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Book Review

Fifty Shades of Grey
E L James
(New York: Vintage Books, 2012)
This is not a well-written book. Most everyone knows that by now. The writing is amateurish, filled with clichés, “inner goddesses,” and other assorted nonsense. There are so many said bookisms in the story that it might serve as a dictionary of them. Her characters mutter, mumble, stutter, whisper, command, snap, and murmur, but they hardly ever just say anything.

The protagonist, Anastasia Steele, has a subconscious mind that is “snarky” and wears “wing-shaped spectacles.” This subconscious is clearly different from Ana’s “inner goddess,” implying that at the subconscious level she suffers from a multiple personality disorder. And then there is her medulla oblongata. Great Scott! Does James really think that her readers know enough about human anatomy to tell the difference between a medulla and a Medusa?

But none of that seems to matter a whit. The book has already sold more than 125 million copies worldwide. That makes Fifty Shades of Grey one of the biggest best-sellers of all time.

So why have so many people bought and presumably read such a poorly-written novel? Simply put, it is one helluva good story. It absorbs the reader despite the literary stumbles, inadequate characterizations, awkward language—“Jeez” and “Crap”?—and the improbable situations: a 21-year-old college graduate with a 4.0 GPA who is still a virgin and never owned or used a laptop computer? Please! The main theme, however, revolves around the practice of BDSM—basically: bondage, dominance, submission, and sadomasochism. This subject is titillating in its own right.

But much more than that, Fifty Shades provides something that has heretofore been a taboo subject: what a woman feels when she has an orgasm. The author’s descriptions of Ana’s orgasms are so spot on that one can only conclude that either James was informed by women who had experienced them or that she herself has had such experiences. I rather suspect the latter is correct.

And how do I, as a male of the species, know these things to be true? As a writer, I collect stories people tell me much as a packrat collects shiny baubles and secretes them in its nest. I have been told about such things by a few women. For example, one frank and outspoken woman who was in her early twenties—about half my age at the time—told me that her orgasms were “like I explode into a million pieces from the inside out.” Compare her words with a passage from Fifty Shades of Grey:

“He shifts slightly, and I can feel something building deep inside me. I start to stiffen as he thrusts on and on. My body quivers, bows; a sheen of sweat gathers over me. Oh my . . . I didn’t know it would feel like this . . . didn’t know it could feel as good as this. My thoughts are scattering . . . there’s only sensation . . . only him . . . only me . . . oh, please . . . I stiffen.

“ ‘Come for me, Ana,’ he says, and I unravel at his words, exploding around him as I climax and splinter into a million pieces underneath him. . . .

“I am still panting, trying to slow my breathing, my thumping heart, and my thoughts are in riotous disarray. Wow . . . that was astounding.”

Yet despite this description and others like it sprinkled throughout the story, critics have said that the book provides nothing new in its genre. For example, a review of the book by Emily Eakin in the New York Review of Books (2012) writes that “critics have noted that the erotic content breaks no new ground, citing equally explicit, better-written fare, in particular The [sic] Story of O, Anne Desclos’s indubitably literary portrayal of female sexual slavery, published in 1954.” (The book was published in 1954 under the pen name Pauline Réage, in French, and was translated into English in 1965.)

This is disingenuous criticism. I have a copy of Story of O, which I read with great interest. It is notably better-written than Fifty Shades of Grey, and it probes the practice of BDSM more deeply and more brutally than the latter. It does not, however, contain any real description of the female orgasm. E L James remains the champion in that respect, and in this she is a true ground-breaker.
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