Fifty Shades of Criticism

50Criticism is not about the conscious refusal to distance oneself from the audience, but about trying to explain why or why not a prospective audience member would want to invest in experiencing a particular work. Every film has some plausible audience, but some films are cynically made for an audience of idiots and it is difficult for even the most honest critic to say, “Go see this film because you’re an idiot and it was made with you in mind.”

The key skill of a critic is the ability to analyze, and to articulate reasons for what appeal a film has and to whom. This is why there’s no point writing intelligent critiques of porn: The prospective audience can usually deduce their level of interest from the title and perhaps the list of “talent,” information to which a critic can add little. It is certainly valid to analyze such work in context, but that is less film criticism than social science.

Fifty Shades of Grey suffers from the same problem, because no one cares whether it is good or bad by critical standards. The book is so bad as to be almost unreadable, although, ironically, its moronically juvenile prose style might be tolerable if forced to read it while chained up in a dungeon under threat of punishment. (I got about 10 pages into it before it became just too painful.) Maybe the film is better – I haven’t watched it – but that would require it to diverge entirely from the book. Many books are bad and would probably be much better if totally rewritten with different plot and characters, preferably by a different author: eventually one must concede that the tools available to the modern romance novelist are essentially the same as the tools available to Shakespeare, even if they did not both use the same typewriter.


In 2012 when the Fifty Shades phenomenon began to attract commercial attention, someone got the idea to run automated text comparison tools against it and a prior fan-fiction work by the same author, Master of the Universe, which was based on the Twilight series by Stephenie Meyer. (Ironically, Meyer is a devout Mormon who presumably would not regard such sexually explicit fan-fiction as flattering. Then again, Jane Austen probably would not be impressed by Twilight, which Meyer has acknowledged is to a significant extent a rewrite of Pride and Prejudice.) Such automated comparison tools are intended to detect plagiarism, although one could not fairly describe an author stealing from her own work with that term. The result, however, is illustrative. “Wide swaths” of text from Master were almost cut-and-pasted into Fifty Shades, just changing names: Edward Cullen became Christian Grey, Bella Swan became Anastasia Steele, and so on., one of the automated tools, ranked the works 89% the same. For obvious legal reasons, the author and her publisher deny this.

It is always a great deal more interesting for a critic to write a favorable review than an unfavorable one. Probably the worst live stage performance I’ve ever seen was of Hamlet in the park, and while certainly no one can blame the script, the end result was so comically awful that it remains years afterward a touchstone of reference for those who were there with me. Not only was the wind so stiff that it was dragging props around the grassy outdoor performance space, but individual gusts had a poltergeist-like sense of humor, knocking over the arras behind which Polonius was supposed to be hidden before he was killed and forcing Ophelia to chase after a Styrofoam flower pot. The Gravedigger was tossing around Halloween props from a party store with wild abandon, and I think Yorick may have even lit up. The actor playing Laertes did not show up, so the director filled in for him “on book” (that is, holding a script), and I can assure you that watching someone conducting a swordfight while reading a script is unforgettably ridiculous. The play moved so slowly that the sun set and left us in freezing darkness only a few weeks after the summer solstice. Nevertheless, it would not be fair to call an account of that experience a review; rather it would be more of a travelogue: Blown Away: How I Spent Six Hours in a Park and Nearly Froze in July.

Because of this, Fifty Shades of Grey is not so much beyond criticism as apart from it, and an attempt at legitimate critical analysis would be like trying to explain to someone what the cat did all morning and impute purpose and motives to that: “There was some lying around, then some experimentation trying to find a warm spot on the floor. Warmth is a reminder of all that’s good and wholesome in a home, the only home she has ever known since infancy. But she’s not very adventurous because she’s not allowed outside, so there was much anticipation approaching mealtime. Some doubt must always enter her mind at such times, as fears of abandonment multiply, and the realization that food has always been provided every day in the past is no assurance about tomorrow or even today, eventually spiraling inevitably into existential dread.”

It may be going too far talking about a cat in Proustian terms, but that’s the point: Fifty Shades of Grey is just about lying there looking for the warm spot.

Master of the Universe versus Fifty Shades by E.L James Comparison” by Jane Litte, Mar 2012: