50 Shades of Dumb?*

As those of you who read our rambling posts might remember, I belong to a neighborhood book club (because, yes, I don’t have enough reading in my work life).   Ordinarily, the choices we make for said club are solid—sometimes challenging, sometimes brilliant, sometimes just okay, but solid.

I am struggling with our latest pick, however, and not in the usual, I-have-no-time-to-read-for-fun-when-I-have-3,000-manuscript-pages-staring-at-me-balefully-from-the-piles-on-my-floor way.

This month, we’re reading 50 Shades of Grey (as you deduced from the title above) and initially I was excited to find out what all the buzz was about.  Certainly, this is one of the biggest publishing stories of the year and my colleagues and I like to keep up with what’s selling and why.  I’ve  also been hearing about this book at the supermarket, the library, the waiting room at the pediatrician’s office…so here, I thought, was the perfect opportunity to satisfy my curiosity and have something intelligent to say when someone asks me about this runaway bestseller.

Sadly, this story does not have a happy ending.  Oh, I don’t mean the Grey series.  I have no idea how that ends and I suspect I won’t find out first-hand.  I mean the story of my reading the first book in the trilogy, which ended badly almost as soon as it began.  I think this is a dumb book [she ducks under her desk].  No, I’m not offended by the mind-numbingly repetitive sex (there’s a lot of it).  I am bemused by the success of a book whose female protagonist has the personality of a moody fruit fly, whose hero is a creepy stalker, and which features a relationship that’s supposed to embody passion and mystery but that seems to have sprung from the feverish imaginings of a hormonal 15-year-old.   To me the book is a hot mess—emphasis on mess.

So, how has it become such a phenomenon?  Is it the kinky sex?  The innocent-virgin-seduced-by-the-tormented-cute-guy premise?  The money porn elements (the hero is filthy rich)?  Is this really a collective female fantasy or just really clever marketing?

I’m not a snob about commercial fiction (really!).  I didn’t think Twilight was particularly well written or plotted but I enjoyed it and I got it.  This, I don’t really get.

The last time I felt so out of sync about a book was when The Bridges of Madison County was tearing up the bestseller lists.  I found myself giggling through most of that heartfelt narrative until it hit me that it wasn’t meant to be funny.  So, can you guys explain this latest phenomenon to me?  Why is it working?  Are there shades of grey I’m missing here?


*Apologies in advance to all of those who love, love, love this book.

25 Responses to 50 Shades of Dumb?*

  1. Georgia B says:

    I didn’t make it through the first paragraph. Honestly, that’s the way the author chose to introduce her protagonist? In the middle of a bad-hair moment? With that as the launching point, the reader knows immediately that there will be no literary challenges to confront them in this read. Maybe that’s the attraction? Easy read, lots of sex, little depth, and a blank heroine upon whom to project. Ugh. *shivers*

  2. Silver James says:

    THANK YOU! I don’t get the phenomenon either. This is Twilight fan-fiction with the serial numbers filed off and lots of sex added. Boring sex from the tiny bit I managed to swallow when people insisted I not knock it until I read it. Thank goodness for “previews” so I didn’t waste my money! Of course, I didn’t get Twilight, either. I’m obviously not the target audience, even though I have good friends whose reading tastes I admire admit they were sucked into the book/trilogy. I’ll save my money and time for books I find more fulfilling reads.

    And you know, I don’t see why we should apologize for NOT liking the book. Just sayin’.

  3. J E Fritz says:

    I couldn’t get through the first page, so I’m glad I didn’t pick it up when I was at the book store. It would have been an even worse investment than I thought. So many people have been talking about it and all I could do was smile and nod along like I didn’t think it was boring and kind of dumb. Then they say, “Well, you didn’t finish it. No wonder you didn’t like it.” Yeesh. Can’t I just not like something?

  4. Jami Gold says:

    No need to apologize. The writing *is* atrocious, and even many of those who like the book admit that.

    I first became interested in the story behind these books due to the ethical issues (http://jamigold.com/2012/03/when-does-fan-fiction-cross-an-ethical-line/). FSoG started as Twilight fan fiction and is still available for free as “Master of the Universe” in PDF format. The characters are all based on the Twilight characters–trading vampirism for BDSM, etc.–and only the names were changed.

    As an author, I’m scared about what this case says about the ability for an author to control derivative works based on their characters. (To say nothing of the multiple copyright issues. In addition to the obvious potential claim of Stephenie Meyer, fanfic isn’t copyrightable at all, so how does changing the names from the MotU fanfic version to the FSoG published version suddenly make it eligible for copyright? That trick doesn’t work to evade charges of plagiarism.)

    As for why it’s so popular, there are several issues at play. James’s fans from her fanfic days (i.e., Twilight’s adult fanbase) bought the book and pushed it up the Amazon charts and showered it with positive reviews. One of her fans is on (possibly runs?) a popular “mommy blog” in NYC and pushed the book there. Between James’s publicist background and the NYC connection, supporters (possibly James herself) finagled the initial Today show segment. (Remember how the “book club” raving about the book in the segment hadn’t actually read a book in *years*? The group was really the wife and friends of one of the Today producers, I believe.) All the remaining publicity stemmed from that segment. This is a “manufactured” word-of-mouth hit.

    Many of the non-Twilight/fanfic readers who have loved the story are non-romance readers. Many of them are one-book-a-year or Oprah-book-club readers. The overworked romance novel tropes of aggressive, stalking alpha male and limp noodle female are new and different to them. They’ve never read a romance at all, much less one with sex and BDSM elements. So they’re going gaga over finding a book that explores a couple’s relationship through all the tortured, emotional twists and turns, and they have an “OMG! Books–those things that are the ‘vegetables’ of popular media–have s-e-x in them. Who knew?” reaction.

    And yes, James has admitted that she has a massive crush on Robert Pattinson (the actor who plays Edward in the Twilight movies) and that the “Fifty” character she based on him is her ideal man. So your statement that the writing seems like the “feverish imaginings of a hormonal 15-year-old” are spot on, in fact, other than the difference of physical age vs. mental/emotional age.

    Some of James’s supporters try to claim that anyone who doesn’t like the book or the ethical implications are just jealous of her success. However, there *are* serious issues with the writing quality and James’s choices to exploit the Twilight characters and fandom for her own gain, and those who deny those facts worry me a little.

    Regardless, no apologies are necessary. :)

  5. Kristen Nelson recently blogged on the same thing. And here’s an insightful comment from one of her readers.


  6. Kim says:

    I purchased the ebook and have only perused it, but it’s a little distracting when during the sex scenes the female protagonists keeps using words like, “Yikes!”

  7. Bethany Neal says:

    I’m seconding Silver James’ THANK YOU! I couldn’t get past the third chapter and that was a struggle. Really, the way she meets him is by tripping–literally–into his office full of busty blondes? Holy cow, that’s cheesy. (That holy cow was a sarcastic poke at the narrator’s favorite phrase in case you missed that.) I have no insightful analysis regarding the phenomenon, just venting.

  8. I’m all for guilty pleasures, but it’s embarrassing that a book this popular is so poorly written.

    My suggestion for those of you who also must read it for a book club – turn it into a drinking game. One shot of vodka for each time Ms. Steele says “jeez” ought to make it 50 Shades More Palatable. Have fun!

  9. Ryan Field says:

    Though I can’t disagree with anything you wrote, I absolutely loved FSoG. And not because it was a great book. The writing was marginal at best and the characters, for me, were wooden. But then I felt that way about BoMC…which I also loved.

    But I did have to follow up FSoG with Anne Tyler’s new book, The Beginner’s Goodbye. After reading something so trashy and dishy, I needed something like an Anne Tyler book.

    I think one reason why FSoG resonates with readers is because they have digital devices on which they can now read e-books like this to escape in a very discreet way…it’s a novelty. And, most people aren’t elitists, which is something the publishing industry has been ignoring for a long time.

  10. emily says:

    Hmmm? Not everyone is talking about it — I never heard about it till now. But, sorrowfully, even a magnificently educated, world-wide touted historian of the Napoleonic era, can write and publish a bad book.

    I just started a novel, “May 1812,” all settled in to enjoy MM Bennett’s work and found myself so dumbfounded by the bad writing, I had to get out of bed, turn the computer on and check out the Amazon reviews.

    Most of them praised the work — except for one fiesty Scot who laid bare the shortcomings and revealed it to be a self-published work. And another commentator who detailed some of the fiction and writing errors.

    I have to think the other comments made here about the popularity of FSoG are no doubt coming close to explaining the phenom.

    But I do think the bad writing syndrom is diretly linked to self-publishing — bring on the professional editor one and all!!!

  11. Julie Nilson says:

    I read a few paragraphs on Jezebel.com and found them so poorly written that I couldn’t believe the book was a best seller! If I didn’t know it was originally fanfic, I would have thought the author plagiarized someone on ff.net.

  12. ryan field says:

    “But I do think the bad writing syndrom is diretly linked to self-publishing — bring on the professional editor one and all.”

    In some cases, yes. But not in all cases. I recently self-published a novel on Amazon and I have over 80 published works of fiction and twenty years of experience…more than any editor I’ve worked with in the past five years. I also did hire a copy editor and a cover artist. I know a lot of published authors who are doing the same thing. Readers now have to vet what they read before they buy. And if the information is not there with a self published book don’t buy it. More and more published authors are doing this to get control over many issues, which includes the ability to have digital first releases.

  13. Jamie says:

    Another THANKS! I felt the exact same way reading 50 SoG and am trying to push through thinking maybe it gets better and the MC isn’t as dumb as I think she is.

  14. matt cooper says:

    As a husband of a reader of the series all I can say is: thank you Ms James and please keep them coming! (The books I mean.)

  15. Fatoumatta says:

    I finish every book I read. Even if I don’t like it much. I find that I still bnfeeit and enjoy reading books I don’t particularly love. If nothing else, I have something to compare other great books to.Also, I’ve started tons of books I thought I would hate and then at some point, whether it be page 10, 50 or 200 – something happens and I’m totally drawn into the story. Not that this happens with every book….but I guess I just can’t give up that hope :)Great discussion topic.

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  21. Alex says:

    I think the whole concept of how Christian was tormented in his childhood was really dumb because he says he got adopted at like 3 or 4, I forget, but at that age you wouldn’t remember traumatic experiences and it certainly wouldn’t make you a dominant and submissive sex maniac.

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