SUDDENLY HOT: Author E.L. James at a New York book signing. Her ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ trilogy is a bestseller, but its erotic content has sparked controversy. (Photo: John Roca/Newscom)
You ever see a trailer for a movie starring one of your favorite actors and get super excited? You mark the date on your calendar, find as many sneak peeks and behind-the-scenes pieces you can and plan to see it opening night. The day arrives and you take out a loan so you can afford the overpriced buttery popcorn, Tropical Skittles, and calorie-packed soda. You sit through the previews, the reminder to turn your cell phone off and you anxiously wait for Will Smith/Hugh Jackman/Emma Stone to appear on the screen.
And then … the movie sucks. Not in the “it was OK” kind of way, but in the “B.A.P.S.” or “Soul Plane” kind of way. You feel duped by your favorite actor, the previews, and all the critics who failed to warn you.
This horrific feeling is EXACTLY how I felt after reading Fifty Shades of Grey, the bestselling book that everyone’s been talking about. Sadly, this wasn’t the end of my turmoil. Optimistic idealist that I am, I read the sequel and was disappointed again. At this point, I was two-thirds through the trilogy and it seemed that God had forsaken me. But I read that weeping only lasts for a night and that joy comes in the morning, so I walked back into the torture chamber that is the third installment of the Fifty Shades series. I’m sad to report that morning hasn’t arrived.
The only joy I derived from reading these three books comes from the knowledge that I can warn you to avoid them.
Prior to ingesting the revolting pill that is the Fifty Shades trilogy, I saw nothing but rave reviews about the series via social media. To be honest, most of the feedback was vague — “I can’t stop reading it … I can’t put it down. It’s so addictive!” — but still positive. So, of course, as an avid reader of just about everything stirring in pop culture, from The Hunger Games trilogy to anything by Malcolm Gladwell, I had to check it out.
I could write a book, maybe even a trilogy, about the horrors of Fifty Shades, but I’ll condense it to the top three problems I had with the books. (And be warned, my reflections may include a few spoilers.)
1. No one told me it was erotica!!! Call me old-fashioned but I thought books like this came in a brown paper bag and required an ID for purchase. In all of my discussions of the book, no one mentioned that one of the primary themes of the plot involved the VERY adult subject of a sexual counterculture BDSM. My issue with the book isn’t that it’s erotica; it’s the idea that erotica is considered mainstream reading material. Since when does erotica make it to the NY Times bestsellers list? I was caught off guard, unprepared for it, and therefore, a bit nauseated by it. (Erotica is one thing; erotica I’m not prepped for is a whole ‘nother matter.)
2. The plot is implausible. Pardon me for wanting my fiction to make at least a little sense, but I’m pretty sure that there are several Disney fairy tales that are only slightly less believable than Fifty Shades. A few plot problems:
• What 22-year-old woman with several handsome and eligible men fawning all over her has NO idea that she’s attractive?
• What 27-year-old man who is savvy enough to amass a colossal wealth of billions of dollars is also silly enough to entrust it to a woman that he’s known for a few months?
• What are the odds that a billionaire who is a local celebrity has had an extremely deviant sexual relationship with over a dozen women and NO ONE knows?
GREY GROUPIES: Fans of ‘Shades of Grey’ author E.L. James snap pictures of the writer at her New York book signing. The trilogy, and its erotic themes, has struck a chord with ordinary housewives. (Photo: John Roca/Newscom)
3. The story is redundant. Possibly the worst crime committed by Fifty Shades is the monotony. You just want to shake Ana and tell her to stand up for herself; then you want to grab Christian and tell him to grow up. For those of you who must go through the pain of reading this on your own, I won’t spoil it. But I will tell you this. The characters don’t change or grow. They do and say the same things over and over. There are no plot twists. At the beginning of the trilogy, Ana is a girl with low self-esteem who believes her best friend is beautiful and she is mousy. In the third book, Ana meets with an interior designer and this same low self-esteem makes her feel mousy again. At the beginning of the trilogy, Christian is an intelligent but selfish man with a little boy temper. At the end of the trilogy, Christian is a man with a family and a little boy temper. What most people love about a book series is that you get to see the characters evolve and the story keeps getting better and better as it progresses. In this case, the story keeps going but it never changes.
Fifty Shades of Grey apparently began as an experiment in fan fiction, with British housewife Erika Leonard mimicking The Twilight series and giving her stories away for free on the Internet. Initially popular with bored housewives, the stories soon developed a cult following and exploded into a publishing phenomenon. Leonard, writing as “E.L. James,” now reportedly hauls in millions of dollars each week from her erotic trilogy.
In some ways, I can resonate with Leonard’s backstory. She turned an evening diversion into a literary jackpot. Who doesn’t love a good success story?
But that feel-good stuff only goes so far. My favorite pastime is reading and I’ve always looked at it as a temporary escape from my own personal reality. Leonard’s trilogy, however, wasn’t an escape from my reality; it was a departure from all reality.
I’d call it a waste of paper, but I at least was smart enough to purchase the e-versions. Save yourself from 50 evenings of exasperation. Leave Fifty Shades of Grey on the shelf.
What do you think?
If you’ve read the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy, what’s your opinion of the books? Harmless entertainment? Porn for soccer moms? How should Christians think about these books and their popularity?
Author and law professor Stephen L. Carter (photo by Elena Seibert).
Stephen L. Carter has the Christian Contrarian-Renaissance Man-Black Public Intellectual thing down pat. A Yale law professor, a best-selling author of both nonfiction and suspense-filled novels, a frequent contributor to the nation’s most-esteemed op-ed pages, including everything from The New York Times to Christianity Today; Carter makes it look easy. He also was a classmate of Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor, which is why we wanted to get his opinion about last week’s judicial hearings and the current state of affairs on the political scene.
Back in 1991, Carter’s book Reflections of an Affirmative Action Baby recast the national discussion on diversity and racial preferences by defending affirmative action’s effectiveness in opening doors for qualified minorities like himself while simultaneously taking it to task for casting doubt over black professionals’ ability to compete with the “best of the best.” His arguments left many critics wondering whether he was a liberal, a conservative, a neoconservative, or perhaps just an “honest liberal.” He defies easy labels.
Carter, a devout Christian, carried this same tough but evenhanded inquiry to the subject of religion in America. His books The Culture of Disbelief (1993) and God’s Name in Vain (2000) helped sharpen the debate about the intersection of faith and politics with ideas and arguments that were at once intellectually forceful and spiritually attuned.
Carter is hard to categorize, not because he enjoys keeping folks guessing but because for him serious debate does not easily translate into the kind of partisan sound bites that pervade talk radio and cable television. In an essay in The Virginia Quarterly Review, Michael Nelson uses Carter’s insights from his book Civility to shed light on the author’s skepticism about today’s brand of politics:
Carter regards politics as having betrayed us, in utterly bipartisan ways. Democrats promise entitlements and Republicans promise tax cuts, “but both parties are really doing the same thing: appealing to our selfish side.” Conservatives exalt property, liberals exalt rights, but “both teach us to worship ourselves.”
Recently, Carter has spent more time wearing his fiction hat. His first novel, 2002’s The Emperor of Ocean Park, shot up the best-seller list and quickly established him as an entertaining cross between John Grisham and Ralph Ellison. His latest work, Jericho’s Fall, finds Carter boldly tackling the “spy thriller” genre. As he began his Jericho’s Fall book tour last week, UrbanFaith talked to him about Sonia Sotomayor, diversity in America, and the question of empathy from the judicial bench.
URBANFAITH: You were friends and classmates with Sonia Sotomayor at Yale Law School back in the late ’70s. Did you suspect then that she could one day be a nominee for the U.S. Supreme Court?
STEPHEN CARTER: When we were law students, Sonia left an immediate impression because she hit the ground running. At a time when many others were quivering in the back of the classroom, she was doing the work, raising her hand, arguing the issues. I remember that her ambition at the time was to be a trial lawyer; by all accounts, she was a very successful one.
Her great strengths were two. First, the determination to get the answers right. By this I mean that she was less interested in persuading others that they were wrong than in weighing their arguments against hers to work out what the answer was. In other words, she always believed there was a best answer.
Second, she possessed then — and possesses now — an enormous human warmth, an ability to draw others to her. Sometimes she and I do not run into each other for years at a time, but, whenever we do, she hugs me and asks at once about my wife Enola, another law school classmate, and my children. I believe that President Obama made a wonderful choice.
How did it make you feel to see a Latina nominated for the highest judicial office in our nation?
I am perfectly happy to see more diversity on the bench. But, in this case, I am particularly happy to see Sonia Sotomayor on the bench. She is, to my way of thinking, a judge’s judge. I teach a couple of her opinions in my courses at Yale Law School. This is not because she is a friend — I have other friends on the bench whose opinions I would never inflict on my students — but because she writes extremely well, always tries to be fair in laying out the arguments, and has a particular skill in clarifying complex issues of federal regulatory law.
Almost immediately after Judge Sotomayor’s nomination was announced, conservative pundits started playing snippets of her old speeches. The most famous clip was from a speech where she suggested that a wise Latina judge would make a better decision than a white male. Those words were of particular concern to the senators who grilled her during last week’s hearings. What are your thoughts about her controversial comment?
The attention paid to Judge Sotomayor’s “wise Latina” quote captures everything that is wrong with the confirmation process. We spend little time studying the nominee’s opinions — hard to make talk radio fodder of that! — and, instead, search for snippets from speeches and articles that we can use as cudgels. This is true whether it is a Democratic or a Republican president doing the nominating. It is both silly and sad that we cannot talk about law, or about a judge’s work, but must instead search for these bits and pieces and make them the story. Alas, that is how America works these days.
President Obama said one of the things he was looking for in a Supreme Court justice was a sense of empathy, of being able to understand the experiences of the less fortunate. As a law expert and an African American, do you agree?
I respectfully disagree with President Obama that “empathy” is an important characteristic in a judge. Had the President said what I think he probably meant — “patience” or “a willingness to listen and learn” — I would have agreed. Judge Sotomayor has both in spades. But “empathy” is an empty standard. For example, a judge who always rules in favor of investment banks might have empathy for Wall Streeters; and, during the civil rights era, there were plenty of Southern apologists who described the working-class whites of the South as the truly oppressed in America.
What are your thoughts about the ruling by Judge Sotomayor regarding the New Haven firefighter case [Ricci v. DeStefano] that was recently overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court? Did you agree or disagree with Judge Sotomayor’s initial ruling?
I have no particular view on Ricci, other than to say that it was a sufficiently tough case and that both sides were well within the mainstream in their opinions. The Supreme Court’s 5-4 split is good evidence of this.
When you hear the phrase “post-racial” in regards to the state of race relations today, what does that mean to you? And how do you think the conversation about race and diversity needs to change in light of Barack Obama becoming president?
I think perhaps it is too early to tell. Let me give you an example of what I mean. In my new novel, Jericho’s Fall, the protagonist, Rebecca DeForde is never given a physical description. There are a few clues as to her race scattered throughout, but I never specify what it may be, and I have refused at all times to say. Yet some of the early reviews solemnly informed readers that Rebecca is white! I would like to believe that in the age of Obama, such things do not matter. Evidently, to many people, they do.
Let me slightly change the subject again. I know that education reform is a special area of interest to you. Are you hopeful that the current administration is moving in a direction that will be beneficial to students and families of all socioeconomic levels?
I am strongly in favor of school vouchers, and I am not afraid to call them that. I believe that the government has an obligation to subsidize poor families to help them gain some of the advantages that better-off families can buy. Studies on whether test scores advance or not are beside the point. There is a demand for vouchers from poor families. It is the well-to-do who oppose them.
I am not clear on the Obama administration’s precise position on school vouchers. The President and the Secretary of Education have said several times that they want to fund whatever works. But this standard, alas, can open the door to endless debate. I would respectfully urge upon the administration that it consider instead a standard something like the following: “We are committed to doing all that we can to provide to poor families the same range of choices available to wealthier families.”
Congratulations on the release of Jericho’s Fall. Over the past decade, you’ve been more prolific as a novelist than as a writer of nonfiction. Is there a reason for that? Have you found fiction to be a more effective way of communicating the ideas that are currently most important to you?
I enjoy writing both fiction and nonfiction. They call upon different parts of my brain and, I suppose, my personality. There are moments when one form of writing is easier than the other. This novel came very easily. The three earlier ones were labors of love, but also of agony.
Writing fiction is fun. I write it to entertain, not to communicate big ideas. But if the readers find ideas in the fiction, I have no complaint.
For more information about Carter’s writings, visit his website at StephenCarterBooks.com.