When I purchased my copy of Fifty Shades of Grey, the first book in the Fifty Shades trilogy, the cashier asked if I wanted a receipt. “Absolutely,“ I told her. “I’m reading the book for review, so I’ll be reimbursed.“

“I want YOUR job,” she said, laughing. “This book is hot!”

It sure is, both in the sense that it’s full of steamy sex and that it’s a runaway bestseller. Penned by British first-time author E. L. James, who released it as an e-book, the trilogy sold so well that Vintage Books published a print edition, which became an instant bestseller. The library system where I work owns 92 copies of the first book alone. Last time I checked the reserve list, there were 267 women waiting to read it.

The publisher calls this smut-drenched novel an “erotic romance.” If you ask me, erotica is just smut that’s putting on airs. Let’s call this book what it is. Porn.

Porn you can get at the local public library is something new. So is porn for women. (Men aren’t reading this book.) The “nice girls don’t” stigma attached to women’s reading smut has finally vanished. Women of all ages, educational levels, and income brackets are buying this book, or unashamedly handing over their library cards and checking it out. Not to mention recommending it to their friends.

I cracked it open, curious, and was soon absorbed. Is the writing any good? Absolutely not. It’s romance writing at its worst, teaming with clichés, stereotypes, and purple prose. But James is a good enough storyteller to grab your interest and keep the story moving. “He rises and strolls toward me, an amused appraising smile on his beautiful sculptured lips” is, undeniably, a very bad sentence. But you’ll probably be too busy turning pages to care.

Fifty Shades starts out like a garden-variety romance. College student Anastasia Steele (who is, implausibly, a virgin) is both attracted to and repelled by drop-dead gorgeous 27-year-old billionaire Christian Grey after she interviews him for the school paper. They have nothing in common, yet become obsessed with each other. You think you know exactly where this is going. But then you hit the first sex scene. Not only is it extremely explicit, but it goes on for 12 pages.  Page after page of “My nipples bear the delicious brunt of his deft fingers and lips, setting alight every single nerve ending, so that my whole body sings with sweet agony.” (And that’s one of the tamer sentences.)

It soon becomes clear that this particular romance isn’t as much about whether these two will overcome all obstacles to end up in each other’s arms, but whether Anastasia will agree to become Christian’s sadomasochistic sex slave, under the terms of a 10-page contract (which is set forth in its entirety, starting on page 165.) Much of the book is devoted to negotiating this contract. Is whipping okay? How about bondage? Being suspended from the ceiling, Ana tells Christian, is definitely a deal-breaker. As they wrangle over clauses, Ana and Christian enjoy page after page of hot vanilla sex, as well as sexy- billionaire pastimes like commuting to Christian’s penthouse via helicopter and dining together in upscale restaurants. (After which they go back to his place, where he ties her hands with a very special necktie, rips her panties off, and they go at it.)

Then it’s back to more contract negotiation.

Is Fifty Shades fun to read? Sure. It’s also absolutely ridiculous. And completely implausible. She’s about to graduate from college, and she’s still a virgin? She comes like gangbusters—many times—the first time she has sex? And after an impressively athletic all-out first-time boinking session, she doesn’t even get a urinary infection?

This is fantasyland for sure.

Will Shades of Grey” turn YOU on? If the sentence “My breasts swell, and my nipples harden under his steady gaze” intrigues you, I’d encourage you to pick up a copy. But I’ll also warn you that when the whipping starts, you may decide to bid farewell to Grey and Ana and watch Downton Abbey instead.

A librarian friend of mine who is a porn aficionado wasn’t impressed.  “It’s nothing special,” she shrugged. “I could definitely put it down.“ But women new to porn are flocking to Fifty Shades.     

Why is “romantic erotica” suddenly taking off? We can thank the Internet.  In the pre-digital age, if James had submitted this weird mix of romance, explicit sadomasochistic sex, and contract negotiation to publishers, would they have touched it? Not a chance. By releasing it as an e-book, she could bypass the gatekeepers, go right to her audience (women), and give us what we want. (Hot spicy sex!)

This is a development that brings new meaning to the phrase “sisters are doing it for themselves.”

The only real surprise is that the first novel to bring porn to ordinary women in a big way doesn’t just contain really explicit sex, but really explicit sadomasochistic sex. I don’t think anyone saw that coming.

Will Anastasia submit to a lifetime of flogging in Christian’s “red room of pain?” Why on earth would she? Well he’s rich and accomplished and handsome and hot. But he’s also the kind of dude who shows you his dungeon on the first date. Even Ana, besotted, recognizes that Christian is bad boyfriend material. He’s a stalker and a control freak who seethes with jealous rage if she so much as mentions another man. But he can pilot a helicopter! And play melancholy songs on the piano! And, after beating her, he’s quick to tenderly soothe her aching tushie with baby oil. By the end of the book, when Ana finally invites Christian to seriously punish her, it’s clear that these two are made for each other. (Although my inner feminist couldn’t help but think: This is a happy ending?)

Am I hooked? Do I need to know whether Ana will end up suspended from the ceiling? Or what‘s up with those weird scars on Christian’s chest? Am I going to read Fifty Shades Darker, the next book in the trilogy? I won’t buy it. But I just might put it on reserve at the library.

If I do, I’ll be number 157 on the waiting list.



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  • fifty shades December 2, 2015 at 11:31 am

    This novel is simply the best erotic novel I have read so far.. I was hooked to this while reading the book

  • Tobysgirl December 7, 2012 at 9:04 am

    Guy, very happy to read your comment; where do we find your work? I hope you asked to be notified of new posts.

  • Stacia November 10, 2012 at 8:22 pm

    Look on the positive side. Maybe this Cliff Notes Porn will generate interest in high-brow literary erotica such as the Diary of Anais Nin, Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Ulysses?

  • Guy Hogan August 14, 2012 at 6:00 pm

    I’m a man and my father was a wife beater. It’s why I left home at the age of 18 and joined the army and ended up in Vietnam. So, you can guess how I feel about a man knocking a woman around for any reason. Do I like porn? Yes I do. The kind of porn that I publish, my own and that of other writers (men and women), as a rule has for its focus the woman’s orgasm; more than one orgasm is even better. And the stories are realistic and well written.

    Now I feel better.

  • RozWarren July 19, 2012 at 8:21 am

    Many thanks to Nicole Hollander (creator of “Sylvia”) for linking to this essay from her wonderful “Bad Girl Chats” blog!

  • RozWarren July 1, 2012 at 8:19 am

    Carla thanks for getting on your soapbox and commenting! Roz

  • Jill of All Trades June 19, 2012 at 8:50 pm

    EXACTLY what I have been saying to women who are enamored with this trash. I don’t have a problem with porn but exactly what you wrote about the stalking, beating, control freak he is. Do women in this age not recognize this as the trash it is. I’ve been to enough DVIS fund raisers that this book raised way too many red flags for me. If women think….oh sorry, I’m on my soap box and you said it very well in the article. I hope there starts a backlash and outcry soon, PLEASE! Carla H

  • Tobysgirl June 4, 2012 at 2:15 pm

    Having worked in the madhouse of a typeshop in NYC in the 1980s, I sort of resent the idea that working a crazy job would make me want some creep to whip me. Wanting the man in our lives to take charge some of the time, including in the bedroom, is perfectly healthy and normal, and it is one hell of a long way from sadomasochism.

    When I look at the picture of a man who killed his ex-wife and two children, and I see what appears, in an ordinary photograph, to be a man who is thuggish and hyper-masculine, I wonder what women see in violent men. Something, I guess, they often regret afterwards.

  • RozWarren June 3, 2012 at 8:13 pm

    Whether you need to read all three books of a trilogy in order to properly review the first book is an interesting question. My rule of thumb is that as long as you disclose that you’ve only read one book and that your review only covers that book, it’s cool. Ana makes a good point about women who work in high pressure, high powered jobs enjoying the fantasy of giving up their power. (When I had a high pressure job, I didn’t fantasize about BDSM — I quit my job. Maybe if I were still practicing law, “50 Shades” would have worked for me?)

  • IB June 2, 2012 at 11:17 pm

    I’m not interested in this book. There’s way too much pain being inflicted on women in the real world anyway. And besides, why isn’t it the woman who’s the rich, helicopter driving, piano playing control freak?

  • Ana June 2, 2012 at 10:19 pm

    I’m sorry that you all can’t see that in this day and age were women work in high pressure, high powered jobs that take everything out of in us the course of a day that the idea of finding oneself in a relationship were the male is taking the lead in the bedroom or the red room of pain for that matter is a secret fantacy for many of us. We have to be strong and in control all day long both at work and at home because many of us go home and take care of the family and run to and fro until we fall into bed. The idea that we can give up that power for a short period of time and be taken care in a very intimate and cherishing way by a male that only wants to give the us the ulimate pleasure which is sexual relief a kind of relief that working out or anyother form of physical activity can’t provide.

    Additionally if you had bothered to look ahead to the next two books you would have realized that E.L. James was dealing with a very serious problem in that the Christian character was an abused and neglected child of a woman who was addicated to crack coccine and then adopted by a family after he was found laying on the floor next to his dead mother after four days you might have learn a little about a serious condition that affect this country and that is illegal drug use and what it does to the children of parents who care more about getting high then they do their children.

    So in the end I guess the old addage of not judging a book by it cover still holds true today except maybe now it should include not judging a book by it reviewer as well.

  • Tobysgirl June 2, 2012 at 4:43 pm

    Great to read this review! What bothers me is not that women are reading porn, but such badly written porn. I used to proofread romance novels for work, and the violent “hero” is a boring and pathetic staple of many of them. It saddens me that this is what women find exciting, some sociopathic rich dude who wants to shove them around.

  • irene June 2, 2012 at 12:10 pm

    I second Suzanne. Skip the book but can’t wait to read the next review. Very funny and very spot on.

  • Just One Boomer (Suzanne) June 2, 2012 at 10:59 am

    What a coincidence, I’m writing this comment from a hotel in Copenhagen that is near the main train station and thus the, admittedly tame, redlight district. I mean, it’s Copenhagen, not Amsterdam. Roz, this is definitely a thigh slapping review, and I mean that in a good (non-sadomasochistic) way. I think I’ll skip actually reading the book if you promise you’ll also review the sequel.

  • hillsmom June 2, 2012 at 10:13 am

    Oh Roz you’ve done it again! Nothing like a good belly laugh to start off the day. I do remember reading “smuggled in” copies of “Tropic of Cancer” in a plain brown wrapper, followed by “Lady Chatterley’s Lover”, and finally the first “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” years ago. Guess that’s not such hot stuff these days. However, ” Fifty Shades of Grey” will not be on my reading list.
    Pardon my digression, but I forget who said, “Henry Miller is a dirty old man. When he was born, the stork delivered him in a plain brown wrapper.” I remember the quote, but have forgotten the rest of the Miller books also read back in the day.

  • Kelly June 2, 2012 at 9:32 am

    haha nice to hear this after listening to so many people talking about it at work.

  • Roz Warren June 2, 2012 at 8:40 am

    Thanks for running this review, Pat! I had fun writing it. (And if Ana and Grey are a new relationship ideal, we’re ALL in big trouble.)

  • Dr. Patricia Yarberry Allen June 2, 2012 at 8:16 am

    Dear Roz,

    We knew you would be the perfect person to review this book. Your capacity to make us laugh at ourselves and to find the irony that this piece of trailer trash bodice ripper S&M would become a BEST seller and be found in the MOST EXPENSIVE homes is so spot on. I just hope the author has not described some new relationship ideal that fits in with the broader political climate here in the 21st century: war on women, indeed.

    Thanks for the laughs,