At the wedding of an old friend, back in April, I was sat next to another old friend and his wife during the reception, and this friend’s wife asked me if I’d read a particular book.
“It’s called Fifty Shades of Grey,” she said. “It’s amazing. I just can’t put it down.”
I’d never heard of it, but the way she spoke about it placed it somewhere between Harry Potter and L. Ron Hubbard’s Dianetics in terms of “obsessive readership”. Like some demonic commercial product in a 1980s horror film (a Larry Cohen or John Carpenter movie, I’m thinking), the book’s popularity spread until, just a few weeks back, I was sat in a car with my two aunties, both in their 60s, while they discussed it.
“I’ve heard it’s very saucy,” said my Aunty Pam.
I’m not sure “saucy” is the word I’d use. Though I hadn’t – and still haven’t – read it from beginning to end, “saucy” is how I’d describe Barbara Windsor’s bikini top flying off in Carry On Camping. Not a novel with at least one scene of anal fisting.
Anyway, like I said, I’ve still not read the whole novel, so you might be wondering why I consider myself qualified to pass judgment on it. Maybe you’ve read something I’ve written and wonder why I consider myself qualified to pass judgment on any novel. Either way, I’d like to point out I’m not judging the type of novel that Fifty Shades sets out to be. There is plenty of room for popular fiction, for trashy fiction, for erotic fiction. What I object to is bad writing.
“But who are you to say it’s badly written? It’s sold billions of copies!” Says the exaggerating straw man in my head. “How many books did you sell?”
“Ouch,” I reply. “You’re my straw man. No need to get personal.”
Others, real people, have asked me why it’s badly written, what makes it badly written. Is it that it started life as Twilight fan fiction? Certainly not. As I’ve pointed out in a previous blog, the history of fan fiction is a long one, and encompasses everything from Virgil’s Aeneid, through Henry Fielding’s Joseph Andrews (a kind of spoof sequel to Samuel Richardson’s Pamela) and Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea (a prequel to Jane Eyre).
Is it that it was initially self-published as an e-book? Again, no. There are many genuinely good self-published authors out there, but they are people who have actually worked hard and practiced their craft (or who were born with an innate talent) and who are particularly good at self-editing.
No. The problem with Fifty Shades is one of mechanics, of the basic engineering of almost each and every sentence. The reason I haven’t read it past page 4 is because it hurts my eyes.
Here’s the opening paragraph:
- “I scowl with frustration at myself in the mirror. Damn my hair – it just won’t behave, and damn Katherine Kavanagh for being ill and subjecting me to this ordeal. I should be studying for my final exams, which are next week, yet here I am trying to brush my hair into submission. I must not sleep with it wet. I must not sleep with it wet. Reciting this mantra several times, I attempt, once more, to bring it under control with the brush. I roll my eyes in exasperation and gaze at the pale, brown-haired girl with blue eyes too big for her face staring back at me, and give up. My only option is to restrain my wayward hair in a ponytail and hope that I look semi-presentable.”
Obviously the italics are mine, but I’ll go through this sentence by sentence to demonstrate what I’m talking about.
- “I scowl with frustration at myself in the mirror.”
Okay. This is the opening line, and it really doesn’t scan. Try saying it aloud. Doesn’t “I scowl at myself in the mirror” trip off your tongue a little easier? Everything that follows will illustrate the character’s frustration. Throwing that three syllable word in there makes the sentence cumbersome.
- “Damn my hair – it just won’t behave, and damn Katherine Kavanagh for being ill and subjecting me to this ordeal.”
Where to start? “Damn my hair” should probably have been followed by a full stop or a semi-colon. The punctuation here is all over the shop, so we can’t really be sure what she’s trying to say. Is the narrator’s hair her “ordeal”? Is Katherine Kavanagh’s illness a serious one? In which case, is your hair really all that important? What is the main point here?
Okay. Next line:
- “I should be studying for my exams, which are next week, yet here I am trying to brush my hair into submission.”
Again, it’s a question of what scans. “I should be studying for next week’s exams” is more economical. “Trying to brush my hair into submission” sounds a little verbose (not to mention, given the book’s subject matter, unintentionally funny), and maybe it’s just me, but I can’t quite believe that three lines in we’re still on the narrator brushing her hair.
- “I must not sleep with it wet. I must not sleep with it wet. Reciting this mantra several times, I attempt, once more, to bring it under control with the brush.”
Nothing wrong with the repetition. That’s the kind of writing I’d expect. But does she really recite this mantra several times? Out loud? Because if she does, I’m now picturing a mad person, or Annette Benning’s character in American Beauty.
What follows is a multiple pile-up of unnecessary commas: “Reciting this mantra several times, I attempt, once more, to bring it under control with the brush.” When she could have just said, “Reciting this mantra several times I attempt, once more, to brush it under control.” Sounds petty, but if you try reading it aloud it’s all stops and starts. And she is still brushing her fucking hair.
- “I roll my eyes in exasperation and gaze at the pale, brown-haired girl with blue eyes too big for her face staring back at me, and give up.”
Her “exasperation” is already implied, the reader isn’t dumb, and it’s a five syllable word that comes only a few lines after the three syllable “frustration”, making yet another sentence unnecessarily clumpy. As for the “pale, brown-haired girl with blue eyes too big for her face staring back at me”, this is what we call an “info dump”. The writer wants to give a physical description of the character as quickly as possible, so tips all that information into a single sentence. Unfortunately, thanks to the leaden sentence structure, you may have to re-read the line to work out she’s talking about herself, and not some other girl.
But at least, after over 100 words dedicated to the subject, she’s given up brushing her hair. Next line…
- “My only option is to restrain my wayward hair in a ponytail and hope that I look semi-presentable.”
Nope. She’s still talking about her hair, and again in a sentence that bumps and rattles its way towards a full stop. To be honest, I’d have probably scrapped this line altogether; it doesn’t really do anything.
So there you have it. The opening paragraph of a book which has now been read by 8 billion people (or something), and not one of them a professional editor.
“So?” Says the catty straw man. “What’s the problem with that? Who needs editors, anyway? They merely stifle creativity. Look how successful she is. Good on her, I say.”
Well, the problem isn’t one of trash selling. It always has and always will. The problem is one of lowering an audience’s expectations. The most popular writers have often – though not always – been brilliant in their own way. Go read early Stephen King (when he could still deliver novels less than 800 pages long), or Leslie Charteris, or Jacqueline Susann, or Patricia Highsmith, or Raymond Chandler. They wrote bestsellers, pulpy bestsellers, but they knew how to craft a sentence, develop characters, and fashion together a story arc. Their fans, as a result, had high standards.
What Fifty Shades does is lower the bar, lower readers’ expectations, and – from a didactic point of view – encourage a sloppy level of communication, in which it doesn’t really matter how well you communicate something, so long as your reader is hooked on the smutty bits, or has a crush on your vapid hero.
Civilisation is only, well, civilised when it communicates ideas successfully, when people understand how to string sentences together and how to read and process those sentences. Fifty Shades, with its desperation to clog up paragraphs with as many adjectives as E.L. James can pluck from her thesaurus, turns language and writing into little more than a hefty word count. From a writer’s point of view, seeing it become the most talked about novel of the age is like a footballer watching some 34-year-old man who has a kick-around with his mates every Sunday become ‘Sports Personality of the Year’.
“Yes,” says the straw man, eager to have the last word. “But don’t tell me you’re not just a little bit jealous of all the money E.L. James made from that novel.”
And, in return, I scowl, with frustration, at myself in the mirror.
David Llewellyn is the author of six novels, most recently Ibrahim & Reenie, which you can buy here.