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Ceridwen

Ceridwen

You kids get off my lawn. 

Fifty Shades of Grey - E.L. James Cross posted on Readerling, which may be easier to read, given I blow the character limit twice.

I've been writing this review for four hundred years. Seems funny, because this only came out whatever many months ago. But for real, I think this is the longest bother I've had with a review. This whole review is tl;dr, and a ton of it was written while drunk, although I've certainly had time to clean up the typing, given the 400 years. So the usual caveats are in place: I might talk spoilers, though I try to note them. I also cuss a fair amount, and there's some sex-talk, but if you don't like cussing or sex-talk, then you won't like this book anyway, and what the fuck are you doing reading reviews of 50 Shades? You know what this book is about.

Some Blather about The Novel, The Romance, and The Fanfic

I'm not even sure it could rightly be called a novel, if you get right down to snobbish definitions involving, like, narrative structure and the experience of reality and stuff. Observe my man Nathaniel Hawthorne making the distinction between a Novel and a Romance in the preface to The House of the Seven Gables:

When a writer calls his work a Romance, it need hardly be observed that he wishes to claim a certain latitude, both as to its fashion and material, which he would not have felt himself entitled to assume, had he professed to be writing a Novel.  The latter form of composition is presumed to aim at a very minute fidelity, not merely to the possible, but to the probable and ordinary course of man’s experience.  The former—while, as a work of art, it must rigidly subject itself to laws, and while it sins unpardonably, so far as it may swerve aside from the truth of the human heart—has fairly a right to present that truth under circumstances, to a great extent, of the writer’s own choosing or creation.


Nate was living before the invention of the modern romance, so he can be forgiven in assuming his writers were dudes. (Although, according to this definition, extremely dude-y books such as Moby-Dick are Romances. So there.) I mean, maybe this crusty distinction between Novel and Romance – even the capital letters are an indication of moldering taxonomy - has been exploded by the contemporary creation of the romance novel. You got you peanut butter in my chocolate! Etc. And to digress even farther, this distinction between Novel and Romance becomes unworkable fast when you start factoring in any kind of genre fiction at all – scifi, fantasy, the detective novel, Noir, the post-modern novel, the action adventure, Westerns, (some) satires, parodies, the Gothic novel &c &c. Or maybe unworkable is the wrong word – maybe the word I'm searching for is pointless. So you've got an extremely small subset of books that strive for some kind of hewing to probable reality and psychological exactness, and then you have 95% of the books published in the world. Maybe even 95% is low.

I'm putting in a paragraph break here to indicate I just spent way too much fucking time screwing around on the Internet looking at various critical definitions of the novel, arguing and muttering with all of them, and realizing if I go with one to prove some amorphous gut reaction about how weird a novel this is, that's not really going to get me anywhere. Mirriam-Oxford-Whatever defines the novel as a book of a certain length that goes on about some characters until it ends which is good enough for me. (As I've been recently called out for paraphrasing, be aware this is exactly that.) So. That doesn't make this less of a weird novel, and that probably boils down to its fanfic nature.

So, fanfic? Much hay has been made about this being a work of Twilight fanfic. And much of that hay discounts all fanfic as a form of plagiarism, which I find a little severe. (I mean, this might be a straw man argument I'm fighting – that fanfic = plagiarism – but I'd be willing to bet a whole lot of bananas that many times it has been stated that if this started life as fanic, it doesn't deserve to be put to paper, cannot be considered as a work of fiction. I get a big stink eye when certain kinds of authorial motivations are used a priori to dismiss fictions. You can put in a big rampage about blurb-craft that seeks to equate everything dystopian with The Hunger Games – everything with vampires with Twilight – everything with wizards with Potter. And then, while we're at it, pretending that narrative similarities between these books and countless other fictions that predate them renders that book some kind of fiction crime. What is up with this?

I once had a dude tell me with absolute earnestness that Star Wars was “just a remake of The Hidden Fortress” which is near one of the stupidest things I've ever heard. Yes, they have their similarities – in the same way that Battle Royale and The Hunger Games have similarities, both to each other and to dozens of other fictions, from Battle Royal to Lord of the Flies to "Beyond Thunderdome" down to the freaking Theseus myth. It is the worst kind of authenticity-seeking hipsterism to treat books with similarities – especially freaking genre fiction which by its very nature deals in set motifs and narrower stylistic parameters - as failures if they aren't so stunningly original that your face melts off. Originality is bullshit. For fuck's sake, people, the ancient Greeks should be suing the shit out of the entirety of Western civilization – including Shakespeare, that rip-off artist of the first order - and on that level, and I have close to zero patience for it. There is nothing new under the sun. Get over it.

Which is not to say I don't understand that there are complexities of race/gender/culture/placement that result in one thing being noticed and another falling down the well, and that can be monumentally unfair, awkward, or stupid. There are better romances out there. Hell, there's better Twilight fanfic out there. We can wring our hands about why exactly this piece of shit got to be the biggest piece of shit since Twilight, but ultimately, that's not really this book's fault. It can't bear up to scrutiny, but then I'm not sure it was even trying. Popularity isn't a criticism in its own right. Though it does get people indisposed towards the fictions at hand to read them – resulting in some unfortunate book/reader pairings. It's true that I probably shouldn't have read this – I'm a crank about romance novels in the general, if not the specific. I'm no Twilight fan, even though I have some serious obsessiveness about that series and how nutty it is.

Anyway, point of massive digression being, I admit I'm the kind of girl who, when I hear the words “authenticity” or “originality,” I reach for my pistol. Which is not to say I don't believe some books are total rip-offs of others – The S-word of Shannara being a complete and unvarnished rip-off of The Lord of the Rings – but while I hate the shit out of that book, I hate it for being super crappy on its own terms – ripping off the bad parts of Tolkien and leaving the dross – not because the rip-off occurred in the first place. I know I'm an outlier on this one, but I perversely kinda liked Eragon - the first book anyhow – because while it's Star Wars in Middle Earth with some Dragonflight thrown in for shits and giggles, it's absolutely naively exuberant. That kid is having a freaking blast playing in worlds way, way above his pay grade, and the glee of his rip-off is both charming and infectious. (Though, of course, objectively fucking terrible, and to seasoned readers, a Frankenstein's monster of parts ripped from other fictions.)

Because, probably, a lot of this snarling about fanfic has to do with the fact that Twilight is objectively terrible, and much more recently written. I can name you several hundred thousand retellings of Shakespeare stories, which, my friends, could be classed as AU fanfic (AU standing for “alternate universe”, something I learned because of this book.) A Thousand Acres, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, When You Were Mine, Prospero's Books, Scotland, PA, et freaking cetera. But, first, Shakespeare is not objectively terrible, and second, he is out of copyright. But lord knows, hitching your cart to something that everyone knows sucks and is also insanely popular is so evil and an attempt at a cheap cash-in, which hitching your cart to something that's part of the Canon is totally a'ight, despite it being an obvious attempt to add intertextual gravitas. I don't want to get into it too far, but plagiarism and copyright infringement are two different things, though there is admittedly an overlap. I haven't done an exhaustive analysis or anything, and I will bow to someone who does, but the AU-ness of this little world makes straight copying unlikely. Maybe what I'm trying to say is that while I can see the ways this narrative owes certain structures to Twilight - the gormless girl at the center, the stalkerish love interest, a catalog of secondary players – I'm not sure these things are unique enough to say that Twilight invented them. By which I mean, Twilight didn't invent them. This book is stupid enough in its own way to be, if not uniquely stupid, than differently stupid enough from Twilight. to be its own stupid thing. And, like Eragon, 50 Shades is absolutely bone-shattering in its love for its shitty characters, bad prose, and earnest enjoyment of its source material. Which, good for it, although I can see how this book is shittier than Twilight, on both prose and character levels. Which, wow.

Interestingly, while Ms. James's crimes against prose are different from Ms. Meyers's, there is a weird similarity to the enthusiasm of their badnesses. Maybe it's tone? You can tell they are writing their little hearts out, thesaurus at the knee, cartoon sweat leaping off their brows. A for effort, and I actually mean that in a non-bitchy way. I don't get the impression that either writer has delusions about their writing abilities – this isn't full of attempts to pull a fast one or bullshit you about how they are deconstructing the form or some such nonsense – a clumsy plug I see trying to justify a lot of D-grade pulp. It's a straightforward first person narrative with a narrator who claims to be exactly what she thinks she is. (Whether she is is another ball of wax.)

However, and this is a big however, that is not to say there aren't some gaping holes in motivation and sense that can only be plugged if you consider this as a derivative work. There's this pretty great review of the book City of Bones on Ferretbrain that defines how fanfic works pretty neatly. I'm just going to quote a little bit, but you should probably go read the article at some point.

Essentially City of Bones reads like fanfic - and I don't mean that as kneejerk indicator of poor quality, I mean that it reads like something constructed for a different purpose, functioning on a different ruleset. […] I truthfully have no idea what it is that makes fanfic work but it seems to me to have something to do with potential plausibility. Scenes of certain characters doing things they never explicitly did in the books (even if this is fucking each other) resonate with you because it feels both novel and familiar […] Fan fiction, even if you're looking at a 100,000 word AU fic, seems to be all about the establishment of moments, which need not necessarily (and probably don't) exist as part of a continuum of moments.

This is absolutely the opposite to a book.


I mean, obviously, the thing I like about this definition is that the writer has the same qualm I do about how this work functions as a novel, though she uses the term book. I mean, obviously this is a book – I can shart out 50,000 words and have it printed and bound and call it a book - but it's not a coherent narrative, either in terms of character development or in narrative structure – it's a series of moments. I think it's possible to break structure – I think the Fever books taken individually, especially after the first – don't pull off the whole narrative unity thing that well – the fucking cliffhangers - but they do rise to believable crescendos within the terms of that world. There are stakes. People change. And ultimately, taken as a whole, the series constitutes a coherent arc. But the terms of this world have some serious split-personality which blows its potential plausibility. It's not even so much that I think it's tricky to add sex into a narrative that is functionally virginity porn and a morality tale about the female libido. It's that the terms of the Forksverse and Shadeland are fundamentally at odds with one another, and that even in a Romantic sensibility, not a Novelistic one, this world's order wobbles.

Bella, Ana, Christian, Edward

So, to the characters. Taken without her Bella-ish beginnings, Ana is a deeply nonsensical character. I mean, she is anyway, but her nonsense makes a little more sense with Bella in the mix. Bella is a pretty solid hot nerd reader-proxy just waiting for the make-over to release her inner Swann – get it? get it? I mean, it's right fucking there in her name - whose inexperience and virginity is completely justifiable due to her age. Age her up a couple years to just-out-of-college, and you have some serious problems. Repeatedly, Ana says and thinks things – this is first person, so we're privy to every single fucking thought – and thought while fucking, badumptss - that imply she has never had one single solitary sexual thought her whole life – up to and including the fact that she has never masturbated. Now, I'm not saying that 22 year olds who haven't been kissed don't exist, I'm saying that 22 year olds who have never once contemplated their own sexuality don't exist. This is not some sly, damaged narrator who is playing coy about her motivations either – every thought is bald as a baby's ass. But if that 22 year old is secretly a 17 year old from Forks, WA, then it jibes slightly better.

You know, until it doesn't, because say what you will about Bella – and I've said my share – she is completely capable of expressing her desire for Edward. She's the one pushing sexual contact every single step of the way. Both books spend a lot of focus on strange somewhat disembodied aspects of their mens – Edward's skin, which you might remember is marble-like, alabaster and cold, or Christian's long, elegant, tapering, ET-like fingers – and both these boys exist as a sort of libido-body for their female protagonists. Which is to say, both Edward and Christian are unicorns drawn to the virginity of the female character, with their horns a-blazing, and you may insert all the innuendo that you see fit. Edward though, however often Meyer tries to underline his predatory nature, is the poster boy for true-love-waits, the cauterizing masculine rationality that puts the brakes on dangerous, deadly female sexuality. Not to reiterate my Twilight review to much, but Edward exists to both canonize and criticize female desire – the male version of the Madonna/whore – the God/devil. But much more weighted to God.

This is where 50 Shades starts to fall to pieces for me. There's this character in this little seen 90s movie played by Eric Stoltz – I can't remember the name – who has been working on his dissertation for like ten years or so. His favorite phrase is, “and I'm paraphrasing myself here”. That's what I'm about to do. I'm paraphrasing myself here, but I believe very strongly that the paranormal in fiction – that thing, like vampirism, that shifts a relatively boring ass story full of the ornament of everyday stew-making and class-attending to the red, the thing that makes a Novel a Romance – is something that allows story-tellers to explore the edges of cultural expectations. Zombies equal the fear of the mob cut with the theatrics of fear-based siege societies; werewolves equal the id/ego split; vampires equal the parasitic aristocrat and also, sometimes, the Freudian sex/death equation. Ghosts are our embarrassing angry pasts. So Edward's vampirism is a heightened metaphor for male sexuality seen through a female lens, or a nod to certain theologies, or something. Whatever it is, it involves the cultural constructions of imaginary though partially agreed upon group identities. The group of vampires have these characteristics – let's run them to their logical conclusions.

Twilight works, on some level, because Edward is unreal, this saint/stranger, vegetarian vampire impossibility. He's obviously a unicorn, probably more likely than an under-30 hot-ass billionaire like Christian – because seriously, the only under-30 billionaire, hot-ass or not, I can think of outside of crown princes of women-hating theocracies is the dick who invented facebook. (Who isn't under-30 anymore, but was once.) And no thank you to all. But Christian's vampirism is not that he's an under-30 hot-ass billionaire, it's that he is a member of BDSM culture, a very real, very marginalized group of people.

(See my comment for more - totally blew the character limit.)