E.L. James's Twilight fan fiction turned best-selling e-book Fifty Shades of Grey was recently optioned for a reported $5 million by Universal Pictures, and 575,000 paperback copies hit U.S. stores today. When I heard this, I hadn't yet read the book, but I was nonetheless a little tempted to move to space.
I realize that I might be alone in my dim view of fan fiction: Jean Rhys's Jane Eyre prequel The Wide Sargasso Sea is required reading in a lot of middle schools. Midnight in Paris made a lot of money even though it could alternately be titled 2 Moveable 2 Feastious. The New York Times gave P.D. James (no relation!) a nice little review for her Death Comes to Pemberly, which I assume is about digging up Jane Austen's arm bones and banging the keyboard of a MacBook Pro.
People are reading the hell out of Fifty Shades of Grey and calling it "mommy porn," saying it rekindled their marriages and introduced them to a world of erotic possibility. So even though I'm late to the phenomenon, I felt compelled to pick it up. After reading it, there are just a few things I don't understand. Namely, how it's possible that anybody is turned on by this.
On websites like FF.net, the original home of Fifty Shades of Grey, anybody who can successfully operate a mouse has long had the option to masturbate to a story where Worf has rough sex with DJ from Roseanne. For Fifty Shades to have such crossover success, I figured it was probably better written than most fan fiction, and that the characters had been successfully disguised enough not to merit outrage or lawsuits. I have very limited familiarity with the Twilight franchise, but Bella, Edward, and Jacob are culturally omnipresent enough that I could probably pick them out of a lineup.
Christian Grey, the Edward of our story, is a 27-year-old ginger who likes white wine and using emoticons in e-mails. He refuses to use contractions when he speaks, so in my head, I sort of pictured him sounding like Andy Dick at the medieval restaurant in The Cable Guy. Our Bella, Anastasia Steele, sounded like Speedracer, mostly because she's always shouting her catchphrase, "Holy crap!" At 21, she's never given a blow job, but when she does, instinctively knows to use lots of teeth. That dry, skittering sound you heard is your fallopian tubes curling like party ribbon.
Fifty Shades dispenses with the supernatural plotline but also the main erotic draw of the Twilight books: the fact that the characters can't or won't have sex. Unencumbered by Mormon sexual ethics, pacing, or a YA classification, E.L. James is free to go straight to the fucking.
Here is why the fucking is not very sexy:
The Prose: I'm sorry. I know, it's soft porn, and it's not there to better us. But the advantage of erotic fiction over a DVD of I Can't Believe I Ate the Whole Team is that books will always at least FEEL more high-minded than movies. Besides, there are ways to write sex well. This is not that. This is like Tom Wolfe–bad sex scenes but punctuated by non-sex scenes that are gut-wrenchingly awful. A passage where we find out what Anastasia Steele looks like via girl-frowning-at-her-appearance-in-a-mirror exposition should be punishment for vehicular manslaughter in some states.
The Dialogue: As has been noted, our heroine Anastasia Steele begins most of her sentences with "Holy crap!" People say "shall" a lot and "fetch" things instead of get them. When Christian Grey "rips through" Anastasia's virginity, she actually says "Argh!" like Jon finding out that Garfield has once again shredded the curtains.
The Characters: It's evident that we're dealing with thinly veiled Twilight characters here, and man, are those thin veils often hilarious. Fifty Shade's proxy for Stephenie Meyer's Jacob is a photography student named (wait for it) Jose. It's fun, because E.L. James is about as conversant with Latino culture as she is with BDSM. Jose likes to grope women when he's loaded on margaritas and begins every sentence with "Dios mio!" I only wish I were around for that brainstorming sesh: "Hmmm … Native American werewolf … Mexican … American … art student?" Also, Christian is a gorgeous 27-year-old (okay) "tycoon" (hahahaha, double "okay") who never seems to do any work, but he also doesn't bang models or do drugs. Disbelief unsuspended.
The Technology: I don't mean the fact that real, free, actually sexy porn and literature is available literally everywhere. Fifty Shades of Grey takes place in 2011 but is loaded with anachronism. Anastasia is a college student who doesn't have a computer or a smartphone. (And is a beautiful sex positive feminist virgin, but I guess we're letting that one slide.) In one scene, Christian tracks her down to a club by, uh, GPSing her cell. He flies a helicopter too? And has a butler? Oh! And at one point, the hip young kids all groove down to Kings of Leon. ROFL, E.L. Fudge. I mean James. I mean mom.
The Kink: I get that this is supposed to be BDSM Lite for people with Aztec-pattern Kindle Fire covers, but the ideas about "alternative lifestyle" sex (James's actual words) are kind of hilarious. It's like it was all filtered through that sexually precocious but ultimately clueless friend from Catholic elementary school: Oh, yeah, S&M is all burgundy leather dungeons and sub-dom contracts. Also, if you spray Mountain Dew in your vagina after sex you won't get pregnant.
Darfur: Darfur comes up a lot.
I'm not going to condemn Fifty Shades of Grey because it's fan fiction, even though that may not be my particular cup of Klingon sperm. I'm not even going to condemn it because I've seen better storytelling in an evening news segment about a raccoon who got a peanut butter jar stuck on his head in a Wendy's parking lot. What I do take issue with is that an author is making money off of people who are too technologically illiterate to find GOOD porn out there and are getting stuck with this nonsense instead because it's the one part of Computers they can't just ask a nephew about.
I guess if you've managed to familiarize yourself with your e-reader but not YouPorn, well-written erotica, or your own body, congratulations on "finding" Fifty Shades of Grey … but also for going one more day without stumbling into a zoo enclosure. Up top.