My Shade of Grey

WritingThe furore over Fifty Shades of Grey has died down – just – but it’s left me unsettled and unhappy.  I read countless social media posts repeating the mantra that FSOG was about abuse and the worst thing ever to appear between the covers of a book.  We’re going to have to agree to disagree on those points, for reasons which I’m going to expand upon.

By and large I watched the posts scroll by and remained silent. When I did break cover it resulted in a temporarily suspended account – which probably goes to show the strength of feeling that the subject creates.  Now everyone’s moved on, but I’m left with an uneasy feeling about the whole thing.  Abuse was not what I picked up on in the books and in the cascade of hate, I didn’t feel able to speak adequately about the way these books have unexpectedly rippled out through my life.  I’m sure it’s not in the way the author intended or the media give a stuff about.  It certainly isn’t one that I’ve heard anyone else voice. So this is my take on it.   This is my shade of Grey.

Note:  This might turn out to be a long piece so grab something to drink.

Some basics:
* Yes, I read it because everyone else was reading it.  I wanted to know what all the fuss was about.
* Yes, I downloaded it to my Kindle because I didn’t want anyone else to know what I was reading.  I now own physical copies of the books and am not ashamed of them.
* I am a strong believer that your reaction to a book depends on the life experience that you bring to the reading of it.  Your lens, if you will.  Everyone has their own lens, therefore, everyone’s reaction to a book will be different.  It is really important that you appreciate this when you are discussing a book.
* No, I do not think it’s the best series of books ever written.  Nor do I apportion magical powers to the fingers of E L James.  Sex sells – go figure.  She’s a good storyteller, yes, but if I had been that book series’ editor it would have had a major polish before it hit the bookshops.
* No, they are not the only books I have ever read.  My standard fare is British literary classics and contemporary fiction.
* Yes, I have read all the books and I’ve done that at least five times all the way through.  I know the text pretty well.
* I have not seen the film.
* I read my Bible on a daily basis. I read it completely through every year.  I know that pretty well, too.
* I do not find the two incompatible.
* Fact:  There is more rape in the Bible than there is in Fifty Shades of Grey and there is NONE in FSOG.
* Warning: Spoilers. You might not want to read this blog if you are interested in reading all three books.  If you’re not, then go ahead.

JD as CGSo then, Christian Grey.  He’s a divisive character, isn’t he? For the purposes of illustrating who we’re talking about, I’m choosing to use a picture of the man who’s just played him in the film adaptation of the first book.  I’ve not seen Jamie Dornan in ahem… action, but the reaction’s been mixed.  Less so for Dakota Johnson, who plays Anastasia Steele.  She seems to have hit the nail on the head in her depiction of the character.  I’m only going on what friends have said, I’ve not had the chance to see the film myself,  because I’m not a great fan of going to the cinema alone.  Husband wouldn’t touch it with a barge pole and none of the people in my immediate circle of friends were interested in seeing it, so it didn’t happen.  The only film I have ever sat through in a cinema on my own was The Passion of the Christ.  It was a truly harrowing experience.  Therefore, I can’t discuss what you see on screen because I have no idea.  I have studiously avoided watching clips of it on YouTube.  Again, this comes back to life experience.  My decisions are now coloured by me spoiling the finale of Star Trek: Voyager for myself by hunting down the spoilers.  These days I will watch an official trailer once or twice and that’s it.

The lens through which you view things is an important point and I am not going to say that anyone who read, or tried to read FSOG having been affected by an abusive relationship does not have an equal and valid case as to why you shouldn’t read these books.  They have stated their cases frequently and well over the last few weeks.  Also, I’m not going to set about rehashing the tired argument that it’s ‘poorly written.’  Most people who trot out that stock phrase wouldn’t know what constitutes ‘poorly written’ if it kicked them up the bum.  They throw it out there because it makes them sound like they know what they’re talking about.  As a writer myself, it’s utter bollocks as a descriptor.  Poorly written would mean that you can’t understand it – and there’s no lack of ability to understand what’s going on in FSOG.  I prefer to use the terms ‘repetitive and inelegant prose’ because I believe that encapsulates what’s wrong with the writing.  It’s nothing that can’t be ironed out if you study the craft – and it is a craft.  Good writing is a skill and you should never expect a first-time author (which E L James was), to whack it out perfectly first time.  We all develop and improve, so give the woman a break.  I feel the editor was more at fault for not addressing a few key inadequacies before it reached the presses. But I haven’t had a book published, so what do I know?

What I have objected to about the coverage of FSOG is the focus on the first book. I know it’s because it’s linking in with the film, but few journalists have bothered to do their research.  If they had, I believe we would have seen more of them finishing their pieces with one sentence:  It’s not the end of the story!  Fifty Shades of Grey is a trilogy and it’s designed to be read as such.  If you’ve managed to get to the abrupt end of the first book, you’ll know what I mean.  It’s a three book series and it gets my goat that we’re banging on about what a vile specimen of manhood Christian Grey is and a weak specimen of womanhood Anastasia Steele is, without getting the whole story.  Because that’s what we’re all about, these days, isn’t it?  Jumping to conclusions before we know the whole story.

I’m not going to paint Christian Grey as a saint or Anastasia as a martyr, but I would like to raise a point.  I’m fully aware that he is a fictional character, but imagine if his story was your story. If you’d had the start in life that Christian Grey had had and been affected by manipulative people in your formative years, but over time had managed to deal  successfully with a lot of it to arrive in a place of happiness and contentment,  would you be happy if the only things that anybody knew about you were the bad bits before you got the help you needed?  That’s what we have in Fifty Shades of Grey – the first book in the trilogy. That’s the Christian Grey we meet.  A man, who on the face of it is glamorous  and successful, with the power to have relationships on his terms, with women who are happy with those terms. Women who are happy with those terms. Key phrase there. We’re dealing with consensual sex, we’re not dealing with a man who preys on innocent young girls and steals their virtue.  He’s a man  riddled with insecurities, who lives his life by rules that he both imposes on himself and on those around him.  He exists in an emotionless void,  having had love twisted so out of shape for him that he believes he doesn’t deserve it.

And then love walks into his office. Sorry, trips and falls.

What the next two books do is chronicle the impact that true, immovable and unconditional love has on a man who has never experienced it before. Love given from a woman who wants nothing more than to help him out of his dark, lonely place and into the light. Yes, Christian Grey is, by his own admission,  fifty shades of fucked up in the first book, but that’s not the end of the story!  Anastasia invests her time and effort in discovering why and, more importantly, helping him to see why;  so that they can arrive at the end of the third book, not in the role of him being the Dominant and she being the submissive, but in something even more powerful: A marriage partnership.  How is that not a love story?

Yes, Christian Grey is controlling, even after she’s worked on him.  Similarly, I’m still overeating even though I’ve had many years of therapy to work on my issues.  None of us is cured overnight, but we make steps along the road to a better place.  I would hate for anyone’s persistent image of me to be the fat, unhappy, 260lb woman I used to be, without knowing what happened next. I am not that woman anymore, but yet many have condemned this character to be synonymous with the term ‘abuser.’

It’s my want of it not to be the end of the story that manifested itself in a totally unexpected way.  I started writing stories about what might happen to Christian Grey after we leave him at the end of book three.  Yes, I write FanFiction.  Please deal with it.  I’m fascinated by a character who is learning to cope with overwhelming emotion by facing it, not by blanking out its existence.  A man who belatedly discovers the joys of what should have been his childhood, through the lives of his own children.  And most importantly, discovers himself through the security of a relationship with a person who won’t move from his side. When we meet Christian Grey he’s trying to control the world.  He’s making a passable stab of it if you ignore the festering wound that he’s covering up.  By the end of book three he’s understood that his wife can see the potential that exists in him if he will let go of trying to control things, open up to her and come to rely on trust and love.

As a meta-narrative, it’s deliciously Biblical.  But that’s another blog.  🙂

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7 Responses to My Shade of Grey

  1. simon says:

    I ought to read ya blog more often.

    What struck me is always the reminder of life through the lens. There are things I don’t enjoy reading or watching. Probably more about how it makes me feel rather than how its written… Lol

    I think books like this, sweeping statement alert, gives us an insight into the world around us. As Christians need to take note, sit up, listen and instead of jumping in with a NO Show how the Meta Narrative of faith can step in to this everyday narrative. Starting perhaps where people are at and helping them on their journey. Helping people where they start.

    Life is like a box of chocolates. Sure but we have the card with chocolate names and tastes on it.

    Consumption on a grand scale is how the the canteen of media serves us. How much can I make by squeezing your product. I hate being sucked in, he said wearing his harry potter pants, tee shirt, jumper, robe and holding his wand, by this. Which then begs me to complain on quality. Again never read the book but I wouldn’t know bad writing. Actually I hope I would. But does the Simpsons comic count…

    Must check other blog posts.. Maybe talk in real life…

  2. Sasha says:

    Brilliant and eloquent, as usual. You and I sing from the same hymn book on this one, so perhaps there is bias in my unbiased support of your post. Nevertheless, I think you have been able to synthesise the arguments against and the essence of this story (correction, these books), so very well. I’m all for let the haters hate, but like you, I would rather that dissent come with some authority in the form of having engaged with the whole trilogy and an admission of the subjectivity that individuals bring to their reading/viewing. I’m a little braver than you. I took myself off to watch the movie on my own (Gold Class with wine and food make the solo venture entirely palatable, I can assure you) and I walked out thinking the movie was better than the book. Perhaps, because the repetitious tedium was not evident in the script. I also thought that Jamie nailed the character of CG because of the subtle, still, reserve he brought to it. He had an element of bemusement in his interactions with Ana that I thought were genius, as if he couldn’t quite understand what it was about her that had him so intrigued. I think you will like it. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

  3. Gwen says:

    As always Rachel you speak what I think…. Must be ESP! You need to put on your big girl panties and go! I went by myself and ended up sitting with two others fans and we commiserated! As always I enjoy reading you stories as well as your blog.
    Gwen

  4. Liz Stapf says:

    Bravo, Brilliant you are my hero! I am standing applauding this awesome piece! Thank you lovely Rachel !

  5. ordlas says:

    Fantastic article! I, too, like the lens analogy; it aptly explains the variety of reactions to these books.

    I also like “repetitive and inelegant prose” to describe the stylistic inadequacies of the novels. A competently brutal editor would have made them so much better. It’s a credit to the story that in spite of the literary flaws, it still resonates with so many people.

    Like you, I’ve read the trilogy multiple times, once even in Spanish and am working my way through the Italian edition. Also like you, I write (or try to write) fan fiction about the characters, although my tack has been more to explore the periphery characters rather than Christian himself.

    In my reading of all the reaction to the books / movies I found a third group that was extremely unhappy (to put it mildly) about them: the BDSM community. At one seminar I went to, the presenter actually said that kinksters reading FSoG is like black people reading Gone With the Wind. I couldn’t believe my ears. I wish I’d had the presence of mind to point out to her that Ms. James was hardly writing a tutorial on the subject.

    All that said, thank you for your insight on the subject. You’re one of the most thoughtful and introspective people I’ve had the fortune to meet through the Fifty Shades fandom and I hope you keep writing for a long, long time.

  6. Kelly says:

    I too, get so frustrated when I read reviews or comments, that get a wide audience, which are obviously written by someone who never read the books.
    I too write fan fiction, but mostly from the focus of how CG’s adoption and early Grey years unfolded. Like you stated, those early years are crucial in his character development.
    I wrote a piece on why I felt Jamie Dornan’s performance was so much better than people gave him credit for, mostly because the reviewers obviously didn’t know the story! (I submitted it to a site but never saw it there. It’s available if anyone would like to read it. )
    I agree that the life lens you have when reading / watching a story greatly impacts your interpretation. But as you pointed out, the entire story is about consenual relationships, and trying to learn how to express and receive love.
    Thank you for such a thoughtf-full piece!!

  7. Lizzard says:

    I enjoyed your article on Fifty Shades of Grey. I too have read the books but haven’t seen the movie (I am the type that enjoys the movie that forms in my head while I read the book rather than to watch someone else’s interpretation on a movie screen). You mentioned that you read them on your Kindle, I had the paperback editions which I literally wrapped in a brown paper bag and read it in the neighborhood park while my family thought that I was walking the family dog. The poor dog didn’t walk very far for a couple of weeks!

    What I discovered among my friends and coworkers that the loudest disinters were the ones who had never read the books. Go figure.

    EL James may not be a Marguerite Yourcenar or a Joyce Carol Oates but she has the ability to bring an emotional pull to the readers of her books (I wanted to wring Ana Steele’s little neck or slap her silly while reading the first book). Golly, anyone who can write a book that can sell over 70 million (!) copies in the United States alone, has to be doing something right.

    Thank you for your well balanced and even-tempered insight and great sense of humor.

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