Howard McEwen

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My review of Fifty Shades of Grey

August 17th, 2012 · No Comments

That old cat-killer got a hold of me.

I just had to try to understand why Fifty Shade of Grey, which I somehow thought was some BDSM handbook, was being sold at my grocery store and everywhere else and why it was on the top of all kinds of bestseller lists but was also universally panned and ridiculed.

So I read it over vacation sitting on the beaches of Hilton Head Island.

Look, it’s not bad for what it is. It’s an escapist page turner. It was written to be an escapist page turner. On that, it succeeds. It’s not literature and was never meant to be. It’s no worse than much of the pulpy stuff out there. Stephen King has written worse. John Grisham has written lots worse as have so genre writers and a good majority of so-called ‘Literary writers’. Heck, read the first convoluted paragraphs of John Updike’s The Witch of Eastwick, for instance.

It’s the story of a young woman leaving a platonic relationship with a dominant female roommate entering into a more formal dominate but sexual relationship with a successful male. She is asexual until she meets a man who flips her switch. In today’s world of emasculated metro-sexuals I believed her asexuality and I understood her attraction. Furthermore, it’s a woman’s fantasy, a strikingly handsome, successful, talented, rich man who is none-the-less tragically flawed who she can ‘fix’.

The novels worst elements are when the author tries to convince us that Christian Grey is a hot shot CEO. She puts extraordinary banal ‘this-sounds-like-business” phrases in his mouth. Business itself is extraordinarily banal but this made it unbelievably banal.

However, as a writer who struggles with sex scenes, I thought her various and multiple descriptions of female orgasms pretty well done. The author also uses the old device of a devil/angel on my shoulder fairly well to keep the female characters inner monologue going…and going…and going…and going. The whole inner goddess/subconscious riff is a good illustration on why I’ll always have a hard time understanding women – they over think EVERY. LITTLE. THING. I believe this is why women are drawn to and understand his book so much more than men. My male mind wanted to shout “Just decide already and get on with life. You want this kinky relationship or not, lady?”

Now for the sex. I didn’t think the sex was tame but it wasn’t anything extreme either. I recently read 1934’s The Postman Always Rings twice and the sadomasochism in that was far more than anything in Fifty Shades. The sex is enough to gin up the prurient interest of a typical, healthy woman without turning her off totally. I don’t think there is anything in this book the average married couple amped up on Margaritas and freedom escaping to a hotel for a night of freedom while the grandparents watch the kids hasn’t tried out. Heck, I don’t think there is so much as a kiss until a fifth of the way through the book.

I’ve read reviews where 50 Shades glorifies a physically abusive relationship. The male character never struck the woman in anger. I didn’t keep score but I believe during the sex scenes the female lead gets two mild spankings, gives one blow job and there’s no anal, cutting, whipping. You get harder, more non-vanilla action on Cinemax after midnight. This is not what I imagine are the acts of an abuser. Most importantly, Anna consents to every act.

I’ve also read that 50 Shades glorifies a mentally abusive relationship. Sorry, but I just don’t see it. Christian Grey is asking Anna to enter into a dominant/submissive relationship willingly. He’s not forcing himself on her. He asked directly, she dithers, they negotiate. The largest piece of evidence for this is that in the end when she sees what he’s all about, she leaves. And he lets her. He actually encourages it. She’s not some woman sneaking off in the middle of the night and changing her identity.

So, why is it a success? It’s a bit of a fantasy. It’s sexy without being off-putting and, damn it, the pacing is really good. It’s a page-turner.

So, why is it reviled? First, it’s not written so well. But there are plenty of popular books not written so well (Hello, DaVinci Code). I think it brings out a large condescending snob factor in many people. It’s readers are ones society deems ok to look down on. Hey, it’s just a bunch of middle-aged suburban women reading this. You know, the type with too many kids and too much weight that make rice-a-roni, listen to country music and shop at Wal-mart. It’s only them and we can make fun of them.

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