On the recommendation of the lovely Thursa, and against the recommendation of my friend* at Bibliofreak.net, I decided to read Fifty Shades of Grey in between my own exciting sexual exploits.
I’m surprised, but I kind of like this book. I think it’s in need of an edit, and a thesaurus, and less of a Mary Sue attitude in the first four or five chapters, and if I read the sentence ‘My breath hitches’ again I might hurt someone, but I think I like it. Anastasia Steele was, and is still from time to time, incredibly annoying; and Christian Grey is not fully formed as a character (unless that’s intentional on James’ part to retain his mystery and hopefully make me fall in love with him too), is moody, embarrassing and often says things that make me want to be sick, but – and this is where I think my surprise comes from – it’s better than Twilight.
I think this is a valid reference point, as Fifty Shades started life as a Twilight fanfic. Names changed, sparkly-fangs removed, and the plot beefed up a little, and this is a much better read in comparison. It’s short-sighted of me, I know, to expect that a writer of Twilight fanfic would know how to use a keyboard, but James’ plot is not all bad. It has the potential to be. But I was surprised to find that Steele did question what Grey asked of her (most of the time – but we all have our moments), she did have doubts and she did defy him. There was thought that went into her decisions, and while sometimes the thought was ‘take me now, I’ll worry about the consequences later’, somehow that’s more true to life than Bella Swan’s blatant disregard for the cardboard cut-out characters around her and her single-minded wrecklessness. Steele is more human in this way, and more real. She has ambitions, she has opinions on relationships that she is not willing to give up without question, and even though I knew the decision she was going to make to become Grey’s sub, I appreciated the effort put into getting her there rather than a simple “Reader, I’m doing it”.
My one big complaint (which may yet get addressed by the end – I’m not finished yet) is that I’m not sure something has to be wrong with Grey for him to want to Dominate. It is frequently suggested that his preferences must stem from some kind of sexual abuse. When he claimed “never” to have had vanilla sex before, I scoffed, until Jacobs second-guessed me and came up with a plot point which is yet to be resolved: as a 15 year old, Grey was seduced by and then sub to his adopted mother’s friend. Interesting. And formative. And I can understand that to Steele, being physically punished for bad behaviour by someone you’re falling in love with isn’t great – but it seems to me that the insistence that she is going to be the one to heal his wounds which will in turn make him forget his preference for Domination and make love to her is patently ridiculous. It suggests that everyone in the real world taking part in an s/D relationship is in some way damaged, which feels rather judgemental and probably incorrect.
But I’m aware that I can’t finish this thought yet, as I haven’t finished the book. Perhaps I’m just very liberal in my outlook, but I don’t find the sex that bad. I find the following about and demands on lifestyle weird, but that’s another issue – one that might stem from his lack of control as a child. To turn that into a ‘your sexual preferences are weird, there must be something wrong with you’ judgement doesn’t cut it with me.
One thing I kept reading about Fifty Shades before I started was that it was “liberating” and “mommy porn”. I have come to a conclusion on this, based solely on my tendency to read into and overthink anything and everything.
Fifty Shades can be liberating in one or two ways.
One, there’s a lot of sex in it.
Two, Steele and Grey have a written contract. The whole sub/Dom arrangement in the novel (not in life!) is quite a clever conceit for Talking To The Person You’re Having Sex With. And that’s probably liberating for people who have spent a long time pretending to like something they didn’t because they felt it was expected of them. Or not suggesting something they wanted to do because they were scared it would be shouted down. Or shouting people down for something ‘weird’ before you’ve thought through what you really think of it. All relationships are negotiations, Steele and Grey’s just has a written contract to refer to. We are at all times making these judgements and compromises, but without the documentation to back us up.
Perhaps, then, it would be beneficial for some of us to have contracts! ‘I like…’, ‘I don’t like…’, ‘… I’m open to persuasion’. This might be easier! We are always being told, in self-help and Ask… columns, that we need to communicate our preferences and opinions more. Rather than talking to the readers of Cosmo about our sex lives, why not discuss them with the people we’re having sex with – a novel idea! And Steele and Grey do just that: they write a contract, they ask opinions – very frankly and directly – and they deal with the consequences.
This is liberating because Steele and Grey are more upfront and honest than I guess a lot of us, but the fact that their negotiation is so obvious makes it easier. Really, there’s nothing in it the rest of us don’t, or shouldn’t, do. Perhaps then, this is liberating as it’s telling people that it’s ok to ask for what you want, and it’s ok not to get it: life is a compromise and finding something that works for all parties involved is essential. Trying something and deciding not to try it again is how this works! So I actually quite like the thought that housewives across America, or wherever, are finally telling their husbands what they want and talking about things that they’ve missed out on.
ETA: Since typing all this up yesterday, I have finished the book. In the light of the great big cliffhanger I’m now left with, I feel I might need to reconsider this viewpoint.
Either, the cliffhanger was tacked on to make me buy the rest of the trilogy. If the rest of the trilogy turns out to be healing via “normal” sex, I’m not sure I’ll like it.
Or, Steele did go along with something she felt she ought to because it would let Grey do something he didn’t want her to do (i.e. touch him) and the whole thing broke down because the compromise shattered. In which case, I was right. Ha.
More thoughts when I have them. Please challenge me!
*Disclaimer: Matthew at Bibliofreak.net is of course also lovely, and beautiful. And has opinions on books.
Looking back at my childhood shelves I notice that I’ve always been really into “collecting” the work of certain authors – and I’m sure we all have favourites on our shelves at home that we could read again and again. In the interests of literary introspection, I began to list these favourite authors and thought – lucky you! – that I’d share them.
I somehow discovered Paul Magrs via the young adult novel Strange Boy and it totally blew me away. I could read this book every month and not get bored of it.
The Handmaid’s Tale, Oryx and Crake, The Penelopiad: there is no author I can think of who has such a way of reimagining the ordinary, and making me consider everything from my writing style, to my plots to my place in society. I can’t recommend her enough, and I would and will hope to read anything and everything she has written.
Perhaps controversially, I prefer the Dirk Gently series to Hitchhiker’s Guide. I feel I can say that having read all of these series, including the unfinished The Salmon of Doubt, but seriously, I could wax lyrical for some time about how great Dirk Gently is and why you ought to give it a go.
My English Literature teacher at Secondary school recommended Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit and she was right. Since then I’ve read a number of her books, and I really can’t get over her use of language and imagery. I’m sure I could learn a lot from her – so I need to keep reading!
Here’s another topic best saving for a full blog post. For my dissertation I read a lot of sermons as well as a lot of poetry – and if I still love him then there must be something there. I know a number of his poems by heart (mostly the rude ones such as Elegie XIX but also nicer ones such as The Good-Morrow). As a tip for Christmasses, etc, I’m collecting collections of his poetry. So, you know, just an idea.
I say this, but hasn’t everyone? In fact, I didn’t read the spin off books, but I have read the Harry Potter series at least twice.
I always stated I hated Jane Austen until I read Northanger Abbey and then I went back to read Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility and realised how funny her work was. Not just a description of lovelorn ladies in big dresses!
J. R. R. Tolkien
After re-discovering The Lord of the Rings at school, I suddenly became obsessed with all things Tolkien. Including Leaf by Niggle. Having said this, I own The Silmarillion, but still can’t finish it. But ask me about the Sindarin noun-verb diclensions, or the Hobbits after the Ring and I may know a little something! Oh, and if you can’t find any Donne for Christmas, Tolkien editions are also accepted.
Wilde is another author I’m glad to have discovered at school, and whose works I will happily collect in any edition. I’ve pored over the plays and consider The Picture of Dorian Gray to be among the most haunting stories I’ve ever read.
This one was rather a surprise when I looked back at my bookshelves. But I have the majority of his books. A wonderfully clever philosopher and storyteller, Gaarder’s novels are thought-provoking and vivid and very, very imaginative. Read Sophie’s World and consider how words are written on the inside of a banana skin…
So, who are your favourite authors? Who will you always return to for good writing – and why?
No matter how much you read or write, there are always some stories you wish you had thought to tell first, or metaphors you wished you’d come up with. Below are a list of the top five books I wish I had written.
1. Riddley Walker, Russell Hoban
“Walker is my name
and I am the same.
Walking my riddels
where ever theyve took me
and walking them now
on this paper the same.”
In Riddley Walker, Russell Hoban tells the tale of post-apocalyptic England through the mangled and re-written voice of its inhabitants, specifically the titular protagonist Riddley. In his search for knowledge, Riddley dissolves the myths which have sprung-up in this post-nuclear dystopia and uncovers the secret of mankind’s downfall.
I studied this book as part of a third-year English Lit half-unit on the Male Bildungsroman. I had absolutely no idea what to expect when I turned the first page, and it’s safe to say that this completely blew me away. This book is a revelation. Hoban imagines a world without history so convincingly that the novel is compelling from the first sentence and I really found that I could not put this down until I had worked it out. From the post-apocalyptic dialect to the somehow-familiar myths and rules of the new society, I was challenged throughout and as a result of my perseverance I was rewarded with a totally original and haunting world. I’ve never come across anything so foreign, yet uncanny, and if there is one book you must take on trust, it’s this one. I won’t tell you anything more as it really ought to be a surprise, but please read Riddley Walker! (And then come back and talk to me about it.)
2. Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, James Joyce
“Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo…”
Portrait of the Artist tells the story of Stephan Dedalus’ (of Ulysses fame) youth – from birth to his teenage years. Joyce reflects almost exactly Dedalus’ thoughts, even in his personal dialect as a baby, and the book is a rollercoaster of scenes and internal monologue that I’m sure you only truly understand once you’ve finished.
I remember reading this when I was at secondary school, and after the first chapter I remember being amazed at the audacity Joyce displayed in writing something which plainly made no sense at a first reading. Since then, I’ve wanted to write something this confident. I’m not there yet, so this is still on the list of wishful thinking.
3. A Song of Ice and Fire, George R. R. Martin
“Night gathers, and now my watch begins. It shall not end until my death. I shall take no wife, hold no lands, father no children. I shall wear no crowns and win no glory. I shall live and die at my post. I am the sword in the darkness. I am the watcher on the walls. I am the fire that burns against cold, the light that brings the dawn, the horn that wakes the sleepers, the shield that guards the realms of men. I pledge my life and honor to the Night’s Watch, for this night and all the nights to come.”
George R. R. Martin’s undeniably ambitious saga begins with A Game of Thrones, in which the fictional land of Westeros and its difficult and dangerous politics is introduced. Beginning at the end of a multiple-year ‘Summer’, the saga charts the stories of a number of characters; all of whom, it emerges, have claims to the Iron Throne.
I’m currently only on Book Two, A Clash of Kings, but so far I’m jealous. Martin’s books are immensely long, and immensely detailed. At the end of Book One I was so engaged I had to keep reading, and now I’m reading on I’m amazed at the ease with which Martin introduces new characters. And here lies my envy: every character is complex. There are no real stereotypes, and everyone changes their mind or experiences a genuine conflict of interests at some point. This really keeps a reader on their toes. That and Martin’s lack of fear when it comes to killing off his darlings: there are points at which you know where this book should go – if only it were another book. With A Song of Ice and Fire, you can never be sure what will happen…
4. House of Leaves, Mark Z. Danielewski
“This is not for you.”
Danielewski’s House of Leaves is a beautiful, ambitious hypertext that teaches you what ‘hypertext’ really means. A potentially fictional, tortured protagonist uncovers and reassembles the work of a potentially fictional blind man, who is reviewing a film that cannot be found created by a filmaker who seems not to exist. The book covers the lives of all three main characters, looping and twisting through their lives while all the time exposing the real protagonist, the House. It is the setting of the film, the academic focus of the essay, and it too may not even be real.
This book is filled with metaphor, clues, and contradictions to keep you on your toes and occasionally scare you half to death. I loved it. It can be read in a number of ways, it’s visually appealing, and it is guaranteed to get you thinking. I only wish I had the brain power to contemplate writing something of this scale.
5. Rapture, Carol Ann Duffy
Rapture is a collection of love poems charting an affair from the first brilliant shock of attraction to the final resignation and complacency that comes with time. As ever, Duffy’s writing is bright, vivid and unique, and the poems range from odes of love to short and snappy declarations that stick in your mind. A particular favourite of mine is Syntax, and I really could read it aloud again and again.
The reason I wish I had written it: Duffy manages to capture these fleeting moments in a manner that makes them almost understandable. Whenever I write poetry I want to do the same; to make something undefinable real for just the length of that page. It’s a real skill, and I firmly believe there’s beauty to her writing.
So, that’s enough of me waxing lyrical!
What are your top five? Which books do you just wish you’d written?
David Lodge, in his novel Changing Places, invents the literary game of ‘Humiliation’; in which academics attempt to out-do one another by naming classic books they have never read and admitting shameful gaps in their literary (and therefore professional) knowledge.
As you might know, I’m an English Literature graduate and I (sometimes) claim to be an aspiring writer. I’m critical, I like to read to analyse and I love editing. You might think therefore that well read. I disagree. I know full well there are a number of books I’ve never even touched, let alone read, but I’m going to shame myself here and list the top ten most humiliating.
I’ve tried. Gods know I’ve tried to read this book. Each time I get stuck after the first chapter. Too self-pitying. The thing is, I probably would enjoy the story in the end, but I can’t for the life of me get past that frustration.
2. Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë
Well, I can’t admit to having tried this one. Gothic fiction just riles me, rather than entices me. And it doesn’t help that either one or both of the above were quoted nauseatingly in the Twilight saga.
3. David Copperfield, Charles Dickens
This book represents a lot of Dickens’ work that I haven’t read. Also, Bleak House, A Tale of Two Cities, Nicholas Nickleby. Not quite sure of the reason for this one, so it is a little shameful. I love Dickens! Perhaps I’m just scared of the size of Bleak House…
4. War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy
I’m sure I should have read this book. And it ought to count for about three books on normal ‘Best Books’ lists, thereby making the reader Very Well Read. However, I still haven’t. As such, I am Not Well Read At All.
5. Moby-Dick, Herman Melville
I think some of my old lecturers would kill me for not having read this book. They’re American. And it has the most well-known first line in literary history, no? Even I know that. One day, I’ll read on.
6. Tess Of The D’Urbervilles, Thomas Hardy
Another writer of whom I have read shamefully little. I’ve read The Mayor of Casterbridge. I was about 14 at the time, so I barely remember it, but I don’t think I hated it – so the reason I stopped there with Hardy is beyond me. Another I really ought to buy and put on my To-Read pile sooner rather than later.
7. Ulysses, James Joyce
Well, technically this doesn’t need to be on the list, but I’m ashamed. Ulysses was my post-degree summer project. I assumed that I might be clever enough to read it. I’ve read the first chapter three times and then I stopped. I need to finish this book! I know I will like it. But as yet, still shameful
8. To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee
9. Crime And Punishment, Fyodor Dostoyevsky
This one is ever so slightly less shameful as although I haven’t read it yet, I’m doing something about the situation and starting it now! However, I’m still pretty sure I should have done so already.
10. On the Road, Jack Kerouac
Yeah, yeah, great American novels. Have never had a desire to read this book until I got to university and found out that everyone else had. I was still too busy reading Tolkien or Renaissance poetry, however, to pick it up.
And a bonus shame:
Atonement, Ian McEwan
I have never read this book. Sometimes I think I might be the only one. More to the point, I will never read this book. I can’t bear Ian McEwan.
And on that potential bombshell, I’ll leave you.
What are your literary humiliations? Don’t leave me alone – what else haven’t you read?
So, it struck me that I hadn’t updated on the other days I spent in Cheltenham.
As well as attending two Radio 4 recordings (Excess Baggage and The Write Stuff), putting up with Giles Brandreth in order to learn a lot of really fascinating things about Oscar Wilde, squeezing into the most packed tent in the place to see Julian Fellowes and other involved with Downton Abbey be very cryptic about what was to come, attending two talks on Religion and Writing (one of which I posed a question that could not be answered, and the other where Anne Rice was mystic and wonderful), a number of coffee dates and gossips – I sawthe Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy give a poetry recital of her new collection The Bees.
I’ve loved Carol Ann Duffy since GCSE English Literature. Her poem Anne Hathaway was, I think, the first time I’d ever come across oral sex in poetry, and the first time it had been discussed in class in a serious manner! Then Warming Her Pearls… Salome was another poem about danger, sex and powerful women and I think it must have really struck me that poetry could be about something other than the stereotypical flowers and chaste beautiful women. Of course, one English Literature BA later, I’m aware that very little poetry isn’t actually about sex (or is that just what we were taught?!) but Carol Ann Duffy was the first poet I remember reading that used language in such a strong way. Education for Leisure (now inexplicably banned from the GCSE syllabus) is another example of the power of words in her poetry.
It was her tenderness and wit, also, that I remember. Before You Were Mine is a beautiful account of Duffy’s mother when she was young, before she was a mother, and I remember thinking that the use of image rewound time in a way that was just so vivid.
Duffy has lost none of this strength, nor wit, nor tenderness. Her readings were funny, poignant and in some cases, moving. She read a number from the collection, moving from a poem to speak out against the removal of her poem Education for Leisure from GCSE study-books, a poem protesting against the Royal Mail’s eradication of counties, and a celebration of British pubs, through to poems about the death of her mother.
Throughout the readings she was interspersed by a colleague John Sampson; a kind of sixteenth-century wind instrument recitial-cum-cabaret. He was hilarious, talented and engaging to watch – although together Duffy and Sampson made an odd pair. During the final poem, however, he began to play on the tenor recorder a quiet ‘Danny Boy’ behind her slow words rewinding her mother’s life from birth to death.
I’ve since found a copy of this poem published in a newspaper and I’ll include it here. Reading it is one thing, reading it aloud another. But I hope you’ll believe me when I say that while Duffy read this poem and Sampson played his solemn tune, there were some tears shed around the room.
Dedicated with love to the
memory of UA Fanthorpe
We first met when your last breath
cooled in my palm like an egg;
you dead, and a thrush outside
sang it was morning.
I backed out of the room, feeling
the flowers freshen and shine in my arms.
The night before, we met again, to unsay
unbearable farewells, to see
our eyes brighten with re-strung tears.
O I had my sudden wish -
though I barely knew you -
to stand at the door of your house,
feeling my heartbeat calm,
as they carried you in, home, home and healing.
Then slow weeks, removing the wheelchair, the drugs,
the oxygen mask and tank, the commode,
the appointment cards,
until it was summer again
and I saw you open the doors to the gift of your garden.
Strange and beautiful to see
the roses close to their own premonitions,
the grass sweeten and cool and green
where a blackbird eased a worm into the lawn.
There you were,
a glass of lemony wine in each hand,
walking towards me always, your magnolia tree
marrying itself to the May air.
How you talked! And how I listened,
spellbound, humbled, daughterly,
to your tall tales, your wise words,
the joy of your accent, unenglish, dancey, humorous;
watching your ash hair flare and redden,
the loving litany of who we had been
making me place my hands in your warm hands,
younger than mine are now.
Then time only the moon. And the balm of dusk.
And you my mother.
So today I was near my hometown visiting the Literature Festival ’11 in Cheltenham. Each year this takes place in the second week of October and so falls quite happily over my birthday. Hence, a nice birthday weekend of books, food and thinking.
Instead of keeping my notes to myself, I though that this year I’d share them with whichever people still happened to be reading this.
Today we saw David Lodge discussing his fictional biography on the life of H. G. Wells; A Man of Many Parts. Turns out Wells had a rather scandalous life of politics, sex, interviewing people like Stalin and sometimes squeezing in enough time to write successful novels such as The Time Machine.
Lodge read out a section in which Wells considers a flirtation with children’s author Edith Nesbitt, and apparently it’s the only time in the novel that Wells does not succumb to temptation. In Lodge’s typical style it’s quite unique, plain-speaking and understated; adjectives are used sparsely and to effect, meaning that their message comes across loud, clear and the prose is vivid. I’m considering reading it, and at the very least I want to read all of Well’s major fiction first so that I can make my opinions of him as a writer before philanderer.
Points of interest:
After lunch, we saw Tony Benn being his usual hilarious and quotable self. We had already decided that Benn’s politics are not in line with our own, but that as a character he is worth listening to. Case in point being that regarding a question about the provision of jobs, homes etc for debt-worried graduates – Benn’s answer was that education was a human right and that graduates would have high-paying jobs… missing the point entirely. An idealist, a humorous man, but not entirely practical.
This session also provided the Most Mad Question of the Day: a lady somewhere at the back waited for some time to ask whether Benn knew that Harold Wilson was considering assassinating a Ghanian in the 1970s, and was this discussed in cabinet, as a Radio 4 programme she had listened to last year had suggested.
Benn’s reply: “I’m sorry, I’m a little deaf, I didn’t quite catch that.”
The final session of the day was a discussion on Lives of the Novelists (i.e. literary biography and biographical fiction) between David Lodge and John Sutherland, author of the new Lives of the Novelists, a chronological literary history of 294 writers’ lives. It looks like a beautiful encyclopedia, and I want it for Christmas.
Points of interest:
And finally, The Second Most Mad Question of the Day: two people who lived in one house were ‘homosexually-inclined’. “Was there something in the brickwork that made them homosexually-inclined?”
So with that thought to play on your mind, I’ll leave you. Bring on tomorrow!
So it turns out that there are just so many things wrong with Twilight that I have spent a week writing up 2300 words detailing my dislike for the series. In the interests of being an honest blogger, however, and not censoring myself, I will make them all available to you. All 2300. But not all at once.
There are four main points which particularly get to me about the books, and I’ve split my entry into four parts, which you can find here. So if you want to be saved from my anger, don’t click! But if you find yourself curious about it, follow the links below to the appropriate angry section:
It would probably help if I explained what lead me to produce this diatribe.
In my second year at university I finally realised I was old when everyone was talking about Twilight and I didn’t know what that was. After reading a little about it online, I firmly decided that I was not going to like it. But after I while, I thought that perhaps it would be better to be specific in my hatred of the series rather than decide I didn’t like it without trying it.
Luckily for me, I was not disappointed. I hated the first book. But after persuasion from a lovely colleague that the books improve if you can suspend your impulse to be sick, I recently finished Twilight: New Moon and have since borrowed Twilight: Eclipse. I am going to just come out and say that I do want to know what happens. And so I will most likely make it through to Breaking Dawn. Can’t say I’m enjoying myself, though. I really am too much of a literary snob (and possibly a grown-up woman?) to say that I care about Edward, or Bella, or can put up with horrendous lovey-dovey stuff or the dodgy metaphors. But I will persevere! Because I am coming round to the idea that Stephanie Meyer had a good idea, she just executed it poorly. And the parts of the books in which there are other characters involved, I am actually interested in – hence I want to know the conclusion. I’m not holding my breath, but I do want to know.
Right. So that should be about it. If you read, that would be lovely, if you don’t, well – blogging’s for posterity as well. So all my hatred will be here for me to read. And possibly edit one day.
For an explanation of this, go here.
Point 4: The sexual relationships are skewed, wrong and carry a manipulative message.
For an explanation of this, go here.
Point 3:The women in the books are flat and exploited, whereas the violent men are idolised.