For E.F., 16, who is reading the book and deserves so much better than Christian Grey.
It’s the book that everyone’s talking about . Opinion is divided between those who love it, those who hate it and those who would rather eat poo than dignify it with their attention. With her Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy, E L James has achieved what most authors – even good ones – can only dream of; international fame, a multimillion dollar best seller, and a major movie deal .
Much of the anger (jealousy?) about the book stems from the fact that something so poorly written has achieved such astounding success. In sporting terms it’s akin to Danny de Vito winning gold in the Olympic marathon. In intellectual terms, it’s Paris Hilton winning the Nobel Prize for Science. It just doesn’t seem fair. In fact it has many intellectuals muttering fifty shades of ‘Grrrrr’.
I read the three books in the Fifty Shades trilogy during my recent vacation. I’m not one of those who looks down her nose at popular fiction. I actually rather like Mills & Boon and Harlequin Romances. I’d certainly rather read a Mills & Boon than plough through the turgid prose of James Joyce or Patrick White. And if that makes me a Philistine well, so be it.
I’ve never understood the venomous intellectual reaction to women’s popular fiction. Sure, it’s not great art, but variety is the spice of life, and I know many very smart, very well educated women (and a few men) who love a good romance, or a steamy bodice ripper. And, if women’s romance fiction is so easy to write, why aren’t we all churning out best-sellers?
Beautifully written literature is as much a joy as exquisitely cooked food. But consider, as wonderful as a meal from Heston Blumenthal might be, is that really what you want to eat every night? Not me! I love gourmet food, but there are some nights when canned spaghetti on toast, macaroni and cheese, KFC or even McDonalds are exactly right for my mood. Why can’t we look at literature the same way?
Good writing is certainly to be encouraged and admired, but it’s obviously not the only requirement for literary success. As E L James has shown, telling a story that is intriguing, engaging, controversial and compelling is just as important as exquisitely beautiful, technically masterful prose. In fact, what has literary critics turning fifty shades of puce is that James has shown that good writing is an entirely optional component of writing a best seller. But, in deriding James for her literary short-comings, her critics fail to acknowledge the extraordinary talent it takes to achieve her level of success and public engagement in spite of her clunky prose. James has done what most of us so-called ‘good’ writers never will – she has tapped into the public imagination, filled a niche that no-one else saw, and sparked an international debate about sex and sexism, sadism and submission, sodomy and syntax. If, as cultural theorists tell us, culture is something that’s ‘good to think with’, Fifty Shades of Grey is a cultural triumph. That’s quite an achievement for an author with such a limited vocabulary!
Yes, there are things about James’ writing that made me go ‘grrrrr’. The repetitive use of particular words is my major literary gripe. How many times do Anastasia’s clothes ‘pool’ at her feet, or her tears ‘pool’ in her eyes? How many times does she ‘fist’ poor Christian’s hair or he hers? How many times does she mutter, “Oh my!” or coyly refer to her genitals as ‘down there’. Perhaps with all those millions in the bank, a thesaurus might be a wise investment before EL James embarks on the next book. And you just know there will be a next book – probably a next trilogy. After all, we still don’t know whether Mia got to bonk Ethan – there has to be another book in that! I’m predicting that Fifty Shades will be the next Flowers in the Attic – book after interminable book – even after poor old E L James is dead and buried!
But E L James’ writing is the least of my concerns about the Fifty Shades trilogy. I have to say I thoroughly enjoyed reading the books. It was fun; fifty shades of grrrreat. But, tempering the fun has been the return of awful nightmares which have me waking in the middle of the night in a cold sweat; shaking, weeping and bereft. Why? Because I had a nine year relationship with Christian Grey – or a good facsimile thereof. Unlike Anastasia, my Christian didn’t turn into the perfect husband and father. My Christian nearly destroyed me.
As much as I enjoyed reading the Fifty Shades books, they resurrected a whole slew of unwelcome memories and pain for me – as I’m sure they have for many other women who’ve been involved with ‘real life’ Christian Greys. The fact is, that, in real life, there is nothing romantic about being in a relationship with a man who is moody, jealous, controlling, secretive, emotionally unavailable and sexually aggressive. In real life, such men are more likely to kill you – or make you want to kill yourself – than be miraculously transformed by a woman’s love. Yes, even yours.
An older woman, speaking from experience, once said to me, “Never fall in love with a man with ‘potential’ – the potential is very rarely realised. If only I’d listened.
Yes, I fell in love with a real-life version of Christian Grey. Yes, he was very, very handsome, very, very masculine, and as far as I could tell, very, very successful. But, of course, he had ‘issues’. Foolishly, I thought I could ‘transform’ him if only I loved him enough, if only I didn’t push his buttons, if only I was patient, if only I agreed to be treated like a doormat, if only I helped fulfil his fantasies, if only I didn’t pry, if only I didn’t want more than he was prepared to give, if only, if only, if only.
Oh yes! I was every shade of Anastasia Steele. Sometimes I tried to stand my ground. Often we fought. Often we broke up, but always one or the other of us couldn’t stand it and we’d reunite – usually with ‘kinky fuckery’ rather than any meaningful conversation. But nothing would change. Friction, arguments, break-ups and make-ups – they all seem sooooo romantic in fiction. In real life, however, they’re psychologically and emotionally destructive, they strip you of your dignity and the more you keep going back, the more you buy in to the role of masochistic submissive.
It’s not exciting or romantic and it doesn’t make you happy. But, after a year or nine on the roller coaster of dealing with a Christian Grey, you’re so worn down and emotionally damaged you think you don’t deserve any better. By then, you’re so pathetically grateful for any crumb from his table that you interpret it as evidence that you’re ‘getting somewhere’. Of course, you’re not. He will never change. You, on the other hand, are being systematically emotionally obliterated.
It’s true that he never hit me. Looking back, I wish he had. If he’d hit me, I might have realized much earlier that I was being abused.
It took nine years for me to find out that my Christian was never going to fulfil the potential I saw in him. After nine long years I was still nothing better than a mistress (and with none of the financial rewards!). He lied, he cheated, he was psychologically abusive, and, I found, I wasn’t the only woman he was lying to. The successful job and ‘wealth’ were no more than an illusion. In fact, the whole relationship was an illusion. Every single thing he told me over nine years was a lie. I’d been living in Wonderland – a fictional world he created in order to keep me in my place – and away from his real life.
It took two nervous breakdowns and a suicide attempt before I was finally free. I lost everything – my career, my financial stability, my health, my ability to work, my self-confidence, my willingness to risk another relationship, and my chance at having a husband and children. I’d traded everything for the ‘potential’ of turning a frog into a prince. Instead, the frog turned me into a toad. Anything I have now, has been clawed back from the wreckage.
I was physically free of him, but never really free because the scars that kind of relationship inflict on you never heal. You are never the same; never whole again. Oh yes. For a while you’ll think you’re fine and then, one day, you’ll pick up a book like Fifty Shades of Grey which romanticizes the kind of relationship that nearly cost you your life and it brings it all rushing back.
So, you see, what makes me go fifty shades of ‘grrrrr’ about Fifty Shades of Grey isn’t James’ poor writing, it’s my concern that younger women – and particularly girls – might read these books and think that, just like Anastasia, they might be ‘lucky’ enough to find some poor, broken man with ‘issues’; that, through the strength of their love, they will transform him into all the good shades of Christian Grey – loving, generous, playful, protective, sharing and cherishing. “Oh my!”(as Ana would say), Christian on his best behaviour is every woman’s dream! Who wouldn’t want to live ‘happily ever after’ with good Christian?
But Christian isn’t real. He is an entirely fictional character and bears no resemblance whatsoever to real life men-with-issues. The truth is that women who take up with these kinds of controlling, mercurial, dominating men too often end up black and blue, physically and/or emotionally broken, or, worse, dead – either at his hand or their own. That’s what makes me go fifty shades of ‘grrrrr’ about Fifty Shades of Grey.
Am I suggesting that young women shouldn’t read Fifty Shades? Not at all! In fact, I’d encourage it. But I’d also encourage mothers and sisters and aunts – even fathers – to read the books and use them as a basis for discussion. Let’s not hide the issues raised in Fifty Shades of Grey – let’s talk openly about the psychological, physical and sexual abuse of women and the fact that it’s not acceptable and it’s certainly not romantic. Let’s talk about the fact that men-with-issues need to sort their own shit out – it’s not our job to save them. Let’s talk about the fact that being someone’s emotional or physical punching bag is not helping them (or you!) towards good psychological health.
Generally, I hope that women can distinguish between Christian Grey as a fantasy figure and real-life men with similar traits. Yes, we women sometimes fantasise about being dominated, about being bound up, even about being raped. But while fantasising about rape might be titillating, it doesn’t mean it’s something you actually want to happen in real life. Just so, I’m fervently hoping that when women read Fifty Shades of Grey, they’ll consider that the fantasy of Christian Grey is quite different to the reality. While it might be titillating to think about a relationship with this delectable but complicated Adonis, embarking on a relationship with one of his real-life counterparts is more likely to leave a woman either dead or fifty shades of completely fucked up.