50 SHADES OF GREY: Triple Holy Merde:
the loveless fuck

Photo by Edge2Edge Media on Unsplash

By Kate Orland Bere Copyright 2012

Once, more than 20 years ago, my husband and I, not yet married, spent an entire two-week period over Christmas quite ill with a virulent flu. Never have I been so ill for so long. While gradually growing less sick, but still not entirely well, one evening we watched a “B” horror film entitled “Dolls” to distract ourselves from our misery. Dolls was entirely camp – particularly as the satire was unexpected. Bored out of our minds having been reduced to coughing, vomiting, sweating, fevering humans, snotting up a storm for two entire weeks, our romance was on sad hold.  Still to this day, I am grateful for that two hours of pure idiocy and camp. I think in fact it cured us – the laughing. A peculiar satiric joy accompanies the memory –  and I am no fan of horror. I might remember 50 Shades of Grey similarly. I decided I must read this book for one reason only: why the insane success of this book? The hype? Mere sex and torture?


Fantasy for me in literature is certainly not about S & M – not a genre I normally read. Unless talking about the fantasy of, say, Tolkien, or serious science fiction, or classical gothic literature, I am not obsessed with, nor interested in, the trolls of the night – not as a reader, nor as a human. I am no expert on the stuff. And this is where this book treads a thin line between perhaps outing a certain type of deviant (Christian Grey – who knows he is no good for Anastasia, the young virginal protagonist), and yet somehow simultaneously blatantly attempting to make such interaction much more than titillating (innocence meets wealth, power, sugar-Daddy). Given the torrid sales of this book – out-of-this-world sales – it would seem a lot of readers out there are feeling both deviant and fantasy-driven these days. And I have to wonder, does that bespeak of boredom? Curiosity? Yet Shades (first book of this trilogy) does have its camp – perhaps on a level of, say, The Sopranos. Soap opera camp?  If one tries to define 50 Shades within a genre category, one could not say it pretends to be literary despite the so-called literary interests of the protagonist, Anatasia (Ana), for this is not , obviously, literature . Nor do I think it pretends to be, any more than Dolls pretends to be avant-garde film. Neither is it pure fantasy or Gothic, for it actually dwells in what could be perhaps a conceivable reality on this planet, however insipidly monotonous, corny, or creepy that reality soon becomes. It may possibly be a roman-a-clef, but we will never know because James is never going to reveal her creative inspiration for S & M. It is, I suppose, a psychological thriller of sorts, although it lacks any plot other than pure erotic obsession. A bildungsroman, even a picaresque novel, a gothic romance of sorts? — metafiction, epistolary novel in part?  For certain it IS a hybrid novel, crossing several genre categories, and yet somehow not falling clearly into any one of them.


Because 50 Shades does cross genre boundaries, this may be why it defies ordinary categorizations of critical analysis, although to date I have not found one credible critique of this novel: most are not written with any critical language, comparative or evaluative, other than to sack the book entirely, citing its repetitive, annoying, and limiting language, lack of serious plot, and its prurient, salacious content. Holy Moses, they are not wrong — and yet somehow, for me at least – this became the driving satire of the entire read: it was just so bad, such camp, or ludicrously repetitive in action and in language, that it became over-the-top stupidly funny, and I felt as if James must have been entirely aware of her own conceit.  Mocking S & M, mocking even literature perhaps? Are critics and commentators missing the satire? Is it possible that is where another Erica (Jong) found critical acclaim for Fear of Flying, the plot a satiric quest for sexual liberation, the zipless fuck et al, published in 1971? With 50 Shades, this new Erica (E.L James), in examining an even more controversial loveless fuck, encountering critical dismissal, without any true attempt to establish critical debate or discussion on what the book does do well, or at least attempts to introduce? Would it not be wise to locate in the publishing and media blitz around the book a critical forum for discussion on why books which center on the sexuality or sensuality of women, as it pertains to the desires of men they believe themselves in love with  – even if this seems entirely unbalanced in POWER relations between men and woman) – to examine why these books, when WRITTEN by women , often encounter a kind of antagonism, or even ridicule. In this case, the derogatory term is mommy-porn.


Despite the fact that there are plenty of readers and critics of this book, there are none who talk about the possible influences of this book other than the Vampyre Twilight Series by Stephanie Meyer. My son says that series has killed dead the beauty of vampires.  Well, if James has killed dead S & M by her novel, she deserves a crown, but I fear the opposite may be the reality.  Many fault James for creating a story and characters lacking in maturity and depth – and a narration which repeats, in desultory, mindless detail, the manipulative sex scenes of a couple far too trivial in their motives — ultimately snoreworthy. They deplore the lack of a plot. And you won’t hear me refute them. Yet I, who read this book on a dare to review it, because I was quite curious about the sales it has engendered, found myself laughing spontaneously at many points, and I also found myself at times feeling a real tension in at least certain of the sex or torture scenes: angry, I confess. I cannot say that James writes badly about sex or torture (not lovemaking, but sexual acts) – it may not be a literary description, but these scenes are not poorly imagined, in my view.  Rather, it makes one believe she herself has experienced enough sexually to at least render this type of S & M (I am told on the benign side, blush) entirely believable, if definitely not poetic.  Is this roman-a-clef?  And if it were poetic, would it have had the same affect, and would that not be somewhat problematic? (um)  Do we need poetic S & M – and would that not have run counter to what one might believe, given the ending of the book, was the author’s actual intent? Which, to me, was, perhaps more than any other genre, a bildungsroman. Of sorts. Not limited to.  But to me also, what is most interesting about 50 Shades is the direct attention drawn to the obsessive need sometimes developed in the sexual relationship between lovers, and the distinction drawn between a mere physical or psychological need lacking any emotional, much less intellectual, connection, and the profound and deep need that comes of desiring a person with whom we want to establish a genuine emotional, psychological, and intellectual intimacy – a kind of relationship which is a very far cry from mere sexual dominance over a submissive partner. And, in this, I think James does make that distinction, even if her novel might have accomplished this in half the length, with dialogue far more nuanced: intelligent. This novel is clever at times; but it is never genius. But 50 Shades clearly aims to serve as a shocking,  B class, social-satire chick-lit for the middle classes. And the heroine, however foolish or lacking in self-esteem she may have seemed throughout, who has subjected herself to such use and abuse, does change, or we could imagine that she has (the fact there are two more books makes me wonder, however). Even if  it seems to take an eternity and we, the reader, are rolling our own eyes in disgust, dismay, or undisguised mirth by the length of time this so-called illumination takes.  Holy blooming Merde! Dites-toi ROUGE! ROUGE! 


I do not envy James. How will she write her way out of this controversial corner, having such salacious success with such a critically spat-upon book? She is staying out of the limelight, saying as little as possible, checking her swelling bank account. If she is interviewed, one can only imagine the types of questions she would be asked. “Have you ever used a butt plug? Have you ever been whipped? Have you ever been tortured in all those ways? Was it difficult to come up with this bald (bad), ribald, debauched dialogue? Does this reflect you and your obsessions? What is your code red?” Of course, given the phenomenal sales of this novel series already, she could easily cap her pen for good: she has no further monetary need to write. Perhaps, like Christian, she will focus her attentions on world hunger. Another plot irony that I thought, yes, ridiculous, yet perhaps not so stupid: Grey’s philanthropic interests in business. Another satiric stab.


What makes a novel sexy, or controversial, when it comes to sex? Or, for that matter, well-written, evocative, curious, ground-breaking? Why is it that this novel is reduced to such a grueling display of obsessive, control-freak, role-playing characters – as opposed to an intellectual interplay of ideas and freely expressed sensuality, or sexuality? Could it have become both? What does drive one mad as a reader is the seeming celebration of sadism and masochism, even as the idea of male dominance is actually derided (Kate’s growing righteous rage towards Christian; Ana’s mother’s sage advice; Kate, the roommate’s derisive fury). There is a strong opposition there that does drive the plot. For the tension between the desires of the protagonist (to be with Grey), and the personal will and ego of the protagonist (she does not desire punishment, but desires intimacy & love) – the disparity, and irreconcilable tension between those polarities  is what creates, I believe, the response factor in female readers. And this may be the problem in all relationships which have at their core obsession rather than emotional truth or emotional courage. Maybe to be NOT fucked-up means one has the capacity to enter into a relationship where the desire to be emotionally committed is strong enough, despite any obstacles that may exist, to honestly engage to seek the greatest well-being of the person one believes themselves to be in love with. To allow that love to explore itself and to grow. And in that plot device, James does have a clear winner. Any woman, in her lifetime, may find herself drawn to persons that she feels strong attraction or feelings for, but knows ultimately there are issues which impose strong doubts or fears about the plausibility of the relationship working out. Here it is in Christian imposing a completely unacceptable obsessive S & M framework for their relationship that creates an increasingly painful dilemma for Ana. In this book, Christian is incapable of delivering to Ana the joy of a love that she can interpret as true and selfless and enduring. She, however, believes that she could provide this kind of selfless love for him. The question becomes, what is the risk to her own soul in allowing herself to become a mere object in someone else’s completely sexually-obsessed fantasies? And although James explores this idea somewhat in the stream-of-consciousness of her main protagonist, she does not take it half far enough. It is hardly believable for this novel to suddenly arrive at the word grief, without Ana having more of a confrontation with her own spirit, admitting her own foolish pride in the acceptance of such a bizarre relationship – admitting, in other words, her own culpability in playing this supplicant victim role, as well as acknowledging to herself Grey’s sick cruelty.  For that admission would be making ultimately a decision about her own will and purpose in life –  her own identity in opposition to his identity. For it boils down to that fact: she can only become, by staying within his sick world, as he defines that world, something else quite weak and growingly hideous, by allowing him to play some fake master in his own blind universe. She would become merely the enabling vessel for his obsession, not a real person with a strong and purposeful will of her own. 


Yet the novels simply go on, and that seems merely a material decision: the authors hope of greater sales, her own greed.  It will not create a better story – this book could have made much more interesting points about the politics of Love or Sex, albeit in a controversial way, and yet still might have been acceptable artistically. I believe it could have been possible given enough talent and a stronger form. In this form, it most decisively does not. Two more books kills it dead. What was the strongest aspect of this book for me was in the humour implicit in the relationship, notwithstanding the politics of the sex, although the extremity of that situation was oddly imbalanced by a weird kind of pseudo-romance.  Hard to swallow that one when the reader swiftly began to discern that Christian was a much more pathetic than a romantic or charismatic figure. A half-person. Because he possessed no depth – how could he, if unable to grow emotionally and experience emotions, rather than mere dominant obsession, in short mere thrills, in his relationships? Endless violent sexual performances and thrills: theatrical, prurient, abusive. If you attempt to completely control another person or to manipulate them, what does that say of your own ability to think, to love, to appreciate someone as they are, to interact willingly, and with joy rather than with pain and subterfuge?


What I did like about this novel was the honest portrayal of FEAR as a reality for a male and a female in relationships, and for all kinds of reasons, past, present and future.  For it is perhaps true that humans risk more in our personal romantic relationships in life, than we do by any other single activity or choice. These relationships can lead to great joy — unprecedented emotional, intellectual, physical, and psychological depth, or they can lead nowhere but to emptiness and pain. Or, more often, to some compromise between the two. I fault James for leaving her protagonist where she does, grief-stricken, rather than as the virago she had seemed to become when righteously angry, direct, calling Christian on his sick behavior. But perhaps the ending was necessary to convey that Ana does indeed pay a high price for flying too close to the sun, like Icarus, as in her dreams.

This essay is not to be taken as a tribute to “50 Shades,” but rather as an attempt to place this controversial book within a feminist, critical framework for more intelligent discussion or debate. The increasingly high sales volume of the book (& women are the primary readers, it is said), render it representative of a cultural phenomenon worth serious scrutiny. Even B or “F” rated novels leave an imprint within that cultural framework.