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Taking No Prisoners – My View of Fifty Shades of Grey

Warning:  This article makes reference to sexually explicit material.

By the time I finished the first chapter of E L James’s Fifty Shades of Grey, two things were clear:  everything I’d heard about the writing was true, and it wasn’t going to be a long read.  One of these was regrettable, the other a blessed relief.  I’m not writing this piece as a Book Review because I’m not recommending this title as a good read.  I wouldn’t be able to review it properly anyway because I have no context for it, as I don’t read romance, erotica or pornography.   (After leaving university I turned down a job translating German porn into English.  My life could have been so different…  My reaction at the time was, ‘There are words?’)

I digress.

So this is my entirely personal, subjective view of Fifty Shades of Grey.  You may disagree.  You may think this is the hottest thing you’ve read since the last hot thing you read.  If you are curious you’ll have to see for yourself.  I felt I had to when a friend, following a discussion of Booker prizewinner The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes, no less, said she thought any woman would get something out of it.  I got this article, see?

The trilogyis a global publishing phenomenon, currently occupying the top 3 slots in the New York Times Bestsellers.  The first volume, and subject of this piece Fifty Shades of Grey, is the number 1 bestselling fiction title in the UK according to Nielsen BookScan.  There’s an interesting background to the success being enjoyed by British female author E L James (a pseudonym) – the books were originally written as a online serialised Twilight fanzine under a different pseudonym, Icedragon’s Snowqueen, then all references to vampires having been expunged it went on to sell well in e-book format before being picked up by Random House.  The author is said to be as surprised as the next person at her success, which began not in liberal Europe but in America, and is now spreading faster than you can say sado-masochism.

For that is the subject of these novels.  Student Anastasia Steele meets and becomes entangled with the stunningly good-looking, attractive, gorgeous, copper-burnished, fragrant and above all grey-eyed (because the title wouldn’t make sense otherwise) business magnate Christian Grey.  He tells her he’s no good for her (he’s really not kidding) but she is powerless to resist.  He wants the kind of sex where he is the Dominant, intent on punishment, and she is the Submissive, and he has a luxuriously appointed Red Room of Pain to prove it.

Maybe it’s not considered important in these genres but neither of the main characters seemed real.   Anastasia does scoop the prize for most irritating female protagonist though.  Aged 21 and having never previously experienced even the faintest stirrings of sexuality, she is propelled into a state of such insatiable and constant arousal that it gets in the way of other things, a plot, for example.  Remarkably little action takes place in the Red Room of Pain but a near identical sex scene of a more conventional nature takes place every few pages because although Ana shatters into a thousand pieces/splinters into a million pieces with every orgasm, she then reassembles to do it all again.   As all writers (should) know, sex scenes must be approached with great caution.  There’s a lot to be said for the power of suggestion and letting the reader fill in the blanks with their own imagination.  You can kill it dead with explicit detail – too much grinding and filling and it can end up sounding like A Day in the Life of a Dentist.  This felt to me like it was written by a man.  I have no problem with female sexual desire being explored in fiction (the subject comes up in my book), but I do have a problem with the portrayal of men performing violent and degrading acts on young women who can’t think of anything they’d rather do.  Ana has no self-respect.  In the book blurb this novel is described as ‘liberating’.  Am I missing something?  What’s liberating about being blindfolded, bound and gagged?

Ana is styled as feisty and unsubmissive (for Grey says so many times) and yet she goes along with almost everything he wants, including accepting several extravagant gifts she has just said she can’t accept.  The only thing she won’t do is sign his pointless unbinding contract detailing the Terms and Conditions between the Dominant and the Submissive.  Without the tedious machinations about this damn contract the book would be half the length.  There are interminable exchanges of e-mails so embarrassingly puerile it’s like Anastasia and Grey are about 15 and horribly bad at flirting.   For someone who has spent years studying literature to be as vacuous as this girl is a real achievement, and that’s despite having three personas: herself, her ‘subconscious’ (so shallowly buried that she thinks about it all the time) and her ‘inner goddess’ who appears no fewer than 65 times – thank you someone else for counting, it felt like hundreds.

My inner goddess sighs with relief. I reach the conclusion that she rarely uses her brain to think but another vital part of her anatomy…

That explains a lot.

There were aspects of the story that I presume will play some part in the second and third books.  There are discussions about contraception and Ana not taking her mini-pill at the right time of day – exciting stuff! – if only this had happened earlier in the book we would have been spared dozens of sexy opening of condom packet moments.  There is a trip to Georgia to visit Ana’s mother which seemed to contribute very little – she goes to get a break from Grey, he follows, cue more of the same.  Actually, there was a particularly gross sex scene, come to think of it.

But let’s be honest here.  Most writers dream of what’s happened to E L James.  For all the sneering, mine included, the success of these books is down to people buying them, something to think about as we choke down those sour grapes.  Last week I heard an agent say that other publishers are falling over themselves to bring out a sex series of their own.  So if, in a year or so, you come across A Day in the Life of a Lady Plumber by ‘Stella Belle,’ go on, take a chance.  No inner goddesses, promise….

I’m dying to know what you think – have you read the books, are you tempted or would you run a mile?


As the 4 day Diamond Jubilee weekend and half term approach, there’ll be no post next week, but if you’re looking for a great and topical read, I DO recommend Book Review – Jubilee by Shelley Harris


About Isabel Costello

Writer (novels: Paris Mon Amour 2017; Scent 2021).Host of the Literary Sofa blog. Co-founder of Resilience for Writers with Voula Tsoflias. Perfume lover and Francophile.


43 thoughts on “Taking No Prisoners – My View of Fifty Shades of Grey

  1. Think I’ll pass..couple of reviews in the same vein as yours and a couple of others raved about it…it is so true….it’s what people buy..eg I don’t understand the “vampire” fad that is so popular either, or the “hunger games”phenomenom both from books I believe…oh yes.what is a “sexy opening condom scene”? If I fall onto a copy,might read it just to find out!
    Currently reading Arcadia…I am not rivetted yet,but her turn of phrase is beautiful.. Bit is some strange child..but no wonder..

    Posted by nessguide | May 30, 2012, 11:17
    • Hmm, the phrase ‘different strokes for different folks’ acquires a whole new meaning when you’ve read this book. As for ‘sexy condom opening…’ that was intended to be tongue in cheek. Eek, I can’t say anything now without it sounding filthy! Stick with Arcadia, I would.

      Posted by Isabel Costello | May 30, 2012, 11:38
  2. Like the Hunger Games, I think this book relies way too much on shock value. Its raunchiness is what attracts majority of the female readers. Somehow being a whore equates to female empowerment.

    Posted by George Doctanian | May 30, 2012, 11:22
  3. Interesting review Isabel. One of my friends commented on Facebook that she couldn’t put it down etc. This sparked off a trail of comments from other females all raving about the book so I was intrigued by the hype but not enough to read it, especially after your blog post.

    Posted by helenmackinven | May 30, 2012, 13:04
    • Sorry Helen, I thought I had replied to your comment. I’m intrigued that this article appears to have had a zero sum effect on sales, with half saying they will now read it and the other half being put off. Maybe it’s for the best, I wouldn’t want anyone appearing on my doorstep intent on punishment!

      Posted by Isabel Costello | June 1, 2012, 15:11
  4. Well done. I read it on Amazon preview. It is utter rubbish and an insult to the printed word. There is no real attempt at characterisation or setting (Seattle: 20 storeys would have been big in 1904, try 70 storeys for a “stunning vista”) and the dialogue of the first encounter between Steele and Grey is limpid drivel. I was reminded slightly of the Omen novelizations I read as a youngster, notably the second and third books all with the Thorn Corporation stuff. I didn’t get as far as the erotic element, but it strikes me as strange and exploitative…. I know some erotica writers who work hard at their craft and this is probably an embarrassment to them.


    Posted by iainspaton | May 30, 2012, 13:28
    • Interesting comments, thanks Iain. The flaws in the setting largely passed me by not knowing the area though the students’ original apartment seemed to shift between Vancouver and Portland. Maybe I wasn’t paying close enough attention. (Also, for a British reader, confusing that Vancouver is in USA not Canada, but who cares?) Fancy giving up on it before the sex! You don’t know what you missed. It’s true it takes a long time to kick in, but once it does, it’s pretty relentless.

      Posted by Isabel Costello | May 30, 2012, 15:07
  5. Read all 3! Not the best writing obviously (how many times did she say “He’s so freaking hot” ???) but I confess to being desperate to find out how it all ended. The subsequent books whilst much of the same do explain his obsession and why he felt the need to behave as he did. So overall I enjoyed it for what it was “saucy chick lit” However the author’s premise that she is exploring and blowing the lid off the unspoken fantasies of a lot of women is an interesting matter for debate…but not one I want to have over the internet :))

    Posted by Charlotte Parfitt-Reid | May 30, 2012, 14:11
    • Hi Charlotte Thanks for providing us with your perspective having not only read all 3 parts of the trilogy but having enjoyed it too, albeit I sense with a little bit of ironic distance all the same! Fascinating what you say about Grey, but does that justify his behaviour? Maybe I’ll have to borrow the others from you, I’m certainly not spending any more money on it.

      Posted by Isabel Costello | May 30, 2012, 15:14
      • I think the success in this trilogy lies purely in the fact it is a “Cinderella” story, in the same way that Pretty Woman was. It is a format which has worked since it was first written. P and P was such a story and a book I will love forever! Although ultimately Grey is the one who is saved not Anna. His behaviour was not justified as it was born from revenge and hatred and it was the only way he could express himself sexually and allowed him to avoid the normal intimacy of a relationship. I would happily lend them to you but I have them on my kindle! I suppose for me, I knew it was unbelievable and trashy but I was still suckered in to wanting to know the ending and sadly wanting the happy ending 🙂 even though I recognised what a toxic relationship they had… weird! Ho hum

        Posted by Charlotte Parfitt-Reid | May 30, 2012, 16:12
  6. Well, Isabel, after reading your posts and the other comments here, though I previously picked up Fifty Shades of Grey and put it back down again quickly after reading about half a page in the middle of the book, I may have to read the thing in an attempt to understand for myself why it has gotten so popular. And I hope it isn’t that people, especially women, are so starved of sex that this is the only way they can get it. I’m interested in Charlotte’s comments about hoping for the happy ending and wanting to know how it all turned out. In any case, thank you for a most interesting post. I’m quite intrigued by its success.

    Posted by Kristin | May 30, 2012, 21:30
    • I would give it a few more pages. Usually, I try to give any book at least 25 pages before deciding if it’s trash or not. Again, its appeal is shock value; that trend is growing old in all forms of media. The book is so raunchy and sexually inappropriate, people can’t help but read it as a guilty pleasure at the very least.

      Posted by George Doctanian | May 31, 2012, 06:56
    • You can have my copy when you come next week Kristin! It certainly does provoke some lively discussions.

      Posted by Isabel Costello | June 1, 2012, 10:53
  7. I also read the entire trilogy, and was horrified. http://nicegirlslikesextoo.com/2012/05/14/fifty-shades-of-red-flags/

    Posted by Nice Girl | May 31, 2012, 02:27
  8. Gutted that I didn’t read this before I went out this morning and, on impulse, bought the book from an independent bookshop after reading the blurb on the back cover. Had no idea it was this sort of story; think the cover is very misleading. Would not have bought it if I’d known.

    Posted by Jacqueline Pye | May 31, 2012, 10:57
  9. Great article ! It is such a trashy book and yet quite a compelling page turner. I didn’t find it particularly erotic, the anticipation of what might unfold kept me hooked throughout, I must confess. So many of my girlfriends are reading this book out of sheer curiosity, and it has opened up some really interesting discussions on sexual politics and power play, though I doubt that was the author’s intention. I may however have to see the film for purely guilty pleasure, there is talk of Michael Fassbender being cast as Christian Grey (sex magician extraordinaire). Oh my!

    Posted by Gill | May 31, 2012, 16:10
    • Well if it provokes intelligent discussion on that topic at least that’s something. And Michael Fassbender…. isn’t Grey supposed to be just 27 though? But let’s not split hairs, he is gorgeous! Thanks for commenting!

      Posted by Isabel Costello | May 31, 2012, 17:16
  10. Brilliant and entertaining post, Isabel – think I might give this one a miss! Why on earth do so many women seem to want to read about other women finding abusive relationships acceptable, even sexy? I have nothing against a well-written sex scene, but I find it quite depressing that a book that appears to celebrate controlling, abusive sex can make the bestseller list. Still, loved the review!

    Posted by susan elliot wright | June 1, 2012, 12:38
    • Thanks Susan and I couldn’t agree with you more. Many female readers applaud 50 Shades of Grey for legitimising women’s sexual desires – as I said in the article, it’s the way that is portrayed that I have an issue with. If this really is what younger women want from relationships, I am dismayed, but I suspect it’s all just fantasy and escapism.

      Posted by Isabel Costello | June 1, 2012, 15:05
  11. This review is so thorough, and thankfully, gives the perspective of a writer, which I’ve been hoping for. I keep hearing about this 50 Shades of Grey sensation (even from my mother), but I’ve been wanting to hear the perspective of someone I know who writes. It seems like I keep hearing horrified gasps from the publishing world at how awful the book is. (Even on Kristin Nelson’s blog).

    That said, I still think I have to read this book. I want to read it with a writer’s eye though. If the writing’s as bad as everyone says it is, there must be something there that’s drawing people in, and I’m just dying to find out what it is. Is it just the sex?!

    Posted by Writerlious | June 1, 2012, 16:43
    • Hi Erin glad you found something to satisfy your curiosity in my piece. I’ve just checked out the post and comments (dozens of them!) at Kristin Nelson’s blog – absolutely fascinating so thanks for sharing that! http://pubrants.blogspot.co.uk/2012/05/why-50-shades-of-grey-makes-agent-lives.html. I think several of my own commenters have hit the nail on the head though, this trilogy has shock value and has acquired that kind of hype that makes us feel we’re missing out or ill-informed if we don’t take a look. What I hadn’t appreciated fully before reading the comments on that link above is just how much this book’s success is based on the Twilinght fanzine following it had gained. Thanks for your contribution to the debate!

      Posted by Isabel Costello | June 1, 2012, 17:56
  12. I didn’t think 50 Shades of Grey would be my kind of thing, and reading this has confirmed it. To be honest, as soon as you said their names I was out, they sound like something The Simpsons would make up for a romance spoof.

    I read probably two chapters of the first Twilight book, the writing was awful but for me Bella Swan was as pathetic, submissive and immature as you describe Ana. Definitely not the kind of female character I want to read about, they are just doormats for men.

    Posted by Cariad Martin (@cariadmartin) | June 5, 2012, 15:43
  13. 50 Shades of Grey is all about selling porn under a different disguise. The goal of this type of fiction is only making the almighty dollar and profits. It’s rather sad that the reading audience is that gullible. I just hope that our younger generation of women to do not idolize the main very fictional character. I just found your website trying to find some good summer reads. I can’t wait to dive into your reading list. I was looking at best summer reads and that stupid book was all over it. All I had to do is read the summary and I knew it wasn’t a healthy read. (Garbage in Garbage out) I really appreciated YOUR wonderful analysis. Thank you!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    Posted by Coni | June 7, 2012, 03:00
    • Hi Coni
      What a lovely comment to receive from a first-time visitor to my blog, thank you! The Top 10 Summer Reads has brought lots of new readers which I’m delighted about. No, there was never any danger of 50 Shades making the grade – it was interesting to take a look at it because of all the hype, but generally I stick to banging the drum for good fiction. Hope you enjoy whatever you choose from the Top 10.

      Posted by Isabel Costello | June 7, 2012, 10:26
  14. I totally agree with what you say in this post, and you say it extremely well. Many of my friends absolutely LOVE the book, but they’re the ones who don’t normally read. My ‘writerly’ friends (and fortunately, I have more of them than the other) are turned off by the poor writing, lack of plot, and basic lack of, well, STORY. I did try to read the first book, but was so bored I couldn’t get halfway through. It’s still sitting in my Kindle, but when I finish a book, I quickly either stroll down my list or look on my bookshelf for another, GOOD book. Thanks for the great post.

    Posted by roughwighting1 | June 8, 2012, 22:54
  15. I am a man so that I am officially permitted to give it a miss. Anyway, life is too short… etc. But I find it intriguing that there is a market for professionally translating porn from German and presumably other languages. Everybody who has ever done, any translating knows what a thankless job translating from low quality original text is. What are you supposed to do as a translator: intentionally produce crap text in turn? If you Google foreign stuff you get a “translate it” option. Tried it on some Hungarian song lyrics and the results tend to be a bit odd. Letting such translation software loose on porn (e.g. German) could add some unintended humour and surrealism to the genre. (I am not going to try it for I will not risk getting viruses from dodgy sites). Would “Fifty shades of grey” improve if you processed it with some basic translation software into something approximating German and then reprocessed it back into English again? George Orwell could have thought of it: “Newspeak” trashy novels for the proles are of course eminently suited to low quality machine translations. But good luck to E.L. James who is now shoveling up the $$$$. After all, “nobody ever went broke underestimating the taste of the public” (H.L.Mencken (1880 – 1956); he actually said “the American public”, but it is of course a truth universally acknowledged)

    Posted by Tom Voute | June 12, 2012, 10:44
    • Ha, brilliant comment, Tom! I think doing what you suggest with E L James’s book would probably produce something alarmingly similar to the way it is now. It is of course a very long time ago that that particular job offer came my way. My main memory of it was male friends enthusiastically sharing their extensive knowledge of German obscenities in the pub. They would have been far better at it than I would….

      Posted by Isabel Costello | June 12, 2012, 12:10
  16. We are discussing what is known as “reverse translation”. Queen Elizabeth I was a renowned linguist and translator who was skilled at reverse translations in various languages. This means: you make a translation of the text (from a couple of paragraphs up to a couple of pages at once) from one language into another language. You leave it for a while until you no longer remember it clearly and then you make the reverse translation into the original language. Thus, you get two versions of the text you started with: the original one and the twice translated one. You can compare them for the correctness of words in, grammar structures used, and so on.

    A well known reverse translation is, of course, John Ruskin’s “Unto This Last” (1860), translated by Ghandi into Gujarati in 1908 under the title of Sarvodaya (“well being of all”). It was retranslated from Gujarati back into English by Govindji Desai in 1951.

    But anyway, as long as a mechanical reverse translation of 50SOG does not reproduce the EXACT original text, the process has of course great potential if you repeat it, i,e. you reverse-translate the reverse translation. If you keep doing this you should eventually (perhaps after many millons of times) end up with many interesting texts (as well as loads of useless random stuff) including something which reads as if Jane Austin had written it. (A related concept is all those monkey with typewriters who eventually reproduce all of Shakespeare). We have the technology for, given the translation sofware ( which you don’t want to be too good, but must have a large enough vocabulary), the iterative process is dead-easy to program and with modern computer power you can run in a matter a minutes something which took an anologous biological evolutionary process millions of years.

    We have here a mechanical analogy to what the early 20th surrealists called “surrealist automatism”, or “automated writing”. Another way of looking at it is to say that E.L. James with 50SOG has written millions of embryonic books, some of which could be rather good! (but she doesn’t know it yet)

    Posted by Tom Voute | June 16, 2012, 15:20
  17. Hey, I’ve come over from Twitter… haven’t had time to read all your comments, but I’m just going on my facebook friends/mums in the playground, who are not writers, just ordinary readers. They’ve been raving about it! I suppose if it spices up their life, and love life with their partners, can one complain?

    I haven’t read the books. One friend said I would read the books differently as I have got a more critical eye being a writer… though I like to think myself as a easy going reader. She did say it’s not a ‘literary’ read, it’s soft porn. lol! I confess I do like Charlaine Harris and her vampires – I call it brain candy. It’s pure escapism.

    You made a fair point. Shouldn’t really ‘diss’ the author. People are buying her books, she’s not forcing them. The thing is, if it gets hyped, which does her a favour, and it brings intrigue, and sales. In fact, the more they say how badly it’s written, people will buy it!

    As a romance writer, (though my sex scenes are not as saucy as Fifty Shades Of Grey, and not ever two pages – I write contemporary romance – or at least try to.) I’m afraid we do have to put in the ‘condoms’ which really are passion killers… I think it’s about setting the right message, and that most sensible people do use condoms today, because it’s no longer just about birth control.

    Posted by Teresa Morgan | June 21, 2012, 09:58
    • Hi Teresa, thanks for commenting. It’s interesting to hear your take on this as a writer of contemporary romance. As I hope was clear from my piece, I think everybody has a right to their own taste, and the last thing I want to do is tell anyone what to think. A lot of people are surprised by their reaction to 50 Shades – I was surprised not to find it hot at all, and I wouldn’t have had a problem saying so if I had! I was interested that many who did enjoy it (and are not writers) still thought it was basically trashy, but they took it for what it is. Re condoms, I really don’t think sending right/sensible messages about sexual relationships was on E L James’s agenda – I’m pretty sure they stop using them once she’s taking the pill.

      Posted by Isabel Costello | June 21, 2012, 11:59
      • Ha ha! Actually in Fifty Shades of Grey the condoms really were the least of her worries… I was just saying generally they do kill the passion, and it’s hard to get them into a story subtly so that passion isn’t zapped out of the moment lol!

        But yeah, I agree, each to their own. My friends have found it titillating lol! I do like to have some story to what I read, and if there is sex, it needs to move the plot forward. Or I’ve got to the point, where the writer has teased me enough, I fancy the hero… I want a love scene!

        Posted by Teresa Morgan | June 21, 2012, 13:30


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