If you’re a writer looking for representation, you’ll typically be told by an agent to submit ‘your first 3 chapters’. On those first 3 chapters you rise or fall. The first 3 chapters of 50 Shades of Grey are so insipid you can’t help feel some extraordinary exception was made for EL James.
From a purely plot point of view, the set up in 50 Shades of Grey is solid enough. Ana, our young, effusively self-deprecating first person narrator, is sent by her relatively self-assured, sexually alluring flat mate, Kate, to interview billionaire Christian Grey for the local uni rag mag. OK, this to start with is somewhat incredible, but never mind, let’s roll with it. Ana, short for Anastasia, by the way, goes to see the immaculate, inevitably glacial Grey and, despite tripping over her feet and blushing like a fifteen year-old, she succeeds in making a favourable impression on her interviewee.
In chapter 2 Grey pops up at the shop where Ana works part time. Coincidence or design? Ana wonders. Well, duh. Anyway, more blushing and heart-pounding ensues amid incredulous wonderings from Ana that maybe, just maybe, this 'damn handsome' guy has a thing for her.
The regularity of Ana’s sexual panic and embarrassment leads you to wonder whether she might actually have a medical condition. ‘My heart slams into my mouth…’ What? Again? you begin to ask yourself. At every juncture she pretends to be amazed that Grey is showing nonchalant interest in her. Apparently blind to the notion a man might just want to fuck her. Or even slap her, tie her up and fuck her.
Grey himself is not even as three dimensional as a video game hero. Bizarrely – in spite of being under 35 – he talks like a man whose diction straddles not two but three centuries. “I wonder if you would join me for coffee this morning.” Have you ever heard an American talk like that? He sounds like an English toff with a broom handle up his bum. And does anyone call anyone ‘Miss’ anymore, unless it’s in a letter to your child’s primary teacher?
Grey seems to have two basic modalities: he has a ‘burning grey gaze’ (does grey actually burn?) or a ‘dazzling, unguarded, natural, all-teeth-showing, glorious smile’. Your average male model, then. Fascinating.
Ana is similarly very un-American to my ear. Her diction, her blushing and self-deprecating wit – these are all very Bridget Jonesy traits, surely. About the only American quality to her diction is that she says ‘toward’ instead of towards. Not a ‘gotten’ in sight.
She's also in such a flap about her hormones and blushing it becomes a sort of narrative tick – Oh, crap, I'm blushing again – to keep the reader engaged. She sticks to one note throughout: I might be a bit dumb, but I’m also smart enough to see how silly this all is. This self-deprecating and increasingly predictable and tiresome brand of wit is a very British affair, so why set this story in Seattle?
The dialogue also has this journo-interviews-her-awesome-subject kind of style to it, which is bearable for the duration of Ana's interview with Grey, but grates thereafter. There's also quite a bit of exposition, too, that slows things down; I would have thought an editor would have had this stuff tummy-tucked.
Above all, what is surprising about these opening 3 chapters is the lack of anything remotely erotic about the action or the writing. If I knew nothing of what came after, I would have no notion that we were due to move on to scenes of bondage etc. It’s easy enough to believe Ana might be a ‘submissive’ type, but the problem is, her being such a cliché submissive type puts so little at stake.
By contrast, the submissive protagonist in Marthe Blau’s Submission, is highly intelligent, sophisticated and discerning. So when she consents to being – by most people’s standards – sexually abused by a mysterious, powerful man, a sort of Grey equivalent, but French and therefore truly risque, to whom she is fatally attracted, we are intrigued because she is acting against type and we want to know why.
There is no such intrigue in 50 Shades of Grey. I’m reminded of the few soft porn movies I watched as a teenager: you just wanted to fast forward all the laborious footage of the sexy, languid lead getting in and out of cars, walking through doorways and lounging about with cocktails on a chaise longue and get to the steamy point of it all.
Given the sheer ubiquity of porn on the internet and the fairly universal need for instant gratification, why would anyone read on beyond chapter 3?
Chapter 3 ends with Anastasia stumbling yet again – panicked and flushed, beetroot red etc. – but on this occasion the gallant Mr. Grey catches her in his arms. Just like that. Even your average hack wouldn't dare to put in a scene like this to a low budget romantic comedy these days. She might have been held up but my jaw hit the floor.
OK, so the opening of 50 Shades is not literary, it’s not erotic, there’s little in the way of suspense… so… presumably it all kicks off in chapter 4… right?
For the truly erotic… thrilling… literary… check out "Hi, I'm Luna, I'm a Sex Addict"