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Friday, September 14, 2012

Fifty Shades of Grey - a Grumbling Report

I didn't want to read Fifty Shades of Grey even though everyone was talking about. I didn't want to read it even though my writing students were trying to dissect its success. There are so many wonderful books to read and I didn't want to waste my time on, well, smut.

But when my neighbor Marlene plopped the book into my hands and said "Don't judge it until you read it," I took her up on it.

That was months ago.

It's been a real chore to finish the book.

Why? For three reasons:

(1) It's boring and depressing.

Sure, there are some titillating sex scenes and E L James describes an orgasm artfully. But 514 pages of repetition was too much for me. I literally only finished the book so I could write an honest review.

Here is a Gail's Notes version of the book. SPOILER ALERT!...

Ooh this handsome rich guy wants me. But he wants to hit me too.
Should I let him? Or shouldn't I?
Ooh we "do it" but he still wants to hit me.
Should I let him? Or shouldn't I? And what's wrong with him, anyway?
Ooh we do it some more and he hits me a little. It doesn't hurt much.
Should I sign the permission-to-hit contract? Or shouldn't I? I think I love him. Does he love me?
Ooh we do it some more and I get depressed and confused and go visit my mother.
Should I sign the contract? I really love him. Does he love me?
Ooh he chases after me. We do it some more.
Should I sign? I tell him to hit me with his best shot. He hits me hard. It really hurts.
I can't give him what he needs (permission to hit me hard).
He can't give me what I want (true love).
Sayonara baby.

Five hundred and fourteen pages of that. I'm not kidding. Boring and depressing, for the most part.
There were a few instances of humor here and there, for which I was grateful. And thank you, author E L James, for not using the word "member" - the lamest euphemism ever for penis.

(2) Seattle people talk and drink like British folks.

Besides the mind-numbing repetition, there are some really comical word choices in the book. E L James is British but the characters are American. We find some Londoner-out-of-London Britishisms scattered throughout:

- "sorted" - Everyone is always sorting things. They "sort the problem." Americans don't sort. We fix problems.
- "keen" - Everyone is always keen, meaning eager. Americans don't use the word keen. We used the term when I was a kid in the 50s, but it meant something entirely different than the way E L James means it here.
- "for pity's sake" - The sexy, hitting guy says that a lot. I have never heard any American under 80 use the phrase.
- "Laters" - meaning "See you later." I've never heard of "laters." Americans say "Later!"
- "raw meat cabinet" - meaning a place to display cuts of meat in the grocery store. We use meat coolers, not cabinets.
"collect you from the airport"... "collecting my purse" - We pick you up, we don't collect you. We collect money, not people. We get our purses.
- "have a bath" - We take a bath.
- tea, tea, and more tea - We drink coffee.
- "quirk" used as a verb, as in "His lip quirks up at me" - I've never heard of that example of "verbing." Strange.
- "I look such a mess" - We'd say "I look like such a mess."
- "I've a ----" - We'd say "I have a -"
- "bespoke suit" - I love the sound of this but I have to look up what it means.
- "endeavor to be" - We just try to be.

3. There are other annoyances.

- Fingers are always "steepling."
- People are always looking "amusedly."
- People are always rolling their eyes. Really? Past high school?
- The main character, Ana, is always biting her bottom lip. Who does this after fourth grade?
- Ana's subconscious is always doing things (if it's your subconscious, you don't know what it's doing, do you?)
- Ana's inner goddess is always doing and saying things. What? Tiring.
- It's 2011 and Ana is 21, graduating from college, a virgin, who has not used email. There's some kind of time warp there.
- The sexy rich guy admits he has paid for sex yet he and Ana have unprotected sex. Ew.
- A worse ew (gross-out warning) - he pulls a tampon out of her body and plops it in the toilet. I mean, really!
- The book is written in Ana's voice. Yet "he whispers, shocked." "He frowns, bewildered." "He stares, dumbfounded." How can she know exactly what he's feeling?

So why is the book so popular?

I may be persnickety. I may belly-ache in print. But I've heard that E L James is taking home about a million bucks per week - or is it per day? This book is a phenomenon. It's no news that poorly-written books can become best-sellers. Take Bridges of Madison County or DaVinci Code or The Shack. I could hardly stand those books. But they were huge sellers.

Why? Some books touch a nerve. As I tell my writing students, "Story trumps style." So even though you may have a sucky style of writing (a technical term), if your story catches the imagination of the public, you have a good chance of selling millions of books.

In the case of Fifty Shades, maybe there were thousands of people who had never read a dirty book. Maybe there were many who had never seen their bondage-and-hitting fantasies in print. Suddenly folks were openly reading this stuff, and it gave readers permission to check out what had formerly felt taboo. Plus they could use the protection of e-readers so no one could see the cover of their "dirty book."


I asked one of my writing students about the plot in books two and three of the "Fifty Shades" trilogy. Now I know how the story ends, so I can go read something wonderful. I just stumbled upon the original, unedited, one-long-roll-of-paper version of On the Road by Jack Kerouac. It's waiting for me. And I know that Jack will not disappoint.

Gail Grenier is the author of Calling All Horses, Dog Woman, and Don't Worry Baby, all available from


  1. Great review, Gail! I sure as hell never wanted to read the book, and when I saw that you had written a review of it, I had to stop for a moment and think whether I wanted to read even that!

    But, of course, it being YOU who wrote the review, I went for it - and here I am.

    Bespoke means made to order, btw. Living in Toronto and environs, a lot of those expressions are common to me, especially since my best friend is British - who's always 'collecting' and 'sorting' things) - and yet a coffee drinker.

    I'd hate to run across those steepling fingers, too! (I don't know which phraseology I wince at most: that or "she padded in"). Good point about the subconscious!

    A book that is SO worth reading, and which many - in the beginning of this madness - mistook for Fifty Shades, is "Between Shades of Gray".

    I can only be thankful for the smutty "Gray" book for boosting the sales of "Between...". Now there's a tale from reality that's worth one's time.

    1. Thank you, Marga! And now I don't have to look up "bespoke suit." I wonder how the term bespoke came to mean that!

      Tell me about "Between Shades of Gray."

      I love nonfiction so much that I'm thinking of only reading it in the future. Have you read "The Tiger"???

  2. Gail, loved this! Thanks for reading and reviewing 50 Shades of Grey so I don't have to.

    1. You're welcome, Karen. And thanks too for your comment on Facebook that mine is the best review you've read on this book. That's high praise from a discriminating reader and writer such as you! I'm glad I saved you the time of reading this book. However, I was amazed at the comments on Facebook about married people who started communicating more after reading 50 Shades. Interesting!

  3. worst. book. ever. the britishisms never crossed my mind while reading it, but the repetition did. i get it! his hips are sexy and you bite your lip and blush a lot! lets move on! the only good thing about 50 shades of grey is it teaches you how to skim a book.

    1. Great response, Anna! Ha - I like your comment about learning to skim. See, there's something good in every bad experience....