I love bad movies and can watch them all day, but only professional obligation could persuade me to read a terrible book. Accordingly, since no one’s offered to cross my palm with a silver in exchange for the effort, I’ve never read Fifty Shades of Grey. What I’ve heard about it suggests that it’s a sophomoric treatment of S&M culture that would only be worth analyzing in terms of what it suggests about cisgendered middle-class wish-fulfillment.
But people can and do spend time on this thing, especially now that a movie’s about to come out. (If the movie’s laughably bad, I may watch it at some point.) And there are differing levels of criticism. Some knock Fifty Shades for its approach to its subject, while others content themselves with picking at its style and grammar issues.
Allison Van Nest of Grammarly has produced an infographic explaining why the latter branch of criticism will probably fail to lead us anywhere worthwhile. (visit grammarly.com/grammar-check)
To be fair to language critics, one area this infographic doesn’t cover is bizarre, ill conceived metaphors, like the one Washington Post critic Ron Charles pointed out in a Tweet yesterday.
“My subconscious is nervous, anxiously biting her nails.” – #50Shades So Anastasia’s subconscious has nerves? And fingernails…?
Yeah, that’s pretty bad.
But while picking on E.L. James for literary offenses like this is fun, it does feel like taking a long, sharp knife and aiming straight for the capillaries. It strikes me that the more promising criticisms of James’s work have to do with how the popularity of the approach to BDSM she’s peddling reflects our attitudes toward sexuality and power relations between genders. For an introduction to that, I turn the time over to Laci Green.
As you can see, there is something to be gained from taking a look at why the Fifty Shades version of the BDSM lifestyle is the one that gained mainstream currency in the 2010s. We can use the book as a window to America’s fantasies and desires. If James’s approach to them is unhealthy, cliched, or sexist, we can better our understanding of sexist tropes as they manifest themselves in our bedrooms. It may not give us the same smug satisfaction as pointing out E.L. James’s sentence fragments, but it does increase our odds of learning from her work’s deeper flaws.