Note: Fifty Shades of Grey is a sexually explicit book. Please be aware of that before purchase
Takeaway: In spite of the explicit sex, this relatively traditional romance novel is surprisingly insightful into human behavior.
Fifty Shades of Grey (and the following two books) are a publishing wonder. Originally published by a small press last year, it was a word of mouth and mostly illegal digital copies that lead to the books being re-released by a larger publisher in April. In the last six weeks, the books have sold over 10 million copies in the US. That puts with other books like Catch-22, Lovely Bones, and Wrinkle in Time.
The difference is that Fifty Shades of Grey is very sexually explicit and includes graphic descriptions of bondage and S&M. There is a line of thought that suggests that romance novels are the female version of porn. I do not agree with that line of thought but the popularity of Fifty Shades will likely rekindle that discussion, especially among Christians.
I originally was not going to read the series, but my wife started them after a number of people recommend them to her and over the weekend we both read through most of the series. (Both of us have less than half of the third book to finish as I am writing this.) I have read a couple of books at the same time as my wife recently and I enjoy the conversation about the books (our tastes do not often overlap.) Reading the same books have lead to long conversations lately.
In some ways, this is a classic romance series. There is an unexpected introduction, both are interested, there is follow up, something pushes them together and the relationship begins. There has to be some conflict to build tension and provide interest to the reader and eventually the couple will get together.
The conflict, in this case, is Christian Grey’s desire for Ana to become his sexual submissive. There is a contract drawn up and in spite of the fact that Ana is not really interested in that scene, she is interested in him. And his interest in her leads him to consider alternatives ways to be with her.
This is a love and redemption story more than anything else. The sex is the setting and important to the story and described in detail, but the story isn’t marginal to the sex. When I have talked to people about the book, most have commented about how engaging the story is. They talk about the sex, but it is the story that is making this book.
I think that many people will dismiss the book. It is popular, it is based on the author’s original fan fiction that she wrote in response to the Twilight books (there are no vampires in this book) and it is being dismissed as ‘mommy porn’ by many. But I think in a way not unlike the Twilight books, or Hunger Games or a number of other popular books, the focus is on the story. A story well told, does not need to be ‘literary’ to be good. It needs to be well told. There are lots of ‘literary books’ that have lousy stories. The writing may be beautiful and evocative and poetic, but if the story is lousy, people will dread reading it.
That being said, I do think that Fifty Shades raises a real question for Christians. Should Christians be consumers of erotic art? Would it matter if the couple was married before they have sex? How does the presentation of the BDSM affect the way it is received? This is clearly one of those areas that ‘might cause some to stumble’ and I do not want to dismiss that. On the whole, for all of the mistakes the characters make, the insight into their thought process and the way that lovers relate to one another and the differences between men and women are actually very insightful.
The two main characters are idealized. He is fabulously wealthy and gorgeous. She is beautiful, literary, moral, virginal at the start. The sex is idealized (no one has that much sex, that often and that well.) The presentation of the BDSM is one that shows it as the result of brokenness in Christian Grey. My concern as I read the book is that it was showing sex as violence. As the book progresses, my concerns with Christian’s anger is also a concern of Ana. Her concern is not the physical violence of the BDSM, but the way that the BDSM gets expressed as anger. There is some resolution to this in later books, but it present throughout this book.
I will not reveal too much of the story, but the story moves toward a more redemptive view of sexuality and one that while not completely ‘normal’ is not as deviant in the end as what you might expect.
I will discuss more of the plot points and my thoughts about the presentation tomorrow with the second book.