Saturday, 3 November 2012

Review: 'Fifty Writers on Fifty Shades of Grey' edited by Lori Perkins

I decided to request this book from Netgalley because I felt I owed it to all the people who loved 'Fifty Shades of Grey' to inform myself about it more before ripping it to shreds. After letting some time pass, I find I am quite ambivalent about it. On the one hand, I quite liked it in the way you like anything that has something of the forbidden or taboo about it. On the other hand, it was a terrible let down in that it wasn't very well-written and, to be honest, wasn't as forbidden or taboo as I had expected it to be. So I thought it would be great to hear 50 other opinions on it, to see whether their comments would help me figure out this book and its, surprising, popularity. This might be the first time I have reviewed a collection of "essays" and this review would be too long if I went through all of them, so I decided to pick up on some of the things that stuck with me while reading.

For one, I think it is a bit early to say that 50 Shades was the last blow to actual printing. Just because it was an online phenomena doesn't mean that now everyone will only publish e-books. As a current English student I can tell you that although many of u have Kindles, we all love the feeling of a real book in our hands and my generation is, after all, the future and I don't see us allowing printed books to die out. Especially not over this book.

Also, I belief that, being a woman, I was always pretty aware of the fact women love to read smutty romances with sex in them. As was the publishing world. Why else would we have all those other smutty romances with strong males and sensuous women in them? Yes, the addition of BDSM might be new (to the public, not the audience), but I don't think it is as much of a game changer as the publishers would like to have us believe. I do agree 'Fifty Shades of Grey' has opened up society to accepting to more erotic literature in public but then again, if you really wanted to find and read it you always could. Perhaps it has now become more mainstream, but is that what you'd want as a genre? To become equal to 'Twilight' and the centre of media attention? Suzan Colon also refers to this when she mentions that the main attractions to Fifty Shades are the naughtiness and secrecy behind reading it. It is almost too in the open for that now.

The great thing about reading a book like this is that you can agree or disagree with authors, much like you can like or dislike characters. Next to Suzan Colon, there was D.L. King that I quite liked. She questioned whether the book was actually erotica or rather erotic romance. She argues that erotica is about the sex, rather than the love story, which would make 'Fifty Shades of Grey', in my eyes, erotic romance rather than erotica. The story is about Ana and Christian falling in love, not about them having sex. If you took out their sex scenes you'd still have the same (admittedly boring) plot and the novel'd work.

Another interesting point was brought up by Jennifer Sanzo, who talked about whether Christian Grey is a modern Byronic man. I'm not quite sure. On the outside, of course he is. Roguish, broody, dark, strangely sensual and attractive. But would I compare him to the likes of Mr. Darcy, Heathcliff or Rochester? No. And that lies in the way it is written. Below are the three quotes Sanzo used:
'If he loved you with all the power of his soul for a whole lifetime, he couldn't love you as much as I do in a single day.' Heathcliff
'You have bewitched me, body and soul.' Darcy
'You are exquisite, honest, warm, strong, witty, beguilingly innocent; the list is endless. I am in awe of you. I want you, and the thought of anyone else having you is like a knife twisting in my dark soul.' Christian Grey
Of course, all three have their romantic qualities, but for me, only the first one is really Byronic, taking into consideration Heathcliff as a character, the second one romantic and the third a slightly melodramatic version of the other two. Heathcliff is the only one out of those three characters that has any kind of real darkness and danger about him. Christian Grey is the perfect romantic hero, willing to overcome his troubles rather than dragging Ana down with him.

I tweeted about Jennifer Armintrout while reading because I really enjoyed her chapter. She wrote about how the line between what we fantasize about and what we actually want was blurred by 'Fifty Shades of Grey'. The controlling behaviour that is seen as romantic by many is actually, when analysed, creepy and not desirable at all. Unlike with other books, the discussions have become personal, rather than about the book. I think Heathcliff is an amazing protagonist who says some beautiful things but I wouldn't ever actually wish to be in a relationship with him. Imagine how scary that would be. The public perception is that women have massively identified themselves with Ana to such an extent that nothing negative can be uttered. Criticizing her or the book would be criticizing women and therefor being disregarding towards women. However, I don't really think women have. Readers aren't stupid, they know that the novel is only fiction and they read it out of escapism, like most books. It has made sex an easier topic of discussion perhaps, but it's not like E.L. James invented sex.

What I also want to say is, thank you Dr. Hilda Hutcherson, finally someone discusses the sex in the book. It is, to be kind, highly unrealistic, to be rude, bullshit. I think it really gives young women, including me, a wrong image of how sex works and how bodies respond. I mean, if this is how sex is for most people I wonder why they ever do anything else! What I found really interesting here were the thoughts of practicing Dominants and subs. One couple explained how they would set up a scene, a Master analysed Christian as a dominant, a submissive explained the release she found in submitting. It gave so much more insight into the world of BDSM and really made me see that what E.L. James created is nothing more than a fancy framework for characters, instead of making it a part of the story.

It was also really interesting to read a history of BDSM (romance) fiction, which, to me, came across as a very open and friendly genre. It explored both male-female and male-male relationships early on. The essays on this also helped me understand why readers of BDSM fiction and people of the lifestyle don't like the novel as much. James wrote it for the average (uninformed) reader, using elements that wouldn't work for the former category. Their backlash is therefore perhaps understandable, especially since the book does link BDSM to childhood trauma and abuse, and I agree with the authors in saying that had 'Fifty Shades' been more to their liking it would maybe not have been such a big success.

One of my favourite chapters in this book was the one by Laura Antoniou, who gave her own, hilarious, view on 'Fifty Shades of Grey' by writing what I will call a parody. And thankfully she made a Youtube video of her reading it (below), which I strongly suggest you watch right now. Please don't drink while watching this, I wouldn't want to be responsible for you ruining your laptop.
Laura Antoniou is amazing, I have decided!

Also very interesting were the couple of essays on the novel's origins as fanfiction. I didn't pay too much attention to that before, but now I actually think it is very interesting. Definitely something I'd like to look into more. I found it very hard to give any kind of rating to this book because of what it is. Can I rate it the same way as a novel? I decided to just do that and gave it...


In the end, I don't really like 'Fifty Shades of Grey' any better now than I did before, but I'd definitely recommend this book, 'Fifty Writers on Fifty Shades of Grey', to everyone wanting to know more. It analyses everything from the success, to the history of romantic fiction, the characters, the reality behind it and so much more. The essays are short, well written, funny and informative. If you liked talking about 'Fifty Shades', this will provide you with a lot more interesting talking points and in my case, it did.


  1. Great post! Sounds like a good book for those who want approach 50 Shades with a constructive criticism. I agree basically with all the points you make and the things you mention from the essays. I liked 50 Shades, but I really hate how publishers and books-sellers are basically pushing it into the mainstream and forcing it upon people as a must-read, which it certainly isn't, in my opinion. Anyway, I'm sick of all the hype about 50 Shades, it's being given way too much attention.

  2. I love Jennifer Armintrout's snarky reviews of 50 Shades so I might check out her chapter. Thanks for highlighting some of the interesting stuff in this books :)

  3. Thank you so much! Glad you enjoyed the book - and glad you liked my piece in it. You are obviously a person of rare distinction & taste.

    Laura Antoniou

  4. Yes, thank you for your thoughtful overview of the book. I am so glad you appreciated the spectrum I tried to present on the book.