Here’s what I know about Fifty Shades of Grey…
British television executive Erika Leonard, under the name E.L. James, under the name Snowqueens Icedragon, wrote a trilogy of Twilight fan fiction novels titled Master of the Universe which, contrary to expectations, does not re-imagine He-Man as a Sparklepire. Instead, it re-imagines the characters of Bella, Edward, and Jacob in a non-supernatural, adult setting where all the sex they never had has now been replaced with full on jiggies that are gotten with, as well as experimentations in the BDSM realm. If I’m mistaken on any of that setup, again, this is just what I’ve heard, and I’ll be proven correct or in- over the next few weeks.
Leonard James Icedragon put a strike through the Icedragon and settled on James as her nom de plum when she decided to change the names of the lead characters and turn her Twilight AU fic into a piece of published “original” fiction, now known as Fifty Shades of Grey. Much controversy arose. Is this legal? Well, she hasn’t been sued yet, and I hesitate to comment due to some schooling I received recently on fanfic legality. Is this ethical? Well, that’s the question, and I guess it all rests on how ethical you think most publishing in general is.
Argument: She took something that was previously/is still available on the internet for free and now charges people to read a bound version of it.
Well, yes, but people are publishing their blogs all the time these days. Mark Does Stuff and Cleolinda Jones’ Movies in Fifteen Minutes are fine examples. Here at Made of Fail, we have season one of our Deconstructiong Moya: A Farscape Rewatch available for the Kindle for $1.99.
Argument: But it’s based on someone else’s characters. Surely this is plagiarism.
Yes and no. If James had tried to publish it with the names Bella, Edward, and Jacob, she’d likely have about as much luck as LadySybilla had trying to get Russet Noon out there. By changing the elements that came from Twilight, she’s turned it into little more than the typical derivative work that already floods the market, which I’m not knocking, because for every poor regurgitation like Eragon, you get something good like Star Wars, or the films of Quentin Tarantino. Derivative is in itself not a bad thing and doesn’t prevent something from being original in the way it presents its derivations, since TV movies are really popular and people always like to watch TV and even install a tv corner wall mount on their rooms to watch TV from bed as well. As to Fifty Shades of Grey, I hear it’s a highly revisionist take of Twilight with more parallel allusions than it has actual connections. I have read the Twilight books, so this level of connectivity is something I look forward to exploring over the course of this project.
Argument: Leonard was just manipulating Twihards in the first place by taking a largely original work and tying it to Twilight just so she could win herself a pre-existing audience.
Welcome to marketing. When Twilight came out, what came out with it? A flood of derivative works trying to play off the existing Twihard fanbase. This is unethical but that isn’t? No, that’s targeting a market. As long as the work is ultimately good and people like it, no, fans haven’t been tricked. They liked something and someone said “this is similar, give it a try”. If it’s something that legitimately appeals to them, bam, you just exposed a group to something new (relatively speaking). If it doesn’t appeal to them, they’ll spread the word amongst their peers and move on. Is this manipulation? Yes. But it’s acceptable manipulation and common manipulation, and to say it represents a new low in how books are sold is very naive. And it’s worth noting than neither Icedragon James Leonard nor her publishers have ever shied away from admitting the books’ fan fiction origins.
So if Twilight fans felt dissatisfied or tricked, why did they stick with the fanfic as chapter after chapter were released over the course of three volumes? Why did they buy copies once the names had changed and it had been published? Why did they follow it to a new publisher and spread the word and help drum up the interest that’s made the book a best-seller?
In this case, the Twihards are hardly a blind flock that’s been swindled. If you want to debate this in the comments, I’d be happy to hear further arguments, but now it’s time for me to get to the book itself.
Before we move on, however, I want to thank Ceilidh from The Book Lantern and The Sparkle Project for providing me with copies of the series. For this installment, I’m working off the version of Fifty Shades of Grey published by The Writer’s Coffee Shop in 2011. If anyone is aware of any significant differences between this and the 2012 release by Vintage Books, let me know. Additionally, if anyone knows of significant differences – aside from names – between this and the original Master of the Universe, I’d love to find out.
The book takes place in Seattle. Right off the bat, a surviving Twilight connection. For shame!
Our lead is named Anastasia Steele. Give me a moment to recover from much laughter. Yes, Anastasia Steele. I don’t know about you, but when I see the name Anastasia Steele, I either think of a steampunk wizard setting out to defeat the Snowqueen’s Icedragon in the first volume of her series, or Arnold Schwarzenegger in an 80s buddy action movie where his handler (James Woods) tells him about a missing Russian heir he kinda resembles and, after much shooting, one-liners, and bro high fives as they take out the arms dealer, it turns out YAY HE IS THE RUSSIAN HEIR and we all rejoice to a pop song you’ll never hear again as Arnie takes in a beer and a cigar while barking out laughter at a stripper who finally found the man of her dreams. Anastasia Steele, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. I dare somebody to photoshop a poster for me.
Anywho, Anastasia Steele (she mostly goes by Ana, but you can imagine the joy I feel typing out Anastasia Steele in full) is just your average girl-next-door college student with attractive features she’s ashamed of (“blue eyes too big for her face”, which I guess is “James” pandering to manga and anime fans, who hold up their hentai and dismiss her with a laugh), hair that just won’t cooperate with her brush in the morning, and a constant struggle with clumsiness. Yes, clumsiness. A surviving Twilight connection. For shame!
Actually, I have to give “James” points on this one. The clumsiness of Bella was nothing. It was tagged on at random points to try to give her a bit of personality, but felt hollow and completely at odds with how Bella acted and was received by others. In this first chapter, Ana’s clumsiness is actually quite charming and genuinely well integrated into her persona. It’s an extension of her constantly rushing into things before yanking back and second guessing herself, something that she demonstrates throughout the entirety of the sequence we’ll get to below. Also, her stumbles and fumbles are well timed and quite funny.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves! Ana’s roommate, Katherine Kavanagh (“James” needs help naming people… seriously) is a writer for the campus newspaper and finally scored a prized interview with the “enigmatic CEO of Grey Enterprises Holdings Inc.”, a manufacturing giant whose head is a benefactor of the University and will be presenting diplomas that year. Unfortunately, Kate is all kinds of sick at the moment. Even though she still looks “gamine and gorgeous”. Wait, “gamine”? What the hell does “gamine” mean?
“A gamine is a slim, often boyish, wide-eyed young woman who is, or is perceived to be, mischievous, teasing or sexually appealing.”
That’s new to me, but okay.
Due to Kate being sick, Ana decides to go and do the interview in Kate’s place. And, no, before you wonder, there’s no mistaken identity hijinks like I briefly expected there to be. Everyone she encounters at this massive company is perfectly fine with one person showing up for someone else’s appointment, without anything in the way of background checks or confirmation calls. Sure, fine, whatever, move on in.
After being stunned by the office building and view, and noting how all of the beautiful blond female employees look like Stepford Wives – except for that black man who is neither blond nor female – Ana walks into the office for her interview and falls flat on her face.
And then we meet the Edward Cullen of this book: Christian Grey. And, yes, he’s a stunningly beautiful man with eyes that match his last name, who Ana is shocked to see is closer to her own age than the older executive she was expecting to meet. And, no, there’s not much Twilight here. He doesn’t have any of the visible hunger issues of Edward, doesn’t go all weird when her smell walks into the room. He’s a laid back coil of control, constantly staring at her over steepled hands and alternating between flat, steely expressions and cold smiles.
Here’s where I give this book another point: there is no love at first sight. There might be on the side of Grey, but he’s so impossible to read it’s anyone’s guess. On Ana’s, she notes his attractiveness, but her focus never wavers from his arrogance and she repeatedly thinks of him as a control freak. Hell, she says it to his face. And she’s not wrong, as Grey reads like some watered down, romanticized John Galt wanna be, spouting off about the power he’s amassed through his own hard work and genius. He’s the kind of guy who refuses to give up total ownership of his company because that means a board he has to answer to, who lives by Carnegie’s philosophy “A man who acquires the ability to take full possession of his own mind may take possession of anything else to which he is justly entitled.” Which is going to be interesting to explore as this book goes along, because what are the boundaries of “justly entitled”? There’s a lot of rational wiggle room around this phrase that can lead someone in power like this to “justify” their entitlement over just about anything. This is raising a little red flag, but I’ll wait and see. Even though he quickly follows it up by saying, yes, he likes possessing things, but wants to deserve to possess them. Hmmm.
Ana is allured by this man, but again, I stress how impressed I am that it’s not “love at first sight”. She’s bothered by him, by the way he carries himself, the way he talks, the way he turns the interview around on her. She’s already flustered because she’s out of her element both in terms of doing an interview and being in a place like this, and all he does is increase her discomfort. And that’s the key word: discomfort. She’s not comfortable here. Not in a “stranger danger, mace the dude and run” type of way, but in terms of just being weirded out. Even as she’s leaving near the end, she notes his attractiveness once more, but labels it a distraction and once again focuses on her misgivings over his ego and entitlement. She has the animal urge that says “he pretty”, yes, but it’s subdued as her rational mind recognizes that urge for what it is and compartmentalizes it away so she can keep focusing on the issue at hand.
We’re only one chapter in and I like this character. Unlike Bella, we aren’t opening with an air of undeserved focus and importance. As I mentioned above, she has a deeper personality tie to clumsiness, that of instinct followed by second guessing, which was just demonstrated again by her animal mind followed by rational mind. Throughout the interview, she goes off the scripted questions and starts challenging Christian on issues like his philanthropy, his philosophy, his adoption (a surviving Twilight connection – for shame!), second guessing herself, but not before the questions are out there. And this actually has an effect in that she has a bluntness that cuts through the bullshit, followed by an intellectual examination of the results it brings. It’s really quite a lot of fun to read, and I doubt it was unintentional on the part of “James”, because it’s consistent throughout the chapter. Whether it remains consistent throughout the book is another matter, but we’ll get there when we get there.
Near the end of the chapter, Christian goes from weird to a little creepy when he suddenly starts trying to sell Ana on interning for him. You know, like those blonds she noted outside, one of whom frowned at another who didn’t offer up refreshments in an oddly tense scene that you just know is going to have heaps of back room drama behind it. He then cancels a meeting to prolong their interview, but Ana finally wants out and bids him farewell. Christian isn’t done with her, yet, though. No, he doesn’t let her get her jacket or ask his secretary to get her jacket, he asks his secretary to get the jacket and give it to him so he himself can place it on Ana, ending with his hands resting on her shoulders. Bad touch! No!
And is Ana finally won over by this? No! She literally thinks “I really need to get out of here,” finding mercy when the elevators close on his blazing stare. This dude is fucking creepy, and lo and behold, we have a protagonist who feels the same way.
Please, please don’t screw this up.
So yes, I’m kinda liking this. It’s a nice opening chapter that gets a lot of setup out of the way and clearly establishes our leads. One is a surprisingly well executed woman who has endearing flaws and a good head on her shoulders that lets her recognize that the other is a complete creepwad. Which, of course, is why the book is about her falling in love with him. D’oh! Seriously, though, I’ll wait and see how they get there and judge it accordingly, but I have no issues with the introductions. The first person present tense prose isn’t great, but neither is it poor, and despite a few clunky lines here and there – mostly transitions and descriptions, the occasional exchange – it flows pretty well and the interview scene especially succeeded in drawing me into things.
I’m curious to see how this plays out. But, wow, those names. I swear, Christian Grey sounds like it should be the inhabitant of a born-again UFO.
*sigh* Well, so much for that. Let me get a few things out of the way before elaborating that point.
This chapter expands on the broader points of Ana’s life, and the parallels to Twilight are a little more blatant.
- Bella’s mom is a bit flighty, but means well, and lives in Arizona with her second husband.
- Ana’s mom is a bit flighty, but means well, and lives in Georgia with her third husband.
- Bella’s father, a cop, loves his daughter, but doesn’t connect with her very much, speaks in hesitant grunts, and spends his free time fishing or watching sports on tv.
- Ana’s step-father (husband number two), a carpenter, loves his daughter, but doesn’t connect with her very much, speaks in hesitant grunts, and spends his free time fishing or watching sports on tv.
- Bella reads very well known and obvious classical literature.
- Ana reads classical British literature.
- Bella has a part time job in a fishing and hunting store, selling things she has no interest in.
- Ana has a part time job in a home improvement and construction store, selling things she has no interest in.
- Bella bites her lip.
- Ana bites her lip.
Oh, and Jacob finally shows up. Jose, a Hispanic photographer, is a little different from the Native American mechanic in that he’s already an old friend of Ana, but he’s otherwise totally Jacob in that his dad and her step-dad are old buddies, and he’s long been the “friend who wants something deeper” who just keeps refusing to take the hint that she’s not interested. Thankfully, his portrayal is that of pre-fursplosion Jacob, before the most charming character in Stephanie Meyer’s series went the total raging d-bag route. Anyways, he’s all chummy and a gallery is going to be displaying some of his photos later, so either we’ll be there or Ana will miss out in a “creating drama” type of way. We’ll see.
Oh, and Katherine, poor sick Katherine, is ecstatic about all the interview material because this is going to be her last issue of the college magazine before she graduates. So yay. But her observations on the recording lead us to the turn I’m experiencing.
Okay, so Ana still totally has that rational mind telling her Christian Grey is a creepy, bizarre, arrogant control freak, but the instinct side of her is completely turned on. That little voice that kept whispering “he pretty” in the first chapter has now becoming a massive musical number of teenage girls giddily gossipping about how Hugo pinned Kim. It’s brushed off at first as her merely being “fascinated” by him, but she’s in total swoon mode and hating herself for it. In the last chapter, she wanted to get the hell out of there, and now she’s lost in his dreaminess before her rational mind hits her with a baseball bat and she moves on. But, hey, she’ll never have to see him again, so it’s not a –
And then he shows up at her job. Yes, just spontaneously appears before her at the home improvement and construction store, says he’s in the area, and proceeds to toy with her and her fumbling and Jell-O like legs as he purchases plastic ties, rope, and duct tape. Gee, I wonder what those will be used for later.
Seriously, she is seconds away from swooning at every line he delivers which, yeah he’s pretty, feels ridiculous because his entire manner screamed that of a certain someone. His lean frame. His thin fingers tapping on his chin in thought or softly reaching for her. His blazing glare. His stiff frowns and smiles. The way every line oozes out of him as either a manipulation or a challenge. I dare you, I dare all of you, to read this encounter between Christian and Anastasia and not imagine him as this:
I mean, sure, Christian is described as significantly handsomer than the sorcerer destined for an itty-bitty living space, but the attitude, the mannerisms, the voice are so totally there. I’m suddenly terrified that, instead of imagining RPatz in the upcoming sexual encounters, the face you see above will instead be the one filling my mind’s eye as the voice that comes with it slithers out dirty talk and moans.
And that rational part of Ana’s mind, which kept her sane and grounded and made her so likeable in the first chapter? It’s packed its suitcases and run home to mama, because the last paragraph opens with:
Okay – I like him. There, I’ve admitted it to myself. I cannot hide from my feelings anymore. I’ve never felt like this before. I find him attractive, very attractive.
Instead of focusing on why the hell he suddenly showed up at her place out of the blue, why he bought such a “random” group of items, why he keeps teasing and pressing her obviously vulnerable emotions, nope, that rational side just throws its hands in the air and says to the animal side “You want him? Go for it.”
A couple other things worth mentioning before we close out this chapter. First, we have our Mike Newton! Whoo! The lovable lunkhead that haplessed millions of hearts in the Twilight books is now represented by Paul Clayton, whose older brother owns the store. He’s obviously attached to Ana, wrapping her in a big hug and spending the rest of his scene with an arm drapped around her, but he’s been gussied up to a dashing man home from studying at Princeton. Take that Mike Newton! Paul and Christian instantly get along, meaning they tensely shake hands while sizing one another up. Then Paul disappears and I’m doubting we’ll have a parallel to him getting sick while seeing Face Punch.
Secondly, one thing Kate forgot to ask for with her article on Christian was an original photo. Well, guess who’s free to have his picture taken the next day. And guess who’s just been established as having a friend and wanna-be lover who’s a photographer. Those are some sparks promising to fly.
I’m conflicted. I quite dug the first chapter, but Ana lost me in the second and I can’t get over the ridiculous portrayal of Christian Grey. It’s not awful, not yet at least, and I’ll wait and see how it goes. I’ll say this, though: I’m enjoying Ana as a person more than I ever did Bella. She’s more interesting, more real. She already feel defined instead of a blank waiting for Edward to define her. I’ve got to give it that for the moment, but again, we’ll see.
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