Saturday, July 14, 2012

Review: 50 Shades of Bad Writing

This is my public service for 2012: I read so you don't have to.

After reading Captive of Gor some years ago, I realized I had just finished the worst-written published book I had ever encountered. The combination of preposterous plot, wooden characterizations, and turgid prose managed to make kinky sex simultaneously offensive and boring.

But I come not to bury John Norman's bad writing, but to praise it - at least, in comparison with the new winner in the pantheon of terrible prose, E. L. James's 50 Shades of Grey.*

As everyone doubles knows, the Grey books form a trilogy of erotic novels about college student Anastasia Steele and business tycoon Christian Grey. She's a shy virgin, he likes unusual forms of nookie. Will these crazy kids make it after all?**

In fairness, I'll say that I didn't read the book. I couldn't bring myself to pay ten bucks to read about Ana's "inner goddess" or to find out what happens in the "red room of pain." I just didn't care that much. Fortunately, iBooks provides a free sample of every book, so I found myself with the first 77 pages of 50 Shades of Grey.

Where to start? The first page is entirely devoted to Ana's hair. This is a Bad Sign for a novel. We then have the Preposterous Plot Twist that Sets Things in Motion: Ana's roommate is an editor for the college newspaper and has scored a big interview with Seattle businessman Grey. But the roommate is too sick to make the drive from Vancouver to do the interview, so she asks a well-qualified colleague on the school paper to do it in her stead. Ha! Just kidding! Of course she asks Ana, who is not a journalist, is not on the staff of the paper, and knows nothing whatsoever about the subject of the interview. Okay, I say to myself, science fiction novels ask the reader to assume such things as faster-than-light travel or the existence of alien life forms; I can handle this for the sake of the plot.

Ana travels to Seattle, discarding her well-used VW for her roommate's Mercedes CLK. The Googles suggest that the original sticker price for a 2009 CLK started at $48,100 - not exactly college student car material. But we'll let that one pass, too. Ana makes it to the appointment, whereupon (p. 18)  "Another elegant, flawlessly dressed blonde comes out of a large door to the right. What is it with all the immaculate blondes?" What indeed. Those sentences set the stage for the bad writing to follow.

One of James's stylistic tics is that the characters have trouble "saying" anything. Instead, we have
  • "Yes," I croak. (p. 18)
  • "Thank you," I murmur. (p. 19)
  • she "murmur"s again on 23
  • "S-sorry," I stutter (p. 24)
  • on 31 he "murmur"s
  • page 36 gives us "I murmur, confounded."

Ana blushes, is flustered, can't look at Grey, stutters, and swallows nervously, again all in the space of the first 77 pages. Why? Because he's just so damn good looking. I know this because

  • "…the Adonis who sinks gracefully into one of the white leather chairs opposite me." (p. 23)
  • "His overwhelming good looks maybe?" (p. 27)
  • "He really is beautiful. No one should be this good-looking." (p. 28)
  • "His mouth is very…distracting." (p. 35)
  • "I gasp at the contact." (p. 39) Nope, not a sex scene. He's helping her put on her jacket.

Fear not, however, for there is the promise of that aforementioned nookie. "Oh, I exercise control in all things, Miss Steele" Grey says on p. 27. By page 58 he's in a Vancouver hardware store with our spineless Miss Steele, buying cable ties, masking tape, rope, and coveralls.

The excerpt from the book is entertainingly bad at point, but the bad is not so entertaining that I felt compelled to pay $10 to go on. Other reviews suggest that the series leads to revelations about Grey's past, but little in the way of character development for either lead character. It's a sign of the times that a book like this, which once might have shocked or titillated, is now banal, noteworthy for the slopping writing more than the subject matter.
* Google Search reports that "people also search for" Suzanne Collins's Hunger Games trilogy. I'm a little worried that there's a big crossover audience.

** Spoiler: yes. What I didn't know about the series until recently was that it started out life as Twilight fan fiction. Somehow I find that more disturbing than the book.

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