50 Shades of Bad Writing

I understand that this will strike regular readers as a bit of a departure. This blog covers a lot of areas—children’s writing, fantasy, myth, theology and philosophy—and Fifty Shades of Grey is none of those. Not even close.

And no, I haven’t read E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey, for reasons that will become evident. As a writer and writing teacher, though, I try to keep my eyes open to what is happening in the book world. It is hard not to notice this year’s bestseller: an erotic novel loosely conceived around the Twilight series until it found a voice of its own. According to statistics, every woman on Earth has two copies, so it is worth paying attention to the phenomenon.

I got my copy because one of these Earth women felt that a single copy was, indeed, one too many. She bought the book, knowing little about it, and decided to give it a read. Quickly she knew it was not her kind of book, so she threw it away—too embarrassed to sell it or return it. I convinced her to give me the book, and now I own a copy of the fastest selling softcover book ever.

The reason my friend was too embarrassed to return the book, though, was not because of its erotic content. It was the bad writing. As an example, she sent me this excerpt which she chose at random:

 Vaguely, I’m aware that I’m still in my sweats, unshowered, yucky, and he’s just gloriously yummy, his pants doing that hanging from the hips thing, and what’s more, he’s here in my bedroom….
Finally, my medulla oblongata recalls its purpose. I breathe….” (189).

That’s lots of contractions, isn’t it? The awkward string of infantile descriptions made my own medulla oblongata cease to function for a while. My friend suggested the book was filled with this kind of bad writing.

Apparently others agree. One edgy reviewer took the time to count the repetitive, mind-numbing phrases. “Oh My!” is popular with 79 occurrences, not surprising given the content, I suppose. “Crap” (101) ,“Holy [expletive/fake swear]” (172), or “Jeez” (82) are the most popular curse words,  and “Gasp(s)” (45), “Whoa” (13), or “Sharp Intake of Breath” (4) are key to the characters’ respiratory regimes. On every second page the character murmurs (207) or whispers (199), and they occasionally mutter (51). In an erotic novel it isn’t astounding that “lips” is popular (71 times), but “Inner goddess” is surprisingly common (58)—betraying what must be a deep, feminist book. We see this depth also from the frequent use of “Subconscious” (82 occurrences). Fortunately, “medulla oblongata” and “yucky” are only used once, but the tall, dark, handsome stranger is thrice described as “yummy” (or “delicious” another three times).

This is high-end writing folks.

In the spirit of my book-giver—I’ve kept her anonymous so she doesn’t lose all literary credibility—and the sarcasta-reviewer quoted above, I thought I would do my own open book experiment. So here are a few quotations I pulled almost at random. I’ve decided to leave out the naughty bits—you can look it up on Wikipedia if you want more description about things that might be described in an erotic novel (by the way, “Wikipedia” occurs twice). Meanwhile, here is my “random inspiration” list.

I’m afraid the experiment doesn’t start well. This is what I saw when my eye first fell on the page.

He blows gently up the length of my sex (141).

I’m not a medical doctor, but I’m pretty sure “sex” isn’t a body part. I looked it up on Google (occurs 6 times in 50 Shades), and I’m right. Assuming I’ve simply begun with a typo I begin again:

In his bedroom, I hunt through a chest of drawers and find the hair dryer. Using my fingers, I dry my hair the best I can. When I’ve finished, I head into the bathroom.
I want to clean my teeth. I eye Christian’s toothbrush. It would be like having him in my mouth. Hmm… Glancing guiltily over my shoulder at the door, I feel the bristles on the toothbrush. They are damp. He must have used it already. Grabbing it quickly, I squirt toothpaste on it and brush my teeth in double quick time. I feel so naughty. It’s such a thrill (76-77).

Does anyone else find that creepy? Sure, the character is creepy, but I mean the writing: these clipped inner thought phrases that move from minutia to the thrilling aspects of drying saliva on nylon, and all in the context of a strange set of consequences. If she found the hair dryer, why does she dry her hair the best she can with her fingers? Why not do it perfectly, with the hair dryer she found? And why does the guy have a hair dryer in his drawer-chest? And how did she know?

I think the real problem is this inner conversation. It is very confusing. Here is an example:

I KNOW WHAT HE’S REALLY LIKE – YOU DON’T! – I scream at her in my head. I’m fully aware that her actions come from a good place, but sometimes she just oversteps the mark, and right now so far that she’s into the neighboring state. I scowl at her, and she pokes her tongue out at me… (352).

Wow, step away from the crazy lady. That inner screaming happens a lot, by the way. 16 times by my count.

Do I want to say goodbye to that? No! Screams my subconscious… my inner goddess nods in silent zen-like agreement with her.

The real problem is her subconscious, with whom the main character consistently disagrees and relegates it (her?) to a position inferior to her inner goddess. These are different voices she hears, you see:

My subconscious is furious, medusa-like in her anger, hair flying, her hands clenched around her face like Edvard Munch’s Scream.

If she’s having trouble with her Medusa hair, she does have a hair dryer. The problem is you never know what your inner goddess might be up to:

My inner goddess has back flipped off the podium and is doing cartwheels around the stadium (447).

How many voices do you hear in your head screaming at you or smugly nodding or managing to both cover its face and have its hair flying out all medusa-like? Her subconscious is very demanding, and I’m not sure where the fight with the inner goddess first began. Truthfully, at this point in the experiment, my subconscious is screaming at me to put this book down. My inner goddess agrees, nodding all zen-like.

Overall, the book seems to me a clatter of clichés. Oh, sorry, I could have done that better: a hodgepodge of clichés works better. A potpourri, perhaps? A mixed bag of clichés? See, Thesaurus.com can be really helpful to serious writers. Some of these overused word pictures are even confusing, like her “oversteps the mark” phrase above. Perhaps that’s just a middle age British writer trying to sound like a 24 year old Seattle ditz, but the clichés wrench my literary sense. Here’s another, again, found at random:

The roads are clear as I set off from Vancouver, WA toward Portland and the I-5…. Fortunately, Kate’s lent me her sporty Mercedes CLK. I’m not sure Wanda, my old VW Beetle, would make the journey in time. Oh, the Merc is a fun drive, and the miles slip away as I floor the pedal to the metal.

If you are going to use clichés like “floor it” or “pedal to the metal,” it is best to use them both at once. Notably, this entire paragraph was spelled correctly, though in the years I was in the automotive industry I never heard a Mercedes called a “Merc.” How should one pronounce that? Mers? Merk? As in Merkedes? In any case, clichés are stock in the pages I viewed, and they are best used in families of mixed metaphors:

I whisper recklessly as desire sweeps like adrenaline through my system, waking everything in its path.

In the character’s strange scientific world, adrenaline sweeps through body systems, which she likens to a path—or perhaps people fleeing from a storm—and its main function is to wake things. It doesn’t go better with similes. Beyond the disasters of Medusa-like and zen-like above, I find the word pictures in general to be staggeringly bad:

  • His words are like some kind of incendiary device; my blood flames (111).
  • “Are you in Portland on business?” I ask, and my voice is too high, like I’ve got my finger trapped in a door or something. Damn! Try to be cool Ana!
  • I sound like a sophomore on amphetamines, too high-pitched even for my own ears.
  • He seems to have woken up and is beaming at me like I’m the Christmas Fairy and the Easter Bunny rolled into one.
  • Leaving the cool air-conditioned confines of the arrival terminal, we step into the Georgia heat like we’re wearing it. Whoa!
  • I am quaking like a leaf (111).
  • His voice is warm and husky like dark melted chocolate fudge caramel… or something.

The last one’s my favourite… or something. “Or something” is used 7 times. Honestly, though, I seldom describe dark melted chocolate fudge caramel as “husky.”

Now, I grant writing sex can be awkward. The Guardian (Britain, not Prince Edward Island) has a contest for bad sex scenes. I’ve left out as much of the erotic material as I could. But everything I found that was the least bit intimate was awkward. I know as writers we all struggle to capture those feelings of two people connecting, but here is one example of many:

Our fingers brush very briefly, and the current is there again, zapping through me like I’ve touched an exposed wire. I gasp involuntarily as I feel it, all the way down to somewhere dark and unexplored, deep in my belly. Desperately, I scrabble around for my equilibrium.

I don’t know what to do with that. I like the idea of the current, but “zapping”—used twice in the book—seems to take all of the mystique away from the moment. And she used “current” five times, and “undercurrent” three times (probably unaware that it, too, is a metaphor). I like the dark, unexplored feelings, but why are they in the belly. She is big into bellies:

As I take Christian’s hand, there’s a mounting excitement in my belly. Wow… gliding!

Wow… bad writing. I suppose “belly” is better than housing sexual feelings in her alimentary canal—remember the medulla oblongata above—but wouldn’t “deep in my core” be better still, or “at the centre of my being” or some such nonsense? And then the last phrase makes it fall apart: “Desperately, I scrabble around for my equilibrium”—who talks like that?

It’s time to stop.

While I would like to quip that I haven’t read this book because I believe writing this bad is immoral—I think it is—my brief experiment has demonstrated to me the deeply problematic nature of the world glorified in the text. As I was looking up how many times the author used “smolder” (only twice), I found a phrase that I think captures succinctly everything that is wrong with the book:

“I like you sore.” His eyes smolder. “Reminds you where I’ve been, and only me.”

50 Shades of Grey is not just fantasy play, and it certainly isn’t some sort of conversion against inhibition. It is a glorification of the hierarchical, the self-driven, and self-fulfilling. It is everything that love is not, and everything that breaks love.

Some might think that I’m jealous of E.L. James’ fame, or that I’m concerned no one will think I’m yummy, or delicious, or husky like a Dairy Queen sundae. I have some hope that neither happens.

Now, will I keep the book or throw it away? I will keep it, and tuck it to the back of my bookshelf. To me it is a kind of sign, the silk grey tie on the cover the symbol of that which threatens to stop short love’s breath. If that is too much credit given for a bad book, at the very least it is a list of 50 metaphors I’ll never use again. And at the heart of it, unlike the authors I review on this blog typically, 50 Shades of Grey doesn’t tell the truth. It is not a good book.

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About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis and the worlds he touched, like children’s literature, apologetics, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, and writing. Lewis, recently re-famed on film, has remained relevant to believers nearly a century after his famous conversion. His children’s books have influenced a new generation of myth-makers and his nonfiction work emerges in cutting edge Christian thought today, from the work of the apologists battling the so-called New Atheists to the pop-theology of writers like Rob Bell. Personally, Lewis’ work draws me in. From the The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe as contraband Christian theology in my childhood to the clarity of his thinking in The Screwtape Letters or Mere Christianity, I am invited into Lewis’ Narnia, his world where the real is more than touch and taste and scent, where it is increasingly evident there is more than there is and there is meaning behind that is-ness. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through his work and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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48 Responses to 50 Shades of Bad Writing

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  2. robstroud says:

    “The awkward string of infantile descriptions made my own medulla oblongata cease to function for a while.”

    Great review. This book reminds me that men are not the only ones vulnerable to pornography.

  3. Kristine M. says:

    I think that the hairdryer part meant that she actually used the hair dryer, but didn’t have a brush, which most women use when drying their hair, so she also used her fingers. Not that this makes the series any better.

    • brentondickieson says:

      That makes sense. Partly I was being goofy. Just the whole seen didn’t make sense to me.

      • You mean the whole ‘scene’? :)
        Like your friend, I bought the book without knowing much about the content. Though I’ve attempted to read it a few times, the writing is simply too bad for me to go on. ‘Mommy porn’ is what 50 Shades is labelled by many. IMHO, it’s not even at the same level as proper porn. Don’t know what’s gotten into women these days.
        Oh, and I cringe every time when the protagonist uses ‘Holy cow!’.

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  5. Matthew says:

    Don’t worry Brenton, I think you’re as husky as a cob of corn.

  6. Shareen says:

    This post is brilliant and stupidly funny. Thank you for sharing.

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  8. alyjbari says:

    Oh, your post is plenty clever! I loved this post so much that I too linked it on my own blog, as well as Facebook for my friends to enjoy. I think my favorite line in this post is where you said that you “believe writing this bad is immoral” – that just summed it all up right there.

  9. Cly says:

    It’s just rubbish writing along the lines of Days Of Our Lives screenplays. I had such fun reading the Amazon reviews of all three books recently. I was wondering whether I should I give this writer a go and went about reading reviews just to see what people were saying. I’d heard so much bad but you never know, might just be my thing I thought. I didn’t see one positive review of any of the books. Quite a few had me in tears from laughing and I was convinced instead to download the parodies instead, recommended by many of the reviewers, which were fantastically amusing.

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  11. I guess I am the only woman in North America who does NOT have a copy of this book, never plans to get one, let alone read it. If this is what it is like, not only does it sound like a bad Harlequin romance, my literary opinion of anyone who has read it and said they liked it just went down. Yuck.

  12. I have a copy if you need it… Yeah, it’s not a good book. My kid’s principal speaks of “living books”–this isn’t one of them.

    • “Living books.” I like that. This doesn’t sound like a living book. From the pieces you’ve pulled out here, it reminds me of a book I picked up in high school without knowing much about. I read the whole thing, long after I was grossed out by it, just because it was there. Except it wasn’t as bad as this.

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  14. jubilare says:

    Well, here’s another female who has never had, and Lord-willing, never will have a copy. Funny review! :)
    I’m saddened at the level of bad prose people will read without, apparently, realizing how wretched it is!

    • Stay away from the Grey! Stay away.
      It could be the book is better once you are in. I don’t like Twilight (which this book is based on), but I recognize some of its value. It’s hard to see it here.

      • jubilare says:

        Hahah! Well, if you insist. ;)

        As for Twilight, I’d love to hear something about its value, because I’ve yet to hear anyone’s explanation of what it offers that comes close to overcoming the bad prose and the glorification of manifestly unhealthy relationships. :/
        (If anyone reads this comment, and is offended by my opinion, be comforted by the fact that I have been unable to actually read my way through the books. So yes, I am judging on incomplete information, but as much information as I can bear to obtain).

        • I struggled through Twilight because so many young women I teach were reading it. I think vampires in daylight is a good setting. I think Portland-Seattle-Vancouver is a great location for an urban fantasy.
          I’m struggling to say more. Frankly, I think the author was bored with her book 1/2way through. And recently, in Time, she said, “I don’t that I’m not the greatest writer. I would like to become better.” I like that.
          But yes to what you said.

  15. jubilare says:

    Self-awareness and the desire to improve is a very hopeful sign. It’s comforting to know that she has that desire, and I hope she greatly improves. To be fair, I’ve been writing since I was 12, and I have kept all my drafts to remind myself how bad I was in the beginning. I wasn’t aware of how bad I was until I got better.
    Still, I hope she also starts to consider the implications of seriously dysfunctional relationships. It’s truth in literature to depict them, but not to make them seem desirable.

  16. Dominique G says:

    Thank you for this! I’ve never actually read the novel but when on the search for pieces of “bad writing” for my university english course, I came across your post and it helped me determine the tone and topic of my paper. Looking forward to my professor’s reaction to some of your prose.

  17. I laughed uproariously at your article. The review you mention is just as hysterical, even more so than the one that I read and comment on most often on Amazon. DS from LA has developed an underground fan base of nearly 16,000 based upon her 1-star review of this parody of literature.

    You are brilliant and I am quite glad I am following your blog! You made my morning as I can start off on a laugh.

    • I’m glad you liked it! I still have yet to actually read the book, but I get a lot of hits on this blog. When the movie comes out, it will go mad again, perhaps.
      I follow your blog too, but don’t read all the reviews. I am awful for reading spoilers and feeling “spoiled” if you will. I like that you cover indie work, but I’m a snob when it comes to indie books covers–they’ve got to get better.

      • Just wait until the new edition of “The Returns” by M. K. Clinton comes out. Her newest, “The Returns: Showstoppers” is about to come off my editing table and both the newly edited Returns and Showstoppers will be hitting Amazon. The covers, both a new one for the first book and the cover for the second, are done by Holly Madison of Blue Barn in Idaho. I am interested to see what you think of them. I will post the covers soon, keep an eye out. I think they fit the stories quite well.

        I agree, there needs to be more attention paid to covers. My particular gripe, however, are indie authors who apparently don’t even do spell check, much less grammar check! Then are offended when I point it out……

    • I’ll be frank here. Great author name. Love red hair and a green dress, the hanging, falling nature of the body. Obsessed? Possessed? Defeated? Given the name, I presume all three in some way.
      But the picture is missing layers. The sword–why not in hand? The floating doesn’t work for me. The clouds need more subtlety, though I like the shadow in the background. I think the font on the title is not quite right.
      So, I could tell in a flash it was indie, but there is art there. Do indie authors workshop their photos and get advice from people other than authors?
      I like the red hair.

  18. Jaeolin says:

    Gosh this article got me laughing so hard!
    I completely agree with you and…What, every female has 2 copies? Not possible, must be a sect or a very weird person buying several copies every day. Anyway, can’t figure out how this came to be a bestseller…
    ps: Love your blog, didn’t have time to go through all of the content yet but you got me at the words “Narnia” and “Lewis”! ^^

    • Thanks! It is a great thing to make fun of, I suppose.
      I checked out your profile. You won’t like 50 shades because you actually like literature. I mean, real literature, good things to read. It is fatal misstep for any lit-lover to pick up 50 Shades, I think.

      • Jaeolin says:

        You’re welcome :)
        Well, I’m actually lucky to have an awesome English Literature teacher who gives us “the real deal” concerning literature. I bet Austen would be mortified to see how “love” stories evolved…

        • It might be her fault. After all, Jane Austen absolutely astounded us–and astounds us still. Left behind are the sugary stories of chivalry.
          I see you are not yet in university. That surprises me. Will you be a lit major?

          • Jaeolin says:

            Well, Austen’s female leads actually had some character which is likely not the case here and maybe chivalry is a much better option than…this?
            Surprised…Why? Don’t Canadian high schoolers read?
            I won’t be exactly doing a lit major next year, I’m attending a program called “Hypokhâgne” to prepare the entry exam to study English literature at Oxford.

          • Well, there is a difference between readers and reader-bloggers! We do have some high school students who know how to read in Canada. I taught first year university for 5 years, and found those that LOVED to read a much smaller population.

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