I can't possibly emphasise enough how terrible I expected Fifty Shades of Grey to be. The only reason that I was even reading it was simply because everyone else is, and having recently enjoyed The Hunger Games, One Day and the Millennium trilogy I wanted to give this latest literary fad a try.
For months now almost every girl I've spoken to has either raved about it or scorned it, and although no male that I've spoken to has ever admitted reading it, almost all have been curious about what's made it the best-selling book in British history. In a sense I felt like in purchasing it I would be making a cultural sacrifice on behalf of my gender and selflessly offering myself to the gods of terrible literature in the hope that other men wouldn't have to follow in my unfortunate foot-steps.
The problem was that contrary to every expectation I enjoyed it.
As you'll already know, the story is told from the perspective of Ana Steel, a 22-year-old student who is weeks away from her graduation and finds herself being inducted into the dark world of sadomasochism and submission by an intense and enigmatic millionaire called Christian Grey.
The sexual politics of the book will be debated for years to come, yet it seems to me that much of the controversy is to do with pre-conceptions and what people expect to find in the book as opposed to anything that's actually in it. The book explores themes of obsession, female degradation and sexual control, but none of these are condoned, and are all the themes are explored by a narrative voice that is strong, inquisitive and independent. Does this make it a feminist text? Certainly not, but it doesn't feel like misogynistic daydreaming either. Very often the reader is left unsure of what to think about what's going on, which is reflective of how the protagonist is feeling.
On the whole sex/ erotica point, it's worth noting how little actually appears. It takes over 100 pages before there's actually any sex, and on the few occasions that there is it's over within a couple of pages. When it does appear it can be reasonably explicit, but it's also clumsy and evasive enough not to feel too pornographic. Far more central to the narrative is the dynamic of their relationship itself, which is interesting because our heroine doesn't know what to make of Christian's hang-ups and obsessions, not to mention his now notorious 'Red Room of Pain'.
The majority of the book isn't spent in the depraved depths of the dungeons though; it's actually made up of long, slightly repetitive, conversations about sexual morality. The writing certainly isn't Shakespearian, and is occasionally clunky, repetetive and unintentionally hilarious, but the issues are quite well explored, and as a result the characterisation is a lot stronger than I expected it to be.
In a sense the marketing campaign has been regrettable, because although it certainly won't be nominated for a Booker Prize it's definitely a cut above the 21st century Mills and Boon that I was expecting. For me the key themes that the book highlights are trust and respect. Christian may try to woo Ana with an array of expensive gifts and gadgets, but that's not what she's interested in. On one hand he offers her a relationship that he says can liberate her, yet on the other hand he wants total control of her, and it's this paradox that underpins the tension of the book. In contrast Ana wants Christian to commit to her emotionally as well as physically, and for that reason she has a lot of serious reservations about literally signing herself away to him.
But if the contents are so inoffensive and the books are so popular, then why did I feel the need to purchase it anonymously with a supermarket self-scanning machine, and then hide it from everyone else on my train home? I suppose it's because of two lingering worries; first of all that it's a book for women, and secondly that I might have looked a bit dodgy.
Were either of these concerns valid? Probably not. The book is targeted at women, but there's no reason why men can't enjoy it; of the 20 million readers the book has picked up, at least a few of us must be male. Would anyone in my carriage have cared, and, even if they did, would I ever see any of them again? Probably not. What my self-conscious concerns show is that for better or worse the stiff upper lip is still alive and well. Is it great writing? No. Is it great reading? Not always. But did I enjoy it, and am I interested in reading the sequels? Unfortunately yes.
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