Fifty Shades of Self-Awareness: Why It’s Good to Read Bad Fiction

Recently, I did something I swore I would never do. I picked up a copy of Fifty Shades of Grey. Actually, I picked up the audiobook from my local library and listened to it in my car on my way to work and back and while running errands. It took me roughly two weeks to listen to the entire audiobook, during which time I laughed out loud, screamed “shut the fuck up” at the narrator, and said, “no duh” when something so unbelievably obvious was brought to my attention. This novel, much like the series of novels that inspired it (the Twilight Saga), is not a well-written work of fiction. In fact, it’s abysmal. So, why read/listen to it at all?

You Have to Read If You’re Going to Write

As a writer, I feel that it’s my duty to become better at my craft. Most good writers will tell you that to become a better writer, you need to read. A lot. I would argue that you should not only be reading the best of the best, but also the worst of the worst. This is especially true if you write popular or genre fiction. Genre fiction, when written well, can enlighten us, make us think about difficult subjects, and reimagine the world we live in. It is the fiction of the masses, so genre fiction is in high demand, and there is so much of it out there that I wouldn’t even begin to know how you would read all of it in a lifetime. Lots of people believe that it is easy to just sit down and crank out a romance, horror, or science fiction novel. If you are one of those people who think writing a novel-length work of fiction is easy, go ahead. Do it. But, your first attempt probably won’t be the masterpiece you’ve envisioned in your mind.

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Image by Freddie Marriage via Unsplash

While there’s a lot of good genre fiction out there, there is perhaps more that isn’t so good. And yet, people read it. I read it. Happily.

As a consumer of genre fiction who has a great love and appreciation for literary fiction and the classics, I am not ashamed to say that I will read, listen to, and or watch just about anything with vampires in the narrative. I have been obsessed with vampires since I was twelve, and I’ve never lost interest. Vampires are scary, dangerous, mysterious, and sexy as hell. Anne Rice’s novels were my gateway drugs. Thanks to her Vampire Chronicles, I have consumed a lot of vampire fiction, which enhanced my interest in classic horror films, Victorian horror novels, and inspired my own writing (both academic and fiction).

Over the years, I’ve expanded my obsession to include werewolves and demons, and I’m especially fond of Lucifer. I like to read, and attempt to write, about romanticized monsters. Monsters, in my opinion, make excellent leading men and love interests. But, I’m also aware that in some ways this is an unhealthy perspective on romantic relationships. But let’s not kid ourselves, unhealthy romantic relationships make fiction interesting and marketable.

The Danger of Romanticizing Monsters

Fifty Shades of Grey is not going to end up on a canonized list of great works of fiction (at least, I hope not), but it sold a hell of a lot of copies, became a series of novels, and has a film franchise. And, much to my chagrin, like the Twilight Saga, I feel a compulsion to listen to the rest of the audiobooks. When I read Twilight several years ago, I absolutely hated the protagonist, Bella Swan. I hated her because of her self-doubt, her lack of self-preservation, her inability to let go of the boy/man she loves who is LITERALLY a monster, and the fact that regardless of the danger ahead of her, she clings to this romantic fantasy that has no real basis in reality.

The risk you take with falling in love with a vampire is that death is always on the table. Whether you are “accidentally” murdered in a passionate moment when the lines between sexual arousal and hunger are blurred, or you accept the inevitability that in order to get your happily ever after with a vampire, you’re going to have to become one. Of course, other consequences include nightmarish, life-threatening pregnancies, and inexplicable acts of self-sacrifice.

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‘Bella Swan’ [Source: Summit Entertainment]

So, yeah. I hated Bella Swan. Not just for her lack of self-esteem and willingness to die for love. I hated her because I could see myself in her. Guess what? I hate Anastasia Steele, too. There are plenty of reasons for me to hate her. She’s a ridiculous twenty-something virgin who is completely clueless about sex, and has never masturbated in her entire twenty-one years on Earth. Despite her high GPA, she seems to have almost no grasp of human behavior and psychological motivations. Her internal dialog and incessant over-analyzing of EVERY. SINGLE. SITUATION. made me insane. But you know what really pisses me off? The fact that, like Anastasia, I am often riddled with self-doubt and second guess myself to the point of insanity, and I have also been manipulated by interesting men who turned out to be monsters.

There’s something sinister in the fact that a book I am content to mock from beginning to end, a work of fiction that is so poorly written that it’s laughable, and has the power to send me into fits of rage, can still entice me to keep reading. Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey are not the only novels that have made me hate-read them to the end. In fact, some of the most popular works of genre fiction I’ve read in the past several years have had a similar effect on me. And, surprise, surprise, they had vampires in the narratives, too. I know, Fifty Shades doesn’t have any vampires, but for the sake of argument (and this blog post), let’s just agree that Christian Grey is based on Edward Cullen, and he would make an excellent vampire if given the opportunity.

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‘Christian Grey’ [Source: Focus Features]

Some other works of fiction that made me curse the narrator (and author) are the A Discovery of Witches Trilogy and Laurel K. Hamilton’s later Anita Blake novels. I’m not going to delve into either of those series in this post, because I have too much to say about them beyond their usefulness as examples of how not to write good fiction. However, I will say that the normalization of controlling and abusive relationships in romantic fiction has the potential to influence generations of female readers who won’t be happy unless they find a partner willing to threaten them with violence under the pretense of keeping them “safe.”

Don’t get me wrong. Vampires are hot. Vampire sex is even hotter. While reading (or watching) any work of fiction in which a vampire is shaping up to be the romantic love interest, I practically shout at the reluctant female protagonist, “fuck him already.” But, again, the consequence of engaging in a relationship with a vampire is death, and if not death, at the very least, exposure to a world often defined by violence and extreme power struggles.

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‘Elijah Mikaelson’ [Source: The CW]

I know. It makes for exciting fiction, but at what cost? Yes, you can readily find strong female protagonists with compelling character arcs in the pages of paranormal romances, but in most cases, vampire cock is their Kryptonite. I have no problem reading about fictional characters engaging in Olympian feats of sexual congress with vampires. In fact, when it comes to genre fiction, that’s my jam. What does aggravate me is the incessant internal dialogue about why it’s wrong to do it. And, if it is so wrong, why do they end up doing it anyway? I get it. Conflict, internal or otherwise, carries a story. However, denying your attraction to a smoking hot vampire, or questioning every compliment and expression of interest he sends your way, gets annoying after a while.

This is especially true of Ana in Fifty Shades of Grey. She not only has conflicting internal dialogue, but an entire chorus of inner voices that never shut up. I’m not that in touch with my own inner goddess, but I know she’s down with vampire cock. And cake. And bourbon.

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Image by Michael Mroczek via Unsplash

Even Bad Fiction Can Teach You Something

All kidding aside, this absurd work of fiction made me think about my own writing. I paid close attention to dialog, character development, and a lack of plot that didn’t involve the protagonist having sex with her monster while battling her (and his) inner demons. Beyond the useful exercise of recognizing what bad writing looks (and sounds) like, Fifty Shades of Grey also made me think about how I view myself, how I behave in romantic relationships, and what I want from my future sexual relationships. Here are some random thoughts that occurred to me while listening to Anastasia Steele prattle on about how hard it is to be the object of desire for a smoking hot billionaire with emotional issues due to childhood trauma.

Giving up control is hot. I consider myself an independent woman. I don’t have a partner and I’m a single parent, so I make a lot of decisions all day every day. And, I’m exhausted. I’m tired of having to make all the choices. I’m tired of being in control all the time. I fantasize about someone else taking the reins for a while. I wouldn’t describe myself as a submissive, but in the bedroom, I would prefer to be guided, encouraged, and yes, controlled. Like Anastasia, I have hard limits. I have had only minimal experience with BDSM, but for the most part I have enjoyed what I’ve experienced. Being told what to do, being bound, and wearing a blindfold have all enhanced my sexual arousal. I’m even down with occasional spanking, but I don’t like the idea of punishment. I’d like to explore BDSM more with a rational adult who doesn’t push me too far when I set my limits. But, outside the bedroom, don’t tell me what to do unless I’m asking for your advice. Feel free to step up, take charge, and pitch in, but don’t assume that you’re the boss of me.

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‘Anastasia Steele’ [Source: Focus Features]

Even though Anastasia finds herself sexually aroused when Christian uses bondage and spanks her as part of their sex play, she still doubts her own feelings. If you got off and nobody received permanent physical damage, go with your gut and accept the fact that those things turn you on.

Trust is not something I give freely. For me to feel comfortable letting my guard down, I need to trust people. That isn’t an easy thing for me to do. I’ve been hurt too many times by friends and lovers to simply allow people to get close to me. It takes time for me to open up, which is one of the reasons I don’t engage in one-night stands. It takes time to build trust between people, and if I don’t trust you, we aren’t having sex. However, if we do get to know each other and have a falling out over a trust issue, make up sex isn’t necessarily off the table.

Throughout the novel, Anastasia keeps saying she can’t trust Christian because she doesn’t know what he’s thinking or feeling. Yet, he constantly reassures her, spells out exactly what he wants and what he likes about her, and demands she communicate her own feelings better so that he can trust her as well. Trust is a two-way street. You can’t demand it from someone without giving them reason to trust you in return.

Attractiveness comes from within. I don’t believe in love at first sight. No matter how good looking that person might be. Have I ever been physically attracted to a stranger? Of course. Do I make a habit of hopping into bed with everyone I find attractive? Or for that matter, anyone who finds me attractive? No. If I get to know you and find your character, mind, and soul attractive, your physical self will magically transform before my eyes and you will suddenly be the most attractive person on Earth. This is true for real people as well as fictional characters. Even smoking hot vampires need to have redeeming qualities to rev my engine. Speaking of vampires, take a minute to think about Eric Northman in the first season of True Blood.

Eric

‘Eric Northman’ [Source: HBO]

You can have more than a minute if you need it. I’ll wait.

He is without a doubt, a handsome man. I found him easy on the eyes at first glance, but the rumblings in my nether regions didn’t begin until he showed his true personality. Yes, he’s a monster. But he’s a monster who feels love, jealousy, and will risk his own life for the people he cares about. Sometimes he even risks his life for strangers. His kindness, sense of humor, intellect, and the fact that he can be a domineering control freak, are the qualities that make him most attractive in my opinion. Alexander Skarsgård is a very attractive man, but be honest, is he hotter as the complicated, Viking vampire in True Blood, or as the mentally challenged male model in Zoolander?

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‘Meekus’ [Source: Paramount Pictures]

Anastasia goes on endlessly about how attractive Christian Grey is. In fact, it seems that in her opinion, this is one of his best qualities. Oh, and his money. Is Christian Grey a domineering control freak who only wants to be in sub/Dom relationships? Initially, yes. Does he grow as a character and attempt to be more than that due to his feelings for Anastasia? Yes. In fact, each time we get a glimpse of his pain and the reasons for his behavior, and his willingness to change, he becomes slightly more attractive. Would I get pissed and tell him off if he spoke to me the way he speaks to Ana? Absolutely. I’m an adult. I decide what to eat, when to sleep, what to wear, and every other aspect of my personal upkeep. Would I enjoy having someone making sure I was taking care of myself and encouraging me to be a better version of me? Hell yeah! And, if that person wanted to give me expensive gifts, I wouldn’t say no. Of course, I’m a single, divorced woman who is raising her child alone. If I could spend my weekends with an attractive wealthy man who found me desirable, I wouldn’t question it every single second that I was with him. But…Christian Grey is an incredibly high-maintenance boyfriend with too many rules. And, I’m sorry, but he’s written as having the sexual prowess of a vampire. That just doesn’t happen in Nature.

There Is No Shame In Enjoying Bad Fiction

Despite its flaws (such as its super-fucking-annoying narrator), Fifty Shades of Grey does have some redeeming qualities. Authorial intent aside, this narrative provides some really great examples of 1) how not to write dialog between adults engaged in a serious BDSM relationship, 2) why you shouldn’t have your characters repeat the same inane words and phrases until your reader wants to stab them in the face, 3) why you shouldn’t adapt what I can only assume was shitty fan fiction inspired by terrible popular fiction into an even worse example of erotica, and 4) even in the worst fiction, you can find life lessons that illuminate aspects of your personal experiences.

Would I recommend that you read Fifty Shades of Grey? Yes, but I would recommend it in the same spirit that I would recommend watching a film like Blue Sunshine. It’s entertaining because it’s so unbelievably terrible.

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