I didn’t hate Fifty Shades of Grey

[Or, “How I managed to squeeze some value from a book that many consider dreck”]

For the record, I actively avoid romance and I don’t generally read erotica. When Fifty Shades of Grey (and the rest of the trilogy) got popular, I firmly expected to dislike it, maybe even hate it. But I try to keep an open mind, and while I didn’t make a point of seeking it out, I also didn’t make a point of avoiding it. I was firmly ambivalent.

My partner had been away for a while; I was thinking about sex more (and differently) than usual, but hadn’t yet had my epiphany. As fate would have it, that’s when I ran across a free copy of the book. (The only way I could have expended any less effort to acquire it was if someone physically put a copy in my hands.) I mentally shrugged and thought, “Eh, why not?” There’s a cultural moment happening here, so I decided to check in. Love it or hate it, I would at least have an informed opinion.

So… I neither love it nor hate it, which I think is entirely due to the expectations I had going in. What I expected was uninteresting wank material with poor writing and little or no plot. What I got was moderately hot wank material with mediocre writing and a passable plot. The result: I was pleasantly surprised.

If you subject the book to any rigorous criticism, yes, it falls apart at the seams. I read it the way I’d read a fashion magazine: flip through quickly, look for things that interest me, and skim lightly over the stuff that bugs me. No, it’s not literature, but it’s a nice enough way to kill time in a waiting room. It’s fantasy. It’s erotic romance, which in this case amounts to a romance playing dress-up in leather.

On the basis of where my head was at, I also got a few good things out of the book that I wasn’t expecting. Nothing earth-shattering and nothing I couldn’t have found elsewhere, but it happens that I found them here when I was receptive:

  1. You’re allowed to talk about sex. I’ve always had the idea that you shouldn’t talk about sex and thus I expected my partner to essentially read my mind, but I’ve since realized that this was the sexual shame speaking.
  2. Talking about sex and negotiating the details can actually be really hot. While my partner was away, I managed to get myself quite hot and bothered when we emailed ideas back and forth.
  3. It presented spanking, toys, bondage, etc. and encouraged me to actively consider whether I might like to try them — by using the book not as a manual but as a source of inspiration to start exploring.

Would I read it again? I’m not sure. On an intellectual level, I’ve learned enough about BDSM (which, if not for the book, I probably wouldn’t have looked into) to see many ways in which it gets BDSM wrong, and this, in addition to the mediocre writing and romance-ness of it, irritates me. On a practical level, my partner and I have one more two-month stint apart and this is the only book-length wank material I have in the house. Yes, I’m an opportunist.

Would I recommend it to others? No.

Unless you’re going to review it, in which case yes, you should absolutely read it.