There was once a time when white people condescended to rap music:
A lot of times it seemed like the thinking was something along the lines of it was probably relatively easy to string together rhymes along to a vaguely rhythmic beat, thus rap was less important and more dismissible. This was back before the Beastie Boys were considered artists in their own right. This was back when you could "rap" by saying "My name is [blank] and I'm here to say . . ." and then rhyme something with "say" because the long "a" vowel sound is one of the laziest rhymes in the English language.
Anyway, point being, sometimes genres are deceptively simple. You never want to think that [X] medium is easy to do because that's exactly when you will realize that it's so basic, it's actually quite difficult to master. Haikus are probably like this. So is abstract art. You've probably heard someone say something along the lines of, "My four-year-old could do this!" Except not really. Except if you're talking about Ad Reinhardt, who is a freak-o charlatan creep.
Which is to say, you might find yourself reading a book, say, something along the lines of E.L. James' Fifty Shades of Grey, and say to yourself something along the lines of, "Jeez, this Mommy jerkoff fantasy genre is a fucking goldmine — we could absolutely do this!" Except that you can't. Writing something this inane is actually pretty difficult to pull off, and requires a lack of self-awareness that few actually possess.
Sometimes it's fun to read a book that is part of the cultural conversation or whatever. Sometimes it's a kick to read "trashy" things. Maybe you enjoyed Cecily von Ziegesar's Gossip Girl books. Perhaps you once killed some time on some beach or lake with something Nora Roberts shat out in a few weeks time. Maybe you snickered at the rapture porn of Left Behind. Maybe you even knew someone who got sucked into one or more of the Twilight novels.
And sometimes it's just a tedious slog through hundreds of pages of poorly written shit that you can't for the life of you see what the appeal is. It's depressing when you get to this point. Why are people reading at all? What is it about paragraphs, capitalization and punctuation that appeals to people? Why do bookshelves take up so much room in our homes? It's sort of like how Lana Del Rey sounds.
In fact, so much of Fifty Shades of Grey seems like Lana Del Rey. Fifty Shades could be the Lana Del Rey of popular fiction. Where did this come from? Why are so many of us reading it? Why are they going to make a movie out of it? It's just so fucking terrible . . .
How bad is it? For one, it suffers from that problem seemingly inherent in trashy books which is that it seems like it's a first draft. That's not the absolute worst thing, though it is a lot of what makes it such a slog to read. Who uses the word "clamber" at all, much much less 23 times in a book? It's distracting after a while. I had to look up "taciturn" because, well, I think the last time I saw it was during a SAT prep course. Then there's the Shift-F7-ness of the sex scenes: ". . . my thoughts are in riotous disarray. Wow . . . that was astounding." Or "The pressure is building slowly, inexorably inside me." Or "His breathing is mounting, his ardor . . ." Wow, hubba hubba — this could be the hottest use of the thesaurus this side of that porn site synonyms.net.
But the part that really drives home — hammers home! — the idea that it's a first draft is lines like these: "The pleasure was indescribable." Never, ever trust a writer who says something is "indescribable."
In some ways it's really cool to read a first draft. It's a straight shot into someone's mind, long before the better sense of editing or an editor comes into play. Can you imagine how interesting it'd be to see a first draft of The Corrections or Everything is Illuminated or something like that? They probably read like complete shit. I'll say this much: Those pussies hide behind "editors" and whatever. Not this lady.
In some ways you want to preserve all these quirks because they are what makes the book, or at least they are what makes the book so homespun. It's funny to read Britishisms peppered throughout the text: A "DIY" instead of a "hardware store," talk of "prams," a world where stepdads are actually distracted by MLS matches ("I call Ray, who is just about to watch the Sounders play some soccer team from Salt Lake City, so our conversation is mercifully brief"). In a way, it's kind of like the author is telegraphing that she's out of her element.
Which is useful to remember when people talk about how Fifty Shades is somehow bringing BDSM to the masses, because I'm pretty sure this is not what BDSM is about. I don't know what it's about. I don't care to know what it's about. Nothing seems more boring than tying up people and "torturing" them them with feather dusters or whatever the fuck people use. But I have a sense that BDSM isn't about men beating on women and then three-thrusting themselves to sleep. Seriously, if you omit the two or three "sexy" times when the characters "make love," the rest of it is a bunch of pound-pound-pound-squirt scenes where this carnal novice of a character somehow gets sexually satisfied. It's ridiculous. And when something is "hot," it's Q.E.D. hot, like "Why is that hot?" or "Jeez, this is hot" or "Demeaning and scary and hot" or "it's hot, freaking hot" or "He's harder, intractable . . . hot." If you say a word too much it sounds pretty ridiculous. "Hot" sounds like a bubbly moss roof or something similarly dopey. At any rate, so much of the book is "hot" because the character says it is. Which gets absurd after a while. Especially when nothing is particularly hot.
That's especially the case with the main character, Christian Grey. His only real defining features are his "molten gray" eyes. Other than that, he sounds like a real creep, who, if it weren't for his money, impressive girth and voracious appetite for breakfast, would just come off like a sanctimonious, humorless dick. But this is sort of nitpicking: Christian Grey's desirability is because the author says it is. Maybe the book is "smart" that way: "Fwachoo!" goes the whip! You will think this character is hot! Mama, so so hot!
But I guess "Christian Grey" isn't really the focus more than "Anastasia Steele" is since she's our guide into this "kinky" world. But she's also kind of unlikeable. All through the book — which, I should get out of the way right now, is just part one of a trilogy — she's complaining about how this aloof sexhound who is into BDSM and commands his submissives to sign non-disclosure agreements is somehow being less than forthcoming in their burgeoning relationship. As Angelina from the Jersey Shore once said, "Um, hello, are you fucking stupid?! They're taking their underwear off in the fucking Jacuzzi! Are you dumb? Hello!?" Or something like that.
We could go on — and on and on — but let's let it go. All of it. The product placement (who or what did Twinings have to blow to get mentioned six times in this thing?). The "long index finger" that, like Chekhov's gun, induces foreboding and fear. The ridiculous anthropomorphization of Anastasia's "subconscious" (I think she means something along the lines of "superego," but I can't quite tell for sure). The absurd elevation of WSU's Vancouver campus into some hallowed center of learning. "Charle Tango." The author's insistence on referring to a vagina as the character's "sex." "Right now, Miss Steele, I couldn't give a fuck about your food" (Location 6332 of 14900). Christian Grey "pouring" himself into Anastasia Steele. The wetness!!!! The list seems endless.
No, instead I'll close out with a couple of small points. One, the book works best when it's seen as a brutal indictment of the U.S. higher education system, degrees like "English" in general and the corrupt and decrepit intern-read-work-for-free racket that exists in the post-collegiate world. In short, Anastasia Steele is a perfect submissive because she's a high-achieving English major who has been trained for only one thing in her abbreviated life, which is to please others — specifically the world of publishing, which seems to be her one and only goal in life until Christian Grey's long index fingers come along. It's a subtle point that's lost alongside all of the groan-inducing sexalogue, but I held on to it.
Two, as a new father, I made a mental note not to spank my son lest he ends up some sort of Freudian example.
Three, and most important, Fifty Shades was originally written as as Twilight fan fiction, which underscores just how fucked up — "fifty shades of fucked up," as Anastasia Steele might say — the premise of Twilight is, and how hard it will be to walk back that whole thing. Because what's happening here is a character-for-character distillation of what that story is really about — an emotionally abusive stalker. In that sense, Fifty Shades might be the most important book of the year. Aw, fuck it — I'll just watch the movie. But it better star Matthew McConaughey, reprising his role as David Wooderson in Dazed and Confused. And maybe Zooey Deschanel as Anastasia. That lady should really be spanked. Hrm. Maybe I could get into this after all . . .Posted: April 20th, 2012 | Author: Scott | Filed under: Books Are The SUVs Of Writing | Tags: "Fwachoo!" Goes The Whip, A Snide Ad Reinhardt Reference, A Snide But Not Necessarily Uncalled For Lana Del Rey Comparison, Book Club, Fifty Shades Of Fucked Up, Haiku, How Major League Soccer Is A Lot Like Fantasy Role Play, It's Just So Easy To Hate On Zooey Deschanel, Jonathan Franzen And Jonathan Safran Foer Are Both Tremendous Pussies, Never Ever Trust A Writer Who Says Something Is "Indescribable", The Enduring Cultural Import Of The "Three Men" Franchise, Thesaurus Sex