We Read “Fifty Shades of Grey”

Juliet Disparte (romance novel expert) and Kevin Nguyen (romance novel newbie) email each other about a new erotic novel that became a surprising bestseller.


Kevin: I’ve been reading Fifty Shades of Grey, and my first thought was, “This is surprisingly not horrible,” and my second thought was, “Oh my god, I have been reading this for two hours.” I’m not really the target audience for a romance book — especially one about BDSM — but its sudden popularity piqued my interest. This thing could be the new Girl with the Dragon Tattoo! And it’s about dominance and submission! And clearly it has my attention. All of my attention.

But I wanted to ask you about Fifty Shades because I know you’ve read it, and you’ve read a lot of other romance novels. How does it compare? The fact that my pretentious ass is enjoying such lowbrow lit makes me think it’s especially good for the genre, or am I not giving romance novels enough credit? I feel a bit like the book’s virginal heroine Ana Steele — it’s my first time and it seems good, but I have no frame of reference.

Juliet: I think the mark of a good book is that it pulls you into the story and compels you to keep turning those pages, and Shades of Grey definitely does that. Is it The Great Gatsby or Freedom? Of course not. I’ve read plenty of romance novels that were silly and trite, but I’ve also read some romance novels with believable, memorable plots and writing as good as any bestselling author in a more “respectable” genre.

I personally thought Grey was pretty good. It wasn’t the best or most affecting romance novel, but it certainly wasn’t poorly written. I found myself really caring about the relationship between Ana and Christian. While it’s true that the men in romance novels tend to have super-rare-to-the-point-of-ridiculous occupations (duke, highland chieftain, Navy SEAL, cowboy), I think about the characters in science fiction, or even literary fiction, as a comparison. I mean, how often do you come across a shapeshifter, a bounty hunter, or an architect? About as often as you come across a Navy SEAL, right?

One thing I will say — and this has already been noted all over the place, but it’s worth repeating — is that Grey is not your average romance novel in terms of the sex. It’s dirty and kinky and highly unorthodox, as romance novels go. As I was reading I wondered if this book would awaken a whole new generation of doms and subs, like The Feminine Mystique awakened a generation of feminists. Tell me what you thought about the sex, and I will silently judge you based on your answer.

Kevin: So the book can be divided into two types of scenes: sex and not sex. To my surprise, the not-sex scenes were actually pretty compelling. Ana Steele and Christian Grey have some pretty decent chemistry, and their insecurities about each other come across as earnest, even relatable. Sure, there are a lot of things that could be better — the long, emotional email exchanges are particularly tedious — but E.L. James does a lot of winking at the reader, revealing a level of wit and self-awareness that keeps Fifty Shades charming enough. (At one point, Ana asks Christian how he would like his eggs, to which he replies, “Thoroughly whisked and beaten.”)

The sex scenes are what I find the least satisfying. At first, I’ll admit they had my undivided attention. But Ana and Christian are CONSTANTLY FUCKING, and by the third or fourth coital encounter, it felt monotonous. The descriptions are detailed, but don’t leave much to the imagination.

But perhaps the biggest disappointment for me was the dominance and submission stuff. As someone who is predisposed to what Christian Grey would call “vanilla sex,” I was curious to learn about its appeal. Sure, there’s a lot of spanking and bondage, but there’s little in the way of convincing the reader why it’s fun. A lot of the descriptions go something like: And then he spanked me, and it hurt. But I liked it. Which left me wondering why she liked it. At one point, Ana looks up the Wikipedia entry for “Submissive,” and the joyless sex scenes made me wonder if E.L. James’s research was similarly as shallow.

I don’t know how much you know about dom/sub (wait don’t tell me (actually, tell me (never mind, don’t tell me))), but as someone who has even a vague inkling of what these things are about, Fifty Shades didn’t show me anything I didn’t already know, or couldn’t have assumed. Is anyone going to find this shocking or revelatory?

Juliet: It’s interesting that you call out the email exchanges as tedious — I thought the emails added a much-needed dose of humor to this otherwise serious story. (But hello, haven’t they ever heard of texting? To me it seemed odd that they would email rather than text, but maybe that’s a generational thing.)

I agree that the sex scenes get a little tiresome about halfway through. Lots of romance books have sex scenes that go on for pages, but other romance books tend to be a little bit more, well, romantic about the sex, and they leave a little bit more to the imagination , where I felt that Grey was almost clinical. And OH MY GOD THEY DO IT LIKE SIX TIMES A DAY. Does this supposed billionaire ever actually work?

As for the BDSM… I don’t think I’m revealing too much about myself by saying that I didn’t think it was particularly shocking. For one thing it seemed that the sex scenes were more frequently vanilla than not, and for another, there are a ton of romance authors who dabble in bondage themes nowadays — Maya Banks being one notable example, and she is a bestselling author. This stuff is hardly on the fringe anymore. I think the shock and taboo is mainly originating from readers who have never read a romance novel before and are just now discovering that these books are not all swashbuckling Fabios and heart-warming hand-holding with an HEA at the end (that’s Happily Ever After to the uninitiated).

One thing about the book that has been extra controversial is the dom/sub contract that Christian is constantly haranguing Ana to sign. In a nutshell, the contract outlines the parameters of their dom/sub relationship — what is allowed in the bedroom and what isn’t, how Grey expects Ana to behave as the sub, etc. I am on the fence about this contract. SPOILER ALERT: they basically throw it out at the end of the first book and Christian decides to try to be more “normal” for Ana’s sake, which seems totally unrealistic to me, believing as I do that our sexual tastes are genetically, not socially, determined, but regardless, a huge proportion of the book is devoted to discussing the contract before they reach that point. I suppose the contract is an integral part of Christian’s sexual proclivities, and to each his own, but the feminist in me was like “WHAAAAT? HE WANTS HER TO WORK OUT? OH HELL NO.” But some women have said that the contract is sexy, because we women spend so much time considering the needs of others and the contract is a way that Christian is considering Ana’s needs and investing in the relationship. But I wonder about your perspective on the contract, as a dude and as a non-romance reader.

Kevin: Before the first sex scene, Christian Grey says, “Firstly, I don’t make love. I fuck… hard. Secondly, there’s a lot more paperwork to do, and thirdly, you don’t yet know what you’re in for.” (It’s like E.L. James was at her desk thinking, Nothing gets people hot like PAPERWORK.) But regardless of whether the humor here is deliberate or not, I couldn’t stop laughing. When I realized that this scene was entirely serious, I laughed even harder. It wasn’t until I understood that whether or not Ana would sign the contract constituted the entire conflict of this super-long book, I stopped laughing. And then I trudged through the remaining four million pages of Fifty Shades.

But the most thought-provoking idea here is this nature vs. nurture thing. Christian Grey talks about how he’s been into BDSM relationships since the first time he ever had sex; Ana’s first sexual experience is also as a sub for Grey, and that’s where she learns to love it. I almost get the impression that the message is that if neither Grey nor Ana hadn’t been subs first, they might never have gotten into the lifestyle. AGREE OR DISAGREE?

Juliet: As I mentioned earlier, I believe that our sexual proclivities are ingrained — we’re born liking the things we do. If Ana truly hated being a sub, deep in her psyche, she would have run in the other direction at the first mention of that obnoxious contract. I think her predisposition toward BDSM was always there inside her — she just didn’t have the experience to name it.

Kevin: While I was looking up “BDSM” on Wikipedia, I came across the entry for Fifty Shades. You probably already knew this, but the book actually started as Twilight fan fiction. I’ve never read Twilight, but I know enough about it to see the glaring similarities: the clumsy virgin, her two suitors — one tall and white, the other ethnic, well-meaning, and an eventual loser (Fifty Shades‘s Jacob is named “José Rodriguez”) — the Washington setting, the constant lip-biting (I don’t know if it’s in Twilight, but Kristen Stewart sure does it a lot).

Juliet: There are some obvious lingering parallels with Twilight, sure. I think it’s an interesting footnote, but it’s hardly the whole story anymore. Moreover, I’ll say that I really enjoyed the story, setting aside the kinky sex, whereas I couldn’t honestly say that I liked Twilight. Will I read the other two books in the trilogy? Maybe. Probably. Will you?

Kevin: I’m glad I read Fifty Shades. But I don’t think I could bear two more of these. I was intrigued for the first quarter of the book; the rest of it just felt like a test of endurance. I have to hand it to E.L. James, though — Fifty Shades succeeded in pushing me to my “hard limits.”

Juliet: If nothing else, now you can make semi-knowledgeable bondage jokes. Congratulations.

Juliet Disparte lives in Seattle, where she works with books and goes to the doctor. For more about her adventures as a cancer patient, visit her blog, Tumorous. Follow her on Twitter.