50 Shades of Marmite?

I don’t think it’s right to dismiss a book as rubbish purely based on the hype surrounding it. I read the Harry Potter books, partly to find out what all the fuss was about but mainly because I couldn’t honestly say it was awful without reading it. I reacted in the same way about The Hunger Games. My daughter drove me crazy telling me how I should read this trilogy and I couldn’t tell her yet again that it wasn’t to my taste if I hadn’t read it. (I loved both series, by the way.)

The 50 Shades trilogy was no exception. All my friends were waxing lyrical about this apparent eye-opener of the BDSM world but fresh from my graduation of my English degree, I only wanted to read “good” books purely for pleasure (not that kind of pleasure!!) and I wasn’t convinced by the hype surrounding these books that they would really provide me with that unadulterated, can’t-put-it-down reading experience that I craved after studying many books that were read for their analytical merit rather than for the pleasure of reading them. I like to choose the books I read, not have them chosen for me.

However, as it got to the point where I was the only one of my friends and colleagues who hadn’t read it, I surrendered, in true Anastasia Steele style, and read the trilogy.

Still in textual analysis mode (not sure I ever won’t be, if I’m honest), I sat myself down with a glass of Pinot Grigio and a box of chocolates and started 50 Shades of Grey. I didn’t like it at first. I found it repetitive, hyperbolic and this Christian Grey character, who the reader was presumably supposed to find attractive, just didn’t exude as much sex appeal as I would have expected (given the hype!). By the time Christian had tracked Ana down after her first drunk-dial, I wasn’t feeling the love for either character. Ana seemed unrealistically innocent for her age and Christian unrealistically successful for his age. Yet I carried on reading, willing myself to find whatever everyone else seemed to find in this sexually explicit Mills and Boon novel.

I pompously moaned to fellow university friends that this was a terribly written book and I was struggling to like it but as I continued to read of Anastasia’s sexual education from an apparently skilful Christian,  I wasn’t really feeling the courage of my convictions. As I read on, I found myself being able to brush aside the fact that I’d been told that Mr Grey’s trousers hung “in that way” for the umpteenth time or that the two main characters felt the need to be so formal with each other all the time or even that Ms Steele had made many, many fair points well! By the time I’d finished the first book, I was hooked. My textual analysis mode submitted and I found myself desperate to know what happens to this man who is “fifty shades of f**ked up” and this sweet and innocent girl who dominates Christian in a way neither of them could have imagined.

Of course, some of it is a little predictable. When she leaves Christian at the end of the first book, you know they will make it as a couple, otherwise there would be no point in the next two books. What E.L. James has done though, is to create a simultaneous Bildungsroman of Christian and Ana, as they finally grow up and become comfortable with themselves and with each other. Both learn to compromise and discover that they both have the capacity to love and be loved.

I was absolutely fascinated with the characters of Ana and Christian and would be the first in line to buy an extended version of the Christian’s perspective chapters that James so tantalisingly puts at the end of the third book. In fact, I would go so far as to say it would be a travesty if James didn’t explore Christian’s perspective during his transition period from cold and calculated dominant to besotted husband and father, and the internal struggles he feels along the way, which are only hinted at through Ana’s perspective. However, the hints that James does give us are enough to encourage the reader to warm to Christian as much as to Ana as the narrator. This is the reason that I think I liked this book despite all my protestations: I cared just as much for what happens to Christian (perhaps more, if truth be told) as I did for our heroine, Ana. I understood the struggles from both parties and sympathised in equal measure when they conflicted.

Having read it a number of times since, I still enjoy it, more perhaps than the first time I read it in some respects. The repetitiveness and the unnecessary formality between Christian and Ana grates more and more each time I read it. However, I still wholeheartedly hope that we get more of Christian’s point of view. What did he feel as he gave Ana each thwack of the belt that drove her away? What exactly did his mother say to him when she found out about Elena Lincoln? What actually happened when he took care of Leila at Ana’s apartment apart from “dying a thousand deaths”? (That man surely shouldn’t still be alive the many thousands of times he has metaphorically popped his clogs!)

These are all questions that I’m sure any Christian Grey fan would want answers to among many others. As far as I am aware, James hasn’t ruled it out, so here’s hoping! I’m sure that at the moment she is far too busy with the production and recent release of the first movie of the trilogy and with promises of a further two films, I would imagine she will be too busy to address these unanswered questions any time soon.

The film seems to have unleashed a renewed interest in the books and also a whole new load of critics. While I am all for free speech (especially considering that I’ve just spent my time putting my thoughts on paper to exercise my own right) it irritates me so much when people use the hype surrounding a book or film to their own advantage when it comes to voicing an opinion of what they “perceive” to be right or wrong. As I said at the beginning of this piece, I don’t agree with disliking a book before I’ve read it. So, these people who are complaining about a book which gratifies sexual debauchery (it doesn’t) and claims that the overarching message of the book is that in order to please a man, a woman must be submissive (it isn’t) have either read the book with a determination to misread the plot or perhaps have not read it at all (more likely, I think).

Nothing happens to sweet little Ana that she does not consent to. She is strongly encouraged to do her research before embarking on this  kind of intense relationship by Christian. It could be argued that Christian makes it hard for her to turn him down, but he gives her plenty of reasons and opportunities to walk away, yet she doesn’t. She negotiates her own “contract” and Christian spells everything out for her explicitly, and ultimately, she never actually signs it, choosing to follow the essence of the agreement of her own accord.

More so with the film, critics have grasped onto the violence demonstrated during the belt scene as being beyond the pale. Again, though, Ana asks Christian, “Punish me. I want to know how bad it can get.” She asks him! No force from Christian and her own ulterior motive is so that maybe he will let her touch him,  fully aware that this is his “hard limit”. So who is manipulating who? As Christian tells Ana, she holds the power. If she says no, nothing happens. Simple as that. Indeed, she has to encourage him to try something more kinky when he decides that it is “vanilla” all the way after she leaves him, as it is her who misses the dominant/submissive elements of their relationship.

In my opinion, there is much to like about the 50 Shades of Grey trilogy although the books do have a number of annoying traits. However, the characters hold the attention of the reader and although the sex scenes are a bit too frequent for my liking and the plot itself is quite predictable, it’s an enjoyable read. 50 Shades is like Marmite: you’ll love it or hate it, but only if you read it first. I wish that those critics who have panned this book, or any other book or film for that matter, would make an informed decision, not one based on hype or hearsay. Just like you’ll never know whether you love or hate Marmite until you spread it on your toast, you can’t begin to decide if you like a book before you read it.