Plenty has been said about what’s wrong with 50 Shades of Grey – in fact, y’all pointed me to several examples of bloggers blogging their reads, like Pervocracy’s, a chapter-by-chapter account that is by turns hilarious and profound, and sometimes it’s both at once. Cliff points out, among other things, the seriously, seriously big problems with consent and communication in the book.
It also has some pretty major problems with, um, sentence structure and vocabulary.
But those things aren’t what I want to comment on here. What I’m interested in is why such a bad book – and as a regular reader of romance novels, I say “bad” advisedly, knowing just what the standards are, in general, for romance – about such a bad relationship – and it really is a bad, bad relationships – sold 100,000,000 copies according to the full-page color ad in the New York times. That’s a hundred million.
A HUNDRED MILLION.
THAT is what I want to comment on here. That’s what I want to figure out.
Ready? Okay. Here we go. The first 5 chapters.
In the first 5 chapters of 50 Shades of Grey, we learn that Anastasia – Ana to her friends – is an insecure, self-critical pushover who is desperately concerned with other people’s opinions of her.
In fact, we learn this in the first four pages. And I’ll be honest: if I were just reading this for the hell of it, I would have stopped here. I don’t find Ana compelling as a character. That’s a personal taste thing, some people really enjoy the story of an anxious, pushover main character who grows over the course of the story, but it’s just not for me.
But let’s read on.
We then learn that Christian Grey has unruly copper-colored hair and he’s an arrogant control freak. We know this because Ana tell us us so over and over again. And again.
We’re 11 pages in now.
And I’m beginning to see what the deal is.
Little known fact: I, like Ana, wrote an essay on Tess of the d’Urbervilles in my last semester in college. I got an A on my paper. I do not yet know what Ana will get on hers, but THE TENSION IS MOUNTING! WILL ANA GET AN A?!
Publicly available fact: Princeton doesn’t offer a degree in Business Administration. I checked. So here’s a puzzle: is Ana’s friend Paul (who, we are told, is studying Business Administration at Princeton) a total fucking liar or… did EL James maybe not do a lot of research? (And by “a lot” I mean “any.”) DON’T YOU LONG TO KNOW THE ANSWER??? STAY TUNED.
What I’m saying here is: tension. The story so far is one long anxious ramble through the life and thoughts of an insecure, hapless, directionless, perpetually worried young woman. She’s nervous all the time, and she’s especially nervous when the hero is around. And she takes her nervousness around him to mean that she “likes him” – welcome to the wonderful world of misattribution of arousal.
But what matters about the tension has to do with us, the readers, and our discrepancy reducing feedback loops and information gap theory. The short version of what that means: our brains have an innate “What’s that?” mechanism that causes us to want get to the end of a thing, scratch the itch, find a solution, solve a puzzle, explore novelty to see where it fits in our prior experience. We like it when a chord of music resolves, when we know how a story ends.
In this case, all the (much-ridiculed) minutiae of Ana’s jacket and her tea and her blushes and her gasps and all her tedious thoughts are setting up tension, setting up expectations, heavily – HEAVILY – foreshadowing the relationship to come. (CABLE TIES?!?! That’s fucking hilarious!) We know what’s coming, and we keep reading until at last, with satisfaction, it comes.
Okay but here’s the magic trick part: This innate mechanism in our brains is so powerful that we don’t have to care about the characters in order to want to get to the resolution of all that tension. We don’t even have to enjoy a story in order to want to get to the resolution. (“Wanting” is a separate mechanism from “liking” – as I explain here.)
At the end of Chapter 5 – which is the end of my reading for this post – the hero kisses the heroine for the first time. In an elevator. This was foreshadowed by a prior elevator ride, in which they interrupted a couple making out. At the end of both elevator rides, Christian says, “What is it about elevators?” or something to that effect.
We may, I suppose, learn about some specific fetish of his, and I feel pretty certain there will be elevator-fucking in the future, but metaphorically, what is it about elevators?
Well as Cliff at Pervocracy points out, it’s a place where you can’t run away. That’s for sure the creepiest part – but that’s the hero’s perspective, and the book is written in the first person, from the heroine’s point of view, and she has no interest in running away. On the contrary.
So from the heroine’s POV, what is it, metaphorically, about elevators?
You get on an elevator, knowing that you’re going somewhere. You’re going somewhere. You’re getting closer. You’re almost there. There!
You don’t have to like where you’re going. You don’t have to enjoy the ride. But darn it all, you’re GOING to get where you’re going.
Information gap. Discrepancy reducing feedback loop.
So uh-huh. I get why people read this book – indeed, the prose is so ham-fisted, the storytelling so plodding, you can SEE the mechanism at work. And I know that people LIKE that feeling of being tugged along toward the inevitable. Elevators. We all know where we’re going, let’s just get on and go for a ride. Wheeee.
I’ve read worse romance novels. This probably somewhere in the C-/D+ range so far. I don’t yet know why it sold 100 million copies, but I know why it was published. It’s a rule-abiding fantasy that successfully builds tension and expectation so that our brains just want to get to the part where our expectations are fulfilled. Fair enough.
In a way, it’s pleasing to me that straightforward erotic fantasy for women, thinly veiled as romance, has made such an impact on the mainstream. That’s not nothing.
Something tells me, though, that things are about to get a little less pleasing a little more wackadoo.