One of the common complaints about 50 Shades is that it’s badly written. Jamie Dornan was quoted in the Guardian as saying:
“… you have to give Erika [EL James] some credit, because whatever you might think of the prose style, 100 million is a lot of people. Are the literary critics saying those 100 million people aren’t very bright?”
Now, I’m personally in the camp that says the book lack literary merit but my simple answer to Jamie is, “No, we’re not saying those 100 million people are stupid. We’re saying the books are not good examples of literature.” And here are some examples to show why:
There are logical disconnects in the narrative
For example, as Jenny Trout points out in her review of Chapter 20 of FSOG: Ana goes into a boathouse with Christian and says she doesn’t have time to examine her surroundings, and yet in the paragraph above, there’s the best part of 60 words describing her surroundings. As Jenny writes:
I don’t even blame E.L. James for this, because it’s something an editor should have caught. There should have been a note in the margin, “If she doesn’t have time to examine her surroundings, how is she describing them in first-person present tense?” It doesn’t make any sense. It’s so brutally infuriating, because stuff like this is happening over and over and over.
Nouns and verbs don’t agree as often as they should
Let’s look at a quote from chapter 1 of FSOG:
He’s tall, dressed in a fine gray suit, white shirt, and black tie with unruly dark copper colored hair and intense, bright gray eyes that regard me shrewdly.
For a picture of a tie that has unruly copper coloured hair and intense bright grey eyes, look at the opening of Jenny’s chapter 2 recap. Yes, we know what E.L. James meant when she wrote that sentence, but that’s not how the English language works. Forget the comma after “shirt” and put it after “tie” instead.
It states both the obvious and the non-sensical
So we read in chapter 2:
Okay, so he’s very attractive, confident, commanding, at ease with himself – but on the flip side, he’s arrogant, and for all his impeccable manners, he’s autocratic and cold. Well, on the surface.
And Jenny writes in her chapter 2 recap:
As everyone who watches Downton Abbey knows, impeccable manners usually go hand in hand with deep expressions of feeling to total strangers. This is the kind of thing that’s going to kill me in this book. It doesn’t follow that having impeccable manners would mean you’re a warm person. In the next line, “An involuntary shiver” runs down Ana’s spine. Who shivers on purpose? Seriously, who controls whether or not they shiver? Especially after standing in the rain, leaning on a steel pillar?
The person speaking and the person taking action gets mixed together
They’re meant to be separate. So for example, in chapter 2, we have:
“That’s fine. I can still make a fine article with this. Shame we don’t have some original stills. Good-looking son of a bitch, isn’t he?” I flush.
The person speaking is Kate. The person flushing is Ana. And this is not a one-off. (Chapter 5, page 67, for example.)
There is a distinct lack of “show don’t tell”
This is the idea that good writing shows the reader what’s happening, and doesn’t spell it out for them. For example, in chapter 5 we have:
He runs his hand through his hair, and I know it’s because he’s exasperated.
Why not have “He claws his hand through his hair” or “He scrapes his hand through his hair” or “He drags his hand through his hair”? That way the exasperation is shown in his action.
It’s set in the US, but written by a Brit – and it shows
In chapter 1 we have:
The miles slip away as I floor the pedal to the metal.
And Jenny writes in her chapter 1 recap:
Dear Non-American Author trying to write in Americanisms: It’s either “floor it” or “put the pedal to the metal”. And actually, no one says the latter anymore.
There’s unnecessary repetition
From Jenny’s review of Chapter 22 of FSOG; the book says this:
I always forget how unbearably hot it is in Savannah. Leaving the cool air-conditioned confines of the arrival terminal, we step into the Georgia heat like we’re wearing it. Whoa! It saps everything. I have to struggle out of Mom and Bob’s embrace so I can remove my hoodie. I am so glad I packed shorts. I miss the dry heat of Vegas sometimes, where I lived with Mom and Bob when I was seventeen, but this wet heat, even at 8:30 in the morning, takes some getting used to. By the time I’m in the back of Bob’s wonderfully air-conditioned Tahoe SUV, I feel limp, and my hair has started a frizzy protest at the heat.
To which Jenny says this:
If there is anything you take away from this book, it should be this: pay attention to inane details, like arrival and departure times for flights, but ignore the fact you used the same word four times in two paragraphs, and you will have a runaway bestseller on your hands.
Not convinced? How about Jenny Trout’s review of chapter 13 of FSD:
The book says:
Gently I start to undo the buttons on his shirt. It’s tricky with one hand. I flex my fingers beneath his hand and he lets go, allowing me to use both hands to undo his shirt. My eyes don’t leave his as I pull his shirt wide open, revealing his chest.
And she suggests it would have been easy to edit it to the following:
Gently I start to undo the buttons on his shirt. It’s tricky with one hand. I flex my fingers beneath his and he lets go. My eyes don’t leave his as I pull the fabric wide open, revealing his chest.
And goes on to say:
You know what’s really depressing? E.L. James was so in-demand from her first small-press publishing run, she most likely had total freedom to just blithely ignore edit suggestions when Vintage put this book out. Now, she’s outsold Harry Potter, so guess what kind of freedom she’s going to have to say, “No thank you, publisher, I don’t think I’ll be doing these edits after all.” Soooo much freedom. Here’s an insider secret: you know why there were so damn many unnecessary semi-colons in the Harry Potter series? Because they knew that people would buy the books whether or not they were edited for grammar. In fact, it probably saved them money not to spend time fixing the semi-colons. When you get to a certain level in publishing, everyone tells you that what you’re doing is golden, keep doing it, because it’s making them money, and the bigger the profit margin, the better. It’s going to be the same thing with E.L. James’s next book, and the real downside is that she is nowhere near as skilled a writer as J.K. Rowling.
And that’s just the small technical stuff
There are far greater discontinuities, like in chapter 8 when Ana says she’s “finally” going to have sex, when in the previous seven chapters she’s shown to be a virgin who’s never masturbated and never wanted to kiss anyone (FSOG pg 48).
One of my personal annoyances with FSOG is that I feel Kate is simply a plot device through which Ana can be confronted with thoughts she wants to think and then tell herself aren’t true. Like the idea that Ana likes Christian (pg 20), or that Christian likes Ana (pg 21, and again on pages 32, 52 and 55), that Christian came to Ana’s hardware store specifically to see her (pg 32), and that Christian might not be good news (pg 39).
This doesn’t mean the books cannot be enjoyed (though you can probably guess I didn’t), nor does it mean that a book must have technical literary perfection before it can be popular. But when people say 50 Shades “badly written” they’re not just complaining about the sex or the coercive undertone in Ana’s and Christian’s relationship.
Is this the intellectual snobbery that Jamie Donan was decrying in his interview? I’d say no. Yes, anyone can get on their high horses, look down and say “But is it art?” But what we have here are pervasive problems with how the book is written. No, they don’t mean that E.L. James is illiterate, but if you want to put your name out as a professional author, there are good reasons to study your art and finesse your technique.