John Tells Liz What Happened In “50 Shades of Grey” (Part 1)

Dear Frank,

Here’s the true story of how this came about — at an engagement party a few weeks ago, your friend and mine John Ross (a writer/filmmaker based in Los Angeles), mentioned that he was looking for a good excuse to read the best-selling erotic novel “50 Shades of Grey,” so he might learn what all the hype was about.

Because one of Liz Tells Frank’s proudest traditions is other people telling me about stuff, I immediately said to this nice Nebraska-born young man, “You should tell me about it so that I don’t have to tell Frank about it!” He proceeded to buy the book that night at his local grocery store (because apparently they are seriously selling “50 Shades of Grey” in grocery stores). And then, everything for John changed. For the better? Let’s find out….

Love,
Liz

Dear Liz,

502bdd39acc01.imageFifty Shades of Grey tells the story of Anastasia Steele, leader of a four-man Ghost Team call-signed “Hunter,” tasked with extracting an arms dealer named Christian Grey from a terrorist-controlled compound in Sucre, Bolivia. After using her remote surveillance drone to tag and execute the surrounding hostiles, Anastasia at last breaches the compound — taking out the last remaining guard with a silenced double-tap.

His body drops to the floor to reveal Christian Grey, bound and tied to a chair — her objective. She flushes. She can see the heat radiating from his toned physique through her thermal optic tac scope. Her breathing accelerates. Her optical camouflage deactivates and she starts to feel a pinch down there. Her subconscious is pinned down but her inner-goddess is providing cover fire—there’s just something about him that she can’t keep away from!

That is a pretty accurate snapshot of my psyche while reading Fifty Shades of Grey. I played a lot of Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon: Future Soldier, because it was the only way I was going to get through the book—by taking frequent breaks to kill people. It was rough, Liz. There were moments when I wanted to take the book out to my driveway, run it over with my car, then light it on fire — for example when I would read an exchange like this:

“You hang up,” I whisper. Finally, I sense his smile.
“No, you hang up.”

Then I got to the ending, which almost redeems the rest of the book. Not entirely, but I did laugh out loud. Then I laughed at myself. Why get so mad at this book when it’s so obvious I simply shouldn’t be reading it? It would be like someone who’s allergic to cats yelling at a cat just for being a cat.

But I’m still a little sad, Liz. I thought that by reading this book, I would become privy to the Secret Knowledge. I had heard that in the UK, the first book alone had sold more copies than the entire Harry Potter series combined. I had heard that it was being developed into a major motion picture, to be adapted by the co-creator of Terra Nova (let’s hope she adds dinosaurs). And I had heard that sex toy sales were soaring, a top seller being the Fifty Shades “home game” — complete with riding crop, handcuffs, silver pleasure balls, and so on.

For ages 40 & Up.

For ages 40 & Up.

All of this build-up only makes reading the book that much worse, because as it turns out, the only secret knowledge is that which us nerds have been privy to all along — that Fifty Shades of Grey is just Twilight erotic fan fiction that went viral.

I thought that was obvious to everyone until I had multiple conversations with relatives that went something like this:

Me: “I’m just writing a review of Fifty Shades of Grey for my friend.”
Relative: “Oh my god, you mean you read ‘the book’?!”
Me: “Well, I don’t know if I would even call it a book. You know it started as Twilight fan fiction, right?”
Relative: “Huh? What does that mean?”

But even many of those who know it started out as fan fiction think it was only inspired by it, then gradually developed into something new and wholly original. Wrong. Fifty Shades of Grey really is just Twilight fan fiction copied from the web and pasted onto book pages. That’s not an exaggeration, Liz. And it’s the elephant in the room that author E.L. James, Vintage Books, the creator of Terra Nova, and anyone with a vested financial interest in the property do not want to talk about. That’s why they keep releasing panicky statements like this one (from Vintage Books):

It is widely known that E.L James began to capture a following as a writer shortly after she posted her second fan fiction story. She subsequently took that story and re-wrote the work, with new characters and situations. That was the beginning of the Fifty Shades trilogy.

But blogger Jane Litte, using a plagiarism detection program called Turnitin, compared the Fifty Shades trilogy with the original fan fiction posted on FanFiction.net (titled Master of the Universe!) and discovered that they were 89% similar.

So why are they trying to suppress this fact? Well, for one, it creates a whole host of ethical quandaries for E.L. James that are so complex and headache-inducing that I’m not even going to get into it. If you really want to know, this article in The New York Review of Books explains it way better than I could. Also, if Stephenie Meyer doesn’t care, then I don’t care. Why would she? It would be like Dan Brown getting pissed off about this:

oh dear god john

The only reason I wanted to bring all this up is to make it clear that when you are reading Fifty Shades of Grey you are reading Twilight fan fiction, pure and simple. Fan fiction is written in little installments, often with no real end in sight. In between installments, countless fans chime in to give their comments and advise where they think the story should go. So by the time the writer gets to some kind of ending, it’s all already “published” so you can’t really go back and do any rewriting.

This is glaringly obvious while reading Fifty Shades of Grey. Little thought is given to pacing, structure, or, most tragically, redundancy. Much thought, however, is given to what it might be like if Bella and Edward from Twilight had rough, kinky sex. So on that note, let’s get this over with because I can hear Ghost Recon calling my name from the other room.

The book is written from the point of view of Anastasia Steele, a 22-year-old senior majoring in English Literature at Washington State University Vancouver. (I love her name. Like Bella Swan, it is the ultimate romance name. Kind of like how action movie heroes have names like JERICHO CANE! or JOHN MATRIX!) The first line of the entire book is: “I scowl with frustration at myself in the mirror.” Yeah…you almost don’t even need to read the rest of the book.

Anastasia’s roommate, Katherine, is supposed to drive to Seattle to interview famous billionaire Christian Grey — CEO of Grey Enterprises Holdings, Inc. — for the school newspaper, but she has the flu, so she asks Anastasia to go in her place. Thanks, school newspaper!

So Anastasia drives to the Grey building—an 80-story glass monument to corporate psychopathy. In the lobby, the well-groomed secretaries are really nervous for some reason, and when they finally tell Ana that Mr. Grey is ready for her, Ana is so nervous herself that she stumbles into his office and falls flat on her face. This woman is so klutzy and nervous and self-conscious, you wonder if every chapter starts with Sam Beckett quantum-leaping into her.

Quick to help her up is Christian Grey — 27 years old and dreamy. Very dreamy. Think this guy without the mullet:

mcmullet

During the interview, we learn a lot about Christian Grey. For example, I learned that if you gave me a week to do nothing but try and think of a way to make this character a bigger douche, I don’t think I could do it. He brags about how he is using his money to end world hunger. He drives an Audi R8 Spyder. His hobbies are flying and gliding. He likes to show off how much he knows about obscure classical music. He sits in a pool of light and plays sad piano songs because he’s so dark and brooding. Also, everything he does in this book.

As Anastasia interviews him, she gets a strange feeling. There’s something about him that she can’t– You know what, the descriptions of what happens to Anastasia whenever she sees or even thinks about Christian Grey are so repetitive that I feel like I should figure out some kind of time-saving way to get through them from here on out. So whenever I write the word Refrain, insert this description:

Refrain
I flush. My heart jumps into my mouth. I feel a current run through me. My breathing accelerates and I start to feel a pinch down there. My subconscious is telling me to stay away, but my inner-goddess is doing cartwheels. I know there’s no way we could ever be together, but there’s just something about him that I can’t keep away from. And he wants me!

Her inner-goddess and her subconscious, by the way, are anthropomorphic representations of her id and superego respectively. They are also mimes, apparently, as that seems to be the only way they know how to communicate.

Later that weekend, Anastasia is at work—re-stocking shelves at a hardware store—and Grey shows up at the store! How did he know she worked there?! Refrain. This whole first section of the book is all about build-up, and I don’t need to tell you what it is they talk about in these flirty scenes except to say that it’s never too terribly interesting.

The point is that the whole time he’s around, she’s Refrain-ing. And their speech is strangely mannered. He refuses to use contractions around her and will only refer to her as “Ms. Steele.” They almost sound… British. In this screen capture of an original posting on FanFiction.net, you can see E.L. James (aka Snowqueens Icedragon) thanking all the fans for their contributions and for helping her with her “American”:

3December2010

Well, she needs a little more help. Americans rarely use words like “shall” or “perhaps” unless we’re trying to be sarcastic.

Anyway, he’s about to leave the store when Anastasia mentions that Katherine needs some photos to go with her interview, so Christian agrees to meet them at his hotel suite in Portland for a photo shoot. Thanks again, school newspaper! Katherine asks their friend Jose to take the photos for them.

Jose is basically Jacob except that his special skill is photography instead of werewolf-ery. Bella — I mean Ana! — thinks Jacob — I mean Jose! — is nice and cute and everything, but he doesn’t make her Refrain like Edward — I mean Christian! — does. Yes, the Native American character in Twilight has been replaced by a Mexican American named Jose Rodriguez who begins a lot of his sentences with “Dios Mio!” Want to kill someone yet?

By the way, I’m trying to put together a squad for the Ghost Recon: Future Soldier co-op campaign. If anyone out there is interested, my Xbox live handle is NeedCoffee. The co-op multi-player mode doesn’t have a matchmaking system, which is the one really frustrating thing about this game.

Anyway, after Ana and Christian go out for coffee again, and after he saves her from being hit by a bicycle (this book has everything!), he tells her that he is “not the man for her” and she should stay away from him. Ana runs home and cries. Even though they were never going out, this is traumatic because he has long fingers (yes, she references his “long” fingers at least once every few pages).

Later that week, while she’s at a bar with Katherine and Jose Rodriguez, Ana drunk-dials Christian. He demands to know where she is, but she hangs up on him and stumbles outside to puke. While she’s outside, Jose tries to force himself on her when suddenly, Christian shows up out of nowhere and stops him. Unhand her, savage! Ana is shocked. How did he know where she was?! Refrain.

See, Christian has the ability to know where she is at all times and be there almost in an instant—just like a vampire! But James got rid of the supernatural stuff for this fanfic, so instead of being psychic and super-fast, he’s just really, really rich (that should cover everything). If anything, the way James made the characters from Twilight basically the same but without the supernatural powers is kind of clever. A better title might have been Stephenie Meyer In Love.

Ana wakes up the next morning to find herself in Grey’s hotel suite in Portland where they did the photo shoot. Don’t worry, they didn’t do anything. As he explains over breakfast, he won’t touch her unless he has her “written consent to do so.” What does he mean by that?! Refrain.

He assures her that all will be revealed later that night, at which point, I guess, he will finally touch her. But in the elevator, he can’t seem to contain himself and—pinning her arms above her with one hand and grabbing her hair with the other—proceeds to try to fit her whole head in his mouth. Afterwards, he promises to never do that again until the paperwork is signed. What paperwork?! What is this mysterious man’s mysterious secret?! What are the latest developments in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?!

Liz doesn’t know! Frank doesn’t know! But they’ll both learn soon, in PART TWO of this epic retelling!

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About A "Liz Tells Frank" Guest Writer

I'm a guest writer for Liz Tells Frank What Happened In..., which makes me a very special breed of person, and someone Liz admires deeply! Want to become a guest writer yourself? Just reach out to Liz and ask!

Posted on December 4, 2012, in Books, Other People Telling Liz Stuff and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. I am so glad that John read this, so that we don’t have to.

  2. Yes, a huge thank you to John, because I don’t think ‘rough’ begins to cover the traumatic experience that reading that drivel must have been. Why are people reading this? I’m not exactly versed in erotic fiction, but there simply has to be better written stuff out there.

    • My personal theory is that it’s like the snake swallowing its own tail: People hear it’s popular, so they buy it, making it popular, which makes people want to check it out. You know, the same principle which made Gangnam Style into a thing.

  3. I’m a librarian at the public library, and I’ve tried to give people better-written erotic fiction, and they don’t want it, and this is my conclusion: if it were ‘better,’ it wouldn’t be porn. The fact that the narrative is clearly just a service vehicle for the sex – like the lemon jello around the marshmallows – makes it that much dirtier.

  4. Also, thank you John. I couldn’t have done it.

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