Thursday, April 25, 2013

Fifty Shades... But You Only See About Three

I decided to read the Fifty Shades of Gray series. For research...

Research into bondage, spanking, and other kinky sex acts? you might ask. Not quite.

I've been intrigued by the novels' success in that of sales and readership. I also found myself flabbergasted by the idea that they were published in reverse (e-book to paperback to hardcover) AND that there is a supposed movie in the works. The movie thing really makes me scratch my head because all I've known about the books prior to reading them--and all that anyone said about them--is that they are "lady porn." Can they really make a blockbuster movie from a lady porn novel? Even now, having read the books, I wonder how they'll make a movie. Maybe (hopefully!) they'll just remove all the sex scenes and make one movie out of the storyline that spans across all three novels? About 30 percent of the series focuses on an somewhat interesting story (more on this later); the other 70 percent are sex scenes. Do I want to watch this movie? (In a public theater?) No... probably not. I just don't see a true book-to-screen adaptation happening here (or being successful).

So, I read the books to understand what all the hubbub was about.

Also, as an indie author, I'm wooed by the idea that maybe I too can find a publisher through a successful online, self-published edition. How can I do this? Even though my curiosity was piqued by this question, I wasn't willing to buy the first book for $12 (or $9.99 e-book). And I felt a little squeamish about checking it out at the library (remember, the only definition I'd heard up to this point was "lady porn." I'm not brazen enough to march up to the librarian and request the erotic fiction section. I certainly didn't want to be caught with it in public like that lady reading it in the Chipotle line--brazen!!). But by chance I found a used copy at Goodwill for $1.25. That was a price I could tolerate, so, I stuck the book in between a bunch of "literary" finds (including Richard Russo, Carson McCullers, and Anita Diamant) and started reading.

Here are a few general thoughts, which could contain SPOILERS (and a few F-bombs):

Basic plot:
Ana Steele, a young (24), middle-class, and innocent virgin, stumbles into the predatory sights Christian Gray, an equally young (26), multimillionaire who is CEO of his own company. Their attraction is instantaneous (duh, they're young and hot). However, there's something dark about Christian. The first four years of his life were spent in the crack den of his "crack whore mother" and he remembers every moment of abuse, which has left him "fifty shades of fucked up." He draws Ana in to his twisted life of "kinky fuckery" when he asks her to be his submissive (but first she has to sign a contract). And thus begins the story of Ana trying to fix Christian, and Christian learning to accept his past, learn to be touched, and trust again.

Are the books written well?
Yes and No.

On a technical "can she construct a basic/complex sentence" level, yes, it is written well. Simple, which isn't a bad thing as I am a simple writer. So was Hemingway. [Not to say that his works and E.L. James are on the same level, because they definitely are not. Only to say that simple sentences can be very good. And only to make myself feel better for being a simpler writer.] The writing in these books isn't complex, by any means. It's light--maybe a little too light.

On a "theme, development of character, dialogue, internal dialogue, and cohesive story arch" level, meh... it needs improvement. I wanted to stab the main character's internal ramblings of Oh Fifty! Fifty, Fifty, Fifty. A name Ana gives Christian after he tells her that "fifty shades of fucked up" line. This is a reoccurring thing throughout all of the novels. It does get very old. As does: Whatever you say, Mr. Gray. Thank you, Miss Steele. This later turned into Ohhh, Mr. Gray and Ohh, Mrs. Gray. I mean, I get newlyweds referring to themselves that way from time to time (you know, the newness of marriage and title/name changes), but it was a little excessive here.

I did like the element of epistolary storytelling too (by way of emails). Seemed like the right amount throughout.

This really isn't erotic fiction... I don't think...
I don't read erotic fiction normally. It is my impression that this genre is written for the sole purpose of making the reader aroused (ie, porn). I mean, google "erotic fiction" and look what comes up. I just did this to find a definition... I had to put in "erotic fiction definition" to narrow my search. According to Wikipedia:
Erotic literature comprises fictional and factual stories and accounts of human sexual relationships which have the power to or are intended to arouse the reader sexually.
So, I guess I'm not too far off in my assessment of the genre. There's nothing in the above definition that mentions having a cohesive story or character development, which James tries to accomplish. Erotic fiction is written to get you in the mood. In reading Fifty Shades (FS) I felt like it was more inline with a typical romance novel, which is story based and formulaic (a very successful formula, I might add). FS is Harlequin on crack, perhaps? But, for some, I suppose this would be very erotic. I mean, Christian has a "Red Room of Pain." If that's not erotic, it's definitely different.

How does FS differ from all the other "erotic" books out there?
In the media frenzy that followed the success of these novels, they were made out to be some new genre. They acted like women everywhere were suddenly discovering a trove of sexual arousal goodness. In reality, this story not new. [It is quite rare to have a "new" story that doesn't rely on archetypes of some kind.] The bondage/S&M stuff is not new. Maybe it's the first "mainstream" novel featuring this kind of sexual behavior? However, this is probably the first romance that I've ever read that tacked the "Dominant" and "Submissive" sexual relationship. THAT was new (for me anyway). Throughout most of Book I, I kept thinking Dude, quick telling her what to do all the damn time! or Yeah, I could never be submissive... I felt like I was cringing as he spanked her.

There's now a trend toward "erotic" fiction being on the shelves at Target. There are at least four shelves devoted to it. This makes me think that these books aren't really erotic--they're just sold that way to be tantalizing. I'm pretty sure that there would be some boycott if Target started selling real erotic fiction. Hell, they stash that stuff away in the Love & Sex section of Barnes and Noble (or the gay and lesbian section depending on the book), and both of these are out of main eye sight. So, yeah, not really "erotic fiction," but whatever sells books, I suppose.

Ugh... I this is the one downfall of traditional publishing. Being classified as something you're not just to sell books. A part of my writer's soul might die when that first happens to me.

Hmm, I could read more.
This is how I felt at the end of Book 1. I actually found myself interested in the story arch. Why was Christian so F-ed up? This question pushed me to read books 2 and 3. Sadly, I don't know that we ever get a good answer to this. More character development was definitely needed. Maybe what she couldn't do in the books they'll achieve in these movies? Ugh... I don't even want to think about the movies (the current rumor is that they're courting Jennifer Lawrence to play Ana).

More story, less sex.
This is how I felt about 3/4 into Book 2 and through out all of Book 3. I'm almost positive that I skipped over every sex scene in the third book. By this point the characters were doing a lot of the same thing. His response to every situation was "oh man, I've got to F you right now!!!!" This got old.

General assessment of the books:
Book 1: Christian's character intrigues me and I want to read more. Ana is a little annoying--why would anyone want to be bossed around and told what to do like that? The S&M stuff is different and I'm not sure how I feel about it. Especially considering he basically abuses her at the end (she wants to see how submissive she can be and how far he'll go). That was a turn off.

Book 2: It's definitely "darker." We get to understand Christian a little bit more, but not much. There are slight changes in the characters, but not a lot of real growth. Ana becomes more dominate (although she's never really submissive), Christian has to relinquish some control (but, crap, the dude is extremely controlling--borderline creepy, especially when Ana's like Oh, my sweet controlling Fifty! I mean... seriously? Controlling men are not sexy.) The sex scenes are more of the same.

Book 3: Feels too rushed, and is therefore the weakest of the three. You only really get to see a few sides of Fifty: controlling, angry, scared, immature, broken. It's the "broken" that I was most drawn to. I wanted to know why? I skipped over almost all of the sex scenes to get to the answer to the cliffhanger at the end of the second book. It's never really answered. Well, why he lives and acts the way he does is answered, but very briefly. The book kind of ends with Ana thinking Oh man, he's kinda scary sometimes. I love him so much! ..................... Really?

 Like I mentioned in the beginning, I read the books to understand what all the fuss was about. I get it. I think.... The story, as a story, wasn't completely bad. The message--well, I'm not really sure if there is one to be honest. Maybe it's How to Survive a Potentially Unhealthy Relationship? or True Love Can Conquer a Dark Past? Maybe if there was more story I'd know...

So, do people read these books for the sex scenes or for the story? I, it seems, read them for the story. But if my Goodwill copy and borrowed library copies (all with various levels of water stains and heavily dog-eared pages) are any indication (and I kinda hope they're not), people might just be taking these books into the bathtub with them.

Oh the downside of renting/buying used books... you never know where they've gone before you.

Do I recommend these books? Meh... I don't know. Give 'em a try if you're so inclined... you could read the free sample, but it's a little too short to warrant any real opinions. I'm glad I read the books. I don't feel like I wasted any time. I don't know that I've gained any insight on how to make millions of dollars overnight. I really hope that the majority of readers/fans are in it for the love story (I use "love" loosely here). I can write a good love story. I cannot write "kinky fuckery" (Ana's term, not mine)--and I don't really think I want to.

I guess I'll keep focusing on writing good stories with strong, real, fully developed characters and hope that they catch on enough to allow me to write novels all day long while watching murder television.

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