In the process of writing my own book, I learned how novels are constructed – or really, I learned how stories are told. There is a typical structure to a well-told story, which the best storytellers can mess with but which, overall, good stories will tend to follow, whether on purpose or not.
And 50 Shades is TEXTBOOK.
The journey-lauching first plot point happens right at the 20% mark (she signs the “nondisclosure” thingummy, without which nothing else that happens could follow). The context-changing midpoint happens right at the 50% mark (the Tess note – “don’t make it more than I can bear”). And the booster-rockets second plot point came a little early by page count – it would have been expected, in my trade paperback edition, between pages 380-390 – but right on the mark by chapter count, the end of Chapter 20.
(If you’re like, “What the hell are you talking about, Emily?” just read any book on screenwriting.)
It’s the elevator thing again. We know where we’re going, and the standard plot structure is how we expect to get there. 50 Shades meets those expectations.
It delivers the story – even if the story is awful. And that is not nothing.
But the plot fucks up because in the end Ana defies the biology of attachment in order to do what the plot demands she does: a woman who has spent 450 pages worried that she made a guy mad is not going to FIGHT after being spanked with her consent. When she’s in pain, she’ll turn TOWARD her attachment object, not away. That’s what mammals – especially insecurely attached mammals – do.
But the plot structure required that she turn away, and so that’s what she does, despite its biological implausibility.
And THAT’s why this book is bullshit.
Or rather, it’s the final piece of bullshit in The Worst Book I Have Ever Finished. Grey is Ragey McRagington, Ana is the most dishwater heroine I’ve ever read (which is, I suppose, a kind of distinction), and their relationship is abusive, which makes all the sex gross.
While I’m at it, I MUST say this:
Regular readers of the blog are familiar with the concept of arousal nonconcordance: there a 10% overlap between what a woman’s genitals respond to sexually and what she actually ENJOYS sexually. This is not a system error, the two processes reflect different aspects of the sexual response mechanism. Genital response is about sexual RELEVANCE, while “feeling turned on” or “liking something” is about sexual APPETITIVENESS.
Genital response = sexually relevant, with no information about whether it’s good or bad.
“Arousal” = liking and maybe even wanting.
Which means I threw the book across the room and screamed when, after the first spanking – which Ana has only just barely tolerated – Christian Grey puts his fingers in Ana’s lubricating vagina and says:
“Feel this. See how much your body likes this, Anastasia.” [emphasis mine]
BLEURGH!!!!!! NO!!!! It means her body found physical contact with her genitals and buttocks sexually relevant, which is what it’s supposed to do! That has nothing to do with whether or not she LIKED IT, YOU FUCKBALL RAGEAHOLIC!! GAAAAAAAHHHHH!
It gets worse – less angry-making and more despair-making:
ANA BELIEVES HIM, instead of believing her own internal experience, which she describes as, “demeaned, debased, and abused.”
Look, for sure there are women who are turned on by the experience of being consensually debased, but the whole plot pivots on the fact that ANA ISN’T ONE OF THEM.
100,000,000 copies, people.
This is the kind of thing that brings out Hulk Emily.
Here’s what I’m going to do about it:
I am – I really am, I have already started, despite having my book’s Looming Deadline – going to write a feminist, sex positive, evidence-driven version of 50 Shades. I am going to do this because:
(1) I am too pissed about this book to do nothing;
(2) I understand how it used tension and anticipation to keep readers turning pages;
(3) I saw how the plot structure worked; and
(4) I have to get this taste out of mouth. The best way to do that is to spend 65,000 words choosing whatever taste I want.
In short, I see what worked in this book as clearly as I see what was NAUSEATINGLY AWFUL. Which means I can replicate the things that worked and replace the NAUSEATINGLY AWFUL with the FUN AND AWESOME.