The E.L. James Question

Unless you have been living under a rock for the past few weeks, you might have heard passing mention of E.L. James and her dubbed ‘mommy porn’ sensation, 50 Shades of Grey. It has been treated as a punchline, curiosity, and sparking point for debates about feminism and creative integrity.

I will begin by admitting that I have not read the book; I don’t usually read erotica or even romance novels because I don’t really care for them. That is not to say that there are not good versions of these things out there–I’m certain there are. And I acknowledge that judging a book without reading it is generally poor form.

That’s not going to stop me from doing it.

While I haven’t read 50 Shades of Grey, I have heard and read excerpts of it, along with some interviews with James. In terms of writing style, I would say that James shows a severe lack of range or deftness. I am certainly not arguing that a writer cannot have a simple, readable style–I have actually addressed that topic previously. That being said, her prose is heavy-handed and ripe with cliches. It’s not the worst thing I’ve ever read, but it does not, in my opinion, classify as anything more than those Harlequin Books they sell at the grocery store check out.

My bigger issue with the book itself is James and her approach. Her story began as Twilight fan fiction and while the publishers argue it is far removed from its source material, a quick perusal of the early scenes show that it is not that removed (he saves her from a cyclist rather than a car in an icy parking lot). Previously I had posted George R.R. Martin’s thoughts on fan fiction in which he implored young writers to create their own worlds and not build on those of others. I had questioned things like reinventing the Arthur Legend. However, James is not creating her own interpretation of an archetype or a legend; she’s very specifically referencing one particular set of characters and themes (weak as those themes might be). When interviewed she shows a lack of awareness of technique, literature beyond YA, and most of the elements writers strive to develop. Hopefully this is not the case, but the interview in Entertainment Weekly showed her as someone who doesn’t care at all about writing but used it as a means to fame.

Are you jealous? You might ask.

You’re damn right. And you can add insulted to that as well. I know the world is full of mediocre novelists, but at least some of those writers pretend to care about their actual career. But what’s more, I know so many fantastic writers who publish amazing things that get bargain binned without a second glance. Meanwhile James is cooing over head shots for her leading man. Pretend that you give a crap about craft and integrity. It will make those of us who do feel better.

What do you think, readers? Has anyone read the book(s)? Should a writer care about writing craft, or is telling a story good enough?

Categories: Life and Other Nonsense | Tags: , , | 2 Comments

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2 thoughts on “The E.L. James Question

  1. I wouldn’t judge the books and their formation without reading them. I certainly saw nods to Twilight, but these are unique characters in unique situations. I read and liked the books. I did not consider them plagiarized, at all! My writing teachers always said, “good writers borrow, great writers steal.” James took an idea and inspiration and made it her own.

  2. I did feel bad for critiquing the book based solely on the 20 or so pages I had read, so I tried to read a bit more in B&N today. I will be kind and say her style is not for me. I’m glad you enjoyed them. Your writing teacher’s quote (which is from Oscar Wilde) is often true. I still wish James was less focused on the Hollywood aspects of her writing career.

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