My Thoughts On: Fifty Shades of Grey

One Announcement: I’ll be reading poetry at the University of Kansas this Wednesday at 11 a.m. until 12:15 p.m. in the English Room. If you live in Kansas, come out and support some talented poets! 

Back on April 10, 2013, I introduced a new topic, My Thoughts On, and I posted My Thoughts On: Young-Adult Fiction.

I did this for numerous reasons, but it really came down to the fact that I feel as if the analytical structures behind very popular novels do not seem to get discussed anymore. Sure, the plot, characters, and overall story does. But what about the sheer reasoning behind why it became so popular in the first place? I restate this, because I want to clarify that, although theses are “My Thoughts,” they are not my personal opinion on whether or not I enjoyed the novels, but rather why I think they became what they are. And analyzing popular books, especially as a writer, can help anyone understand the mainstream industry (even more so when the book isn’t originally considered mainstream.)

Book cover of Fifty Shades of Grey
Book cover of Fifty Shades of Grey

So I asked followers to comment on what they wanted to hear about, and here were the suggestions (with votes)

Fifty Shades of Grey: 2

Twilight: 2

The Hunger Games: 2

Eragon: 1

And, since there was a tie, I decided to go with the first mentioned novel, and that was Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James. However, I am not going to bother going into description of the novel, as I’m going to assume this conversation is more about the why, and the plot will come out during the discussion.

I highly encourage everyone to comment as a healthy debate, which means, to me at least, to please keep out personal like or dislike (ex/ I hated this novel!) because, again, that is not what this is about. I encourage, however, “I don’t think the novel worked because of A or B, but rather C or D. I hope this makes sense. If it does not, I apologize. But, without further ado, this is my analysis on the popular, English erotica. (WARNING: There are spoilers below)

1. Language: In this specific case, I think it’s really important to remember where this novel came from. It was originally Twilight fan fiction, and it was written on a blog. The author is British, and, when reading this novel, knowing these few facts can change the opinion of the reader. Some of the slang my come across as awkward to American readers, but this is not something James should be judged for. She’s British. Of course her writing will have British terms. Granted, the argument I’ve heard about the setting taking place in America means it should use American slang makes sense. But I can sympathize with a writer, because she was a blogger. It wasn’t expected to get popular, and it first came out in Britain. I’ve read plenty of American books that take place in other countries that do not have that country’s slang.

When it comes to the explicit language, I had no problem with it. After all, it is an erotica (And, again, it’s English erotica, and Britain is more open towards sex than America is.) To me, complaining about sexual language in a British erotica, is like complaining about blunt honesty in a memoir. It’s the point, and it wouldn’t be true to the art without pushing boundaries held within the norm.

2. Characters: To me, the characters were the most important part of this novel and why I believe it went mainstream. James, unlike many erotic authors, had a reason behind the extreme sexuality of Christian Grey. He was abused sexually, and then he was taken under the arm of another woman who was sexually abused. She showed him, through a series of what is legally sexual abuse with a minor, how to control his fears by exposing him to S&M. Granted, he was the submissive, but the explanation given from Grey later (when he talks about how the submissive does not have to worry, because everything is chosen for them) explains how Grey was finally able to relax within his inner demons. (I am by no means saying this is right. However, I am saying it showed a reason behind his actions, and I commend James for creating a believable background story that led up to his present self.) A perfect example of this believability, although sickening, is when Grey confesses to Anastasia that all of his previous submissives, and Anna, resemble his mother. Another example happens at the very end of the three novels when we finally are able to see Grey right after he was adopted. He cannot hug his own adoptive parents, and the woman who takes him under, because he learns how to deal with it, is now able to touch his parents and other loved ones. He is attempting to defeat his problems, even if he isn’t consciously aware of it.

Now, Anastasia Steele. She’s a different story. I found parts of her to be completely contrasting to her behavior and background, especially in the first novel. However, she is an adult, and she can make whatever sexual decisions she wants to make, and she does. Even while being a submissive, James shows Ana’s ability to rebel when it came to the “hard limits” in the contract. This showed a realistic part of her I think many readers forget. However, I think Anastasia becomes much more believable in the end. And, in my opinion, she definitely becomes the dominant one once Grey realizes she isn’t a submissive, but rather a lover willing to be dominated in the bedroom but not in nonsexual parts of life. I think it’s also important, again, to go back to the Twilight fan-fic part. She was based off Bella Swan, a human who dates a vampire. That’s a very submissive role, so Anastasia being submissive is necessary in the sense of who she is based on.

3. Plot: Sex. Sex. E-mails. More sex. An argument. More sex. Everyone knows the basic plot, but I found the scenes between the sex to be the most telling, because that is when readers learn of Grey’s past and such. However, there was one scene to particular that struck me as brilliant, considering the context of sex. I have to admit that I cannot remember which of the three books it appeared in (and I leant my copies to a friend) so feel free to remind me (please!) It’s the lipstick scene. As all readers know, Christian Grey, because of his abuse (specifically with cigarette burns) he cannot be touched on his chest, and Anastasia pulls out her lipstick. She draws “barrier lines” on his body, so she can literally see the places he cannot handle. And, eventually, she breaks through these. This scene, from an analytical standpoint, not only stays true to the eroticism but the emotional boundaries of sexual abuse that I thought the author ultimately succeeded in. Basically, in terms of plot, it seems very pointless at the surface if the reader only pays attention to the sex. But, if someone looks into these scenes deeper, they will see a very dark reality many people struggle with on a day-to-day basis. This is, quite literally, a couple who works through it together, and, ultimately, ends with a connection created from the suffering they’ve endured. Fifty Shades of Grey really isn’t just an erotic adventure, but an exploration of sex under the pressures of extreme sexual abuse and the relationships (and people) effected by it.

4. Movie Adaptations: Seeing as this is not a movie yet (but is in the process) I cannot say much here. But I can say one thing. I hope the directors are honest to the work. I hope it is rated R, as it is meant for adults, and I hope they do not hold back on sex. However, I am not saying every scene should be explicit. In fact, I hope the focus isn’t necessarily just the sex, but the point of the sex, which truly revolved around Christian Grey’s abusive past. I’m afraid they will not explain how he became the way he is, because sexual abuse is often very difficult for viewers. I understand not having some of the horrible scenes (like being next to his dead mother or having S&M sex with an older woman) but my hopes is that they explain it (or at least hint to it) in a way that a viewer who has not read the book will understand. If they don’t do this, I’m afraid the novel will come across as what many already see it as: a pointless S&M novel. And, under analysis, I do not feel this way about the piece.

So why was it so popular? Fifty Shades of Grey pushed through the barrier of erotic fiction by facing a dark reality many struggle with. Instead of only being sexually based, it had a promise. One that suggested there are ways to deal with sexual abuse (Again, I’m not advocating S&M, but rather showing a specific way one couple was effected by it.) And, because of this, the appearance of a simple plot deepened into a complexity many erotic novels have not done before. It was also based on an already popular novel, and she gained many older followers that way. Hence the mainstream.

I hope you enjoyed a more specific “My Thoughts On.” Feel free to suggest more novels in the comment section and/or debate away! I love hearing what other readers and writers have to say. It’s fascinating, and I thrive on meaningful conversations that can potential show the meaning of art and where art can go in the future.


P.S. Don’t forget that my young-adult novel, Minutes Before Sunset, is now for sale for $6.99 (plus a 20% discount until Wednesday)

There’s also an array of favorited quotes on Goodreads: two examples below

“Her kiss could kill us, and my consent signed our death certificates, selfishly and without control. (Eric)”

“I knew nothing of death, and, for some unexplainable reason, I was beginning to feel guilty for that. (Jessica)”

Thank you for all of your support! This release week has been very exciting! And Bogart is very happy you enjoyed all of his tips. I promised I’d post his collection of toys he’s received:

Bogart's pile of toys he collects in places on a regular basis.
Bogart’s pile of toys he collects in places on a regular basis.

25 thoughts on “My Thoughts On: Fifty Shades of Grey

  1. Hey Shannon, interesting analysis – thanks!

    I would add that one of the reasons 50 shades became popular was that it came at a time when technology made it more possible. What I mean is that when it went viral people had already started doing their reading on electronic devices such as Kindle. This meant that people (mostly women, who the book was targeted at) could read it on the way to work or in a coffee shop without anyone knowing what they were reading.

  2. Hi Shannon, excellent analysis of the book; I think you’ve been fair and objective. I only read the first novel of the series and I’m not tempted to read more. I know there are some strong human themes in there but the repetition in the language and situations put me off. I didn’t want to spend any longer in Anastasia’s head. I can imagine there will be theses written about the success of the trilogy for many years to come.

  3. In terms of the slang aspect, I do think it shows some laziness on the part of the writer. I remember looking at American slang in school (can’t remember what book we were doing), and I ended up finding a British vs American list of the words used in Harry Potter and the American translations. I thought it was fascinating, but it still jars me that someone thought every British word had to be changed for an American audience. (In that, I feel like it’s an underestimation of an American audience.) Anyway, I digress. If I have a character that’s American, I try to make them use different words than British characters – cell rather than mobile, sidewalk instead of pavement, and in one thing I’m working on at the moment, the British characters end up in America. To me, it’s fun to play around with the different slang – like having a British character ask for a fag (cigarette). I think, if you’re going to set something in a different country, at least try to ground it in that country. The same as you would if something was in a fantasy or period setting.

    Anyway, great blog post, and I think you did a good job of exploring the reasons behind its popularity. Good luck with the book release! (And I’m going to throw my vote in for you to talk about Hunger Games. Because I think there’s a lot of interesting things to discuss with that and I would love to see your thoughts on it.)

    1. I agree with you on the laziness. Yes, James is a British author, but if she wants to write a story centering on American characters, I think she has a responsibility to get the dialogue and geography right. Americans don’t say “pram,” they say “stroller,” and this is just one example. The geographical inaccuracies also drove me crazy. With Google Earth available at the click of a mouse, there’s no excuse.

      I made it through the 6th chapter of the first book, then gave up. I couldn’t connect with the characters, and the writing and poor editing was what ultimately turned me off.

      1. It’s something that always annoys me. It’s really not hard to get things like that right, especially with the internet and, like you said, Google Earth. I haven’t even tried to read the book; I wasted time on Twilight, which I did read all the way through and felt like it was time in my life I’d never get back. A Twilight fanfiction just…no. Nope. Not going to touch it.

    2. That argument is one I’ve heard that I completely understand. It’s reasonable and makes sense.
      Thank you for the good luck on my book releasing May 1st! It’s going great so far, and I’m excited for the paperback to come out soon. :]
      I’ve added a vote to The Hunger Games for next time

  4. I haven’t read 50 Shades Of Gray, but my friend showed me certain extracts from it and I remember being somewhat underwhelmed.

    I just don’t feel any desire to read it.

  5. Oddly enough there is a discussion amongst a few of my friends on Goodreads at the moment on FSoG. One person made the comment that she didn’t understand why the publisher didn’t do some proper editing. I read a lot of unedited Advance Review Copies of books and what I read has a lot of the things criticized in FSoG but they are generally fixed in editing.
    I actually quite liked the book. Aspects of it annoyed me (her Inner Goddess, her subconscious and those e-mails). The writing was a little clunky but I’ve read much worse…lol, read anything by Kristen Ashley if you really want to see clunky writing. The thing I really don’t get is why people love it hate this book so much. It just seems (to me) that some of the reactions are a bit over the top.

  6. I never read it or have any intention of reading it, but it sounds like there is a level of guilty, secret pleasure. The idea of reading a naughty book seems to appeal to certain demographics. The reason I’m so baffled on its popularity is that everyone complains about the horrible editing and repetitive word usage. Subject matter aside, one should at least try to fix the quality of the writing.

  7. I’m sorry. I missed the voting post or I would have weighed in. I see why you went with this. I do think it’s important to understand the need behind its popularity. Some books sell because they fit a need readers have. Like Charles said, the series is a guilty pleasure. Perhaps people want excitement and connection.

  8. Thanks for one of the few truly useful analyses I’ve seen of the FSOG phenomenon . SInce it’s almost universally believed that the actual writing was pedestrian and flawed in many ways, something obviously worked for the novels to become best sellers. Subject matter, certainly, but your analysis suggests some connection on a deep level with the abuse subplot. Maybe that’s why so many women liked this book. They identified with the abused character because perhaps they were abused or know first hand of someone who was abused.

    1. Thank you for the thanks. I often think most people get too caught up on the petty things that went wrong to see the things that went right (not necessarily for everyone, but for a majority of people.) When people find out I’m an author, I’m almost always asked what I think about these novels, and when I say these things I hear “I didn’t think of that.” So I thought it’d be a good idea to see if anyone else is out there, thinking it or thinking something else I’ve never heard of. Analyzing novels like this, like I said, is important in terms of understanding art and the industry.

      1. Sometimes I can learn more from a “bad book” than from a “good book.” Haven’t read FSOG and probably won’t just because my reading list “to read stack” is way into double digits.

  9. Thank you for applying analysis where many writers just can’t go. I am one of them. There are too many well-written books in this world that I would rather take the time to read, ones that show me how to be a better writer through example, not necessarily popular, but better. Good luck with your reading and book sales!

  10. I wrote a post on this too… my problem with a lot of people and this books is like you said… they complain about the sex and the very explicit scenes… but if you don’t like that then just don’t read it… I don’t like zombie books… so i’m not going to read a zombie book and then complain that there was just a bunch of gross zombies in it… the thing is i really enjoyed these books when i read them… but i went back to read them again and i just couldn’t… for me there were so many scenes in the first book that made my stomach turn that i just couldn’t put myself through it again… but when i was first reading it i did appreciate the author of really showing it and pushing the limits… you can’t say this is a book about S&M and then not have S&M in it… but that’s another thing… i think people think you should only enjoy this if you’re into that kind of thing… but i love reading books about different ways of life… it’s like reading about magic… i can’t do magic which is why it’s so interesting to read about… I don’t do S&M so it makes it a whole new world to explore… but i agree also that what really made this story for me was the background… learning what makes Grey tick… and the fact that Anna never really was a submissive… she had the gumption to stand up to him… to make things on her terms… she didn’t just give in and in many ways i think that makes it much different than twilight because Bella wanted Edward no matter what he did… Anna wanted Grey too but she actually dumped him once and she made her own demands… so I think it shows a really strong woman who knows what she wants but isn’t willing to sacrifice herself own beliefs for it…

    1. I really enjoyed you analysis of Ana! I think you made really great points, especially about the comparisons of Bella and her. I also thought she was much more capable than Bella and, in the end, a very strong woman.

  11. I think this book mainly became popular due to sheer curiosity. I borrowed the books and I didn’t even know they were originally a fan-fic till about a few chapters in and I said to myself “Man this is exactly like Twilight” and then I read other reviews which said it was a fan-fic. People were reading this book and recommending it, and letting others borrow their copies that it started to get a buzz going and suddenly it’s a top seller. I don’t think it became such a great hit due to the writing at all. It was very repetitive and if you just read the book as is, the sex scenes were often repeated too, just different backgrounds. I didn’t go much into analyzing this series, I just read them, as I feel like a lot of the people who read them did; just read them not looked deeply into them. When you look deeper, then it is a better story as you have shown me through your examples above. Overall, I’ve read worse books, but I don’t think it should have became a #1 seller either.

  12. It took me a long time to read the book, but I’m glad that my curiosity finally got the better of me. I agree with most of your analysis, although as an Aussie I didn’t pick up on the slang thing at all! Christian is a character with so much depth and even though he’s “50 shades of fucked up” and does some pretty horrendous things, he’s so likable because you come to learn about all of the horrible things he’s survived that have made him the way he is. I hope, like you, that they can include as much of that in the film as possible because that’s the real story; that’s what I was fascinated to read about.

  13. I haven’t had any interest in reading FSoG and didn’t know anything about it other than the fact that it’s erotica of some sort. This was interesting and enlightening. I still don’t have any interest in reading it. Especially if it’s Twilight fan fiction. I am with wonderinggrace on the fact that I felt like I wasted part of my life reading the Twilight series (as a favor to a friend who idolized it and was writing her own fantasy novel that I was editing.) I still can’t wrap my mind around the Twilight phenomenon.

  14. Thank you for a solid analysis that finally helps me make sense of this phenomenon. As someone familiar with actually BDSM and S&M as practiced in the real world, I just couldn’t get passed the many inaccuracies and the places that the relationship crossed the line from consensual BDSM to abusive enough to actually read this thing (and the writing didn’t help either. I am horribly sensitive to poor writing and phrasing).

    Given what I know of BDSM and people who practice it, I wish that it hadn’t been necessary to create an abusive past in order to have a believable and sympathetic sadist/dominant (and of course James and most readers conflate the two…), but given mainstream culture it probably was necessary and I expect you are spot on in your analysis.

  15. Shannon – Your analysis shows a deeper understanding of human nature and various degrees of erotica than most possess at a twenty-something age. And your writing is most articulate; you will have much more success in your future, I’m sure 🙂

  16. Really it’s all about the money. The book is poorly written and characters quite unbelievable (Really, a Billionaire and a college girl with no computer?) I couldn’t get past 10 pages and put it aside. Kind of an insult really for writers out here struggling to perfect the art.
    They accomplished what they wanted. Start a controversy and make lots of money. For every reader that hated it there was another 15 bucks in their pocket, or whatever it cost.

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