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E. L. James “Fifty Shades of Grey” trilogy has sold millions upon millions of books. Her success has been accredited to all sorts of things. She has critics as well as fans, an upcoming movie and just announced a book on writing tips.
I was browsing Amazon recently and came across a work by Cassandra Parkin, “Lighter Shades of Grey: A (very) Critical Reader’s Guide to ‘Fifty Shades of Grey.” She also has companion novels for the other two works in the trilogy, “Fifty Shades Lighter: A (very) Critical Reader’s Guide to ‘Fifty Shades Darker” and “Lighter Shades Freed: A (very) Critical Reader’s Guide to ‘Fifty Shades Freed.’”
I read a couple of reviews and noting its humor, I decided to give it a try for its unbeatable price of $2.99. I was not disappointed. Parkin takes James to task with biting sarcasm for her writing failures, but also uncovers some serious issues.
Parkin recommends her book for several audiences. First, for those who enjoy the book so they can be aware of the arguments that will come their way as to why the book is so awful. Secondly, for those on the fence trying to decide whether or not to read it. Finally, it’s for those who have decided not to read it and have been asked, “how can you know it’s bad when you haven’t read it?”
I wanted to talk to her further so I contacted the North England native. I’m definitely glad I did. We talked about James’ work, the dangers within toward women, the BDSM element, bad literature, and even tips on writing. Besides these topics, it was terrific to interview her. I found a strong feminist greatly concerned with women’s issues, a great literary mind, and an incredibly talented writer with tremendous spirit and voice.
Besides this work, she won the 2011 Scott Prize for Short Stories for her work, “New World Fairy Tales.” Her novel, “The Summer We All Ran Away“, will be published by Legend Press in August 2013 and she is working on her second novel, “The Beach Hut.”
Here is n excerpt from “Lighter Shades” to give you an idea of its flavor: “Even if you feel there’s something wrong with a world where this book will shortly be outselling bread, it’s hard to argue that ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ isn’t…significant. And a book this…significant…deserves to be subjected to thorough textual analysis. By taking it apart into teeny tiny small little pieces and putting those pieces under a spiteful, mean-spirited microscope, we may all just learn something about the elusive nature of the best seller.
And at the very least, we’ll all get to spend time enjoyably picking holes in the success of others. And time spent having fun is rarely wasted, I think.” (Kindle Location, 55)
Ray: I wanted you to know there was so much I enjoyed about your book: Your writing style, your snarkiness and your obvious love for good fiction. My concern is that people will just see your critique of James’ work as an act of jealousy instead of a clarion call to responsible writing and just an entertaining work of writing in its own right. Have you had such criticism? How do you react to this?
Cassandra: Thank you – I’m so glad you enjoyed the book! It was a lot of fun to write, I have to say.
You’re right, of course; I’ve been accused of jealousy by plenty of people, sometimes in alarmingly vivid terms. I especially enjoyed the lady who described an entire life for me where I’ve spent years scratching away in a garret at some terribly high-brow and pretentious work of literature, rejected by agent after agent and mocked by publishers, and now pass my time by endlessly raging about E L James’s success every day, and drinking myself into a coma every night. (I think she was talking about me. It’s possible she had me confused with the ghost of Ernest Hemingway.)
I must admit, I do find it quite odd that so many people’s instinctive response to me saying, “I think this is a bit rubbish, and here’s why” is to instantly scream “Oh, but you’re just JEALOUS!” Why would I be? I genuinely don’t wish I’d written “Fifty Shades”. If one day I write a book and it sells as well as “Fifty Shades” and I’m also proud of it – well, that’ll be a lovely experience. But if it never happens, so what? Is there a certain level of sales or wealth that entitles us to have an opinion?
R: The phenomenon of “Fifty Shades” is a remarkable thing and you address it well in the opening section. You put aside the idea the popular theory of “mommy porn” being its biggest attraction and show its appeal being its origins with Fanfic, especially its commonality with the “Twilight” series. Since these books have been written, how have you seen the market grow? More books like this have been written, surely. But has the writing gotten better or are readers just settling for even worse written fiction?
C: I think the main impact of “Fifty Shades” has been to bring non-conventional sex into the Romance genre – in the same way “Twilight” combined Romance with Supernatural. We all know that Romance books are commodity items, with hundreds of titles published a year. Collectively, they’re a huge success. But none of the individual titles are bestsellers because they’re written to a formula, and there are so many to choose from.
“Fifty Shades” has created a market for Romance with BDSM sexual content. At the moment, there are quite a few BDSM-themed romances on the Top Ten shelves in the supermarkets, because if you want a BDSM-themed romance, there aren’t that many choices yet. But as the market catches up, I imagine the individual titles will disappear from the Top Ten, but BDSM romances will have their own imprint within the big Genre-Fiction houses. Mills and Boon have a Supernatural Romance imprint, with eight new titles every month. This time next year I’m sure they’ll have the same for the “Fifty Shades” fans.
Has there been a change in quality? I’d probably draw a distinction between bad writing and retrogressive themes. I’m sure the writing will get better, because I can’t imagine any editor willfully commissioning a bad writer to create a Fifty-Shades-A-Like novel when the Genre Fiction field has so many excellent writers to choose from. However, if they stay true to the central theme of the Fifty Shades series – which is basically “Stand by your abusive man, girls, because if you love him hard enough you can fix him!” – then I’ll stand by my judgment of their overall value to society.
R: James’ book, as you mentioned, didn’t undergo much critical editing. Hypothetical question: Do you think an editing process would have helped this book? Or, would it have made it less appealing to the readers?
C: Well, I think it would have made it a lot harder for me and others to laugh at! I don’t know if fewer descriptions of Christian’s well-hung pants or Ana saying “Oh my” less often would have made it less fun for fans, but it would certainly have taken away a lot of what I enjoyed about it.
However, I think what Fifty Shades fans respond to is the underlying theme of falling for a monster, who you then redeem through the power of your love. Women are taught from a very young age that it’s rude and ungrateful to reject male attention – even when it’s offered by someone who is violent, destructive or dangerous towards us. Instead, we should use our power to transform these cruel and undesirable men into our perfect heroes.
When you write it out like that, it’s pretty laughable, and I’d laugh about it myself if this particular fantasy didn’t come with its own verified body-count. In the UK, two women a week are killed by violent and abusive partners – usually after enduring months and years of appalling behaviour. The reasons we stay with men who treat us like this? Because we think that if we love him hard enough and long enough, he’ll reform.
R: One of the major themes of your writing that many reviewers seem to have missed is how Ana is forced to have sex against her will. (Loc. 355, 647 Kindle) Over and over, you mention that Ana has the right to say “no,” whether there is a contract or not. In fact, you note how Ana is even raped and kidnapped. Further, Christian morally justifies his actions. Why are these actions skipped over by many readers or excused? Is it because it is under the guise of a fiction/fantasy novel? What are the dangers?
C: The way I’ve heard it justified is that Christian behaves like this because he’s “damaged”, and doesn’t know how to have a proper relationship. Well, yes; I can absolutely buy that. His childhood was terrible, and a lot of his behaviour is strongly suggestive of sociopathy. How could he not struggle with healthy relationships?
What I take issue with is the idea that Christian can be fixed if he only finds the right woman; and that, because Christian thinks Ana might be the one, it’s then her responsibility to become that right woman. The narrative’s driven by what Christian needs, not what Ana needs. Ana’s “reward” is Christian’s transformation.
For the record, I don’t think this idea comes from “Fifty Shades”. It’s already in our heads, which is why we respond to it so strongly, and why so many people get so angry when it’s challenged.
R: Ana commonly references “Tess of the D’Urbervilles” and compares herself to her. You commonly note that the reference is terrible since the correlation is awful. Tess was raped. But the problems don’t end there. James struggles with the basic use of metaphor, simile, character interaction, and descriptions. At what point did James become responsible for her major errors? If she had sold 30 books on Amazon, I suppose we wouldn’t be having this conversation. Is the real problem James’ writing or the fact that we have a population that doesn’t recognize subpar writing?
C: I think it’s always okay to point out when you think something isn’t very good. How loudly you feel compelled to point that out depends on how big an impact you believe the not-very-goodness is having. If I go to a restaurant and my burger is horrible, I’ll probably complain to the waiter. (Well actually, since I’m British, I’ll probably eat it anyway, pay the bill, leave a tip and then complain to my husband in the car afterwards…but you get the idea.) But if I go to McDonald’s and my burger is horrible, I think it’s appropriate to complain far more publically. A lot of people eat in McDonald’s, so a lot of people might be interested in my experience.
And if people want to carry on eating in McDonald’s anyway, fair enough. I haven’t ever said to anyone, “Don’t buy this book because it’s awful”. I’m just sharing my experience.
R: As a follow up, many people might say, “I don’t care that it’s poorly written. I just like the story.” Should that concern us? Are we a world of undiscerning readers or is it okay to expect less out of our writers as long as the “story” is compelling and titillating?
C: I’m not sure the success of “Fifty Shades” is a four-horseman-style harbinger of the death of quality writing. The succès fou is a very old phenomenon, and the world seems to have survived. If there’s anything that worries me about “Fifty Shades”, it’s what it tells us all about our collective willingness to endorse and even romanticise abusive relationships.
Please stay tuned for part two of this interview.
Cassandra Parkin has a Master’s degree in English Literature from York University, and has been writing fiction all her life – mostly as Christmas and birthday presents for friends and family. She is married with two children, has so far resisted her clear genetic destiny to become a mad old cat lady, and lives in a small but perfectly formed village in East Yorkshire.
Ray Carroll is author of “Fallen Pastor: Finding Restoration in a Broken World.” He blogs regularly at www.fallenpastor.com.