Anyway, to make this dreadful experience worth it, I figured I should come back to you, dear ones, and post some kind of rant. Preferably one that will surprise you in some way, since everyone and their porn-reading mommy has ranted about these books.
Some history, if you're not yet up to speed on this phenomenon: Flirty Shades of Grey was first written as fanfiction for Twilight and posted on Fanfiction.net as "Master of the Universe". I keep forgetting the name that the author used when she published in print, so let's call her by her fandom name, Snowqueen Icedragon. Rolls off the tongue, doesn't it?
So here's the first thing I discovered: Fifty Shades of Purple, and its sequels, fail in every standard of quality writing except for one. As an all-human AU Twilight fanfic, and I'm being completely serious, it is perfect. Now, I have to explain where I'm coming from, here, but I've already confessed that I've read both series, so the hard part is over with. Whenever a new book makes a splash this big, I have a burning compulsion to read it, especially if it's already obvious that it's a terrible book. That's all I had in the way of an excuse for reading Twilight, and it's all I've got now, although the correlation between the two kind of makes me feel better about having the first one under my belt. It was like unlocking a secret level in Minesweeper! Except less addictive. But this is why I have a decent basis for being able to compare Filthy Shades of Grey to its slutty parent. Most other people who have read both are probably the kind of people who liked them, and we don't associate with those types.
My second justification is that the fanfic-cum-novel (that's a grammatically correct usage of the word "cum", btw, so get your mind out of the gutter and then be prepared to put it right back there for the rest of this entry) idea really fascinates me. First of all, why shouldn't all of us do that? Be inspired, folks! Also, isn't it always kind of nice when you see the internet permeate the real world a little? I browsed through the original "Master of the Universe" document, and holy cow, this lady is hella familiar. Ninety percent of what she said in her author's notes was some kind of plea for more reviews. The rest was thanks and compliments to her reviewers. Other people wouldn't get what's going on there; we do, and I like that. Finally, I wanted to at least entertain the possibility that there was something to appreciate about Fifty Shades of Gross. I don't read Twilight fanfiction, but I assume that there's some of it that's better than the source material. I mean, how hard could it be?
Anyway, the point I was making before I had to jump in and defend myself from your merciless accusations is that as a fanfic writer, Snowqueen Icedragon actually did one thing right, and you can decide for yourself if it was purely accidental. I don't generally read any all-human AU's, but it seems to me that the purpose of that style is to translate the magical characters and settings into what we could expect to find in reality, but without compromising the essence that the original author created for them. That means keeping personalities intact, but looking for reasons behind them that don't depend on immortal lifespans or superpowers. It also means finding plots that resonate with the 'true' stories of those characters - creating metaphors in reverse, in a way.
Anastasia Steele, the protagonist of Fifty Shackles of Grey, IS Bella Swan. She has the vacuous thoughts, the timid awkwardness, the aimless life that suddenly turns into a barnacle-like attachment to a man. The impression that both of these girls gave me in their thrice-damned first person narration was that nothing really interested them or mattered to them until Edward/Christian came along. Even the dialogue matches up, because neither of them has a distinct voice aside from being poorly written.
Likewise, Christian Grey is Edward Cullen. This is even more impressive, as Edward's character (inasmuch as he has one) is based entirely on his inhuman good looks and his being a vampire. Well, the good looks were easily taken care of, but the prevailing theme of the Twilight romance - Edward wanting to drink Bella's blood - wasn't exactly going to fit without alteration. So, what's the human equivalent? Christian's a sadist. He loves Ana (gross-out!), but he wants to hurt her (now we're talking!). It's simple, but effective. The pointlessly extreme set of powers that Twilight grants its vampires was channeled into Christian's endless wealth and business prowess. Edward's dramatic past (I forget what it entailed but I'm sure he had one) became Christian's childhood trauma.
All of the other characters were easily identifiable, because Twilight basically uses them as props, so they're all defined by their relationships to Bella and Edward. The Native American was transformed into a Hispanic. Brilliant.
A sci-fi author/fan once told me that the classic formula for a supernatural het romance is that the male wins the female's love by protecting and rescuing her, while she wins his by trying to discover his secret. Twilight uses this formula, but weakly - Edward essentially only has one secret, which the reader already knows before beginning the book, and Bella just shrugs until the answer is staring her in the face. Fifty Shades of Hey What isn't supernatural, but it surpasses the source material here. Christian has multiple secrets, all of which make Ana genuinely curious, and they're spaced out so that the reader has to wonder too. So, while the first book in the Twilight series floundered along trying to pretend that plots and character premises were the same thing, Snowqueen Icedragon figured out a way to actually make Christian/Ana into a plot. It's a romance plot, so that isn't saying much, but it's a good sign of what a beginning writer can create when the vampire crutch is removed.
As the 50SoG trilogy goes on, there's more plot to keep it rolling, and it expands from pure LOVE YOU HATE YOU into OH NO DANGER, but the same could be said of the Twilight series, so I'm withholding brownie points. I've never read a straight-up non-supernatural erotic novel before, save one, but I assume this is the standard stuff. The couple fights, suffers personal tragedies, break ups and gets back together. People try to come between them and are systematically removed. It's very dull, but it provides a backdrop for the sex scenes - which Twilight doesn't have, meaning the werewolves and vampires become vital. Urban fantasy, by nature, suggests more action than a BDSM relationship.
I still haven't conclusively decided which series is worse. I think it's probably Sixty-Nine Shades of Grey, because whatever cleverness was employed in building the characters and setting the stage - and I do think there were a few worthwhile details - the absent editor is just unforgivable. It's not just in the outright errors, it's every stylistic choice. Who the hell wants to read a sentence that consists entirely of Mmmmmmmm, and it's not even in quotation marks?
I revoke that question because obviously the answer is Lots and Lots of People. Why they like it, I'm officially writing off as their own business. To be blunt, if it gets you off it gets you off, and you don't need to justify that to anyone. It scares me that writing with quality this low could end up being considered a good book, but I don't see that happening. (It happened with Twilight, sure, but - different audience. When adult women read smut we know it's smut.) Also not concerned about written porn going mainstream. Nobody even had to get naked for the making of this, so I'd say it's a step in the right direction. Readers using the BDSM scenes as instruction manuals? Please. Dr. Seuss didn't convince me I should give green eggs and ham a try.
What I'd really like to know, though, is why I feel the need to find something about this trash to defend. I did the same thing with Twilight. I guess it's just too unsatisfying for me to read an entire book and then condemn it altogether. Every story has a little bit of worth in it somewhere, or the author wouldn't have needed to write it. Figuring out what a bad book did right helps me understand why we all bother with this writing thing in the first place. Is it just about wanting to be chained up by Edward Cullen? Fine, then where does that come from?
Well, I think it's time to end this entry. I'm starting to get sidetracked by plotting out an all-pony parody of Fifty Insert Bad Pun Here Grey.