Finally, Fifty Shades

by | January 18, 2015 | General | 15 comments

By Donna George Storey

I finally read Fifty Shades of Grey. I’ve avoided doing so for years. The youngest of three daughters, once I figured out I didn’t have to do everything my older sisters did, I’ve been fairly stubborn about following my own path. Just because everyone else was reading the book, for pleasure or market research, didn’t mean I had to. The disappointed, and often scathing, reviews by people I respected certainly supported my boycott. And I knew enough about popular literature to roll my eyes when someone insisted I had to write my own trilogy that was “better” to show the world what really good erotica was and thus earn myself more money and glory than E.L. James could ever imagine.

Then, this past Christmas, someone close to me bought me a copy of Fifty Shades of Grey. As a gag gift. Ha, ha, ha, I laughed. But as I stared down at that glossy gray tie on the cover, affixed with a label that the book was “Soon to Be a Major Motion Picture,” I decided that this was a sign from the universe that I must judge this publishing phenomenon firsthand.

So, what do I think?

I can see why so many readers find the story appealing. And, while it’s not the greatest book I’ve ever read, I’m finding it raises interesting questions for me about writing, and is even, at times, a compelling story.

Granted I came into the experience with rock-bottom expectations. But I understand why a classic story of a rich, handsome man discovering that an unassuming young woman is the one person on earth who can truly touch him would find a wide audience.

Mind you, all the criticisms of the book are true. The characters are unbelievable. The plot is uneven. The endless repetitions of lip biting, eye rolling, and capering inner goddesses are seriously annoying. The real endurance test for me is the overuse of “mutter” and “bemused.” Holy crap, what’s wrong with the beautifully invisible “said”? And could you dig a little deeper for some other reaction from your characters? My writing group would have had a field day with the prose and likely would have had poor Ms. James in tears.

I have no doubt the book gives an inaccurate portrayal of BDSM, an area in which I have no expertise. Any of the things I do know about—majors at Princeton, for example—are equally inaccurate. Then again, I can’t tell you how many times people told me they “learned a lot about Japan” from Arthur Golden’s equally fantastic Memoirs of a Geisha. Talk about enduring pain.

I know that there are many, many erotic books that are better written in every way and are far more authentic representations of the BDSM world. But for better or worse, E.L. James wrote the first erotic blockbuster. Try as we all do to learn the dark secret of its success, I’m not sure anyone really knows why. If we did, the publishing industry could seamlessly move from one mega-bestseller to the next, yet the next phenomenon always takes us by surprise.

Above all, reading this book underscored a lesson I’ve been learning since I began to seek publication. An individual editor may insist that every word be chosen with the care of Flaubert, but The Market doesn’t give a rat’s ass about the “quality” of your prose. It wants a story that grabs readers’ hearts. Fifty Shades got the romance audience with its Twilight sensibility spiced with explicit sex scenes. It roped in the not insignificant group of readers who thought they might be getting a glimpse into an unprecedented world of forbidden sexual delight and decadence. A lot of the scathing reviews judged an unpretentious romance as literature, an erotic fantasy as some earth-shattering sexual breakthrough. Of course the book would disappoint on these terms. The results are what you’d expect from the restaurant critic for The New York Times giving McDonald’s a serious review.

Now, I have very much enjoyed the snarky as well as thoughtful critiques of Fifty Shades. But on another level, why judge the book as if it wants to be more than it is? It clearly doesn’t. If we want it to be more, then scolding or mocking Ms. James or her fans won’t help. The only thing an erotica writer can do is take it upon herself to write the book we want it to be. More believable? More critical of capitalism? A female character that a self-respecting twenty-first-century woman can relate to? All worthy, but, sorry—I’m talking to you, my friends who want me to get rich–that book will not make anyone a fortune.

The good news is that now I know what I’ll tell people the next time they ask me what I think of Fifty Shades of Grey, as they always do when they learn I write erotica. I’ll say I thought the book was Jane Eyre, modernized, sexed up, without literary pretension (except a few references to Tess of the D’Urbervilles). Okay, maybe there’s a generous dollop of Heathcliff thrown in, too. Basically it’s a riff on the classic stories that lie at the heart of all novels with a huge readership—redemption (A Christmas Carol), an underdog who prevails (a personal favorite and always popular), a quietly lovely girl with a good heart who wins a powerful, yet lonely alpha male (most romances ever written).  And perhaps on a broader level, the book allows all of us to play out in fantasy a deeper social truth: that we’re all getting screwed by our plutocrats, except, unlike Ana, we don’t have any choice in the matter nor do we get at least three orgasms a day in the bargain.

Another happy outcome is that I have a new appreciation for E.L. James. Apparently she didn’t set out to make millions nor to give ordinary women the world over the permission to admit they’d read a book with explicit sex scenes—which may indeed be the most lasting impact of the book. James simply devoured the Twilight series in “one sitting” and was inspired to write her own romantic fiction. In a 2012 interview with The Guardian, her husband (not coincidentally pimping his own novel) said somewhat defensively that she wrote Fifty Shades to entertain herself and a few friends and that she had a lot of fun writing it. As a writer, I sense her commitment to and pleasure in the story. This is not always the case with more “important” literary novels I’ve read.

So, yes, having finally read it, I won’t and can’t write a “better” Fifty Shades of Grey. I will continue to write stories that express my sensibility in both content and style, and I will continue not to give a damn about how much money I make from writing. Yet I can still share with E.L. James the love and joy of writing a tale that I hope will give those readers I do touch, however many or few, a pleasurable reading experience.

Donna George Storey is the author
of Amorous Woman and a collection of short
stories, Mammoth
Presents the Best of Donna George Storey
. Learn more about her
work at

Donna George Storey

I want to change the world one dirty story at a time. When I posted this mission statement on my website, I hoped my cheeky ambition would make my readers smile. I smile every time I read it myself. And yet I’m totally serious. I truly believe that writers who are brave enough to speak their truth about the erotic experience in all its complexity—the yearning, the pleasure, the conflicts, and the sweet satisfaction—do change the world for the better. So if you’re here at ERWA because you’re already writing erotica, a big thank you and keep on doing what you’re doing. If you’re more a reader than a writer, I encourage you to start dreaming and writing and expressing the truth and magic of this fundamental part of the human experience in your own unique voice. Can there be a more pleasurable way to change the world? I'm the author of Amorous Woman, a semi-autobiographical erotic novel set in Japan, The Mammoth Book of Erotica Presents the Best of Donna George Storey  and nearly 200 short stories and essays in journals and anthologies. Check out my Facebook author page at:  


  1. Lisabet Sarai

    "An individual editor may insist that every word be chosen with the care of Flaubert, but The Market doesn’t give a rat’s ass about the “quality” of your prose. It wants a story that grabs readers’ hearts."

    I know you're right, but I still hate this fact. Not the part about writing a great story, the part about writing skill not mattering at all, from what I can see.

    Furthermore, it seems that the market doesn't want "a great story" as much as they want "the same story" again and again.

    That being said, it's probably true that E.L. James' personal enthusiasm for her topic is a significant factor in the book's popularity. Readers can sense an author's genuine passion.

    • Donna

      Given the success of the Marvel franchise movies–the same story over and over–it's clear you are spot on that the market wants what it knows best beyond romance as well!

      I confess, Lisabet, part of me is stunned that I spent so much time and effort trying to learn "good" writing, but that style might in fact limit the size of one's audience. On the other hand, while the market clearly does not care, to quote Jane Eyre, "I care." Both as a reader and a writer. So let's keep loving in our own way, right?

  2. elizabethcoldwell

    It's interesting that you compare 50 Shades to Jane Eyre, Donna, given that when Black Lace first launched in the UK, they described their output at 'Jane Eyre with bondage'. Seems some things never change…

    • Donna

      That is very interesting, Elizabeth. The comparison jumped out, a man with all those madwomen in his attic…

  3. Miriam Myrrh

    What a kind post. As a writer, I've avoided reading "50 Shades" as well as "Twilight" because I knew I'd have trouble buying into the premise, plot and writing. My tastes are different. But that doesn't take away from the authors' passion when they were writing their stories.

    • Donna

      Thank you, Miriam. After having succumbed, I can assure you there's wisdom in NOT reading "50 Shades" as well. But clearly something there resonates with readers. I hope it's the author's passion. That explanation is a lot easier for me to live with!

    • Marilyn BG

      Wise observation Donna, and easier for me to live with too. There will always be a place in our culture for the popular and the junky, and a reason for wondering where the fascination lies for so many. One of my friends who read it out of curiosity observed: "If we can acknowledge that all behavior exists on a continuum, then we have much more in common with the characters in this book than we might want to admit. The book's title speaks to this idea. In my own life, I can see where I've allowed myself to be the 'submissive' – maybe not sexually, but certainly in other disempowering ways." Relates to your remark about getting screwed by plutocrats too…

  4. Jean Roberta

    Thoughtful, considerate post, Donna. You've put your finger on it: "clearly something there resonates with readers." They're buying and reading the books, and many will undoubtedly flock to the movie theatres next month. For better or worse.

    • Donna

      Well, the movie is going to offer different things than the book, although I think it would be a challenge for an actor to deliver some of those lines!

  5. Spencer Dryden

    I couldn't finish Fifty Shades but I am one of its defenders. In my short writing experience I have observed that editors, writers and critics are far more concerned about prose than readers. Readers want a story and they don't want the words to get in the way. She delivered and when she stands on her wallet she can see Disneyland.

    • Donna

      What I find appealing is that James/Leonard is not about the money or her ego as a Great Writer. She and her fans seem to have a girlfriend relationship. I do hope she uses some of it for charity though…

  6. Larry Archer

    A while back I got a phone call from my wife, who was visiting her sister and demanded that I order her a copy of 50 Shades. I order the whole series and an a electronic copy for myself. Reading this story was difficult for me as the wording is awful and my wife gave up half way through the first book.

    But all things considered, it did put porn on the map and as a writer of smut myself, gives me some hope. 🙂 As one commenter stated, people that read smut don't expect The Old Man and The Sea but want to be aroused.

    • Donna

      Yes, it also made it clear to publishers that a lot of women do like edgier erotic content with their romance. I personally do like a marriage of good writing and arousing content. There's nothing better.

  7. Marilyn BG

    Your wife's giving up on the book (as I did, but it was a library copy) makes me think: How many would-be readers bought it and contributed to its status on the bestseller list, but never finished it?

  8. Donna

    Marilyn, I just read an interesting article by Francine Prose about how publishers spy on our e-reader habits. Only 44% of readers finished the prize-winning, but rambling The Goldfinch. Fifty Shades might be similar. I'm sure many people expected the hottest sex ever or some earth-shattering shock and it's a romance with lots of decent-but-not-great sex scenes. The html link isn't working for me when I try to input it here, but here's the URL:

Hot Chilli Erotica

Hot Chilli Erotica


Babysitting the Baumgartners - The Movie
From Adam & Eve - Based on the Book by New York Times Bestselling Authors Selena Kitt

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