are happy with this sort of abysmal crap.

    You approach it brilliantly, as always. Now, if you would just get back to writing…

  16. Thank you! I write every day, just not on anything terribly fun (unless you’re a huge fan of reviews of plays you live too far away to see). I would very much like to get back to my novel once 8 closes.

    Missed you at Hamlet, by the way!

  17. The average American knows an unimpressive 4000 words, but even that is four times more words than the average Chinese-speaker’s vocabulary in hanzin characters. <– I was a little confused by this sentence. Do you mean to say that the average Chinese speaker only needs to know about 1000 words? I was given to understand that the average Chinese newspaper requires knowledge of about 4000 traditional Chinese words and perhaps 2-3k of simplified Chinese. The average college-educated Chinese person might know about 6k characters, if that few.

  18. I’m so glad you asked this question, Katje, because it provided me with a much-needed learning opportunity. I wrote this long enough ago that I don’t remember my source; but whatever it was, I chose poorly. Upon further research, I find that you are right and I was dead wrong. Even a basic speaker of Chinese knows 2000-4000 characters, not 1000. And even then, as one writer noted, a person could know the words “up” and “right” in English but still not know the meaning of “upright.” Similarly, hanzin characters are often combined in unpredictable ways to form widely understood words. I greatly appreciate the info and will edit the piece accordingly. Thank you so much for reading and responding!

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