Friday, October 31, 2014

Viewpoint: Good Points Don't Make Up for Irredeemable Themes

If you've read some of my other posts, you already know approximately how I feel about E.L. James's Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy.

(Read: Not enthralled. Period.)

I'd prefer not to have a single thing to do with the books, and I don't see any redeemable content, qualities, or points in them.

Then I picked up an article that thinks otherwise.

Fifty Shades for Men

No, the header doesn't mean what you think it means.

Author Jordan Gray (no relation to the character Christian Grey from the trilogy, whose last name is a crucial letter different) wrote an article for The Good Men Project, called "7 Things Men Can Learn from Fifty Shades of Grey."

I had my doubts.

However, Gray (Jordan, not Christian) had other things in mind than what I suspected. His article suggests seven qualities men can work to develop in themselves to be more effective in their personal relationships, and his thesis is that Christian Grey, in between being a ruthless businessman and an unpredictable sadist, embodies all seven qualities.

The qualities are actually positive, ranging from focus and being intentional to vulnerability.

Nevertheless, I'm still objecting.

Fifty Shades of Awful

You don't have to be opposed to the BDSM lifestyle to object to the Fifty Shades trilogy.

Many people agree that the writing is horrendous (see "Fifty Shades of Bad Writing" by Allan Massie in The Telegraph; "The Alleged Sexiness of '50 Shades of Grey'" by Jen Doll in The Wire; "English Major Problems: Fifty Shades of Grey" on Read, Write and Live; and even "Why 'Fifty Shades of Grey' is Exposure Therapy for Writers" by Robert Smedley in Fuel Your Writing).

It's poorly written, filled with cliches, nauseatingly repetitive, and predictable, with flat characters whose entire relationship appears to revolve around sexual tension and alleviating said tension on every available surface, flat or otherwise, within a thousand-mile radius.

In other words, there's plenty to object to.

It's called "mommy porn" for a reason. What's literary about pornography? And why is it so important to some people that we try to find a way to redeem what's clearly a terrible and hopeless book?

What Makes a Book Redeemable

I'll be fair. Some books have terrible content, but their overall message or intent is about more than just the terrible content.

Consider Victor Hugo's Les Miserables.

On the exterior, it's a seedy, gritty, graphic book: prisons, the slums of Paris, starving homeless people, prostitutes, child labor, thieves and swindlers getting ahead while everyone else suffers, disease, abuse, legalism, war, rebellion, slaughter, bloodshed, death.

Kind of hard to redeem that, right?


Les Miserables is not about any of those, and it's not written to glorify or endorse any of those things. It's primary theme is about the changing power of God's grace.

The pivotal, defining scene comes early in the novel: when the wronged bishop shows grace (unearned favor) to the convict Jean Valjean after Valjean is caught trying to steal some of the priest's semi-valuable belongings. The bishop assures the officers who brought Valjean back that what Valjean took were gifts, and he seals the contention by reminding Valjean that he "forgot" to take the silver candlesticks, as well.

Valjean carries those candlesticks through hundreds of pages and many decades to the conclusion of the novel, where they sit on a little table in front of him when he finally dies of old age, having become an honest man of character and integrity.

The moment of change came from the bishop's gift: grace when Valjean deserved condemnation.

That's a powerful message, and a redeemable book, despite its harsh content.

Fifty Shades of Awful: Take Two

I'm sure, off the top of your head, you can name more than a dozen books that contain graphic, frightening, horrific content but have solidly redemptive themes. (Think To Kill a Mockingbird, or The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, or Great Expectations, or Jane Eyre.)

The Fifty Shades trilogy has no such hope going for it.

James's books are graphically rendered depictions of sadistic sex scenes, one after another after another like beads on a string, physical and psychological abuse inflicted on a naive, trusting, foolish young girl who had no idea what she was getting into when she first walked into Christian Grey's office. Grey himself is a ruthless, cunning, emotionally manipulative, passive-aggressive person who gains pleasure from torturing others.

That the books conclude with Anastasia Steele reconciled to Grey's lifestyle, enough to agree to marry him and make it part of her everyday reality for the rest of her natural life, is that much worse: what's redemptive, uplifting, positive, or commendable about endorsing abusive, manipulative, controlling relationships?

The writing style is equally terrible, as discussed previously, and leaves much to be desired in the way of tolerable reading, let alone great literature up to the standards of many works previously published.

I simply object to (Jordan) Gray's attempt, in his article recommending what men can learn from James's trilogy, to personalize the books and even find praiseworthy points in it. When the overall message is so powerfully, ethically, immorally wrong, reading between the lines to glean a handful of halfhearted positive points for reader consumption is unnecessary and pointless.

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What do you think? Is there an overarching positive theme I'm missing in James's trilogy that might lend credence to its having positive content from which to learn?

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