Fifty Shades of Bad Writing

Dakota Johnson Fifty Shades of Grey nudeThis odd post will strike regular readers as a bit of a departure. A Pilgrim in Narnia covers a lot of areas, like children’s writing, myth, theology and philosophy, and fantasy literature–though not that kind. 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 one of the biggest bestsellers of history: an erotic novel loosely conceived around the Twilight series that found a voice of its own in the midst of the writing. According to statistics, every woman on Earth has two copies. I’ve heard that five or six men have read it too. These true facts, combined with the release of the blockbuster film, means that 50 Shades is worth at least a little attention.

I got my copy because one of these Earth women felt that a single copy was one too many. She bought the book knowing little about it and decided to give it a read. Within a few pages this excellent reader 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 and its profound confusion of intimacy. No, 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, and I’ve added some of my own. “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 intelligent and embarassed 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 literally opened the book up at spots, put my finger to the page, and watched the flesh melt from the bone. When something struck me as exceptionally done, I did a quick digital search. 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 in 50 Shades).

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 more creepy than sexy? 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 bristles, and all in the context of a strange set of consequences. And 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? Perhaps I misunderstand what a hair dryer is for. And why does the guy have a hair dryer in his drawer-chest? And how did she know it was there?

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. And when she is really series she SCREAMS IN ALL CAPS. WE ALL LOVE ALL CAPS DON’T WE?

Here’s another, mercifully allowing her elegant description to do the talking rather than the typescript:

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 Christian’s chest-drawar 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).

Wow, my inner goddess has trouble going for a run without spraining an ankle.

And 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? The Dakota Johnson character’s 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 and stuff.

Overall, the book is a clatter of clichés. Oh, sorry, I could have done that better: a hodgepodge of clichés, a claptrap of clichés…. A potpourri, perhaps? A mixed bag of clichés? See, can be really helpful to serious writers like me and E.L. James. Some of these overused word pictures are even confusing, like when James writes the “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 cliché, 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.

Dakota Johnson Fifty Shades of GreyIf you are going to use clichés like “floor it” or “pedal to the metal,” why not 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”–and I’m certain an American girl Ana’s age with a Beetle named “Wanda” wouldn’t have. 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.

I couldn’t have written that if I tried. Exceptional.

50-shades-of-grey Jamie Dornan Dakota Johnson nudeIn the character’s strange pseudo-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. Wow.

It does not 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’s version, not Prince Edward Island’s) 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 nut fudge Dairy Queen sundae… or whatever. 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.

50 Shades of Bad Writing” was written in September 2012, at the height of the book’s popularity. The blog was shared hundreds of times on Twitter, Facebook, and even Pinterest–many thanks to readers and sharers. It was also featured as a link or reblog in dozens of other great sites. With the release of the film featuring Dakota Johnson as Ana Steele and Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey, interest in the blog has peaked.

If you have your own satire or critique, please feel free to share. Feel free to connect on Twitter @BrentonDana, on Facebook, or sign up for A Pilgrim in Narnia by email.

Sent in by a reader…

About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. 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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31 Responses to Fifty Shades of Bad Writing

  1. jubilare says:

    On top of all of the other pathetic and disturbing facts involved here, I keep coming back to this question. If there are enough copies in circulation for every woman on Earth to have 2, and I have none, and many of my friends and family members have none, and presumably none of the women who don’t speak languages into which it has been translated, or who don’t read at all, or who don’t have access to books don’t have any, then just how many copies do the women (and men) who do have it own? The mind boggles. O_o
    I mean, what are they doing with all of them? Building book-fortresses? Eating them? Storing them for fuel against a coming apocalypse? I get mental images of vaults somewhere deep beneath the earth, filled with shiny gray books, perhaps with very bored dragon chained amongst the hoard to guard it. I hope he sneezes.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. jubilare says:

    I made a typo. it should be: “and presumably none of the women who don’t speak languages into which it has been translated, or who don’t read at all, or who have no access to books, have any,” That’s what I get for writing run-on sentences.


  3. wanderwolf says:

    I guess someone, somewhere has four copies of the book, two for her and two for me.
    I’m glad I didn’t read this. Like the friend who gave you the book, I read a few pages and decided it wasn’t worth continuing to read. Thankfully, I decided that while in the store, so I saved myself a few dollars.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. KokkieH says:

    The wife and I had a good laugh at this, thanks. (BTW she also doesn’t own a copy, and neither do I.)


  5. Becka Choat says:

    Oh, Brenton, surely you meant a nut fudge Dairy Queen sundae…or something.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. wiseblooding says:

    This particular woman does not own the book nor have I read it … though it seems I have a clear understanding of its contents. You have amused me with your random summary! I’d very much like to see “eyes smolder” but I suspect I’d have to face off a dragon.


  7. Aonghus Fallon says:

    I’m guessing you’ve already seen this (it’s trending on Youtube at the moment) – the excerpts being read out loud are all from the book.


  8. Bill says:

    I confess to having never heard of this book until I went to Google to find out why the movie was so upsetting to my fundamentalist friends, who are lighting up Facebook with their complaints about it. I’m still not sure of the answer to that question. Why is it worse than the typical Hollywood fare these days?

    But back to the book… The biggest selling book of all time?? That is astonishing.

    From your post it is easy to see that the writing is horrid, so that begs obvious questions: why is this book so incredibly popular? Is there any merit to it? What makes people like it so much that they buy multiple copies?

    Is there any precedent for this? Are the other best-selling books of all time equally bad?

    Color me 50 shades of baffled.


    • Welcome back Bill! I was glad for the link to my site last month, and the intriguing list of books.
      I should say that I wrote this with tongue in cheek. It is the biggest selling erotic novel of all time, and in the top 5 in fiction. I could have used the word “novel” (which excludes fantasy), and been right. Though I wasn’t exactly going for accuracy.
      If you check the pingbacks, or read my other blog here:, you will see some of the reasons conservative Christians, Muslims, and Feminists are upset. That’s a pretty intriguing group! But it is all about illicit sex + abuse narratives.
      We are all 50 Shades of Baffled, but its success is the “mommy porn” genre–the bodice-ripper of history. The narrative is probably better than some, but it is the “sadist in me” or “masochist in me” that the author taps into.


    • Ari says:

      Well, it’s the sex. Or, the type of sex between Ana and Christian. (At least so I think.) I actually read the trilogy this past summer because a friend of mine mentioned he read the first one out of curiosity. Now, as a fellow book-lover (of literature) I became curious to know why he would read something like that, so I downloaded it. (BTW I have two copies: bought a hard copy for my sister as a gag gift and she chucked it back at me.) Anyway, it is the most poorly written book I have ever read, and not just because of what was mentioned above, but there are tons of plot holes– oh, and characters disappear!!!– and the following two in the series are even worse; however, the books are like harlequin novels on speed and mdma (har har har): Sexy, brilliant, billionaire (who happens to be a Dom) falls madly in love with an awkward, nerdy, English major and they have wild sex in ways you (or at least I) didn’t even know was possible. I’d say that’s the allure.


      • I believe you. I have been puzzled by the gargantuan popularity, but not its popularity as such. The genre is hardly new, nor the sex particularly edge for the genre (I have friends that are authors in the genre). But some sort of combination of factors has led to a kind of level of popularity heretofore unknown for the type of book (in English).
        I obviously couldn’t comment on plot or character since this was really an un-review, but yoru comment doesn’t surprise me. The trailers for the films don’t look amazing or even alluring. I may not be sympathetic enough.
        Thanks for popping by!


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  16. Diamond says:

    I found the link to this post from a site discussing cliches in writing and how to avoid them and have two points, one major and one minor.

    Firstly, I know that 50 Shades came into the world as a fanfic project and, having read a few examples of the genre, it’s no better or worse than a lot of this stuff. What I don’t get is that having signed Ms James to a book deal they didn’t get an editor to work on at least some of its worst clangers. I remember reading years ago how Jaqueline Suzanne’s first novel fell on a publisher’s desk and, despite having obvious potential, needed a lot of work to raise it above reading like a twelve-year-old’s fantasy.

    Secondly, calling a Mercedes a Merc (pronounced ‘Murk’) is definitely a thing, or at least it is in Britain, along with ‘Beemer’ (BMW) and ‘Roller’ (Rolls Royce).


    • Hi, thanks for the note. I am honestly a little bit embarrassed by the post as it’s not really in my line. It isn’t a great book, but it is the popularity of it that extends the not-greatness. I am told by some that there is a lot of great fanfic. I’ll trust them for it.
      The Merc thing I have heard in the UK, but not in the northwest US or n any of my time when I was in the car industry. It made sense when someone explained it was a Brit writer telling an American story.


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