Fifty Shades of Good Fiction

A close friend of mine cornered me recently and asked me if I’d read Fifty Shades of Grey. “No,” I said. Smiling.

(It’s not the subject matter. I like a little literary titillation as well as the next person. But I’ve seen excerpts. The writing is … well, awful. It’s awful, kids.)

“Oh, it’s really good,” my friend said.

(I’ve heard a lot of women say this about the book. Fair enough. What I think this means is they found the story compelling. This is the same thing women said about Twilight—and I’m on record as having been hooked, initially, by that story, so I get it. A good story covers a multitude of literary sins.)

“But it’s not … well written,” I said. “I really like good writing.”

(I admit it: I love literary fiction, I do. But I read a lot of so-called commercial fiction, from mysteries to chick lit to romance to fantasy and sci-fi, and enjoy that too. A novel doesn’t have to be literary—whatever your definition of that is—to be good. In my leisure time, I read strictly for personal pleasure.)

“So how can you tell good writing?” she asked.

(It’s easier to tell you what bad writing is. When the text is choked with clichés like “moth to a flame” and “heart in my throat,” that’s bad. When the female lead blushes, bites her lower lip, or looks down at her hands over and over and over again, that’s bad writing. When the story is set in an American city with American characters who talk like Brits, that’s bad writing. When there’s an entire cottage industry of ordinary folks ridiculing the book on YouTube—hilarious, but not for the easily offended—that’s bad writing.

Furthermore, one of my pet peeves is the male protagonist who is good-looking and as rich as Croesus. It’s just silly. In Grey, Amazon reader/reviewer meymoon tells us, the male protagonist “is a billionaire … who speaks fluent French, is basically a concert-level pianist, is a fully trained pilot, is athletic, drop-dead gorgeous, tall, built perfectly … and the best lover on the planet. In addition, he’s not only self-made but is using his money to combat world hunger. Oh yeah, and all of this at the ripe old age of 26!” Twenty-six? Oh, stop.)

“If you like it,” I told her, “it’s good.” And I meant it with all my heart.

(Seriously. I don’t care what you read, I care that you read. What you choose to read is up to you. Me, I’m not going to read Fifty Shades of Grey, because I’ve seen samples and the writing is excruciatingly bad, in my opinion.

But I’m in the book biz. I’ll be thrilled if you go out and buy a book. Or three.)

Tweet: I don’t care *what* you read, I care *that* you read. I mean it!
Tweet: So how can you tell good writing? It’s easier to tell you what bad writing is. 

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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12 Comments

  1. A.J.Race says:

    You make a good point, we should be happy that people are even reading, even if it has to be books like these. It pains me as a writer for many many reasons, (the realism or surrealism as it were) of the story being one of them. Me and my best friend Kat (a fellow writer) have started reading it together, laughing about the ridiculousness of it. I think we’re going to need to start recording that soon. Literotica isn’t a bad thing, if it’s done right, but this is just atrocious and not sexy. I’ve heard, from a few people that it isn’t even how S&M really works so that makes it all the worse! Because if you can’t have credibility what does she have?

    • Jamie says:

      Her credibility is questioned over much more than the S&M. People in Seattle have pointed out all sorts of geographical errors. And as noted, her characters use a lot of British words, although they are supposedly Americans. It’s a train wreck. But… we have a choice, and we can choose something else to read. :)

  2. Ramona says:

    I love literary fiction; love me some genre books as well. Cut my teeth on Dumas and Heinlein and Colter (Catherine, not Ann). I enjoy a good saucy romance. I’m currently re-reading OUTLANDER, the beginning of which still makes me nuts – but I love the books and love how Gabaldon matured as she wrote them. And I say that if you want to read great BDSM romances, go to literotica.com and get them free. They’re even rated for easy pickin’ (on a 5-point scale), and there are millions of stories there (seriously). If you look hard enough, you might even find some TWILIGHT fan fiction. (Not that I know much about that site, you understand. Not really. Not me, uh-uh.)

    • Jamie says:

      Right there with ya. Great suggestion, by the way. Although you know how I feel about Twilight. :)

  3. Amanda Halm says:

    I am from Seattle and now I might read it just to point out all the errors. I am a writer and reader and the thing that bugs me is that friends keep telling me I must read it. Like it’s the book of the century. Until now, I haven’t had a good response that wouldn’t hurt their feelings.

    Thanks for that! I also do not care what other people read.

  4. Jesi says:

    Can I get an ‘Amen’?! So many of my friends are raving about this book. I read it, I admit I enjoyed the story and the kinky factor but I cringed every time she bit her lip. I enjoy books with good story quality (even with bad writing) sometimes. “Beautiful Disaster” is a great example of that book where you wonder if she ever asked an editor to look over it before sending it to the printers but still, I loved it.

    I have a question though, what if as a writer, you know you have a great story to tell but your skills aren’t quite up to par? I’m currently writing a novel and I have so much confidence in the story itself but not in the writing. I don’t really consider myself as a writer but I love my story. What should I do?

    • Jamie says:

      You can certainly take a creative writing class at your local college. Join a writers’ group. Read as much as you can. Write as much as you can. :)

  5. […] This article written by Jamie Chavez, a book editor and one of my favorite bloggers pretty much hit all the points I’ve made about Fifty Shades of Grey but with professional weight behind her opinion. […]

  6. […] Back to Jamie Chavez Read>Play>Edit Your sometimes cranky editor writes about books, writing, & editing, words & language, and the publishing industry. Skip to content About « Fifty Shades of Good Fiction […]

  7. Ian R Thorpe says:

    Got here and I agree with you about 50 Shades, the eroticism is about as sexy as cabbage soup, both main characters unbelievable (I didn’t really encounter any other characters in the bits I read.) I can’t comment on the geography as I have never been to Seattle. And it isn’t really that difficult to get American speech idioms rightish, all one has to do it watch T.V. (An American would not say “watch tele” as I usually would.) and remember words like bollocks and wanker are not in common use. A lot of Brits make the mistake of giving all Americans a deep south drawl or a John Wayne cowboy twang.

    I was so pissed off with the fuss over 50 Shades I wrote a sex driven story myself, not thinking about publication but showing how real people act when they have fallen in lust. I will probably put it on line as a freebie and try to spice up a few relationships and gather a few million views. I have a lot of time on my hands and cannot earn money because of conditions in my long term incapacity insurance which I am free of late next year.

    Have to say I’m not a fan of Elmore Leonard. Why do people cite him as an example of a good writer, his plots are more risible than 50 Shades, his characters one dimensional and both his dialogue and described action delivered in the same terse monotone. IMNSHO. How can anyone mistake him for a great writer when he says Rule One is never start with the weather! The greatest ever first line in a novel is weather related, “It was a dark and storm night,” not in Edward Bulwer Lytton’s ‘Paul Cooper’ but the unfinished novel by the greatest unpublished writer ever, Snoopy.

    • Jamie says:

      LOL! One man’s trash is another’s treasure. (I’m speaking of Leonard here; it’s clear James is trash. And trashy too, but that’s another comment entirely.)

      • Ian R Thorpe says:

        I keep in my bookmarks this archive article from The Guardian books supplement in which writers and editors give tips to wannabes. Elmore Leonard lays down rules and I never liked schoolteachers. My favourites are Diana Athill, Roddy Doyle who gives dos and don’ts but in a tongue in cheek way. Best single tip, British fantasy writer Neil Gaiman’s “Put one word after the other.”

        The one tip of Elmore leonard’s I do wholeheartedly accept is, “if it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”
        I recently read City of Shadows by Michael Russell. After the first ten pages I thought I might not finish it, he was working so hard to be literary. Then he got his head out of his arse and delivered a great story with action shifting between Dublin and Danzig in the 1950s

        E L’s writing is trash, she however seems a nice middle class lady from London’s suburban sprawl. I doubt that a younger version of her could have survived a couple of wild nights with a younger me and still be able to write gross sex scenes so primly.

        • Jamie says:

          In fairness to Leonard, I think that small book of his isn’t intended to be tips, but more his philosophy of writing. :)

  8. […] knowing how to use “Whassup?” in proper context.) Me, I like the living and the knowing. I know I recently said I don’t care what you read … but that’s not entirely true. I think it’s important to be culturally literate, which means […]

  9. […] I stop reading it and move on. Oh, you all know I’m not crazy about the Twilight series or the Fifty Shades series, but generally I prefer raving about the books I liked rather than complaining about the ones I […]

  10. […] to decide for ourselves, and then seek out the ones that please us. What’s most important—and I am on record with this—is I don’t care what you read, I care that you read. So go find your […]

5 Trackbacks

  1. By Can I get an ‘Amen’? « Jesi Lee Novelist on 23 October, 2012 at 1:18 am

    […] This article written by Jamie Chavez, a book editor and one of my favorite bloggers pretty much hit all the points I’ve made about Fifty Shades of Grey but with professional weight behind her opinion. […]

  2. By The Sixty-Four Thousand Dollar Question on 25 October, 2012 at 7:26 am

    […] Back to Jamie Chavez Read>Play>Edit Your sometimes cranky editor writes about books, writing, & editing, words & language, and the publishing industry. Skip to content About « Fifty Shades of Good Fiction […]

  3. By The World Should Be Your Oyster* on 17 January, 2013 at 2:22 pm

    […] knowing how to use “Whassup?” in proper context.) Me, I like the living and the knowing. I know I recently said I don’t care what you read … but that’s not entirely true. I think it’s important to be culturally literate, which means […]

  4. By How Did This Book Get Published? (Part 1 of 6) on 21 October, 2013 at 12:42 pm

    […] I stop reading it and move on. Oh, you all know I’m not crazy about the Twilight series or the Fifty Shades series, but generally I prefer raving about the books I liked rather than complaining about the ones I […]

  5. By How DID This Book Get Published? A Follow-Up. on 11 November, 2013 at 1:13 pm

    […] to decide for ourselves, and then seek out the ones that please us. What’s most important—and I am on record with this—is I don’t care what you read, I care that you read. So go find your […]