Monday, February 2, 2015

Fifty Shades of Authorial Sins





Today, class, we're going to discuss the popular book series known by the title of the first novel in the trilogy, Fifty Shades of Grey. These books were all the rage a few years ago when they were released, & now they are again fodder for discussion because the film adaptation of the first book will soon be showing in a theater near you. I can't even tell you how many times I stopped writing this, certain I'd never hit the Publish button. I hope I don't regret it. As I once said to Trey, for better or worse, here we go.

At the end of 2009, I read the Twilight series (in a matter of an intense forty-eight hours), & it turned me on to Edward fiction reading again after having read nothing but political stuff & some other nonfiction for a few years. For most of 2010, I was pregnant with Reagan, & I spent a lot of time on my rear, mostly indulging my renewed appreciation for fiction or sitting in the movie theater slurping an Icee. I felt incredibly lazy at the time but don't at all regret the rear time now that I've spent the last four years standing & diapering & soothing babes & fetching.

After a few conversations re:Twilight via my Facebook page, a friend sent me a message & asked if I'd ever read any fan fiction. No, no I had not, I replied, but I was, as I mentioned, reading a lot at the time & open to anything Twilight related.

Fan fiction, if you're unfamiliar with this underworld of fanatics made possible by the Internet, is incredibly abundant & incredibly popular with fans of various novels. The amount of Harry Potter fan fiction that exists would blow your mind. Second to Harry Potter fan fiction in amount (I can't speak to the quality of Harry Potter fan fiction since I've never read any of it) is Twilight fan fiction.

Fan fiction crops up when an individual reads a novel (or a series of novels), puts down their book, & hangs their head in despair, moaning in agony because there's no more to read. They miss their fictional friends, & they want so much to continue living in the world an author created that they take to their word processor & continue the characters' stories.

Fan fiction can pick up where an author left off or can be a handful of scenes within the existing novel(s) the fan fiction author feels are missing or need to be altered in some way. Fan fiction might arise from a reader's need to kill off a character they despise, a catharsis of sorts. Rumor has it there are some quality fan fiction rewrites of Allegiant, the final book in Roth's Divergent trilogy, that I'd venture to guess are quite possibly better conclusions to the series than the one Roth penned. Fan fiction can also make use of original characters, of the dynamic between them an author created, & from that frame, an entirely new story is written. Fan fiction is free to read online, as it should be since it makes use of copyrighted characters.

I laughed a little when my friend suggested I read Twilight fan fiction. She sent me a few links. Some of it, to my surprise, was not terrible, though admittedly this was because she'd sifted through a lot of fan fiction & discovered a select few she thought were interesting. I'd guess about eighty-five percent of fan fiction is unreadable, usually because the spelling & grammatical errors overshadow any semblance of a story. There are, however, a few gems out there. I've read a few pieces of Hunger Games fan fiction that are well written & interesting, so I don't scoff loudly now when someone mentions fan fiction. If I didn't have kids & had tons of time on my hands, I'd likely have written some fan fiction myself by now (under an alias, of course). It was reading fan fiction that convinced me I could probably sit down & write a book, were I so inclined.

One of the links my friend sent me directed me to the first few chapters of an in-progress story titled Master of the Universe. Long story long, I read Fifty Shades of Grey before it was Fifty Shades of Grey; I read it when it was online, posted chapter by chapter, all for free. Well, I began reading it, & then sputtered a bit. For all the horrors you may've heard or read about these books, I'll be honest & tell you the grammatical errors & rampant abuse of the English language were the most appalling things about it to me. Keep in mind that fan fiction is raw, having never been read or revised by an editor. I wanted to print it out & buy a bagful of red pens & go to town.

So, now that I've made my confession, pick your jaw off the floor & press on. What follows is unlikely what you're expecting. I am not going to lecture you about what you read; after admitting to reading online fan fiction, well, I really can't be bossy about what other people read. I am not going to discuss why this movie is a sign of the apocalypse, nor am I going to tell you that Christian Grey & his fictional sexual prowess are setting women the world over up for disappointment in the bedroom.  Me personally, I like to give my gender a little credit & assume that most of us realize Mr. Grey is fictional, & if we're honest with ourselves, he's not truly the man we want, in our lives, in our homes, or in our beds. Mr. Grey would not be cool with my coffee breath, frequently unwashed hair, & affinity for sweatpants, & that's just the tip of the incompatible iceberg. Anyway, what I am going to tell you is why I don't recommend these novels, attempting to highlight what I think are serious issues that have been overlooked in the cultural discussion surrounding these books.

I readily admit I've not read the polished & published version of these books, & I skipped/skimmed portions of the fan fiction version in order to hang on to my sanity. I think I read enough to be qualified to offer an informed opinion. I know that's what you yearn for, after all, my informed opinion.    

So, first, the writing is terrible. It is just awful. From reviews I've read, the version released for publication can't be all that different from the fan fiction version. Forget the content of the novels for a moment & lament with me over the fact that these books, an affront to the English language & a loud, painful cry for a thesaurus, are best sellers & are likely the only thing outside of a magazine that many women read over the last few years. Weep with me, y'all. This is a grave travesty that's been overlooked in all the Fifty Shades fervor.

In addition to the grievous murder of the English language, I take issue with the writer's execution of the story. There is potential in the story as it unfolds in the beginning, but sadly that potential is not in any way fulfilled. I know, you're laughing, but stay with me. There is a story there, believe it or not. Let me tell you this: most women will not keep reading if there is no story. That joke about men reading Playboy for the articles? It's kind of true about women. If we don't identify with a character, if we aren't drawn into the world they inhabit, if we don't know names & a little background & what everyone's wearing & maybe how they drink their coffee in the morning, we are not all that interested in who's sleeping with whom, & who's doing what to whom with what.

The author, E.L. James, while certainly no word wizard, uses the dynamic between Stephenie Meyer's lead characters & takes it to a whole new level (there are obvious potential legal issues that arise when fan fiction is later published . . . these issues are debated at length all over the Internet, but I'm not delving into all that today).

The male lead (whose name was, yes, Edward when I read it & then was changed to Christian Grey for publication) experienced a harrowing childhood. Due to abuse & neglect as a boy, he is a prime target for an older woman who preys upon him sexually when he's in his teens. As an adult, he has many, many issues, including dysfunctional ideas about the opposite sex, &, well, sex.

Just as Edward Cullen is a danger to Bella (because, you know, he's a vampire & wants to kill her), Mr. Grey is a danger to Miss Steele (her name is Ana Steele in the published novels). But oh! Guess what? Both Bella & Ana simply cannot stay away from these bad boys who might harm them. I say harm meaning every possible way one can harm another - - physically, emotionally, etc. While Mr. Grey doesn't want to take Ana's life (as is the case with the vampire hottie, Edward, & his prey, Bella), his ideas of any relationship he might have with Miss Steele are inextricably linked with inflicting pain. I'll note here that the Motion Picture Association of America has given the Fifty Shades film an R rating for, among other things, "unusual behavior." I don't plan to see the film, but if there are any moviegoers unfamiliar with the books, well, I'd more than pay the price of admission to see their faces. An R rating in 2015 just isn't what an R rating was back in the good old days, also known as the eighties.

Edward & Mr. Grey give the ladies explicit warnings to stay away from them. Naturally, these dire warnings draw the ladies to these men like a moth to a flame (were this a musical, at this point I'd break into Janet Jackson's "That's The Way Love Goes"). Since Edward is a dreamy fictional vampire, the reader quickly forgives Bella's foolishness in pursuing him. Mr. Grey is not a vampire, but he is a predator with dark secrets, &, unlike Edward, he makes no attempts to reign himself in when it comes to the object of his desire. The set-up of Fifty Shades parallels Twilight, but the two leading men take markedly different paths when it comes to their selfish desires warring with what's best for the naive, virginal woman with whom they claim to want a relationship.

Like Edward, the Christian Grey character appeals to the ladies, at least initially. Here's why Mr. Grey resonates with women: he is not passive. At all. The Fifty Shades novels appeal to women primarily, I believe, because despite years of feminism claiming the opposite, women are drawn to assertive men. Women are also drawn to beautiful, mysterious, wounded men who harbor secrets.  We like to think we can change these men, heal their wounds, etc. Since these dark & dangerous men rarely, if ever, change in real life, we like to escape to fictional worlds where slowly, gradually, they see we are right, they learn to let go of destructive, harmful behaviors they acquired as defense mechanisms to deal with their twisted past, all while retaining their assertiveness we find so sexy.  Meyer deviates from this blueprint a bit in that Bella joins Edward's world; she becomes a vampire, as it's the only way she can be with him. This conclusion is acceptable to (most) readers because Edward's dark & dangerous vampiric world has been brought into the light for Bella & for the reader.

Fifty's author, E.L. James, sticks closely to the dark & dangerous script. She lures the reader in slowly, not revealing Christian's secrets until Ana (& the reader, presumably) cares just enough about Mr. Grey to stick around to see how it all ends. Believe me, if you can make it through the redundant, second grade writing & you don't limit your fiction reading to Nicholas Sparks, you can more than handle Christian Grey's secrets.

What is problematic for me is that in the process of Ana luring Mr. Grey out of his dark, emotionally stunted world, Ana joins him in the dark; she enters his world & even attempts, at times, to convince herself it is normal. Hear this: what two consenting adults do is their business, though I may not be interested in reading about it in detail (& in my perfect world they'd be married . . . to each other, of course). However, using sex as an emotional outlet to deal with (or mask) emotional scars left by childhood abuse is not cool, particularly when your partner is grossly lacking in the self confidence department, allows herself to be put in ridiculous situations, & is physically harmed at times. Even though it occurs during sex, what Mr. Grey does is a textbook case of the abused becoming the abuser. Given that E.L. James is not good with nuance, the abuse is not really addressed as such, & of course Ana & Christian go on to live happily ever after. Were there a fourth novel, you have to assume they'd end up on the evening news, & then be featured in a Lifetime movie.

Imagine that after Miss Bennet rejects his initial proposal of marriage, Mr. Darcy slaps Elizabeth Bennet. Miss Bennet then returns to Netherfield & spends a few days pondering the slap, eating chocolate, eventually deciding she finds the slap endearing & she definitely wants to marry Darcy. I can deal with men behaving badly at times in novels; it creates high drama & opens the door to excellent dialogue & potential character growth. What I cannot forgive is a woman who has little to no self confidence to begin with continuing to throw herself at a man who bruises her, &, to my recollection, makes no apologies for doing so.      

Many moons ago, I wrote this about Twilight in which I assert that, "In Edward, Meyer created a male character that females hungrily & crazily devour . . . Meyer crafted a male character in the vein of Jane Austen's brooding, handsome, & impeccably mannered men." At the time I wrote that I hadn't read Pride and Prejudice, so I didn't know that there are shades of Mr. Darcy in Edward, & thus also in Mr. Grey. Don't scream, y'all. I said shades, hints.

As I read Pride and Prejudice, many different leading men I've read over the years came to mind, & yes, one of them was Christian Grey. Mr. Darcy & Mr. Grey are both deliberate about what they want, & they're both initially a bit arrogant in their assumptions that they'll get it. They're powerful, wealthy, aloof bachelors (in suits) who finally meet the one woman who is able to lift the shroud of mystery surrounding them, a shroud that most women find incredibly alluring despite their inability to unmask the man behind it.

Mr. Darcy & Mr. Grey are not, however, literary twins. Darcy is an example of a leading man written by a British author who knew how to manipulate the English language, who knew how to write dialogue, who knew that whips are not needed to interject passion into a novel. Jane Austen also knew where the line between brooding, enigmatic, & assertive crossed over into aggressive, abusive, & morally repugnant, & she stayed far away from it.

So, what to take away? First, take a step back & a few deep breaths (& a gander at your bookshelf) before lambasting someone for what they read. The Fifty Shades books are not books I'd have bought off the bookshelf because I don't gravitate to novels whose covers feature handcuffs, however, many of the things that are often cited as objectionable in these novels are found in other works of fiction, including fiction that is praised, fiction that is lauded as "literary fiction," & fiction that wins awards.

It is certainly fine if you don't want to read anything containing violence, or sex, or foul language.  That is your prerogative, but in setting those parameters, you eliminate a great many works of fiction that, I think, are so valuable. I read a book last year that contains a rape scene & several other gritty scenes, but I don't for a moment regret reading it. I think stories of abuse survivors (which is one way you could (loosely) classify the Fifty Shades books) are valuable, necessary even, if well written & properly executed . . . meaning they are well written & don't in any way hint that abuse is sexy.

In my opinion, what sets the Fifty Shades series apart from most other adult fiction is not the content many find objectionable, but the quality of the writing, by which I mean word choice, sentence structure, & also the inability of the author to capitalize on what has the potential to be a story worth telling. She mangles it all in painful ways, & for that, I judge her harshly.

I consider myself to be a liberal reader. I will give basically anything a chance (obviously), & I usually finish reading any book or series I start simply because I am anal about everything not finishing books. I guess I've discovered my limits of authorial grace, & it is not foul language, or violence, or even nontraditional sex; it is atrocious writing, poor grammar, & an attempted sexification of abuse. Most things I will forgive an author for if a book is well written & content that some might find offensive is merely a thread in the overall fabric of a story worth telling.

I admit I believe even terrible books do serve some purpose, if only to shed brighter light on wonderful pieces of literature, to give you a greater sense of appreciation for authors who get it right, who do so much justice to the English language it makes you want to weep (a different sort of weeping, mind you, than E.L. James inspires).

If you read the Fifty Shades books, great. I don't discourage reading. Read something else. Read the Twilight series if you've never done so. Read Pride and Prejudice. If Jane Austen's writing is too highbrow for you, read The Selection series by Kiera Cass; these are easy, fun reads. Then, read the book of Ester (yes, the one in the Bible) & look for parallels. If you enjoy historical fiction, read The Book Thief, or Code Name Verity, or A Farewell to Arms, or The Great Gatsby. The latter two also offer love stories of sorts, assuming you can appreciate a love story absent a happily ever after. If you want to read a forerunner to Fifty Shades of Grey in terms of shock value, read The Awakening by Kate Chopin, a novel that was for many years banned for its content (I note that The Awakening is in no way a forerunner to Fifty Shades of Grey in terms of quality of writing. I feel Ms. Chopin more than deserves my making that absolutely unambiguous. If I had an appropriate meme to express the chasm between Chopin's work & E.L. James's work, I'd insert it here).

I don't believe in banning books or in shaming people, grown adults, for what they read. I think Christians need to tread lightly when they start wagging their finger about cultural matters, particularly books, because more often than not, there's a book on your bookshelf that contains variations of that which you judge another for reading. I was handed The Awakening as a sixteen-year-old enrolled in a private, Christian high school (& for everything in that last sentence, I am grateful). Premarital (& extramarital) sex is objectionable to Christians, but it's found in many, many novels, sometimes implied, sometimes described. A novel, like any artistic expression, is a reflection of the sinful, messy world in which its author lives; how could it not be?

If pre or extramarital sex is the line you draw when you decide what to read, fine. Go & locate your copies (the book & the film) of The Notebook, & Water for Elephants, & A Farewell to Arms, & The Great Gatsby, & The Fault in Our Stars & Anna Karenina, & 1984, & rid yourself of them. Pride and Prejudice also alludes to premarital sex, although it is overtly, repeatedly, exhaustingly condemned.

I'll end on this note. The Twilight series not only contains no premarital sex, there is considerable dialogue woven throughout the series about the merits of waiting. Again I say: Twilight: not the worst thing you could be reading.


AZ

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