Fifty Shades of Absolutely No Way

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Screw it, I’m going to write a whole post on 50 Shades and why I hate this book so damn much.

Content warning: rape, sexual assault, bdsm, misogyny.

The movie is about to come out, starring actress who hasn’t had enough of a career to ruin as Ana Steele and Jamie Dornan, only slightly watering down his misogynistic serial killer role from “The Fall” as Christian Grey. Beyonce is doing the soundtrack! Sexy, right?

WRONG.

My issue with this book is not the sex. Not essentially, anyway. I have no beef with a sexy sex book being popular. Even a sexy sex book featuring chains and whips and all that Rhianna stuff. As long as my Mum doesn’t start reading it, I’m fine with it. I have an issue with the way sex is presented in this book. Western society already has a less than healthy attitude to sex and consent (rape someone, get two years in prison before a return to football!) as well as virginity and female sexuality. The way sex is presented in this book is so warped and damaging it amazes me it even got published. Seriously, Catcher in the Rye got banned and 50 Shades shot to the top of the bestseller without a problem?

Christian Grey is a sexy dominant CEO who has very particular sexual tastes which include having total control over his partner. Ana is a young innocent virginal sort who seems to know fuck all about anything including how to use a computer despite having just graduated from college what the hell…

Anyway I’m losing track. BDSM is a thing some people do, and as long as it’s between two consenting adults who know exactly what they’re doing its fine and groovy with me. But Christian Grey is more than just a “Dominant”, he’s a dick. Ok, let me be more eloquent and insightful (that’s totes why you’re on my blog right?). Christian Grey is patronising and controlling, not in a sexy way in a flat out abusive way. At the start of the book Ana gets drunk (for the first time! another thing she’s hopelessly and unrealistically naive about!) and Christian TRACKS HER PHONE and turns up to stop her from being assaulted by her friend and takes her back to his lair. House, I mean house. He blames her for nearly getting assaulted, as she was drunk. So far, so awful. Later, he gets pissy when she tells him she is a virgin later rather than sooner. As it happens it’s none of his damn business if she’s slept with the president (Kirsty MacColl reference!) or of she’s never even spoken to a guy before. Then comes the sex contract. Ugh. He offers to ‘negotiate’ with her, then ignores her genuine concerns and belittles her for not being down to get down on his terms.

It gets worse! He buys her a laptop, in the typical “you are now indebted to me” abuser tactic, and they email each other on it. She jokingly fake breaks up with him and guess what he does? He turns up to her house despite never having been given her address, and he rapes her. She explicitly says no, she tries to kick him off, she even tries to work out the easiest way to escape her room. He makes her feel like it’s her fault because he’s an abuser and then he leaves her and she starts crying. The book continues in this pattern. He intimidates her, belittles her and abuses her. This not a romance. This book is an exploration of domestic abuse.

All the red flags are there. I wouldn’t mind if the book picked apart the mentality of someone abused by a parter. It would actually be quite subversive and cool to start it off like a typical romance and slowly reveal to the heroine and the reader that it is in fact an abusive relationship. If Ana was slowly having to come to terms with the fact that Christian is a terrible person and she should in fact stay away from him (as he so angstily insisted in the start of the book), this would be a really important and groundbreaking piece of work. Instead it’s a romanticised story about straight up rape and abuse. It’s also massively popular. Swathes of people are obsessing over it, you can buy “keep calm and obey Mr Grey posters” and the world is just generally going to shit.

Those are my objections as a woman, a feminist and a human being with a functioning heart and brain. I have yet more objections as a writer and reader. Ernest Hemingway says that all you have to do to write is “Sit at a typewriter and bleed”. E.L James writes like she sat at a typewriter and drooled. Twilight was bland and occasionally cheesy, 50 shades is laugh out loud terrible. Here are some actual quotes:

“His voice is warm and husky like dark melted chocolate fudge caramel… or something.”

“My very small inner goddess sways in a gentle victorious samba.”

“I can tell from his accent that he’s British.”

“Why is anyone the way they are? That’s kind of hard to answer. Why do some people like cheese and other people hate it? Do you like cheese?”

“I thought it was chocolate hot fudge brownie sex that we had, with a cherry on top. But hey, what do I know?”

A bestseller everyone. It pains me as someone paying nine grand a year to be a better writer that such half baked rubbish is doing so well. Not even for myself and my own snobbish bitter-writer angst, but for every struggling author who’s ever agonised over the perfect metaphor or had an existential crisis and thought of themselves as the worst writer of all time. It’s painful to see a book with such bizzarely bad prose as 50 shades do so well. However I will try to look at the positives. If 50 shades can get a published trilogy and a movie deal, so can any crap I write. I may not be Margaret Atwood, but at least I will never ever be E.L James.

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Bad Romance

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Cartoon – Kate Beaton http://www.harkavagrant.com/index.php

I am a terrible writer in that I have definitely not read enough books. I was really bookish as a kid but when my true passion for movies took over I became far more picky and read far less. However my last two New Year’s Resolutions have been to read more and I have been catching up.I have actual opinions about books now rather than just superhero movies.

One genre of both movies and books that I’ve always held at arms length is romance. I’ve never actually been in love, unless you count unrequited affection for actors and singers (Morrissey for life), so for one I felt they were not for me. I’ve always seen them as cheesy and mass produced. Mills and Boon and formulaic romantic comedies have ruined my perception of the genre. A fun game my Mum told me about is to read the ridiculously floral and exotic names of the characters in the summaries of Mills and Boon books (ten points for a ‘Cassandra’). The romantic subplot has always been a tacked on feature of most movies, mainly to prove the inevitably male hero is straight and to provide him with extra motivation and a reward at the end (write to me for more film based gender studies rants). The entertainment environment I am so engrossed in has enough to make me cynical and unaffected when it comes to fictional romance.

Recently, however, I have dipped my toe into the world of classic romance in the form of our future ten pound note gracer, Jane Austen. I watched both major adaptations of Pride and Prejudice and read the book. I have now moved on to Emma. I found myself reacting to Pride and Prejudice exactly as women have been reacting to it for centuries. I laughed, I swooned, I fell slightly in love with Mr Darcy. Ok, a lot in love. He’s a major babe. And I feel a connection to Lizzie. The bolshy (scouse word meaning sarcastic and rebellious) second daughter of a female dominated family, the marriage resistant cynic, the girl who prides herself on being a good judge of character yet is sometimes blinded by her prejudgement, I can relate. She is flawed and three dimensional, as is Fitzwilliam Darcy.The “they hated each other at first” trope has never been better or less trope-y. I wanted them to get together, I booed Mr Whickham, I felt Darcy’s anguish when Lizzie rejects him. The question is, why did I have this reaction to THIS romance?

To explore this I am going to compare the book to my two least favourite in existence, Twilight and 50 Shades of Grey. Beginning with Twilight: I picked up the book as a teenager with every intention of enjoying it as much as my peers. I have since been accused of “hating it because it’s popular”, but that has never really been my way. I tried to read it BECAUSE it was popular! I was in the target market, the premise was gripping, every girl my age loved it, why wouldn’t I? Some things are popular for a reason. I found that I couldn’t find a reason to read it after around 10 chapters and returned it to the library, much to the shock and disbelief of the girls who recommended it to me.  I have since been told things like “ooh how can you know it’s bad if you didn’t read the whole thing?” and “it gets good in the second/third book, you just have to give it a chance. To the first I say if a book doesn’t grip me within 10 chapters it is clearly not worth my time and online extracts and those terrible movies have since proved my original Lizzie Bennet style dismissal. To the second I reiterate: if a whole book isn’t enough to grip a reader then it is badly written. The first thing you learn about creative writing is to hook the reader in the first sentence. My problems with this book could take up a whole dissertation but I’ll attempt to cover them in one paragraph.

Firstly I found both the main characters utterly un engrossing. Bella Swan is a dullard. She moved to a town of her own volition and complains about it constantly. Her Dad is perfectly nice to her and she is dismissive and cruel to him. Similarly the kids at her new school are friendly and kind to her and she mocks them, ignores them and treats their attempts at friendship like harassment while playing the “ugh I’m such a lonely outsider” card. She is also two dimensional, she doesn’t really have a character beyond complaining about everything, allegedly reading a lot and being clumsy. Ah, the ‘clumsy’ trope. Take an infeasibly perfect yet character free character and make them clumsy. Hey presto! You have a relateable! Flawed! Female! Character! As an actual clumsy person it irritates me when this pain-in-the-arse trait is played off as endearing. No one ever made eyes at me after I smashed a plate or bumped into a chair. Also what irks me is her total dependence on her vampire boyfriend Edward. The romanticising of codependency has never been worse. She goes into a deep depression when he kind-of breaks up with her. Similarly he attempts to kill himself when he hears sketchy reports of her death. This is not a healthy romance, it is two unstable people using each other as crutches. And as for Edward, I think he is not just a bad character but a dangerous one. Darcy’s unfortunate legacy is the “brooding serious guy”.  Edward is controlling, abusive, humourless and possessive. He watches her sleep. HE WATCHES HER SLEEP and it is played off as a romantic sign of his utter devotion to her. That is my main problem with this series. Teenage girls are being taught that such behaviour is romantic and not emotional abuse. He basically loves her because he wants to drink her blood the most, which is the strongest metaphor for an abusive relationship I have ever come across. The two never banter, or have fun, or enjoy each others company much. They stare at each other and brood. This isn’t a story about love, it is a story about dangerous obsession.

I thought it wasn’t possible for me to hate a book more than Twilight. Then came 50 Shades of Grey. The demon spawn of Twilight. The hastily written and seemingly unedited and unrefined fanfiction of Twilight. I could write a book on how abysmally it is written and the cardinal sins of writing it commits but for now I’ll focus on it’s dreadful story and characters, which make Twilight look like a seminal exploration of love.  Ana is so dull and one dimensional I hated her within the first page. She stands at a mirror and complains about being skinny and having big eyes, as though they are bad things to have. She complains about her friend being ill and leaving it to her to take this once in a lifetime journalistic opportunity to interview a billionaire. She is unrealistically out of touch with the world and bafflingly naive. I refuse to believe a modern college student does not own a computer and has never gotten drunk. It is simply not possible. And as for Christian, whom the authour Evil. L James described as a better romantic hero than Mr Darcy, I have never hated a fictional character more. He is abusive, manipulative and takes advantage of Ana’s worrying and unrealistic innocence. He treats her like crap and all his awfulness is dismissed and excused  with a “bad childhood” backstory. He’s just so tortured, you see, he may treat her badly and have the maturity of a stapler but it’s only because he’s so deep and dark and tortured! And again their romance is one of unhealthy obsession and emotional instability. And once again an abusive relationship is being highly romanticised and sold to the masses in undoubtedly the worst written anything I have ever come across.

Compare these books and those like them to Pride and Prejudice. When Lizzie brutally rejects Darcy he neither begs for her acceptance nor spirals into melodramatic sadness. He explains his actions politely and says he will never bother her again if that’s what she wants. The line “Forgive me, madam, for taking up so much of your time” would never be spoken by a Christian or an Edward. Even after admitting his deep love for Lizzie and being told he doesn’t have a hope in hell and she hates him, he takes it graciously. He doesn’t harass her or cry “but I’m a nice guy!”, he doesn’t resent her. Even after saving her family from ruin and more than redeeming himself, he tells her that if she still doesn’t want to accept him he will leave her alone. THAT is maturity. That is a healthy romance. That is where the swoons are. Not “I must have you and I can’t live without you”, a respect for the other person’s wishes despite a deep attachment. Similarly, when she sees who he really is and falls for him she believes it to be too late and attempts to move on. The tension comes from their unwillingness to bother the other against their wishes. Neither of them see each other through rose coloured glasses. On their first meeting Darcy disputes her status as a beauty and refuses to dance with her. She knows his flaws and publicly calls him out for them. In fact, that is one of the reasons he falls for her. Their relationship is not a constant boring cycle of telling each other how great they are, and that’s why it’s healthy. Lizzie is a woman who isn’t afraid to stand up to him and can clearly think for herself. She is not a submissive waif who will bow to his every whim. She’s a bit of an idiot herself, jumping to conclusions and having every confidence in her assumptions about people. She has an over zealousness I and many others can relate to. The romantic element doesn’t come from seeing each other as perfect and ignoring the flaws, it comes from seeing the flaws and loving them anyway. Similarly in “Emma” the hero Mr Knightley is described early on as the only person who ever criticises Emma. She is bossy, proud and interfering, her romance with Mr Knightley is based on the fact he can get her head out of the clouds better than anyone, not on his constant praise and obsession.

These romances are human, realistic, healthy and take place between flawed and relateable people. The obstacles to their romances come from their own faults and miscommunications, not from ridiculous outside sources infringing on their perfect, argument-free relationship. Their physical beauty and personalities are not exaggerated or unrealistic, and the circumstances of their getting together reflect real life. The reason I and other people love them so much and why they endure is because we can see why they are suited and we can imagine it happening in our own lives. Darcy is such a dreamboat because he is such a gentlemen even in his lowest moments. Lizzie is such a babe because she is every bit as smart, witty and interesting as Darcy thinks she is. Not because he regularly declares it despite a total lack of proof for the reader. They aren’t self insert fantasies, they’re real people.

Kindle in the wind

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I got a Kindle a few Christmasses ago mainly because I don’t yet have the money or the space for the Beaty and the Beast style library I always dreamed of, and also because I have to give my Dad specific instructions of what to get me or I’ll end up with all kinds of random stuff. The ebook was a pretty inevitable development when you look at the rest of our modern technology, but what fascinates me is all the debate and near outrage that has sprung up around it. The Giles-from-Buffy types have made it very clear they don’t like what’s going on. As a child of the 90’s I’m fairly comfortable with the technology of the age (except at a recent pub quiz where you had to download an app to play along rather than use pen and paper…that was just weird) but this argument over paper vs pixels goes far deeper.

The first bad point you can make against the ebook is what it does to bookshops. In the cafe I used to work at I remember a woman complaining about her failing business as I guiltily read my kindle on my break. Bookshops are magical places, peaceful places and they joy is in the browsing. It would be a genuine tragedy if their numbers continued decreasing in the wake of the digital book, both for the people who run them and the rest of us. It has always been a small dream of mine to actually work in one, but that might have something to do with the comedy Black Books and the fact that they are never open that long and you don’t have to wash any dishes (I have had five different waitressing jobs). On the other had every time new technology takes over businesses suffer. The printing press ruined the party for Monks, and by party I mean solemn vows of silence and fasting, mass production ruined many trades and if it weren’t for hipsters the record shop would have gone extinct in the wake of the ipod (alas, poor Blockbuster, I knew him well Netflix). Is a sentimental attachment to the we’ve-always-done-it-this-way idea simply foolish? Is there any use in trying to preserve the humble bookshop? Are we just preventing the changing world? I would argue that bookshops and paper books don’t necessarily need to die out like so many vinyl shops. Like I said they’re still magical places and the beauty is in finding something you weren’t looking for. Kindles are good if you’re after a specific title, bookshops mean finding rare gems. Or even finding old dictionaries with 200 year old signatures on the first page, or rare prints that are beautifully worn. I think as long as there are romantics and hipsters there will always be bookshops. Or at least as long as girls like me are watching Beauty and the Beast.

One of the things that sometimes annoys me about the pro-book side of the debate is the occasional snobbery. When people badmouth the ebook they can sometimes give of the impression that they care about the concept of books rather than books themselves. If you’ve read War and Peace on an ebook you may as well not have read it at all. Its about the smell and the cover and the bookmark and how clever it makes you look. Surely the ultimate value of books is in the words. as long as I’m reading it who cares how right? So much anti technology debate involves the “dumbing down” argument, surely this cannot be used against the ebook? I’ve read books I otherwise wouldn’t have read because of cheap and easy download. Free download sometimes. I’m reading the author and that’s ultimately what counts. Like I said I don’t have the money or the space for a beautiful library with leather bound first prints. I would if I could. I already have a small ikea bookshelf fit to bursting. Ebooks allow for acces to work that students and other skint people might not always have had. The same philosophy behind Penguin Classics can be applied – good books made available. There can be a distinct impression that fiercely anti ebook people prefer to keep reading the preserve of those who have the time, the space and the money. Arguably it takes the pretentiousness out of being an avid reader. You could be reading Austen or Stephanie Meyer, who knows?! That being said the anonymity of the ebook means trashy awful hell books like Fifty Shades Of Grey get a zillion times more success than they deserve. I am partially on the side of the book snob.The paper book does have a beauty to it you just can’t get from its digital counterpart. My Mum handing me the most dog eared copy of “Eggs, Beans and Crumpets” by PG Wodehouse that had been passed through three generations and fell apart while I was reading it has no romantic equivalent in the digital world. But books shouldn’t just be about the romance of fireplaces and leather armchairs and herbal tea, they should be about the words first and foremost. What I have noticed too is the upsurge in re-released copies of classics with beautiful covers. Book designers now have to step up their game. They make excellent gifts and keepsakes, you can read the book digitally, fall in love with it and buy a gorgeous new print of it to treasure. Not to mention all the rainforests we’re saving.

As an aspiring writer I suppose it would be far nicer to see a hardback copy of your work with that nice new book smell the ages fabulously into that lovely vintage book smell, but like I said, the words are most important. However it would be nice to have the best of both worlds, the far reach and easy access of the digital book with the romance and the beauty of a paper copy. Ultimately whichever path leads us to become a nation that reads more is the one I choose.