by E.L. James
Can a writer sue themselves for plagiarism? E.L. James has a new novel out. Or rather, she doesn’t. She has an old novel out, repackaged by a new narrator. Replacing masochistic ingénue Anastasia Steele is sadistic, dishy billionaire Christian Grey. Gasp.
This inherently unoriginal idea isn’t itself, well, original. James is once again copying Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight (2007), which inspired Fifty Shades of Grey (2011) in the first place. Having exhausted every cliché in romantic and gothic fiction, Meyer went forward by rewinding back to the future and regurgitating episode one through vampish Edward Cullen.
That his unsentimental misanthropy was preferable to Bella Swan’s increasing drippiness didn’t matter; even Meyer couldn’t stomach cashing in on her bestselling idea. Having been mysteriously leaked, Midnight Sun, as she called the project, was abandoned after only a few pages.
Sadly, there is no such luck where James is concerned. Having already rebooted Fifty Shades of Grey with 2015’s Grey (whose full title is the even less imaginative, and even less saucy Grey: Fifty Shades of Grey as Told by Christian), she has followed it up with Darker (Darker: Fifty Shades Darker as Told by Christian, in case you’re confused).
The act of self-plagiarism extends to the minutest levels of James’ writing. It isn’t a shock to find dialogue largely cut and pasted; talk doesn’t change. What does surprise is how similar Anastasia and Christian sound. Rarely can two people be more alive to “deep breaths” or “breath [that] hitches”. Rarely can more blood have “thrummed” through more bodies. There is, thankfully, less “flushing” in Christian’s world. Anastasia used the word so often when describing her excited flesh that you wonder whether you’re reading an erotic novel or a manual for fixing the lavatory.
James may, of course, be illustrating how passionately synchronised her lovers are. But the suspicion is that all her photocopying has exposed the limitations of her prose palette. In Fifty Shades, Anastasia’s “adrenaline has spiked through my body”. Here’s Christian in Darker: “My heart rate spikes in response to the adrenaline that floods my body.” Hmm. This novel isn’t written so much as constructed using Microsoft Word’s find-and-replace function.
To be fair, there are differences between the lovers’ voices, but few broil the passion. Anastasia may be a ludicrously terrible narrator, but at least she was a ludicrously likeable good laugh. For example, when extolling a jealous Christian. “Paul [Clayton] has always been a buddy, and in this strange moment that I’m having with the rich, powerful, awesomely off-the-scale attractive Grey, it’s great to talk to someone normal.” I hear that.
Christian, by contrast, speaks with all the gritted eloquence of a corporate memo – when he isn’t sounding just like James that is. True, he is a billionaire, but he didn’t get my pulse racing. Here’s his first glimpse of Anastasia: “There are dark circles beneath her eyes, and she’s thinner. Thinner. Guilt lances through me. Christ. She’s suffered, too. My concern at her appearance turns to anger. No. Fury.”
This enraged brusqueness suggests three things. One: James already has the screenplay in mind. Second: even she can’t be bothered to write full sentences. Third: Christian is not very nice. Far from hurting his popularity, of course, this malicious streak has been the source of his power: in business, in bed, and over James’ readers. Take this passage from the original: “‘Look at me,’ he breathes, and I stare up into his smouldering gray gaze. It is his Dom gaze – cold, hard, and sexy as hell, seven shades of sin in one enticing look […] An almost cruel smile plays across his lips.’”
What feels crucial here is that Christian’s spiteful streak is filtered through the gaze of two women: Anastasia and James herself. This ensures that, for all his supposed edginess, Christian is a far safer, far nicer and far more conventional character than Edward, who wants to eat his love interest, at least for starters.
Redressing this power imbalance was a simple twist on the romantic norm: Bella was the one person whose mind Edward could not read. This lent her the mysterious allure of an unknowable male lead – like, for instance, Christian. “I never know what you’re thinking,” Anastasia says to a suitably confused Christian. “Baby, you read me like one of your books; except I’m not the hero. I’ll never be the hero.” Christian, a disingenuous, narcissistic control freak from the moment he wakes up, is wrong on both counts. As a result, the power falls squarely onto a rich, powerful white man. Sound familiar?
What ultimately lets Christian off the hook in Darker is his descent towards an ordinary hero of romantic fiction. James isn’t an erotic novelist any more than Meyer was a horror writer. Both are purveyors of sentimental slush. Grey might set off like the sex hound of the Baskervilles, but he ends up a love puppy nosing around all manner of romantic commonplaces.
This Jekyll and Hyde quality of Fifty Shades (hinted at by a character named, wait for it, Jack Hyde) is facing a new challenge. Darker is the first instalment to enter a post-Harvey Weinstein world in which the prospect of powerful, smiling men subjecting young women to their will doesn’t seem quite as, well, sexy any more. How will Christian, the potent, manipulative anti-hero, play in the new context where powerful men abusing their power and female employees are, at last, villains, pure and simple?
James will doubtless point to a long tradition of romantic bad boys. Like Meyer, she draws explicitly on the Bronte sisters’ Byronic leading men such as Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights and Mr Rochester in Jane Eyre. Neither, however, ends happily, and neither prostrates themself before a reader’s sympathy like Christian, who behaves atrociously only to throw a 360-degree turn in our affections.
In this, the key to the first Fifty Shades suddenly announces itself as Anastasia. The worst excesses of Christian’s proclivities were balanced by her brains, her sexual enjoyment and, most importantly, her consent. Everything we see, we see through Anastasia’s eyes. Forget the male gaze; here is the male gazed upon with unapologetic abandon: “My mouth goes dry as he casually strolls around the piano toward me. He has broad shoulders, narrow hips, and his abdominal muscles ripple as he walks. He really is stunning.”
By controlling the narrative, if not the events, Anastasia empowered James’ largely female readership. She was the embodiment of romance as defined by its doyenne, Barbara Cartland: “cruel men being tamed by pure girls”. The best argument in favour of Fifty Shades was perhaps that Anastasia’s submission offered a fantasy of respite for liberated, professional women in charge of hectic careers, families and social lives. That Christian was handsome and wealthy only increased the pleasure.
Switch the view to Christian, and the power relationship tips queasily. Remember how quickly his concern at Anastasia’s suffering turned to fury? This may be the rage of the helpless, but who really is helpless in the scene? Not Christian, one can argue, the defensive billionaire responsible for a young woman’s profound unhappiness. What is revealed in this scene is his compulsion to control everything – from Anastasia’s weight to her male colleagues.
In Darker, Christian’s constant muttering about “possessing” Anastasia sounds less dominant and more the patter of a real estate agent or horse owner: poor Anastasia “bolts” on at least three occasions. Anastasia’s most lasting impression in Darker is of a corporation being subjected to a hostile takeover. “She is all woman. And I want her. All of her. Her body, her heart, and her soul.”
Is my cynicism the result of political correctness or underlying prudishness? Am I missing the entire point of the S&M dynamic that has made Fifty Shades the most unlikely literary phenomena of our times? Perhaps Darker is an unflinching exposé of misogyny and toxic masculinity? I doubt it. James is certainly less fun than she used to be. Even the vast innuendo buried in this typically overwrought Christian ejaculation – “Christ! I nearly f***ed her in a back alley” – is ruined by the weird bathos of that “nearly”.
The absence of joy says a lot about Christian’s uneasy earnestness and rather more about James flogging her dead horse. Sometimes familiarity breeds boredom as well as contempt. Please, Erika. I beg you. On my knees. Enough already.