50 Shades of Grey – Why Readers Will Love It and Writers Will Hate It

I first heard of 50 Shades of Grey when one of my customers asked for it, before it had even been released. The book and its sequels, 50 Shades Darker and 50 Shades Freed, have been the biggest literary blockbusters since Harry Potter or Twilight, pushing sales upwards of (reportedly) 10 million copies in six weeks. Since its release, I’ve had a difficult time keeping copies in stock at the grocery store where I merchandise books, and every week, for every one that sells, more and more copies come in.

As the hype grew, so did my curiosity. I had to see what all the fuss was about, so I picked up a copy, along with a young adult fantasy novel as backup. Good thing I got the backup. I can usually tell if I’m going to like a book as soon as I read the first page. Right away, 50 Shades had me rolling my eyes, much like its main character, Anastasia Steele does, a reported 41 times throughout the book with her cohort, Christian Grey.

Why readers will love it:

  • Cinderella-familiar storyline (regular girl meets extraordinary boy who sweeps her off her feet and showers her with expensive things);
  • Easy plot & characters to follow. You don’t need to hold a timeline of events & a roster in your head like you had to do with The Millennium Series;
  • Why, the sex, of course!

Why Writers will hate it:

  • It’s an easy read—a little too easy. Nothing flows, It doesn’t take you away to another place. More like this happened and then that happened and here’s what I was wearing, and OMG he is so HOT!!
  • It is rife with repetition. If I had to read one more time how she bit her lip or how his pants hang on his hips just so, or how they call each other by their surnames (“Miss Steele;” “Mr. Grey”)…I’m tempted to get out my red pen and edit my own paperback copy, just for the hell of it.
  • It is rife with two amateur writing mistakes: 1. adverbs—tons of them—which is a rookie error, usually caught by an editor; and 2. Cliché: the aforementioned Cinderella-esque storyline, punctuated by scenes stolen from Pretty Woman (the bathtub scene; the piano scene). And I’m not the only one who noticed. See this article at The Daily Beast for more.
  • keep reading for the #1 reason writers will hate 50 Shades of Grey.
Hey that was a pretty good scene, I think I’ll put it in my book.

In fact, if I were describing it to someone I’d say it’s like Pretty Woman or Cinderella, only Prince Charming is into kinky sex. Really kinky sex. And OMG, he’s really hot.

I must admit, I got drawn into the steamy scenes—you’d have to be a eunuch not to.  But I would find myself halfway through the page saying, “wait, what? That just doesn’t happen…” I mean you have to give her props for imagination, but a lot of it just doesn’t play realistically. I could go into gory detail, but it would cause major spoilers, and would be a bit TMI, even for me. (Seriously, how many of you out there had multiple O’s your first time? Guys, put your hands down.)

And—disclosure—I didn’t even finish the book. I tried, but I kept getting so frustrated. Not that kind of frustrated either. One of the main things that bothered me is that here you have this main character who is supposed to be a smart, intellectual woman—however young and sexually inexperienced—making really stupid decisions. Dan Brown does the same thing in his books; writes these incredibly intelligent women, who for whatever reason can’t seem to do anything for themselves until the dashing Professor Langdon sweeps in to save the day.

Tom Hanks as Robert Langdon. Hey Tom? Never ever let Ron Howard talk you into that straight-hair-blowout again, okay?

Now, I have to say, pretty much my entire life, if I picked up a book and started reading it, that meant I would be reading it ’til the very end, no matter what. I have no idea where I came up with this philosophy. Probably some sort of teacher-infused guilt, or Norwegian stubbornness from somewhere along the line, but I always believed that if you started a book, you HAD TO FINISH IT.

But I’ve gotten to the point in my life where I’ve decided not to waste my time trying to read a book I don’t like. There are SO many books out there that I would like to read. Why sit and stew and turn pages that frustrate the hell out of you, one after the other, when there is a whole pile of books on your nightstand, just begging for their spines to be cracked?

At the same time I bought 50 Shades, I also picked up a YA softcover by Kristin Cashore, called Fire. Not that I needed any new books—I have a ton on my shelves that I still haven’t gotten to yet (like that’s ever stopped me from buying a book). But when I got so frustrated with Miss Steele and Mr. Gray, I picked up Fire, just to take a peek.

And that’s when I realized I didn’t need to read all about the Steele/Gray tryst. Because the other book was so. much. better. And it has nothing to do with genre (50 Shades is adult contemporary erotica fiction; Fire is young adult fantasy fiction), it’s all about the quality of the writing. See for yourself in the following excerpts (no spoilers):

Excerpt from 5o Shades of Grey, by E.L. James:

“Ready?” he asks. I nod and want to say, For anything, but I can’t articulate the words as I’m too nervous, too excited.

“Taylor.” he nods curtly at his driver, and we head into the building, straight to a set of elevators. Elevator! The memory of our kiss this morning comes back to haunt me. I have thought of nothing else all day, daydreaming at the register at Clayton’s. Twice Mr. Clayton had to shout my name to bring me back to Earth. To say I’ve been distracted would be the understatement of the year. Christian glances down at me, a slight smile on his lips. Ha! He’s thinking about it.too.

“It’s only three floors,” he says dryly, his eyes dancing with amusement. He’s telepathic, surely. It’s spooky.

Three adverbs! Really? In little more than one paragraph?! Who edited this?? Okay, Heidi, don’t sweat the small stuff, don’t sweat the small stuff…

Excerpt from Fire, by Kristin Cashore:

It had been easy once, taking Archer into her bed; not so long ago it had been simple. And then, somehow the balance had tipped between them. The marriage proposals, the lovesickness. More and more, the simplest thing was to say no.

She would answer him gently. She turned to him and held out her hand. He stood and came to her.

“I must change into riding clothes and pull a few more things together,” she said. “We’ll say our goodbyes now. You must go down and tell the prince I’m coming.”

He stared at his shoes and then into her face, understanding her. He tugged at her headscarf until it slid away and her hair fell around her shoulders. He collected her hair in one hand, bent his face to it, kissed it. He pulled Fire to him and kissed her neck and her mouth, so that her body was left wishing that her mind were not so stingy. Then he broke away and turned to the door, his face the picture of unhappiness.

Now, I’m sorry, but that is some good f*ing writing. Where James over-explains and over-punctuates her character’s every thought, lip-bite and groin-pull, Cashore paints a picture for you to observe from a distance, the characters explaining how they feel with their actions. Kind of goes back to the old “show, don’t tell” lesson I learned from my library critique group.

Okay, okay, so who am I? Right? Who am I to be sitting up here on my high horse, critiquing something that has been so lightning-in-a-bottle successful?

get off your high horse, Heidi

I don’t want to knock Ms. James. I don’t want to sound as if I think I’m somehow better, or above. I mean, not only did she finish her book, but two more, got them published and is now enjoying great prosperity because of it. I say, good for her! I can’t even finish one book, and I’m embarrassed to tell you how long I’ve been working on it (or not working on it, as the case may be. That’s at least part of my problem). And she seems like a pretty cool person. My biggest admiration for her lies in the fact that she negotiated complete control when she sold her movie rights. Now that’s a genius, ballsy move. I bow humbly to that. I wonder if she whipped out some handcuffs when talking to Universal, and gave them a little spanking? ;)

I wish her all the success in the world. I mean, she’s kind of a Cinderella story herself, isn’t she? It’s a great inspiration to the rest of us schlubs hacking away at our blogs, adding to our page counts and red-penning our own manuscripts. It’s proof that with a little talent, and a whole lot of determination, anyone can make it happen. You know what they say, the most successful writers aren’t necessarily the best, they are just the ones who didn’t quit.

And as to that #1 reason writers will hate 50 Shades of Grey? Like most other things creatives hate:

They didn’t think of it first.

So…did you read it, or are you avoiding it on principle? Did you love it? Hate it? Read it while hiding in the ladies room? :) Please, let your voice be heard! Converse! Click reply (below).


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7 thoughts on “50 Shades of Grey – Why Readers Will Love It and Writers Will Hate It”

  1. Great post, Heidi! For many of the reasons you stated, I’m won’t be reading 50 Shades. It’s a real bummer that these authors keep writing their female characters this way. I’m like you, more power to them for coming up with an idea, going for it, and just letting it be what it is. There’s room for everyone in this big ole writing world, after all. But I’d like to see more (and better) for our female characters. I’d like to see more authentically powerful female characters, ones that help to shift the cultural consciousness about how we view (and treat) girls and women.


  2. Thanks, Rho. I just finished FIRE, and if it’s strong female characters you want, give it a go. And even though it’s a fantasy YA, it’s not so way-out that it would turn non-fantasy readers away.


  3. Thank you Heidi! Finally I have found someone that agrees with me on this stupid book! I tried repeatedly to read it but in the end, the only option was to give up on account of how excruciating it was to try to get through another chapter. I felt like the characters were completely unrealistic and irritating. I made it halfway through the book before i said “no more!!!”


  4. I consider myself a big “Pretty Woman” fan. Recently i red 50 shades of grey and all the similarities constantly crossed my mind. Beginning with scenes and actitud from each female / male characters. There are several stolen scenes from Pretty Woman. Starting after the first night, he orders breakfast and asks room service to bring everything because he didn’t know what she might like. Second, as you mentioned earlier, the piano scene, third, when Edward says im doing a great effort, this is as much as i can do. Touche!! Third the bathtub scene.


    1. Yep, I’m a Pretty Woman fan, too.
      I have to admit, I do get inspired for ideas from other art forms, and in fact all great artists steal from one another – a great book about this is Austin Kleon’s Steal Like an Artist, which I have read and is amazing as well as inspiring.
      But I think Austin’s (and my) point is while all artists are inspired by others, it’s what you do with that inspiration that matters. Do you spin it into your own idea, or do you just have new characters repeating familiar storylines? (Not that THAT hasn’t been done before, either. The Hero’s Journey is a classic story formula, used by many.)
      Obviously EL James was inspired by Pretty Woman, and as she states, by the Twilight series, which sparked her series to life. Like I said, I can’t knock her – she has done well, and millions of people love what she wrote. I just wasn’t one of them.
      Thank you so much for your comment!


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