Fifty Shades of Grey by E. L. James

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Cannonball Read IV: Fifty Shades of Grey by E. L. James

By nidaros | Book Reviews | December 28, 2012 | Comments ()


... another Fifty Shades of Grey review. I felt compelled to write this after seeing yet another bizarre defense of these books. I mean, I get it... James and Meyer have both tapped into something. Whether it's a "right place, right time" kind of thing, or something else - time will tell. Good for them for being so successful. It is amazing.

So about the Shades of Grey books: the popularity of which I firmly believe was initially due to the Twilight connection and then because word got around that the books were naughty. Sigh... This is the thing that bothers me the most - It's as if erotic fiction that women would read/enjoy/talk about did not exist before this book came out.

There is a heck of a lot of erotic fiction out there and I would wager at LEAST 70% of the genre is better written. Much better. Take the authors Emma Holly, Kate Pearce or Sarah McCarty... or the Victorian era stories The Memoirs of Fanny Hill and My Secret Life. The Story of O, for goodness sake. That's a classic! Most of the "mature" stories on are better written - but then again they are short stories. ( is where Ms. James was "discovered.")

And what is with this "mommy smut" label people keep using in reference to these Shades of Grey books? I find this fascinating. What does that even mean? Mommy smut as opposed to childless women smut? Or opposed to daddy smut?

Then there is the whole power aspect of this - not the BDSM thing, but the momentum these books have created. Back in the day, I used to manage a bookstore and then became the librarian in a small town. The majority of my patrons were women 45 yrs old and older. These ladies pretty much broke down into 2 camps - those who read murder mysteries and those who read Danielle Steel, Rosamund Pilcher and the like. I would try my best to get them to read a book out of their comfort zone... books I knew they would enjoy... but I was rarely successful.

Then Oprah started her book club.

Holy cats! These ladies started reading authors I would never have dared to suggest to them. It was astonishing! Oprah had some great titles in her club, particularly in the early years. The fact that these ladies read and enjoyed these new & different books made them more open to other authors & genres all around. Seriously, it was truly amazing!

There were also a lot of new readers coming into the library due to Oprah's book club - I have heard this also happened with the Twilight books and continues to happen with the Shades of Grey books. This is impressive. It takes a lot to get a non-reader* to be interested in picking up a book. That is a powerful thing.

In some small way I hope that all the Shades of Grey hubbub will do something similar for the book/publishing world... get people taking about and looking for other authors/titles in the genre, or read more of any genre. There is so much momentum here. But it seems that unless an author/book has been somehow "Twilight approved", most fans are not going to veer too far from the path. This is what makes me sad. Guess I'll have to take heart in the growing popularity of the Vaginal Fantasy book club.

I read someone describe Shades of Grey Trilogy as "Twilight without the subtext" - that is perfect description. As messed up as the relationships are in Twilight, they are an order of magnitude more realistic than the relationships in 50 Shades. I mean ALL of the relationships, not just between Christian and Ana** - friendships, parent-child, the whole thing.

Honestly, this reads like tepid young adult fiction with some mildy hot scenes thrown in. There are popular romance novels that have scenes more risqué than 50 Shades, so I have been a bit confused with all the tittering about how naughty these books are.

Knowing that Ms. James was discovered as a fanfic short story writer, it does explain why this book felt like a set of short stories loosely tied together to form a enough content for a book.

Since these stories take place in my neck of the woods, I will give Ms. James credit for decent portrayal of Seattle, Olympia and Portland. I happen to have a friend who was staying in the Escala building. While we were walking to his place one night, I told him that the penthouse in his building is where the main action in the book takes place. He about keeled over laughing. He knew of the book, but had no idea it was set here in Seattle. Escala is very swanky building, but it's a bit over the top. Which is perfect for Christian Grey.

Worth reading for the cultural phenomena aspects, and that's about it.

* New readers and non-readers being people who do not read for pleasure, not illiterate folks.

** I had to go look up the lead female's name. I had already forgotten it.

This review is part of the volunteer Cannonball Read IV. Read all about it, and find more of nidaros's reviews on the group blog.

You, too, can be just like nidaros in 2013. Sign up for Cannonball Read V!

(Note: Any revenue generated from purchases made through the affiliate links in this review will be donated in entirety to the American Cancer Society.)

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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not

  • the other courtney

    I think this review hit the nail on the head: people who would generally describe themselves as "non-readers" picked this one up (or Twilight) and got into it, decided it was the best book or story ever told simply because they likely hadn't been exposed to better writing. That's ok, I guess. This could be considered the adult reading gateway book just like Meyer's vampire stories were. I know a few women who got all hot and bothered over it, but did expand onto other genres because they finally picked up the reading bug.

  • I read the books in 5 days, and don't personally know anyone who hated the books. I'll agree the writing isn't that great, but EL James wrote it for herself while riding the train to work and it was only edited by her husband. You can't compare it to books written by big name authors with the support of a publishing company.

    As for what people like about it, it's generally the way the story is told, it sucks you in. And for the people who think there is no plot or think the relationship is abusive, I haven't met any who finished the series. If you don't like the book and choose not to finish it that's fine, but you can't make assumptions about the series after 100 pages of reading. That would be like knowing the Harry Potter series after reading one of the books.

  • duckandcover

    She gets married to Christian Grey at the end of the second book and the last book's pretty much her obsessed with having a baby. It's better to just read http://fiftyshadesofdismay.tum...

  • duckandcover

    For an author that has stimulated many a housewife's clitoris with this bullshit, she sure as hell can't give us the word more than once in this book.

  • Joe Dirt

    Look at Anne Rice's Sleeping Beauty trilogy, written years ago. Elizabeth Montgomery did audio book and it still gives me wood.

  • Maguita NYC

    Joe Dirt, I'm about to re-dub myself Jane Clean just for your mentioning of Sleeping Beauty. Now that was erotic lit. Pure and simple. Turns you on, even if you cannot imagine yourself in said situations doing disturbingly descriptive naughty things, and yet still, you cannot put the damn books down... Well, maybe for some personal time.

    And isn't this all about well-written books: No matter the absurd, the inconceivable, or even the laughable, a well-written book will hold your attention while insidiously and unceasingly playing with the strings of your emotions. The Grey books had potential, but had fallen far from graceful erudition.

    Sidenote: I cannot remember which of Madonna's concerts it was (Confessions or Reinvention), where she had her male dancers masquerading as "horses" with head gear, leather harnesses and tails... I felt like it was completely lifted from the second book in the Sleeping Beauty trilogy... Where the Princes were put to service for "equestrian" purposes...

  • Elizabeth Gorman

    I read the Sleeping Beauty books some years ago. I found the settings lovely but the characters bland and the dialog...dreadful.

  • Bodhi

    "Plot" aside, the writing is terrible. "oh my" "oh wow" O RLY?

    Holy mother of God, these books are awful. I try to give everything the benefit of the doubt & check it out for myself, but goddam... I've read all the Dan Brown novels & forced myself to read all the Twilight books as well, but I could only get through the first 50 Shades.

  • I tried to read this book. I resorted to skimming. And I'm part of a book review web site. I've forced myself to read terrible things before. This I could not finish. It made me terribly angry that an abusive relationship was being foisted off as romantic under the mantle of BDSM but with none of the accepted parameters of a BDSM relationship (not my kink, but I like to be informed). I like steamy sex scenes, but only if they're well written. The ones in this book made me flinch, grossed me out, or were simply boring. Every rule about telling a good, compelling story was either broken or missing. I found myself actively wishing that harm would befall these people so they might at least become interesting out of dire necessity. Alas, no. It was poorly written, had no plot at all, and wasn't even titillating. I fail to see what the fuss is about.

  • Lee

    It was obvious to me that James did a bit of cursory research on the internet for her "BDSM" theme, but actually knows nothing at all about it. I agree that it was a horrible abusive relationship. It's not surpising that some domestic violence groups have had book burnings of this book.

  • ,

    Just for the record, Mrs. , (who is 54) likes to read lawyerin'/detetctivein' fiction and the occasional true crime. I'd guess James Patterson is the James equivalent in that genre. Probably every genre has at least one.

  • ,

    Oh, I should add that Mrs. , was interested in reading this tripe, but when I happily informed her that the library waiting list was 17 people long, she redeemed herself by saying, essentially, "Fuck that."

  • bleujayone

    I wonder what an audio book of Fifty Shades of Grey as read by Betty White while portraying Rose Nylund would sound like?

  • Uncle Mikey

    I don't know, but here's Gilbert Gottfried doing it:

  • BobbFrapples

    You must eat from the Fifty Shades of Chicken cookbook when you read this...

  • duckandcover

    Where was this when I needed Christmas gift ideas for my sister (we share the love/hate of 50 Shades)?!

  • Maguita NYC

    I felt exactly the same way you seem to after reading the first of the Grey books: Offended that this much lack of quality got printed, and disabused at how freely any book is labeled "erotica" in order to sell.

    I tried to find a positive side to these dis-literature uneven things. For example the spanking. When I first read The Story of O (was 16 the first read; Too young), I was absolutely revolted that a woman would let herself be treated in such a manner simply to prove her love for her man. I did not understand the concept of subdue, and subdued. Oddly enough, I felt the same rebellion while watching "The Passion of the Christ" a few years later; Tears running down my face, I kept muttering at the screen "free yourself you summabitch!!! Smite them all and run for your life!".

    Although the spanking in the Grey book got me interested temporarily, it would have been so much more titillating or at the very least O-like captivating, if the protagonist was not a simpering whimpering TWENTY-SOMETHING idiot, falling for an absolute dickhead of a douchebag. Also, if this was remotely proofread, let alone edited, it could have been mildly palatable.

    I commend you @nidaros for having the guts to read this book after so many thrashing reviews, and to still write one yourself. And a great one at that!

    I keep shaking my head at the popularity of these books. Unlike the Twilight series, these books are mostly read by supposedly adult women... *I just wondered how many actual men have read these; Would be interesting to find out. Fair is fair.*... Have these adult women been so severely dissevered from basic literature for the past decade or so, that Fifty Shades of Grey was the answer to getting them back to reading???

    And @mswas... Have I missed the info for CB5?

  • Lee

    I slogged through the first book in the trilogy (and let me tell you, the word is SLOGGED), shaking my head in disbelief at how something so shoddily written, with such thoroughly awful protagonists could find such success. When i talked to people I know who loved the book (one of whom is my sister - eeeek!), I realised that the majority of them don't normally read at all.

  • mswas

    @google-b6231c91d1abf027604ef363d00f8c08:disqus and everyone - just click the link at the bottom of the review to be like @nidaros in 2013 and sign up for CBR5!!

  • Maguita NYC

    WTF??? My comment was showing all day long and now it is "awaiting moderation"...?

  • mswas

    i don't know why that is

  • Maguita NYC

    Can we verify with his master-of-the-world-holiness Dustin? Or should we give him a break on a Saturday? It's no big deal, but what surprises is that the content is really not that bad; We've written so much worse, and cruder, on Pajiba before...

    Should we from now on temperate our words on Pajiba so we don't get "moderated"?

    *Puddin' is surely having a stroke while reading this*

  • mswas

    I went in and unspammed it. neither Dustin nor I know why it got flagged. Did you sign up for CBR5 yet?

  • Maguita NYC

    Have to take time and read rules properly. Will do so by tomorrow!!!
    (I live outside the US... Don't know if it makes a difference, will check regulations first)

    And thank you for the despamming, I am sure those Co$ people had something to do with it (It's okay Rob Payne, I don't own any cats)... Or just plain dumb Disqus!

  • mswas

    I will check on it. It's probably a crazy Disqus thing. For some reason I can't un-spam it.

  • F'mal DeHyde

    I guess I'm a prude but I don't really enjoy reading "erotic" scenes in books. I did enjoy an erotic book that was in the horror genre so I'm not entirely close-minded but generally the awkward "his erect manhood pressed against my tender white flesh while my nipples rose in ecstasy" creeps me out. I enjoyed the first few Laurell Hamilton whatsherface books but then it turned into one big stupid orgy and lost any semblance of plot. This series is a big NO for me.

  • Maguita NYC

    I so agree with you on Laurell K. Hamilton's Anita Blake series!! This would be my first pick for CB5.

    I'm no prude, but I also was disappointed with the author's about turn regarding a strong female lead in a vicious man's world.

  • F'mal DeHyde

    Did Anita ever have zombie sex? She had boffed just about everyone else by the time I gave up reading the series and threw the book across the room. I've only ever thrown two books, the other was "The Horse Whisperer." Gawd, that ending.

  • Maguita NYC

    It's not that she had boffed everyone that bothers me, for obviously, Hamilton had opted to deviate from alternate world fantasy to her own version of erotica (orgies). What bothered me most is that Anita was shoved by the author in the silent background, while her friends and lovers unending-ly discuss how and where to have her, so she could uplift someone's sad spirits (Blood Noir).

    That was the moment, to me, where we lost Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter, animator, and all around dysfunctional and vicious pragmatic killer. At that moment, this Catholic Mexican doll-looking hunter got replaced by an empty acquiescing shell. I never thought Hamilton would take Anita down a characterless path.

  • duckandcover

    When we lost Anita Blake was when the filmy veil was dropped and it was revealed that the entire series was Blake being Hamilton's vehicle with her many lovers serving as representations of her husband/boyfriend. Gross.

  • F'mal DeHyde

    I didn't get that far in the series, thank god. I was always bothered by Anita's perfect looks considering what a brawler she was... perfect white skin, perfect features... she would have had scars and at least a crooked nose. It really read like author wish fulfillment, which is probably why the strong Anita was replaced by sex surrogate Anita.

  • Maguita NYC

    ?? Are we talking about the same series? For Anita has awful scars on her arms, abdomen, neck and shoulders.

    True, the face was up-to-now still unblemished, apart from the occasional black eye and swollen face she gets from time-to-time (being smacked around by wereanimals and such), but the author often alludes to how often Anita perceives herself as quite ordinary looking. And definitely acts as she is not the greatest beauty in the room.

  • F'mal DeHyde

    Richard the werewolf with hair like sea foam and a vampire king as her lovers, right? It's been a very long time since I read the books but I don't remember any scars. And yes, Anita might consider herself ordinary but Ms Hamilton makes a point to frequently mention how stunningly beautiful she really is.

    Do you recall when she got these horrible scars?

  • Jezzer

    She had them from the very beginning. One of the most prominent was a jagged scar on her collarbone from a vampire attack where she mentioned a vampire had latched on and "worried" her like a terrier, breaking her collarbone. Another was a cross-shaped brand a vampire's flunkies had burned into her as a "joke." There were others, but those two stick in my mind. This was mentioned in the very first book, when she went incognito to a vampire groupie party as part of an investigation and had to dress provocatively, which put her scars on display.

    Anita was actually an interesting character in the beginning. She had a rigid moral code and was very aware of her limitations. She was armed to the teeth because she knew she was no match for a supernatural creature without taking every advantage and precaution, and was frequently terrified of both the monsters she faced and of losing herself in her work and becoming a monster herself.

    Contrast that with Current Anita, who develops Special Powers as the plot demands, has a literal harem of most of the male supporting cast, is a remorseless killer who fears nothing, and makes Christian from "50 Shades" look like Jay Gatsby. Hamilton took a fun, frivolous ode to noir horror and turned it into wank material for disturbed goth teens.

  • Maguita NYC

    Very well put!

    But please, I beg, don't give away too much, I'm considering being part of Cannonball Read V (have to read rules and see if I'm eligible -living outside the US), and my fist reviews would be the Anita Blake series. I'm officially now calling dibs on!!

    Right from the abstinent start.

  • Mrs. Julien

    I've been reading nothing but genre fiction for 10 months: 133 books and counting. I can read real books, honest, I have a degree in real books (and plays), but for some reason, nothing else interests me. When people find out I've been reading romance, they ALWAYS ask me if I've read these and, quite frankly, I'm offended at the suggestion because a. I'm reading romance and not inept erotica and, more importantly, b. I may be reading kissing books, but I'm reading well-written kissing books!

    I do know a LARGE number of women who have read the 50 Shades books. They seemed to enjoy it and feel (delightedly) naughty doing so. A chacun a son gout. I think there is a generational element to it all, too. I'm 45 and social mores have shifted radically since I was in my early twenties. Maybe some of those "mommies" (who if they show interest in sex are supposed to feel complimented by being referred to as "cougars") are just looking for the thrill they missed out on in the days when you weren't supposed to admit to liking certain things. The popularity of the series gives them the permission they seem to feel they need to indulge. It's all very "middle America" in a way that people who spend their time reading real books and delicately parsing the films and TV shows they (we) enjoy cannot relate too. We're just so offended that the books are badly-written!

    Great review!

  • Fabius_Maximus

    So books written to entertain are not "real" books?

  • Mrs. Julien

    You have no idea how carefully I chose my words, but ultimately I can't please everyone. I guess I should have said "literature", but I'm not sure where those distinctions lie. I tried "proper" book in one of my reviews, but the whole thing is so fraught and ultimately comes down to what most people deign worthy of their approval that it's impossible to use appropriate vocabulary.

  • It's a sensitive topic, certainly. Romance is the best selling fiction and has been for a very long time. Other genres make up the bulk of the remainder of sales. Literary fiction gets the NPR treatment, added to curricula, and is given greater shelf space than the sales warrant, as well as prestigious awards. That is all perfectly understandable, but most people read for pleasure and entertainment. Some of what are considered classics were, of course, genre fiction, but they've endured because they continue to resonate with readers. I suspect that will continue, both with the classics and some new additions. At the same time, we are programmed to consider things beloved by the masses as somehow less than those valued by the intellectual elite, despite the fact that most literary fiction will also fade into obscurity. It's an interesting conundrum, but difficult to discuss without someone's feathers getting ruffled.

  • Fabius_Maximus

    How about avoiding that distinction altogether? Your "proper literature" was written for entertainment purposes, too.

    Awaiting further downvotes.

  • Mrs. Julien

    Fabius, I understand exactly what you are saying and I agree with you, but I think you're bringing a gun to a knife fight. All good books are "entertaining" in some way, but even that word has to encompass panoply of nuance (that was most pretentious group of three words I've ever written). Perhaps there is an intellectual distinction to be made. And even writing that gets SO complicated. It's hard to pin down, but COME ON, some writing is better and more worthy of approbation than others. I've read A LOT of genre fiction this year. EXCLUSIVELY in fact. I have thought about why I read it because I was initially embarrassed by my desire to do so, and then I decided to cut myself some slack and leave the judgement to others (and maybe a little for myself despite my best efforts). Still, I've written CBR reviews talking about historical romance and how it works and the tropes, character types etc., but doing so does not automatically grant intellectual credibility to an escapist genre (which, no does not need to justify itself). But, let's be honest here, a great deal of genre fiction is meant to be disposable and not only is not held to the same standards, it has entirely different standards to meet. The romance genre has disposability built into its lingo: readers distinguish "keeper shelf" and "desert island books" as opposed to the stuff you consume and move on from. That's not literature, even if it is entertaining and can be wonderfully well-written.

    Plus specifically with romance, there's a huge bias against fiction by and for women.

  • Fabius_Maximus

    "Genre fiction" is not limited to romance novels, I believe. It also encompasses such genres as Fantasy and SF. I don't think you can write off the novels of, say, Terry Pratchett, China Miéville, or Isaac Asimov as pure escapism.

    It is the main goal of every fiction writer to entertain. It varies how smart and thought-provoking the finished product is, however. It may be that the romance genre generally lacks smart books, but on the whole, the distinction you make serves no purpose.

  • latvianlady

    I've never tried reading romance books (besides Austen and the Brontes) because I didn't think that there were any good ones -- but if you say that there are, I'd love to try them. What are your top recommendations?

  • Anything by Joanne Bourne. The titles are dreadful but the stories are incredibly well written and the characters are interesting. There are plots and everything!

  • Malin

    Check out Mrs. Julien's "Shameful Tally" on her blog, or any of her excellently written Cannonball Reviews this year, and you should be well set for romance.

  • mswas
  • minxy

    Great review! So many take a lacerating tone without adding anything to the discussion. You managed to be thought provoking and fair.

  • I have a love-hate relationship with books/movies/albums that bring genre X to the mainstream. At once I'm happy for the people producing amazing work in those genres that they may find success, sad that the big crossover is usually a piece o' crap and horrible representation of that genre, and selfishly bummed that I now need to share X with the masses.

    It is a hard life we lead.

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