Clutch Book Club: 50 Shades of Grey

by Tami Winfrey Harris

50 Shades of Grey is to literature what cotton candy is to food–of little substance, but fun for a moment and too much of it will make you throw up on the Tilt-A-Whirl.

After reading the E. L. James’ juggernaut  that has caused such sturm und drang in the publishing world and among the media commentariat, I am frankly shocked that what amounts to essentially beach reading, seasoned with some spanking, merits so much attention.

If you’ve missed the clamor, 50 Shades is the first book of a trilogy that began as thinly-veiled, digital, Twilight fan fiction and became a New York Times bestseller. It follows virginal, new college graduate Anastasia Steele as she becomes drawn into a relationship with troubled but handsome, young magnate, Christian Grey, whose mysterious background has left him unable to be touched or form intimate relationships, but has endowed him with a taste for bondage and dominance. Over the course of the story, the pair deflower each other. Grey more literally, as he introduces his young girlfriend to sex and the life of a submissive. And Steele, as she takes her powerful mate to a level of intimacy he once thought impossible.

Right. From what I remember of those Harlequin romances I used to read in the seventh grade, 50 Shades is essentially one of those with more explicit sex. It’s not particularly well written. James will never be mistaken for Toni Morrison…or even Zane. It’s full of worn tropes: Beautiful young woman thaws the heart of cold, powerful, older man, natch. I’ll give it this, though, for a book filled with pretty traditional displays of male dominance and female submission, it illustrates what consent looks like very well. (Hell, the book actually includes Grey and Steele’s multi-page consent CONTRACT.) From an inclusion perspective, which is important to me, the book mostly erases the existence of people of color and the GLBT community. And, for people who are into BDSM, it must rankle that this book associates that sexual preference with trauma. But y’know cotton candy isn’t particularly nourishing.

50 Shades is a trifle. I know it is a strange book review that remains ambivalent, but I feel about this book like I feel about the movie Dark Shadows, which I saw a few weeks ago. It was enjoyable enough. I’m not recommending it. I’m not NOT recommending it.

If should come as no surprise that unsubstantive entertainment can also be popular. Cotton candy movies are one of the joys of the summer. So, why is it news–and to some people, problematic news–that 50 Shades is topping the bestsellers list?

Some say it’s the book’s dubious origins and that it’s not very good. I call bullshit. I’ve read many a popular book that I thought was weakly-plotted, shabbily-edited, poorly-written gash. I think the furor is about women and sex. The clue is in the derisive label that follows the book around–”mommy porn.” There is something America finds squicky about a broad cross-section of women, including suburban mothers and women of a certain age, digging on highly-sexualized content. What’s with the special term “mommy porn,” anyway? Are we to believe that mommies’ approval somehow diminishes porn? Is “mommy porn” less legitimate than “regular porn?” Daddies have been known to watch skin flicks and read Playboy, does their porn get a special designation?

There is so much policing and interrogating of women’s response to this book. Elizabeth Titus, who admits she has not read the book, wrote at the Ms. Magazine blog:

When I had three friends to dinner at my home in Connecticut, I asked if they’d heard of this book. One, a publishing industry veteran, rolled her eyes and said, “Oh, yeah, that’s all over the media world. Mommy porn. What are women thinking, when they could lose the right to abortion and birth control?” Another, a personal trainer, told how one of her clients, a stay-at-home mother, said the book changed her life. She was well into the book and enjoying it. The third, a psychologist, was as clueless as me.

Why would “older” women respond to this preposterous-sounding book?

In Newsweek , writer Katie Roiphe reckons that 50 Shades’ popularity reveals modern woman’s secret desire to be dominated.

Because, you know, women can’t simply have the agency and awareness to say, “I want to read an uncomplicated, stupid book right now” or “I like sex and get turned on by reading about it” or “Y’know, I find a little consensual dominance hot”– particularly not those poor, misguided souls in the Midwest and suburbs, or the olds. (Yeah, there is East Coast, urban and ageist condescension heaped with the sexism in some critiques of the book, too.) Women readers are not smart enough to recognize the places where 50 Shades is problematic, while liking it anyway for what it is. They must be dumb enough to mistake 50 Shades of Grey for smart, meaningful fare, like rubes who don’t know the difference between cotton candy at the state fair and baked Alaska at Le Cirque.

I enjoyed 50 Shades of Grey enough to pick up the next book in the series, but I never dreamed I’d spend 1,000 words defending it. Perhaps I’m really defending myself and other women who read the book and didn’t hate it, or actually loved it, or whatever. Because a lot of the eye-rolling at this book feels like the usual attack on women and the things women like and the usual underestimation of our ability to know our own minds.

For the record, along with 50 Shades, I’m also reading The Trouble Between Us: An Uneasy History of White and Black Women in the Feminist Movement . And I understand which of these books has more intellectual value.

  • Toppin

    I honestly don’t see the big deal about this series of books. This white woman (and I guess now other white women will follow) is writing what Zane wrote 15 plus years ago. Then to top it all off I read that this author ripped off the Twilight series with her characters.

    ON that note, where is the film for Addicted (the one and only book by Zane I actually liked)???

  • Toni

    Noooooooooooooooooo

  • Laugh

    I got this book right before all the hype so I made sure I didn’t read anything to spoil the plot. So I’m reading and reading I’m getting to almost page 60 and I’m like ok I don’t get why this book is a big deal I mean when your reading a great book you should know by damn near page 100 why it’s so fabulous! Then I got to the porn, bingo you mean to tell me THIS is why the book was getting so much attention? It was creepy to me when he took her to his place and showed her his bondage room and made her sign a contract. It creeped me out. Sorry but there is nothing romantic about that I kept thinking girl you better run out of that house! Needless to say I stopped reading there and put it under my bed don’t think I’ll finish it either.

  • Isis

    Everyone I talk to raves about it. I will read eventually to see what the hype is about

  • http://method2hermadness.blogspot.com girlformerlyknownasgrace

    I dont think I can read this book. I dont mind rough-housing but i am scared of BSDM.

  • http://www.myblackfriendsays.com myblackfriendsays

    I’m not reading this book. Even people who like it say the writing sucks.

  • cocochanel31

    my book club introduced this book to me and i liked the first one and it left me wanting more, however, the second one is dragging and a disapointment. I just want them to get to the point of what REALLY happened to Christian as a child and stop dragging it out! CAnnot figure out for the life of me what the third could possibly be about and why she felt the need to write it.

  • lostluv224

    Its just entertainment. Not everyone wants to feel like they’re in Literature 400 every time they pick up a book, and this is coming from an english major. Sometimes you want something that makes you call your girl mid page and say, “girllllllll wat the hell!!”.

    I just started 50, but by chapter 8 I was calling my girlfriend and saying what in the hell lol.

    I really don’t care if its well written, edited, politically correct, etc. If i can visualize what im reading– Im good

  • Isis

    Lol those are my sentiments too. This kind of reading is pure entertainment. People make things deeper than they should be sometimes

  • http://www.whattamisaid.com Tami (Writer)

    I agree! Honestly, I was beginning to think I was the only person who occasionally indulges in bad literature for fun.

  • lostluv224

    LOL people be fake deep and act like they dont get a thrill out it. Loosen up!

  • http://method2hermadness.blogspot.com girlformerlyknownasgrace

    cant speak for everyone else but for me, it is about the fact that I dont think I am turned on by violent sex.

  • Ms. Pillowz

    Exactly. But I’m mad that she said that it isn’t as well written as Zane?! Say what? Zane is a horrible writer! I loved Addicted though. I might have to read that one again.

  • Ms. Pillowz

    My bad. Misread that.

  • michele

    check out the tumblr 50 Shades of Suck, apparently there’s a scene in the book where he does something with her used tampon.

    No thanks.

    There are plenty of good black writers out there that do great erotic romance.
    Support them

    thatisall.

  • Natalia

    Uuuuuuunnnnnnnnnhhhhhh…. I wasnt supposed to read this book. First of all, I always find myself reading a book that is either extremely crappy, or has a following of extremely fangirl-y hoard of teenage girls waiting for books like that to come out. Well, this one was a mixture of both, except the squealing fangirls are middle-aged housewives. My brain literally poured out of my facial orifices when I got to achem, those parts. And this poorly written dribble actually has deals with TWO movie companies, Focus Features and Universal Studios or whatever.If a fanfiction got all that buzz, I guess I should start on my BDSM Sparkling Vampires and Mexican Werewolves Who Paint in Seattle fanfiction.

  • Natalia

    Unnnnhhhhh… People find the worst things to get all squealy fan-girly about. I will admit that I read the book, but when it got to achem, “those” parts the mind r**e was too much and I deleted the ebook that I (dumbly) paid $9.99 for. And this dribble is actually being picked up by Focus Features and Universal Pictures. Well if a thinly veiled Twilight fanfic can get buzz like that, then I should start writing my BDSM Sparkly Vampires and Mexican Werewolf who Paints in Seattle fanfic of a fanfic…

  • http://www.whattamisaid.com Tami (Writer)

    “I guess I should start on my BDSM Sparkling Vampires and Mexican Werewolves Who Paint in Seattle fanfiction.”

    I am intrigued by this premise and certain that the resulting book will be better than the latest Charlaine Harris Sookie Stackhouse novel. :)

  • http://roslynhardyholcomb.com Roslyn Hardy Holcomb

    Thank you Michele for speaking up for black erotica writers. Check us out, there are lots of us. You’re bound to find some of your flavor. Bridget midway does BDSM if that’s your thing. Sienna Mynx, Lena Matthews, Eve Vaughn, and a plethora of others are holding it down in this genre. Regardless of heat level; historicals, paranormals or scorching hot contemporaries there are black women writers who will blow this book out the wter, just give them a try.

  • http://www.whattamisaid.com Tami (Writer)

    @Roslyn,

    Thanks for this list!

  • http://www.thesolepursesuit.com/ Fab from thesolepursesuit.com

    The book is not good. point.blank period. I read them all however. The story isn’t BAD…but the author is not good. She is not a writer. She was not ‘stealing’ it but it is ‘Twilight’ fan fiction so she stole a lot of things from the book. I mean–it’s even set in the same city!

    It is light and trite. However, if you have ever read any romance novel, every character is typically an archetype romance novel character.

  • http://www.thesolepursesuit.com/ Fab from thesolepursesuit.com

    ..I also do not understand how this will be a film. I skipped the sex scenes. They weren’t that good. She also uses the same phrases OVER and OVER. idk how this got past an editor.

  • binks

    I haven’t read these books yet, but I heard so much about them, some good reviews and some bad. I might check it out but I’ am afraid it has that “Twilight” hype which was another series that I didn’t really enjoy except for book 3. Personally, I read great erotic romances stories online for FREE by unpublished authors (mostly black women…who seriously need to be published!) that I generally don’t bother checking out this genre anymore in stores because these online authors spoiled me…lol

  • http://Www.blackgirlmd.wordpress.com Blackgirlmd

    Ummm… That was a weird book review but it sounds to me like you liked it LOL

  • CHE

    Who cares?

    Has any one ever read Toni Morrisons *Paradise*?

    It reads as a warning or cautionary tale for Black women to me but really I could never make heads or tales of it. Does anyone have any insight?

    Thanks.

  • Tami

    I ordered the book today just to see what all the hype is about. I’ll give it a chance but I usually don’t like what I lot of people claim is good.

  • lostluv224

    To me the sex isnt the appealing part. Its actually the relationship aspect that has me calling my friends saying “waaaat!”

    The need they have for each other beyond the sexual.

    There is actually a pretty good storyline.

  • http://www.womanist-musings.com Renee Martin

    This book outright depresses me. It is so poorly written that I cannot for the life of me understand how it got published in the first place. I don’t see how random house can ever say no to another aspiring author after green lighting this hot mess.

    I disagree on the consent. It is clear that Christian creeps her out and that she does not want to participate. She only signs the contract because she is afraid of being alone.

  • Mocha

    Seems like you didn’t finish reading the book…she does actually have strong feelings for him as he does for her. Ana is actually very head strong and hardheaded…which is why Christian is attracted to her in the first place (really trying to not make this a spoiler….)

    I’m about to finish book 3 soon (reading it on the kindle. it’s a little over 700 pages O_O). Besides the fact that the editing is HORRENDOUS (really, who let this go through to print??) the story is sweet. 2 people finding themselves when it comes to love. The two have never been in a relationship before. It’s like Beauty and the Beast (kind of)….with BDSM.

    Now, if you aren’t into or opened to the possibility of BDSM then this book may not be for you. If you’re anal about how the book is presented, then this book isn’t for you (you really have to look past the grammatical errors). But this is a nice, simple summer read that may or may not open you up to sexual experiences that you’ve never thought of. Hell, you might even see yourself in it (I know I’ve seen myself in Ana sometimes…with my sarcastic subconscious and my willing inner goddess **spoiler**).

    Love it or hate it, 50 shades has taken America by storm. I still prefer Zane and my other Black erotica writers but I gave this book a try (considering I hardly read White authors) and fell in love with their roller coaster of a love story…

    …besides, I’m reading this through a psychological lens and Christian intrigues me :shrugs:…

  • http://www.whattamisaid.com Tami (Writer)

    Thanks for commenting, Renee!

    Yeah, I disagree on the consent thing. I did not get that Ana was “creeped out” by Christian. (Though I would have been.) She found him intimidating, but was also attracted and intrigued by him. I think those are legitimate feelings that adults do have in relationships. But the reason I think the book gets consent right is:

    - Christian is honest about his desires within the relationship. We may not like his desires, but he is open and explicit about them from the first moment, giving Ana the opportunity to walk away immediately.

    - As a couple, Ana and Christian negotiate for what they want. Ana sets hard limits for what she will and will not do. She clearly explains what her deal breakers are and pushes back on some of his. The couple puts their agreement in WRITING.
    I don’t recall that Christian dishonors any of Ana’s wishes.

    - Ana consents to nothing without much thought and questioning. She sets firm limits as to when she will participate in the sub-dom relationship. Again, Christian honors those.

    I’m not sure what else we can ask for in terms of consent. In actuality, I think Ana is allowed more agency than we see from the female protags in many of the urban fantasy books you and I read.

  • Harper

    The books AREN’T the best written books ever – duh – I think we can all admit this but in truth if you bother to read the WHOLE story i.e. the trilogy you will GET it. This is all about how it is Ana who has all the strength and it is her love that brings Christian back from the brink of all his demons and childhood trauma and it is her love that heals him. All the while she learns how to experiment sexually and trust, all the while setting the boundaries SHE wants. SHE has all the power. Despite what people say it is the sub in a BDSM relationship that has the power. SHE says what IS and IS NOT allowed. Ana and Christian develop a beautiful loving vanilla sex life and add a little BDSM PLAY to their life. It becomes a truly beautiful powerful love story about two people changing and growing to make it work … it’s not just mommy porn. The story has real merit despite some of the poorly written prose. Call me addicted.

  • http://www.suggestivetongue.com Lorelei

    I like this writeup on it. I enjoyed all three books, read them quickly like a beach read, and was done with it. I did break it apart a little bit and talk about the image of BDSM in the book (for people who aren’t familiar with sub/dom relationships it may perpetuate a negative stereotype) though honestly… I agree. There wasn’t much in there to get too worked up about. Then again, I don’t take these things too seriously. I read it for what it was, and didn’t expect anything more. If I were to read it with zero knowledge of what a healthy, safe, respectful relationship (sub/dom or otherwise) was, it might have been a bigger issue? I don’t know.

  • R.

    Perhaps you didn’t quite examine the text as closely as you should have.

    To answer your criticisms, point by point:

    1) The text of ’50 Shades of Grey’ is laden with repetitive “no, he’s not gay” jokes which come off as increasingly homophobic rather than ‘funny’ (if any sort of “he’s not gay” joke can legitimately be funny).

    2) This is not alpha male, “dominate me, baby” porn. Anastasia is repeatedly frightened of Christian and scared of the BDSM he wants to perform on her; he never gives her a chance to say yes. You claim “god forbid women be allowed to admit they like consensual dominance” — well, peachy keen, jelly bean, but Christian Grey is not a consensual performer of BDSM. The author clearly did about 5% of the research into the subject before deciding to hijack it to write her Twilight fan fiction.

    3) You assure your readers sarcastically that of course “[w]omen readers are not smart enough to recognize the places where 50 Shades is problematic, while liking it anyway for what it is.” But that’s kind of the point, isn’t it. Not all of them *are* aware of why and where it’s problematic. They’re either being mocked because “oh, it’s just porn” or the people who are defending them are simply saying, “so what, if they want to read trashy books, let them!” Do you yourself realize how condescending *your* attitude is? No one is explaining what is “problematic” about these books to the right audience. By all means let consenting adults do whatever they want and write whatever they want, but *consent* is an issue, and Anastasia Steele, like Bella Swan before her, has no agency or consent. She is simply the trophy and the source of Magic Healing Sex for Christian. But god forbid we try and have an educated discourse about why I feel this is problematic, because then I get accused of being a hysterical feminist. Yes, women can tell you that “Twilight” and “50 Shades of Grey” are silly and stupid, but they can’t enunciate for themselves *why* either book is silly or stupid, and that’s the real problem – because if they *were* able to get beyond “silly” or “stupid,” if they *were* able to learn the difference and gain the knowledge, they wouldn’t be calling it “silly” or “stupid,” they’d be making sure that nothing that dumb gets published again.

    In short, no educated person who responds to “50 Shades of Grey” with disgust is or should be doing so because of the sex factor. It’s not dumb because it’s porn. It’s infuriating because it’s misogyny, homophobia, and ignorance masquerading as porn.

  • http://www.whattamisaid.com Tami (Writer)

    R,

    - I agree with you regarding the “He’s not gay” foolishness.

    - I disagree on the consent issue and I explained why above in a reply to Renee.

    - My problem is that a lot of the [good] criticism you raised is NOT coming up in mainstream or feminist analysis of the book. It’s all *eye roll* “mommy porn” and the cluelessness of older, Midwestern women this and fan fiction that. Many of the folks voicing their concerns haven’t deigned to read the book, even in part, which leads me to believe that a lot of the hand wringing is more sexism than concerns about the same. Nuanced discussion of homophobia, consent and gender tropes and all those things are right and good things to talk about, but that’s not the discussion most people are having about 50 Shades of Gray.

  • http://www.ericabunker.com Erica B.

    Harper, your review was perfectly on point. I don’t know how anyone can accurately even review “50 Shades of Grey” WITHOUT first reading the other two in the trilogy. You have to read the COMPLETE story or you just won’t get it.

    Now if anyone wants to write a review on the entire trilogy, I’m down for that discussion. There were gaping holes and a few things that made absolutely no sense. It was as if the writer had become bored with her own story and wanted to quickly wrap it up.

  • http://mygothicfreckles.blogspot.com Le Siren

    If you read the comments on the Ms. Magazine article she actually ended up reading the book, because a commenter told her she shouldn’t be reviewing something she never read and she found it to be absolute trash. I do not agree disliking this book is an attack on women, for a book itself is misogynist.

  • http://kelly.hogaboom.org Kelly

    Tammy, you nailed it. Thanks for a great piece.

  • http://juniysa.blogspot.com J Serens

    I am reading the original fanfiction version of 50 Shades of Grey and it is Twilight front and center. Even some of the phrases the male lead says is exactly pulled from Twilight.
    I honestly think more of the criticism stems from the fact the story started out as Twilight fan-fiction and was published rather than it being a social critique on BDSM.

    Once again though, support up-and-coming black erotica writers (like me..)

  • Liryc

    This is my sentiment exactly. I am reading “The New Jim Crow” and I needed something to take my mind away from becoming a revolutionary.

    Its entertainment, which is what this books does it entertains. I really enjoyed this book and I am enjoying reading the final book in the series.. People used to make fun of the Twilight series but now its ok…

    Lighten up people.. relax yourselves.. its just leisure reading!

  • Mary

    Loved it!

  • yoda

    Seriously, what did people like about 50 Shades?? The heroine is lame and boring and that grinning idiot of a hero bored me within the first 5 pages.

    And my objections are not about sex or BDSM, Tami – Ellora Cave stories are a fabulous turn-on and they don’t stop at doms and subs. My objections are about poor writing, silly plots and an inability to engage the reader.

    Mommies, if you want to read good erotica to turn you on, read Angela Knight or even J R Ward – not this drivel. (That said, I’d probably write something as badly as this if I turned from reader to writer, so good first effort, author, or whateva.:)

  • Jen

    Brilliant: “Because a lot of the eye-rolling at this book feels like the usual attack on women and the things women like and the usual underestimation of our ability to know our own minds.”
    I just read the book, went on-line to find some intelligent discussion about it, and now I know about Clutch. Thank you.
    For the record, I too found the book formulaic, a turn on, homophobic, entertaining, misogynist… and in the end, most interesting to me as a pop-cultural phenomenon.

  • http://www.complicatedmelody.com diana

    I love the books! I was addicted to each page. Even after reading the whole trilogy, I’ve been rereading some of my favorite scenes. I hope they make a movie of it. Ian Somerhalder is the best Christian Grey! :)

    Read my review here: http://complicatedmelody.com/content/fifty-shades-trilogy

  • Tits McGee

    “Because a lot of the eye-rolling at this book feels like the usual attack on women and the things women like and the usual underestimation of our ability to know our own minds.”

    Leave it to a feminist to take eye-rolling as an attack on women. Grow up. This book is strictly for idiots. Knowing your own mind doesn’t make your mind any less frivolous, vapid or tasteless. The eye-rolling and ‘underestimation’ of the modern female mind is ‘usual’ for good reason — because the best-seller lists are clogged with mindless shit like this ALL THE TIME, and who’s responsible? Women. If you think for a second that men are reading this garbage, think again.

    I used to work for a dating website, and got to see hundreds of ‘Favorite Books’ lists every day, and while it’s clear to me that women read more than men, women almost invariably read fucking awful books. Do you think that crap like ‘The Perks of Being a Wallflower’ and ‘Everything is Illuminated’ became famous because men read them? No. Only a woman would compare the former to ‘Catcher in the Rye’.

    Face it, gals. You’re gullible. You’re predictable. Countless ‘authors’ have made entire careers out of knowing exactly what you and your lame book clubs will lap up and throw money away on. The fact that you try to justify your abysmal taste after the fact with a typical feminist “my prerogative” shrug, doesn’t make you any less stupid.

  • Sarah

    I loved this book, I live alone so some nights I would take it out my bedside stand along with my vibrator, this book really turned me on but became Abit to much with the bondage and the pain inflicting, but overall not a terrible read you just have to go with the flow and maybe, if your on your own play with your self I’m sure you will get the full potential out of the book :)

  • ka

    Hey I just wanted to draw peoples attention to the film called The Secretary. It came out in 2002 and featured James Spader and Maggie Gyllenhaal. It may be coincidence but the title character was called Edward E Grey and it feels all to similar to the movie

  • Tami (The Betrayal)

    I read upto page 260. I thought the book was ok. Just brought it because of all I’ve been hearing about it. I enjoyed Ana & Christian’s relationship. They truly loved each other. That was the part that turned me on the most–that they were both willing to go outside theirselves to please another…that’s sexy.

  • Q

    OMG! This book is sooooo bad! I love reading. I liked the Twilight books and I’ve read them way more than watching the movies (but of course the movies are never as good as the books). So, I also write Twilight fanfiction as well. Way better than this. Yall should try out the Marketplace series. or books by Shayla Black and Maya Banks! You’ll love them.

  • http://www.ladyornot.com rebecca2000

    Yes, I wrote an funny editorial on my website Ladyornot.com cheering her writing. My post is for those that haven’t read it more than those that have. I broke down the word count of how many times she repeated herself. You should check it out.

  • http://www.ladyornot.com rebecca2000

    I didn’t finish either. You should check out my blog poking fun of the writing on Ladyornot.com

  • Tha Leader

    I didn’t like nor dislike the book. She doesn’t write as good as Zane to me and quite frankly I’ve read better books of this genre.

  • http://sincityvampiremom.blogspot.com Penny Mancuso

    If you like mommy porn with a vampire twist, check out this book I just read “Sin City Vampire Mom” where the heroine Cynthia gets kidnapped in the 1950s, turned into a vampire and then spends her life trying to recreate the family she had to abandon. She also realizes in the 1960s that she can live by having sex because blood is hard to come by and she thinks it’s gross, but now she is married and has to go through everyday trying not to get caught being an adulteress while dealing with her blood cravings, being a wife and raising teenage girls. It’s Sex and the City meets Desperate Housewives meets Bewitched, sexy but also very “mommy”, I loved it!

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