This post may contain spoilers.
A couple of weeks ago, I did not know what 50 Shades of Grey even was. I'd heard it was soft porn for women, with an unlikely romance at its centre, written around the framework of what was originally Twilight fan fiction. I avoided it for as long as I could, then I read the first half and decided it was awful, and vowed to never return. When you're a writer who takes themselves far too seriously, you make a point of studiously avoiding whatever the nation has been swept up in. I read maybe two chapters of Twilight before losing interest, even Harry Potter has never really done it for me. I scoffed at The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, eschewed the Tragic Memoirs boom we saw in the early noughties and remember turning down the offer to borrow Memoirs of a Geisha from friends at school because I didn't want to be a part of the wave. However, when my partner revealed he was reading 50 Shades, I found myself waiting until he'd reached the point I'd discarded it at, and dipping back into it only to prove a point to myself and the world that I had opinions that needed to be heard. Being a writer myself there is always some envy that fuels this criticism, a certain snobbery that comes with being unsuccessful and impatient, and I was all too quick to decry its literary merit than to look at any other factor of the book.
My favourite novel is predictably Wuthering Heights. It is a horrible book, no matter what anybody tells you, and should not be seen as a suitable comparison to a real life romantic endeavour. Nobody should want to be part of the force of nature that is Cathy and Heathcliff. Women who read Wuthering Heights and fantasise about being in that situation are surely deluding themselves: who would want to be with a violent sociopath who maybe raped his wife and maybe murdered many men in the three years he went missing? Who would want to be in love with someone whose true passion is hate, who can never love you as much as he loves himself? Well the answer is none of us do, but it is a fantasy we women sometimes escape to. I am one of those women. I admit that my love of cold-blooded, stone-hearted men in literature is a completely irrational and undesirable one. Whenever I read Wuthering Heights I swoon each time at Heathcliff's dark features and vicious temper, I imagine I am the Catherine he has caught in his grip, insane at the thought of losing him, dying on the moors and shivering with madness when he finally admits his sincere love. Another favourite of mine is Patrick Bateman of American Psycho; whether he actually did commit those foul, disgusting murders or whether he was a raging lunatic at the peak of a psychotic delusion, there is something about him that I like. I like him, and Heathcliff, because they are unrealistic. They are hyperreal, sexed up and romanticised versions of the monsters we walk amongst. I don't actually want to be with a murderer, and I'd be very happy if for the rest of my life I never met a man who thought he was Heathcliff, but I like to escape to a world where I am the tragic heroine, and he is the embittered megalomaniac. It's this world of opposites that affords my escapism. I am a proud feminist, and maybe this fetish for fictional villains is the dichotomy to my living in a world where women are unsafe. In real life it is me who likes to be in control of my own heart. In fiction, I like to take a backseat to my own wants and needs. For this reason, I started to fall in love with Christian Grey and - in the spirit of discarding my own wants and needs - stopped caring that the book wasn't written the same élan as most books I indulge in.
As I'm sure most of my readers will know already, Christian Grey is a young, handsome and very wealthy man working in Mergers and Acquisitions (like Bateman) and a mysteriously troubled past has made him sadistic and unreasonable to a world that doesn't understand him (like Heathcliff). He begins on a relationship based around a vaguely sinister contract with a virgin called Anastasia, in which lots of exciting talk of "hard limits" and "soft limits" is discussed. Over the course of their affair, Christian teaches Anastasia how to enjoy her body and his together, how to pleasure herself, and how to find the joy that well-timed, measured pain can give. Somehow, he becomes completely enchanted by Anastasia, but that doesn't mean the relationship is easy. As predicted, just as Christian gives he also takes away, and whilst he can furnish his new doll with a car and expensive gadgets, he cannot give himself to her, and most of all, he cannot let Ana touch him.
Not wanting to spoil the ending for the three people left in the world who have not read it, Ana and Christian's relationship had become very affectionate, and in one of the final scenes where Christian starts to become romantic and emotionally open - I found myself screaming in my head: "He MUST be manipulating her, this CAN'T be right". I was disappointed every time Christian gave himself to Ana. Let down every time he made a compromise for her. Suddenly, I found myself getting angry whenever it seemed that Ana was the true dominant in their relationship. Finally in the last scene I fought my way back to Mr. Grey, who at this point had become more and more the Byronic hero and less and less the heartless psycho. However, distaste at those scenes I soon found was not borne of my love of Christian. It was borne of my intense dislike for Anastasia Steele.
I can suspend my disbelief far enough that a handsome billionaire would fall in love with a common student. I can even suspend my disbelief that the gorgeous Mr. Grey would also be a talented pilot, piano player, wine enthusiast and also disarmingly well-endowed. What I cannot believe is that Anastasia has him simply enchanted, whilst being so wet behind the ears and oblivious to the world and its complications. Many times Anastasia will drive Christian wild with envy when she talks to a male friend. She will have Christian torturing himself mad over her indifference. Christian will follow her thousands of miles across America - but what I don't tend to believe is why. I found, when reading, that Ana simply gets what she wants, and this is never explained. Where is the storm and stress? Where is the justification for this wild relationship? How is Christian Grey so maddened by someone whose only responses to erotic situations are limited to a woman who constantly refers to her vagina as her "sex" and can only utter an internal "Oh, my" at Christian's every whim? Even more, how am I supposed to believe that Ana is the first woman to ever tell Christian "No"? When she is not talking about how beautiful he is, she is talking about how shy and retiring she is, and how often so irrationally jealous. Of course, Christian bows down to her insecurities and reassures her things are okay.
Maybe it's just me. This book is porn for women, that much is true. However I'm the kind of woman who needs to believe the porn is feasibly real. I don't like seeing videos of mindless hardcore sex because if I can't suspend my disbelief long enough to believe that the naked bodies on screen both want to be there with each-other, then I can't see how I can extract any eroticism from it. It is the same with literature. If I want to escape into a world of passion and turmoil then I need to believe I can somehow identify with the female lead so that the pictures can come alive and leap about in my head joyously. With 50 Shades of grey, I just can't quite get there. Why would I want to be like Ana? Surely I would rather be some unmentioned other female character, the one who lures Christian away from this easy target.
I have downloaded the rest of the trilogy to my Kindle and they are sitting there in my reading list attempting to draw me in. I thought what would offend me about this book would be how it's written. Sure, some of the language is a little questionable and some of the dialogue confusing, but that doesn't matter - it is after all porn - and it is not porn's job to be artistically beautiful. What disappointed me was I read 50 Shades of Grey because I wanted to read something arousing and gripping, and something was very much missing. If the spoilers I have read online are to be believed then I cannot see myself falling in love with Mr. Grey, who is changed by Anastasia, who ends up marrying him and having children with him, taming the beast. Didn't EL James' mother ever tell her that you must never try to change the man you fell in love with? Because after all, when he is changed, what is there to love?