Fifty Shades of Grey is Unintelligible as a Novel

Warning: This is not a post about gender, sex, or towering rage. It’s basically a piece of literary criticism. Also, some spoilers follow.

So, as Charles creepily informed you, we’ve been reading Fifty Shades of Grey. Presently, we’re actually a bit of the way into sequel Fifty Shades Darker. Once we finish the trilogy, we’re going to write, like, a million pages of super awesome feminist and kinky criticism on it, but we’re not prepared to do that yet. What we are prepared to do is to answer the question “Why the hell is this book the way that it is?”

Fifty Shades is a romance novel in which kink and kinky sex figure very heavily. There is a contract, a dungeon (sensibly referred to as a “playroom”), there are floggers, spankings, sensory deprivation, and bondage. There are rules and a cold, hard man who demands submission at the pain of punishment. It’s a kink novel.

But it also really hates kink. It’s explicitly the case that Hero, Love Interest, and CEO Christian Grey’s affection for perversion comes from his abuse and neglect at the hands of his “crack whore” mother and her pimps. He’s kinky because he’s damaged (a trope that’ll probably get its own entry later). And the main arc of the plot seem to be Narrator, Heroine, and Person I’d Like to Swear At Anastasia Steele showing up in his life, healing his trauma through her love in a way that years of therapy never could, and, thereby, alleviating his need to cause pain to his partners. Allegedly, by the end of the novels, light, sensual spankings and some bondage are enough to satisfy a man who had previously demanded that his sexual partners obey him without question in all things and never meet his eyes without permission. Also, he can feel love, so that’s nice, too. For her part, Ana cannot stand and will not tolerate the rules Christian attempts to impress on her, and finds spanking for punishment only just bearable.

So, why is a kinky novel about kinky sex only okay with fairly light kink? Why does EL James neither embrace kink, nor condemn it outright? I don’t think the text will ever give that answer. Inside of it, there is no explanation for this, no clear motivation, and it makes the novel tonally discordant.

But there is an answer. And that answer, like the answer to so many questions on the internet, is “because fan fiction.”

Fifty Shades was originally an alternate universe Twilight fanfiction hilariously titled Master of the Universe. And for all that the character names have been filed off and replaced with new ones, Fifty Shades remains a fan fiction. This explains why Fifty Shades is a kinky novel that hates kinky sex. It’s not a novel about characters, but an exploration of characters under new circumstances. Kink is a means to some ends: experimentation, suffering, and making it so that Bella Swan and Edward Cullen can have spanky sex.

Fan fiction allows writers and readers to explore characters in situations that the canon narrative would never put them in. It also allows for experimentation with themes not found in the canon narrative. It’s sort of the mix and match of storytelling. You get to choose characters, themes, and settings. When you throw them all together, you get a story that answers a “what if” question about another story. In this case, “What if Edward Cullen, instead of being a vampire, were some sort of S&M freak?” This doesn’t mean that James thinks that BDSM is good, or appealing, but perhaps merely that she finds it something interesting to engage with in the safe storytelling environment that is fan fiction.

Fairly famously, Kurt Vonnegut once advised writers to “Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.” This is good advice, but fan fiction has another reason to be a sadist to characters: it’s fun. It’s indulgent. Writers can have characters wallow in every kind of extreme and horrible emotional pain with the full knowledge that everything can be okay at the end. Fan fiction allows writers to put characters in unusual and painful situations, calling on them to deal with things that they’d never have to deal with in the canon narrative. In this case, it’s Edward Cullen experiencing child abuse and becoming strange and warped on account of that fact, and then Bella Swan having to deal with this version of Edward and his perversions.

Fan fiction allows authors to interfere with the canon narrative and rewrite it how they please. If authors think that two characters should be doing it, they can make it so. My theory is that author EL James is probably down with light kink, or at least she thinks it’d be cool if Bella Swan and Edward Cullen were to participate in it. Canonically, however, those characters are just never gonna do that. Edward is way too whiny, protective, and weird to ever spank his partner and Bella is so not a top. Making Edward into a gigantic pervert who is downgraded into an acceptable pervert gets these characters into an end state that EL James likes.

Fifty Shades of Grey’s relationship to kink is always kind of weird and not quite coherent, no matter how you look at it. But the only way that I can remotely make sense of the way that this novel is about BDSM, hates BDSM, but is not some sort of S&M dungeon horror story is to remind myself that it’s a fanfiction.



  1. O.K., so I’m still trying to get a handle on this. I read in the media of the ‘War on Women’. That we need a peice of legislation like the NVWA to protect women from men, and yet there’s a triology of books that even avid fans call “Poorly written” yet it jumps near the top of the NYT bestseller list and it’s been described as “1,200 pages of graphic described BDSM porn” , also it’s got the handle “mommy porn”. Does this mean that deep down, Women WANT THIS (I personally find this sort of ‘Interaction’ disturbing) . I mean, I read married women saying that reading these books actually improves there lobido! Here you have these groups of Women saying “All men are responsible for rape, and then yopu hane these other groups getting ‘turned on ‘ by ‘rape fanasies’!

    • I’m still stuck on the simultaneous complaints of Edward from Twilight being a creepy stalker borderline rapist vampire/Jacob being a possessive werewolf and the fanmoms (fan + moms) that were gushing (figurative and literally in some cases) over them.

      I know different people have different opinions but damn.

      • Olivia Davis says:

        We’re reading the Fifty Shades books (we’re fixin’ to start Freed any time now) partially in order to explore the way those themes from Twilight manifest in them. They’re different, more explicit, more problematized and the Jacob character is almost absent. But Edward/Christian is still very controlling and his stalker tendencies are well-documented.

        We intend to dissect the books very carefully and thoroughly and to talk about the stuff that’s wrong once we’re finished, but you’re absolutely right. Damn.

      • Olivia Davis says:

        Hey, bobbt, thanks for the comment.

        I’d like to take a moment and clear some things up for you.

        There’s a lot of sex in the Fifty Shades books. All of it is consensual and most of it isn’t BDSM sex. A lot of romance novels are rape fantasies. There are a lot of issues with the Fifty Shades books, but there’s no rape in them. The BDSM that’s performed is pretty light. There’s some tying up and some spanking, but nothing extreme and it’s definitely, definitely not just 1,200 pages of the stuff.

        As far as women wanting BDSM or not, it’s a mixed bag. Women, like men, sometimes fantasize about things they’d never do, or even want to do in real life. That doesn’t mean they want it, deep down or otherwise, but merely that it’s a titillating idea.

        But, of course, some women do want it. Some women want it, not deep down, but explicitly and loudly. I’m one of them. And it’s not rape, nor is it problematic for the people who practice it safely and consensually. If you find it disturbing, that’s fine. It’s not for you. But please remember that it can be safe and can make people very happy.

    • My boyfriend was ranting once about how confusing and contradictory women are, and I said only half jokingly, “The key to understanding women is inner conflict.” Women have to grow up with so many mixed messages about your sexuality that sometimes you want contradictory things or you just don’t know what the hell you want. Of course that can be true of men too but I think for women it is particularly pronounced. The NYT had a really fascinating article a few years ago which I will try to find a link to

      • This is the NYT article on female sexuality that I mentioned

        • Olivia Davis says:

          As always, I think the problem is society.

          I think it’s possible that lady sexuality /looks/ contradictory because a lot of ladies have a lot of hang-ups and we aren’t taught to interrogate our desires and find out what really makes us go. Now, to be clear, dudes aren’t really taught this stuff, either, bit I think they have a bit more free reign.

          But, sometimes, consensual non-consent, or some element of force or whatever is your thing, but you want cuddles afterwards. Those things aren’t contradictory. You want one thing, then you want another thing. But they can look very seriously contradictory when we don’t understand them and we’re sure not taught how to understand them. So we look like a mire of confusion. And that blows.

  2. Comparing this with the bible, would you say it is more or less unintelligible as a novel? Which makes better nighttime reading while on the road?

    • Charles Emrich says:

      Showing my Godless Heathen roots here, but I’m gonna say that Bible wins for least-intelligible novel. Full of hoary didactic passages, inexplicable genealogical ramblings, characters who come and go at random, inconsistent motivation and rampant tragedy that never gets satisfactorily resolved? Plus, as far I can tell they pretty much ran out of budget at the end and had to cobble something together from sketches on a cocktail napkin.

      Even then, I’m pretty sure they called that move “pulling an Evangelion.”

  3. You summed it up quite nicely! Esp the unintelligible part!

    • Olivia Davis says:

      Thank you! I hadn’t heard it analyzed this way and found it fairly compelling as an explanation.

      Fifty Shades Darker is exactly the same way, in case you’re wondering.

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