The 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.
* 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.
So 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. 🙂