Welcome to the final instalment of this mini series wherein I list the failures exhibited in Fifty Shades as we go through what How Not to Write A Novel. This post covers interior monologue, setting, research and historical background, theme, and … sex scenes! So, more than in the other posts so far, I’ll be talking a fair bit about the BDSM elements of the books. (If that’s a strange term see my Dictionary page.) Here are links to parts one and two.
CONTENT NOTE: This series of posts is meant to be a fun and light-hearted. However, at times there is simply no getting away from the problematic portrayals of consent, BDSM, purity culture, misogyny, racism, child abuse and mental health problems that are inherent in Fifty Shades. To say nothing of the gratuitous displays wealth.
I also link to other blogs that also criticise Fifty Shades because I think they have insightful things to say about EL James’ writing, but I make no guarantees as to the language or suitability of content on those sites.
Also, credit where it’s due, the names given to the writing mistakes and the explanations are extracts from How Not To Write A Novel.
All in all, I hope you enjoy, but read at your own risk.
The Hothouse Plant – Wherein a character overreacts to every stimulus
Sometimes an author replaces dramatic events with dramatic reactions to mundane events.
The melodrama exhibited by Christian Grey is unreal. Take this scene from FSF chapter 11 when he and Ana are snuggling in their flat together:
The microwaves pings, and Christian releases me. I sit upright. The food smells spicy: garlic, mint, oregano, rosemary, and lamb, I think. The door to the microwave opens, and the appetizing smell grows stronger.
“S***!” Christian curses, and a dish clatters onto the countertop.
Oh Fifty! “You okay?”
“Yes!” he snaps, his voice tight. A moment later, he’s standing beside me once more.
“I just burned myself. Here.” He eases his index finger into my mouth. “Maybe you could suck it better.”
Apparently this is sexy.
Every Breath You Take – Wherein every passing mood is lovingly detailed
It is not necessary to give us a play-by-play of your protagonist’s every passing flicker of emotion.
Replace “every passing flicker of emotion” with “every passing expression of emotion” and, again, we have Ana. Did anyone count how many times Ana sighs, holds her breath, gasps or hyperventilates on account of Christian?
Oh yes, Das Sporking did: it was 242 times in FSOG, 287 times in FSD and 203 times in FSF.
Failing the Turing Test – Wherein the character has no reactions whatsoever
Characters must have emotional lives. When someone boos them off a stage, they should experience chagrin. When they fall from a tenth-story window, they should feel alarm. The writer should not count on dialogue like “Yikes!” to get the point across.
Right near the beginning of FSOG, Christian visits Ana in the hardware store where she works. He says he wants cable ties, masking tape and rope. And Ana has no reactions to any of this. (Well, no reactions until she suggests he also buys some coveralls to protect his clothes and he responds by saying he could just take his clothes off.) At least in the film Ana remarks light-heartedly that he looks kitted out like a serial killer. But Ana in the book? Nadda.
You’ll Have to Go Through Me – Wherein the fact that a character has senses is paramount
Instead of “The pencil flew through the air, heading straight for my eye” we get “I saw the pencil flying…”
OK, replace “senses” with “has two brain cells to rub together” and Ana does this all the time. Even if we are often left wondering if two brain cells is all she has.
Christian moans again, and I realize this is what woke me. (FSF chp 11)
What do we possibly gain by being told that Ana’s “realises” what it was that woke her? Can’t she just be woken? Can’t we be allowed to infer for ourselves when we are told he moans again? I mean, this is hardly precious plot-defining information we’re being presented with here that it Must Not Pass Unnoticed by the reader. Neither is it so complex you’d need Sherlock to figure it out.
I reckon this is a symptom of EL James writing in the present tense, but with a little more care it could have been avoided.
In FSOG chapter 5 Christian runs his hand through his hair and
I know it’s because he’s exasperated.
That bit right there – where Ana is telling us how aware of the plot she is. Leave that out.
Preemptive Strike – Wherein the author anticipates criticism
Here the weary author, who can no longer deny the awfulness of what he has been writing, attempts to deflect criticism by acknowledging the glaring flaws in his novel.
FSF chapter 14, Ana says:
I know his love is clouded with issues of overprotectiveness and control, but it doesn’t make me love him any less.
OK, but it should make Ana less trusting.
The Food Channel – In which the author stops to describe the specials
While it should be clear that the rule of economy applies to dinner scenes just as it does everywhere else, beginning writers often feel compelled to give an account of the dinner orders of everyone at the table, and then keep the reader apprised as to how good or bad the meal was.
FSD chapter 6, we get the entire menu printed with things like “Thyme-Roasted Bing Cherries, Foie Gras” on it. We get it EL James: it’s a gala for very rich people to eat very expensive food and drink very expensive wine. We knew that before you drooled the menu in front of us.
Magic-onomics – Wherein characters’ funds issue from nowhere
Half-baked attempts to justify a protagonist’s mystery money can also backfire. … Ex-corporate lawyers should seem like people who could have been hired by a law firm and succeeded at that profession. This means, among other things, that they cannot now be twenty-five.
Christian’s endless supply of money comes from his company. Except we’re never given a clear idea of what exactly his company does and for a very busy chief executive, he doesn’t half spend a lot of time away from his desk (usually having sex with Ana).
And he’s 27.
Research and Historical Background
Zeno’s iPod: Anachronism in Historical Fiction
Always check and recheck for anachronistic details. A single stray basketball can squash your whole carefully constructed Viking saga.
Ana has an iPod but no laptop or email address. (Again, in the film, they fix this a little by saying that Ana’s laptop is broken.)
The Whatchamacallit – In which gaps in the author’s research make themselves known
Do not have your research biologist refer to the “nasty germs” she is studying. As always, it is a good idea for the author to know more than he shows.
OK, I know that How Not to Write a Novel is talking mainly about world-building here but good grief, continuity with the real world when you construct your significant plot points is pretty darned important too.
So, FSF chapter 11, we find out that Jack Hyde has been implicated in the helicopter sabotage which nearly cost Christian his life (but regrettably didn’t). Christian tells Ana that Hyde has convictions as a minor in Detroit. As Das Sporking points out:
GEHAYI: Um…if Jack had convictions as a minor, his juvie records would be sealed when he turned eighteen.
KET: Exactly what I was about to say. Unless he was convicted of a heinous felony, such as rape, murder, or arson, there is no way that F***face [Christian] could know this.
Of course, there is the mini plot leading up to this scene in FSF chapter 10. Christian wants Ana to stay in their apartment because he knows Hyde is on the loose (but hasn’t told Ana this) but Ana goes out for drinks with her friend Kate anyway. When she gets back to the apartment Hyde has broken in, though he is taken out by Ana’s bodyguards before she comes to any harm. The next morning Christian has flown back all in a worry about Ana.
And she starts thinking about the timeline:
He was in his tux when I woke this morning. What time did he decide to come back from New York? He normally leaves functions between ten and eleven. Last night at that hour, I was still at large with Kate.
I love how Das Sporking pulls this apart:
Ana…*sighs* Look. Time zones exist. Between ten and eleven for you would NOT have been between ten and eleven for him. If he left a party between 10:00 p.m. and 11 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time, it would have been between 7:00 p.m. and 8 p.m. Pacific Daylight Time for you and Kate.
He said that he was going to call you at 9:30 p.m. your time; that would have been 12:30 a.m. for him. You and Kate both left the Zig Zag Café around 10:00 p.m. PDT—and by that time—1:00 a.m. EDT—Hellspawn [Christian] should have been on a plane home. You didn’t get home until about 10:30 p.m. PDT.
Get it? By the time Christian found out that you hadn’t been kidnapped, raped or killed–a discovery he couldn’t have made until he landed in Seattle–the crisis had been over for hours. If you accept that Christian was in New York, which I don’t, he would have had to fly home at or before 1:00 a.m. EDT. That’s 10:00 p.m. YOUR time, Ana. Not only before there was any news about Jack, but BEFORE JACK DID ANYTHING IN THE FIRST PLACE.
In the book Ana doesn’t appreciate that Christian couldn’t have known about Jack, but she does start asking questions about why Christian suddenly returned – because of Jack or because she was out with Kate? Of course, it was the latter and she gets very annoyed with Christian for overreacting. Meanwhile Christian is so angry for Ana ‘never doing as she’s told’, that, having promised her sex that’ll ‘drive her wild’, he … does revenge orgasm denial instead.
And she safewords.
It’s one of the most repugnant plot points of the trilogy.
So I’m counting this writing failure as two.
Then Mel Gibson Raised His Mighty Broadsword! – In which the author unconsciously appropriates
While all of us, save academic historians (and perhaps even they) unconsciously put together our picture of the past out of bits and pieces floating around in the cultural stew, you should not limit your research to Blockbuster.
OK, let’s talk about the BDSM.
EL James’ inspiration for Fifty Shades was ‘Macho Sluts’, according to an interview with the Telegraph. ‘Macho Sluts’ is
a collection of eye-wateringly explicit stories of dominatrixes and dungeons by American author Pat Califa.
EL James said:
“It was my first taste of something really hardcore, and I thought: this is interesting. After that, I read some more BDSM [bondage and discipline, dominance and submission and sadomasochism] and wondered: what would happen if someone from that world met somebody who didn’t know anything about it?”
Let’s get this straight: the plot premise is “what if someone who is into hard core BDSM meets someone who is not into BDSM?” Thing is, that plot plays itself out in the BDSM scene rather more often than is good for the inexperienced party.
Sure, there is evidence to suggest that some people who are hard-core into BDSM will gently hand-hold an inexperienced newbie to find their own path in the safest way possible. If that wasn’t the case, you wouldn’t get people writing posts on what S-types REALLY need to know or sub frenzy. But you also get plenty of evidence to suggest that there are exploitative BDSM-ers who will actively prey upon the inexperience and naiveté of new-joiners.
A while back I compared Christian Grey’s behaviours and those described in rant about an abuser in the BDSM scene: part one is here, part two is here and part three here. Though the rant had been anonymised, the tenor of behaviours are consistent with other known examples, like Liam Murphy aka “The Wolf” who was accused of rape and sexual assault in 2016.
The point is that BDSM isn’t for everyone and it shouldn’t be presumed. There is no place for a d-type to try and convince someone else that they are an s-type.
No place at all.
And yet, EL James constructed a mash-up of boy-meets-girl romance with explicit, non-consensual portrayals of BDSM.
(Das Sporking wrote more about the non-consent in ‘Macho Sluts’; if you really want to know, and I’m giving this link one WHOPPER CONTENT WARNING, read the bit under the heading ‘JAMES, BDSM AND DOMESTIC ABUSE’ on this page.)
If EL James had had regard for the real-life dynamics of what it’s like for someone inexperienced to start exploring the scene, or the debates and discussions that some people from within the scene have been trying to have about abuse in the scene (such as Jenny Trout, the Other Normal, and Thomas Millar – and all of those links come with very significant CONTENT WARNINGS), then she’d have known she was playing with fire when she conceived this plot.
Admittedly, most of those links were authored after Fifty Shades was published, but the BDSM scene existed long before and she could have done a lot more to present these complex debates in her writing. As it is, we get a cartoonish presentation of BDSM, dressed up with two-dimensional psychology, which tries to cover over all the very real hallmarks of abuse.
I’m counting this writing failure as two.
The Research Paper – In which the author overdoes it
Confine the fruits of your research to passages in which specialized knowledge is necessary and appropriate. While we do not want your astronomer to look at the night sky and see “pretty lights,” we also do not want him to be reminded of the mathematics governing the formation of galaxies every time he stirs his coffee.
The Red Room of Pain and the BDSM contract.
EL James exorbitantly describes the extensive paraphernalia that Christian Grey has stashed away and, as BDSM blogger Pervocracy writes:
I’m setting the odds that he actually knows how to use all those toys at… oh, zero percent. (Hell, I don’t know how to use all those toys. Paddling, whipping, flogging, caning, rope bondage, and D/s are all different–pardon me–disciplines, and most kinksters don’t know how to do all of them.) It sure doesn’t sound like he’s ever been to a class or a munch [a social gathering for BDSM-ers/kinksters] or had anyone mentor him in the scene. I doubt he’d even deign to read a book or website–that would be like admitting he isn’t already perfect! I think he just bought all this s*** online with no concept of technique besides “whap people with it, tell them they’re bad submissives if they don’t like how he does it.”
Pervocracy also points out that leather is porous, so having a giant red bed with no bedding is a microbiological ecosystem of the kind you really don’t want.
Meanwhile the contract is just… well, a prime example of how not to negotiate. It could maybe have worked as a conversation starter, but all it does is set Christian’s agenda and intimidate Ana. And, for the record, it’s not a dominant-submissive contract, it’s a master-slave contract.
Ironically, this shows how EL James can simultaneously exhibit both overkill and failure in her research.
The Timely Epiphany – In which symbols conveniently make themselves known
When the symbols that trigger that epiphany are too baldly placed in the character’s path for her to trip over, we are not so much satisfied as annoyed.
FSOG chapter 20 we have streetlamps:
We’re coming near to the end of the bridge, and the road is once more bathed in the neon light of the street lamps so his face is intermittently in the light and the dark. And it’s such a fitting metaphor. This man, who I once thought of as a romantic hero, a brave shining white knight—or the dark knight, as he said. He’s not a hero; he’s a man with serious, deep emotional flaws, and he’s dragging me into the dark. Can I not guide him into the light?
I’m half-surprised that Ana doesn’t burst into a rendition of Memory.
We get plenty of other baldly-placed symbolism: strawberries, Icarus, Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Not only are these often badly chosen, but they’re also badly placed. Ana, enjoying the fun of being in a glider with Christian, suddenly realises this is just like the folly of Icarus flying too close to the sun.
Meanwhile, it’s never enough for EL James to just present these symbols, she has to point them out.
The Fig Leaf – When the author has his cake and eats it
Sometimes an author is torn between the desire to present certain material and a guilty awareness that others will not approve. In an attempt to deflect criticism, he apologizes as he goes, pointing out that the minstrel show, strip club visit, or cheap, all-purposes servants in a Third World setting are terribly, terribly distasteful to him, and he disapproves as much as anyone—more! Meanwhile, he continues to wallow in these scenes, exposing what everyone instantly recognizes as the world of his fantasies.
According to EL James in her Telegraph interview,
Everything about Fifty Shades is fantasy: fantasy man, fantasy sex.
And yet it tries so hard to be real! Honestly, I’d have a lot less problem with these books if they were simply about sex. You could package it all up – the dubious consent, the unrealistic orgasms, the unsafe BDSM practices – and make erotica out of it. I wouldn’t want to read it, but it would at least be clearly fantasy. What EL James has done though is to smudge all of this together with a story about an abused child looking for love.
Meanwhile, we have moments – like Christian Grey picking Ana up in the middle of the street to carry her back to his apartment – when it seems EL James really wants to write a particular incident but recognises that the behaviour isn’t acceptable, so she writes Ana as feeling humiliated.
I’m counting this fail as two: one for the cataclysmic genre fail, one for specific having-your-cake-and-eating-it moments.
The After-Dinner Sermon – In which the author wields a mallet
While it’s fine for the plot to exemplify the idea that “love conquers all,” and readers will happily read book after book expressing no other theme than that, they are in it for the story. Have a character deliver a speech explaining that love conquers all, and our eyes glaze over.
Mallet? Ana wields a Grond-sized battering ram.
FSOG chapter 25:
This is why I am so reticent about our relationship – because on some basic, fundamental level, I recognize within me a deep-seated compulsion to be loved and cherished.
We all want that Ana.
Meanwhile, FSD chapter 15:
And it strikes me like a thunderbolt – that’s what he needs from me, what he’s entitled to – unconditional love. He never received it from the crack whore – it’s what he needs.
FSD chapter 19:
As the tears stream down my face, I can see it all. The great room is bathed in it – unconditional love. He has it in spades; he’s just never accepted it before, and even now he’s at a total loss.
Obsession, by Calvin Klein (you know he’s Jewish, right?) – When the author is unaware that his ideé fixe is showing
Many novels allude to the duplicity of women, but few mention it on every page. When it becomes a recurring motif, it can be disconcerting enough to alienate the reader and inspire his mistrust.
Here’s the thing: Fifty Shades is loaded with the overtones of toxic purity culture. Ana, for example, constantly remarks disparagingly about her flatmate Kate kissing or otherwise being sensual with boyfriend Elliot, describing them in FSF chapter 14 as “being indecent on the dance floor”.
These tropes of purity culture are sprinkled indelicately all over the plot, simultaneously shaming female sexual agency and idolising male-oriented ideals of female sexuality. (Well, I say ‘sprinkled’ – the pureness of Ana’s vagina is as hard to miss as the stone of an avocado.)
Take, for example, the wedding vows: Ana promises to support Christian’s dreams, Christian promises to protect Ana; Ana promises to be loyal, Christian promises to forsake all others; Ana promises solace, Christian promises comfort. None of these sentiments are bad in and of themselves, but when you package them together like this, they say things about James’ concepts of the ideal husband and wife.
And, it seems to me to be a pretty biased and ugly picture.
In my comparison of Fifty Shades with Beauty and the Beast I wrote that EL James seems to be writing about her ideals of marriage in eternity, framing sex as its foretaste in the present. And yes, this puts her very much alongside the plot of Twilight.
I suppose I could congratulate EL James for managing to write a piece of purity culture erotica, because by all logic this shouldn’t be possible.
But, no. These books propagate a terrible model of female sexuality and agency, and I have a problem with that.
The Superhuman Feat – Wherein a man performs
People certainly vary in their native capacities. Some people can carry a heavy suitcase upstairs without breaking a sweat. Some can do backflips, walk on their hands, or juggle flaming swords. … But there are some things no one alive can do.
No man alive has the non-existent refractory period of Christian Grey, as displayed in FSOG chapter 18.
I don’t have much else to say on the sex scenes mainly because I don’t make a habit of reading erotica. However a couple of observations though from other critics:
The Dom in his Lost in Adaptation YouTube commentaries points out that Christian Grey never lasts for longer than a minute because all of the sex scenes are written in real time.
Das Sporking also make the following observations whilst reviewing FSF chapter 11:
Foreplay, to her, is an unnecessary delay. For Ana, the point of it all is orgasms, so why drag everything out? She genuinely doesn’t seem to like anything ABOUT sex except for orgasms and her conviction that she’s “proving” her love by “enduring” mildly kinky sex and thus bringing Hellspawn back to the vanilla side of the Force. Messed up, I know. And he just makes it worse.
So there you go.
I’m reminded of the comments made in How Not to Write a Novel:
When it comes to sex, jokes and postmodernism, … we must insist that if you can’t do something right, give up. … Giving a reader a sex scene that is only half right is like giving her half of a kitten. It is not half as cute as a whole kitten; it is a bloody, godawful mess.
How Not to Sell A Novel
When to Propose
Of course, the best way to sell a book on a “partial”—or sell a book at all, for that matter—is when the editor is your sophomore roommate from Yale (see “life isn’t fair”).
Well yes, there’s no denying that EL James found herself lapping up the unfairness of life: over 100 million copies sold, the fastest book to sell a million copies, and she’s not being sued by Stephenie Meyer for plagiarising Twilight.
Doesn’t change my opinion of the books.
Failure count: 16 + 3 bonus = 19. Running total = 50.
I have also enjoyed The Dom’s plot synopsis of Fifty Shades Darker and book review. (Despite what you might think from the channel’s name, the presenter isn’t into BDSM, but he did talk to BDSM-ers whilst doing his review.) There’s one video with a plot synopsis and another that actually reviews the book. CONTENT NOTE: Overall they are very funny – but they also have some very strong language and his humour is savage at times.
Do you want to write better fiction than EL James? Did you like the titles of the writing mistakes and the insights given about them? Maybe How Not To Write A Novel is for you.
Meanwhile, if scathing commentaries on Fifty Shades are your thing, there are index pages for Das Sporking’s (quite thorough, well-researched and perilously explicit) commentaries on Fifty Shades of Grey, Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed. Jenny Trout’s commentaries are listed here.