Fifty Shades of Grey: The Good, the Bad, and the Readers’ Reviews
By Jocelyn Chin (2021)
Since its publication in May 2011, Fifty Shades of Grey by E. L. James has garnered an immensely wide yet extremely polarized array of reviews from her readers. However, similarities between reviews within the two contrasting poles reveal the underlying differences between what the readers of Fifty Shades liked, and what they did not like. This report draws on the reviews written by regular readers within the ensuing decade, primarily from the year directly following Fifty Shades of Grey’s publication, and presents the underlying difference between the negative reviews versus the positive ones. The main difference is that the distinctly negative reviews tend to extensively focus on the content of the book such as prose or plot, while the positive reviews tend to revolve around how the book made the reader feel.
Background: Readership of Fifty Shades of Grey
The reason why the reader reviews of Fifty Shades of Grey are worth examining is because this book indisputably created change within the erotic romance and romance industries through its financial success. The success, of course, comes from readers, who contribute to the sales.
Fifty Shades of Grey, according to publishing executives, spread so quickly thanks to word-of-mouth excitement (Bosman). Patricia Bostelman, vice president of marketing at Barnes & Noble, said “[the sales show] very clearly what the blog network can do. The word-of-mouth so thoroughly outpaced the availability” (Bosman). One anonymous Long Island woman said in 2012 that it was the first erotic novel she ever discussed with friends, because “women just feel like it’s okay to read it. It’s taboo for women to admit that they watch pornography, but for some reason it’s okay to admit that they’re reading this book” (Bosman).
The readers were also able to obtain the book more easily and without stigma associated with reading erotic romance. According to E. L. James’s agent Valerie Hoskins, “in the 21st century, women have the ability to read this kind of material without anybody knowing what they’re reading, because they can read them on their iPads and Kindles” (Bosman). However, Jo Henry, Director of Bowker Market Research, acknowledges “the ability to read these books discreetly on an e-reader is a factor, but women are not shy about discussing them. A recommendation from a friend or relative is the primary factor in both discovering and ultimately purchasing the Fifty Shades books” (Bowker).
These analyses of the marketing of Fifty Shades acutely point out that readers spread the book’s popularity through word-of-mouth and digitality. Oftentimes, these readers use review sites such as Goodreads, LibraryThing, and even Amazon to discuss their likes and dislikes (Goodreads). It is from such sites that this report draws both negative and positive reviews.
Negative Reviews: Prose and Plot
The negative reviews tended to dive in depth into very specific aspects of the content of Fifty Shades of Grey. The main two critiques of the book are on (1) its prose, including the literary composition of the book and the storyline and character development, and, relatedly, (2) its plot, which many negative reviewers claim did not even exist (Mel).
First, many reviews of Fifty Shades of Grey explain that the book itself is poorly written. For example, in one structured review that details each part of the book the reader disliked, the reader writes: “Then there’s the writing. If you take out the parts where the female character is blushing or chewing her lips, the book will be down to about 50 pages” (Meymoon). This reader is not alone in their dislike of the composition of the book. One Amazon review stated: “When all is said and done, it’s not the subject matter that I find offensive. It’s the bad writing” (The Loopy). A reader on Goodreads summarized: “Here’s what I think is the ultimate problem with Fifty Shades of Grey: Ms James’ terrible writing” (May).
The readers who wrote negative reviews also did not like the storyline. Many said that the story was repetitive, mostly sex scenes, and mostly repetitive, poorly written sex scenes. One reviewer, to portray the repetitiveness of the sex scenes, described the book as such: “We then get a couple of hundred pages of them f***ing, engaging in bondage, meeting each other’s parents, flying airplanes, riding in helicopters, f***ing, riding in cars, having awkward conversation and f***ing. Oh yeah… and they f***” (Bellan). This same reviewer then concludes: “Honestly the description of the sex in this book is pedestrian at best and after the first time becomes very repetitive and rather boring” (Bellan). Another review, published as a blog, bluntly stated that “the sex scenes are so dull, impractical, and at times essentially impossible, that I wonder if this author has actually had sex at any point” (Whyte).
In addition to disliking the storyline content, many reviews expressed distaste for and confusion over the characters themselves. One reader explained the characters were dislikable because “James cannot create characters and relationships to save her life. She contradicts herself, she changes her mind without logical reason. This is why it is pointless analysing the relationship between Ana and Christian. One minute it’s sexy, the next minute it’s fucked up. One minute it’s BDSM, the next minute it’s abuse” (May). A different review centered around the female protagonist similarly reflects the instability of the characters and their characteristics: “In one paragraph, Ana’s words sound like those of a quasi-literate teenager; in the next paragraph she uses uber-literate words like “gamine”. Are we supposed to believe that she’s naive or sophisticated? Un-self-aware or articulate?” (Puma). Many other readers expressed outright disdain for the main characters, referring to Ana with words such as “simpleton” (MK) and calling Christian words such as “utterly despicable” (Whyte).
Finally, the readers heavily critiqued the plot of Fifty Shades of Grey for being either secondary to the sex scenes, “extremely boring” (Bellan), or for simply not existing at all. As one reader wrote their review: “The plot? There was no plot. Seriously, I could not find it. ANYWHERE” (Mel). Another reviewer agreed “there was no plot and the dialogue was silly” (Loopy). To express their confusion over the lack of a clear plot, one reader explained: “When I finished Fifty Shades of Grey, I had no idea what kind of book I’d just read. Was it BDSM erotica? Or the tale of a man’s childhood abuse and how this impacted on his sex life later on? Were Christian Grey’s sexual tastes supposed to be erotic or wrong?” (May).
From the writing to the characters to the plot, the negative reviews covered all the literal content you digest when you read a book. The readers found the content dislikable because it was poorly-executed and too much fantasy. YouTuber TheCandyShow expressed shock that E. L. James was in her forties when she wrote this book, because the writing was amateur and Christian’s character so unbelievably fantastical that the plot was too unrealistic (TheCandyShow). A reviewer on Amazon had similar thoughts when they wrote: “about half way through the book, I looked up the author to see if she was a teenager. I really did because the characters are out of a 16 year old’s fantasy” (Meymoon). Overall, it is clear from the negative reviews that the literal content of Fifty Shades of Grey is what readers disliked the most.
Positive Reviews: Love, Lust, and Inner Selves
The readers who left positive reviews focused less on the actual content of Fifty Shades of Grey itself, but instead summarized aspects of the book that left them feeling a certain way. In other words, the readers liked to connect Fifty Shades of Grey to their own feelings and experiences. As one reviewer wrote, “It was a story about love, lust, and finding out about our inner selves” (Bailey).
The positive reviews, while more abundant than the negative, were less conspicuous in terms of length and apparent ardor. On Amazon, there were 43,136 global reviews for Fifty Shades of Grey as of April 2021 since 2012 (Amazon). Amazon also divides the reviews into two categories of positive and negative, and Fifty Shades had 25,109 positive reviews compared to 18,027 negative reviews, yet out of the top ten “most helpful” reviews, only two were positive (Amazon). However, separate from the numerical amount of reviews, in contrast to the extensively written negative reviews, many which span up to five or even ten paragraphs, positive reviews tend to be closer to two paragraphs long (Goodreads).
The positive reviews are shorter because they spend less space describing the book’s content, but rather focus on how the readers express what they felt because of the book. For example, one reviewer using periods for emphasis, wrote that “as the reader, you.can feel.Ana falling for Christian, but knowing all the while the outcome would be tragic for her” (Mckannak). Other readers expressed that while reading, they felt anxiety as well as other rollercoasters of emotions (Red). The readers who enjoyed the book were readers who liked being emotionally attached to the story. As one of the reviews on LibraryThing read: “The story is amazing, intriguing, intense, dark, and connects well emotionally” (Owen).
Other positive reviews described how the reader liked one specific aspect of the book out of a personal connection. For example, one review briefly listed some of Christian Grey’s primary characteristics, then stated, “all of these things are what I love in a hero” (Carvanz). Other positive reviews praise Fifty Shades of Grey for making the reader feel entertained, which is mainly why they liked the book. One LibraryThing user decided: “overall, the book is fun. I wouldn’t call it serious reading, but it’s perfect form for erotic fluff and utter silliness and it kept me entertained” (xfryx). Similarly, another review read: “these books are not the next great literary masterpiece but they are an entertaining read” (Reb922).
It is worth mentioning that it is not entirely uncommon for a positive review to go more in depth into the content of Fifty Shades of Grey. Many of these positive reviews directly retort and defend what negative reviews claim are bad aspects of the book. For example, in response to negative reviews about the writing in the book, one positive reviewer wrote that “many literature snobs will tell you that the writing is abhorrent, but I think that the less-than-eloquent writing style that the author employs at varying times in the story adds to Ana’s youthful and quirky personality rather than reflecting bad on the author” (Doggo). The positive reviews are left by readers who like the book because instead of digging into and commenting heavily on the content, they simply “take it for what it is… a fantasy” (Pdplish).
Finally, the readers with positive reviews tended to connect Fifty Shades of Grey to their own experiences. One review on Amazon written by another author praised the book, writing: “while this subject matter is not my forte, I will celebrate the fact that E.L. James did one of the hardest things to do, as an author, and that is to open yourself up for the world to see” (Smith). Another reader suggested other readers try to experience and enjoy the book in the same way she did: “Read this with an open mind: the love story is what I saw” (DiamondGirl). While the negative reviews picked away at the content of the book, positive reviews attempted to express how the readers felt something, whether it be personally meaningful or just entertaining amusement.
Impact: The Success of Fifty Shades
Originally self-published as Master of the Universe in 2010 on fanfiction.net as Twilight fanfiction, which has long since been removed (Boog), the draft for Fifty Shades of Grey was noticed by The Writer’s Coffee Shop, who contracted E. L. James to produce print-on-demand e-books, of which they sold over 100,000 copies (Litte). Its popularity was not surprising considering Master of the Universe already had almost 4,000 comments on fanfiction.net, and others in the Twilight fandom had worked with James to create video trailers out of her fanfiction (Cranford).
Other contracts eventually pushed Fifty Shades of Grey to No. 1 on New York Times’ e-book fiction best-seller list, and No. 3 on Amazon’s best-seller list (Bosman). In March 2011, Vintage, a division of Random House, announced that it would be paying seven figures for the Fifty Shades books. New e-book editions were released in two days, and 750,000 paperbacks followed a few weeks after (Litte).
In 2012, E. L. James was named as one of Time’s “The World’s 100 Most Influential People” and, in 2013, one of Forbes’ “The Top-Earning Authors” (Wang). After 20 weeks at the top of the bestseller list, James passed J.K. Rowling to become “the most popular writer of all time” on Amazon UK (Ryan). Near the end of the decade, the Fifty Shades trilogy had sold over 100 million copies worldwide (Wang).
These impressive figures would have been impossible if not for the blog posts and word-of-mouth recommendations (Bosman). Despite the abundance of negative reviews, Fifty Shades of Grey was a huge success.
While the reviews for Fifty Shades of Grey hold many overlaps and are based on personal opinions and preferences, a close analysis of these reviews show that there exists an identifiable pattern in the difference between the focus of negative reviews on the book’s content versus the emphasis of positive reviews on the reader’s feelings. However, rather than finishing here, this report only serves to generate more questions that revolve around Fifty Shades of Grey, its marketing success, the erotic romance industry as a whole, and what inherently inspires a reader to write a good or bad review.
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