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'Fifty Shades' of the worst book ever written

Updated on January 9, 2014

As a lifelong writer and reader, I try to keep up on the latest trends in publishing and what’s popular. I also firmly believe that to become better, all writers should purposefully read poorly written novels in order to know what doesn’t work and what they don’t want to do.

When Fifty Shades of Grey by British author EL James came about, I heard whispers about the novel. (Yes, literal whispers, as no one really wants to discuss the book aloud due to the racy content contained within its pages.) One person would say they were engrossed, the next said they hid it from their husband under their pillow for reading after he fell asleep, and the next said the writing was so horrid that they stopped reading after the first ten pages. Because I normally read horror, mystery, and suspense/thriller novels, I did not jump on the bandwagon for quite some time…but after all the rumblings of a movie deal, I just had to find out for myself what all the fuss was really about. Admittedly I am a bit behind the times by just now offering up my review for consideration, but with a movie scheduled to be released in August 2014 it's never too late to warn the unsuspecting.

Plot Synopsis

The plot revolves around college student Anastasia Steele (Ana) who helps out a sick roommate to interview an affluent young entrepreneur Christian Grey. She falls for the mysterious man who, despite also liking Ana, wants to use her for some bedroom fun. Before the virginal Ana can engage down this dark and possibly dangerous path with Christian, he requires her to sign a contract that lists everything from what he can do to her while they are together to her dietary restrictions to how many times she must work out in a week. Complications arise when Ana’s feelings are thrown to the wolves during their first “encounter”, but she remains intrigued by her own desire to delve into his dark world. The tale is told from the first person point of view of Ana.

Author E.L. James


Wretched writing

As of the writing of this Hub, Amazon has just over 20,000 reviews of the book, and over one-fourth of those reviews give the book one star. One reviewer commented, “…I’m five chapters in and just can’t take it anymore.” Even though I agreed wholeheartedly with those who threw it in the trash after the first chapter, I stuck it out to the bitter end. In fact, the reading of the reviews is by far more entertaining than this book could have ever hoped to be.

The writing itself can only be likened to that of a child who giggles at the idea of adult relations. James’s idea of writing includes repeating the same phrases and words over and over and over…and then a few more times just for good measure. Thanks to the aforementioned Amazon reviewer, we have a count of some of these words and phrases. Ana says “Jeez” 81 times, she “flushes” or “blushes” 125 times. Between Ana and Christian there are 124 “grins”, but they also “frown” 124 times. Characters “whisper” 195 times and “murmur” 199 times. Just for fun, Christian’s “mouth presses into a hard line” 10 times. This is just a sampling of the gross overuse of words and phrases used by the author.

Careless characters

The characters can be described as thin, and I believe that’s overly generous. There is no substance behind any them, and they are not built up in a manner in which a reader can either relate or “root for”, as readers like to do. It’s as if the author wanted to write shocking erotica and plopped in some characters because books are required to have them. The characters have been likened to those of Twilight fame, and rightfully so: an awkward, clumsy and naïve female who has mommy issues due to many divorces instantly falls in love with a mysteriously perfect male and travels into his dark world. Oh and did I mention the guy "friend" who loves her from afar?

Main character Ana is extremely unbelievable as a college student in America. The book takes place in the present time (the book was published in 2011), yet she has no email address until Christian buys her an expensive computer. Even if one was to believe that she had no personal email address, universities today automatically issue email addresses to every student. That’s their primary source of communicating with students since email is so popular. Ana is supposed to be a naïve, inexperienced young girl without much real-world experience, yet she comes across as just plain stupid, with her mannerisms awkward and unappealing. Even more unbelievable is the idea that she caught the attention of a billionaire at first meet.

Said billionaire, Christian, is possibly the most unlikeable character ever written. He is arrogant, standoffish, overly self-important, and ridiculously irritating. There is nothing about him that is attractive or real. He is also a self-made billionaire at the ripe old age of 26, something which is nearly impossible to do unless you’re inventing the next Facebook and iPhone all at once. The character is written as the hero, yet he is more like an antagonist which leaves the reader just plain confused. Does the author truly expect the reader to want Ana to be with him? If so, it is quite insulting to her readers. I’m still not sure that the author even knows what she wanted the reader to get out of his character, which is quite possibly more insulting.

In addition to the blandness of the characters (which extends to the supporting cast), even though all of the characters are born and raised Americans, there are so many British phrases used in the story that either the author struggled with writing characters that were not British or the author simply did not care if the writing was done well. Apparently, neither did the editor.

Avoiding actual dialogue

A large portion of the conversation between Ana and Christian takes place over email. That’s right: email. The tediousness of these emails are not just the pages of email conversation, but that the subject line changes with almost every email in a poor attempt to express how they are feeling during the exchange. It leaves the dialogue without an anchor or foundation for the dialogue to take place. Feelings and facial expressions are removed, and the setting is nonexistent. The fact that the author uses this technique to use up so much space in the book appears to be an amateurish way for the author to get out of actually having to write meaningful dialogue between characters in a realistic setting. Talk about breaking the cardinal writing rule of "Show, don't tell!"

A cliché tale

Needless to say, the plot is cliché and quite boring. A young, inexperienced and naïve girl falls for a wealthy, experienced man in a love-at-first-sight meeting. Typical of most torrid romance novels, the overdone storyline is nothing more than an excuse to write erotica. The plot for the book, though cliché, could have been done well as many other authors have demonstrated, but the author appears to have just wanted a backdrop for the story and an easy explanation for Christian having so much money.

As their romance (?) blossoms, Christian showers Ana with lavish gifts and in turn she gives him what he wants in bed (or in his special BDSM room). Essentially it’s prostitution with a written contract. The fact that he has done this with others should have scared off the timid girl, yet she goes along with it as if it's perfectly normal to do so. While the book has no true ending as it is part of a trilogy, there really isn’t much of a cliffhanger to make a reader want to continue.


Giving readers the wrong idea

Christian admittedly uses women and inflicts as much pain as they can tolerate (and then some more) solely for his pleasure, and not for theirs. He tells this to Ana as well, who for some reason decides to sign his offensive contract. He alternately showers her with lavish gifts to keep her appeased and sticking with the contract. Most people would refer to this as abuse or domestic violence, not just physically but psychologically as well.

While the author may fancy herself a brave forerunner in writing erotica that has been embraced by the masses, there is nothing noble about the way it is presented in this novel. Proudly displaying the type of physical and psychological abuse by Christian on Ana, and then trying to show that it’s acceptable behavior, is a complete step in the wrong direction for understanding and helping women who are victims of abuse. Had the author used this as an opportunity to demonstrate what is wrong with domestic abuse, then there might be something to the book. Yet she allows her character Ana to just fall in line with the abuse while being completely dehumanized and demoralized, as if all women should embrace their inner masochistic goddess and follow suit.

Did you read Fifty Shades?

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An offense on all fronts

Overall, both writers and readers should be completely offended by this lackluster offering. As a writer myself, I feel that the publication of this book flies in the face of what good writing is really about. It also makes it feel as if anyone can publish a garbage book if they put a little erotica in the tale. The publisher and editors should also be completely ashamed of themselves for putting forth such an awful book. There are so many hardworking, genuinely great writers out there sending query letters and clutching onto hope along with all their rejection letters. Those writers should be the ones that are rewarded for their craft, not this author.

If you read Fifty Shades, did you enjoy it?

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The author not only has no regard for writing as an art form, she also does not care at all about her readers. She provides them with nothing to hold onto and readers should be allowed to request a full refund plus something to compensate their time and trouble. In fact, we should start a revolution of ashamed readers writing the publisher to write for their money back. Maybe it will act as a deterrent to writers and publishers in the future who believe that this kind of drivel is a satisfactory substitute for great writing and storytelling.


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    • letstalkabouteduc profile image

      McKenna Meyers 

      3 years ago from Bend, OR

      A co-worker of mine was raving about the books, running home during her lunch break to read them. Curious, I read the first one and half of the second but couldn't take it any more! Yes, the writing is poor and, oh, so very repetitive. If he told her one more time to stop biting her lip, I was going to slit my wrist! I have no idea why the books are popular unless some women have never been exposed to erotica and got tintillated by them. Lord knows there are better sources for erotica than these God-awful books!

    • Robert Sacchi profile image

      Robert Sacchi 

      4 years ago

      Interesting review. Do you think shock value might trump good writing when it comes to publishers' decisions?

    • SusannaDuffy profile image

      Susanna Duffy 

      4 years ago from Melbourne Australia

      You made it all the way through? I commend you on your fortitude.

      I completely agree with your review.

    • profile image


      4 years ago

      This is the most pathetic book that I have ever came across. The writer took the pathetic twilight plot, changed the vampires to human added erotica and viola we have a new book. When I brought it I had no idea it had been written on the same lines as twilight but as I started reading it I couldn't help but notice the similarity and then google my friend told me that it is twilight fan fiction. As if having one twilight series was not bad enough.

      I'd say twilight is still tolerable but this book is an absolute torture. The repitition of holy cow, my inner goddess, my subconscious, his length, my s** is a huge put off. This is the worst book ever written. I regret spending my money on it.

    • profile image


      4 years ago

      you're very harsh about the characters. there's not much substance in most real people I meet either.

    • pcharboneau profile image


      4 years ago from Oklahoma

      Thank you for saying what I have been trying to tell people about this book from the beginning. I have never started, and abandoned, a more atrocious example of writing in my life. I couldn't get past the bad writing to read the story, so I gave up. I've read better stories on fanfic sites.

    • Angie Martin profile imageAUTHOR

      Angie Martin 

      5 years ago from Frazier Park, California

      Tbland - I don't know how your aged comment ended up being deemed as spam, and for approving it so late, I am sorry :)

      I think you made some awesome points in your comments. Glad your wife is one of the smart ones!

      I didn't think that much would shock Americans anymore, but this book seemed to thrive on "shock value". Unfortunately, when people read it, they find the shock has very little value at all.

    • Tbland profile image


      5 years ago

      Dag, Angie, you chopped James up!!

      There is a segment of the sexual fetish world that likes/loves Dominatrix (hope I spelled it right). I am not one who enjoys being spanked, I had enough of it as a child. And being tide, cuffed, whipped or blind folded may cause the other person to have their jaw realigned. But as you said Angie, the guy in the book was all about his own pleasure. If I remember correctly, Dominatrix is about the pleasure of the one submitting and they have the power.

      I have read my share of Erotica in my lifetime...Penthouse letters, Husler's etc. As well as the raise of women's erotica...the new kids on the block. The idea of the movement was to remove the male orientated erotica to the background. For more, supposedly, better story telling. It seems that men just want straight stories about sex, and the ladies want more romance...then sex! So, during the late 90's ish women began to rise in the genre. James is not the first but clearly not good at it.

      My wife, like other curious women purchased the book. I found it in a paper bag (like playboy in the old days) under her pillow. She found it boring and tossed it out. She said it was slow and the so-called steamy sex scenes were, pretty much crap!

      As far as shock value goes, as Kmes mentioned, there is very little that can shock Americans anymore. Unless popular fashion dropped women's hem lines. And men stop getting their eyes twezzed and their chest waxed. No, the American public was primed for mainstream Erotica (porn), remember twilight and all those envelope pushing TV shows. Many of which were aimed at teen girls and bored married women. The producers knew there was a market for it and built the fantasy. Yeah, its about money in the end, but the public only knows what it wants, after they're told what to like. James rose to fame after people like oprah and other talk shows chatted her up. They wouldn't know good erotica if it slap them in the face. In its core, whether it is written for men or women erotica is about telling a story. A good story is one that moves you...erotic stories induce sensual feelings, from your head to your toes...

    • Angie Martin profile imageAUTHOR

      Angie Martin 

      5 years ago from Frazier Park, California

      I think you're right - most of the success is the shock value. When people started reading the book, they didn't focus on the bad writing or awful characters. They focused on the shock value (which in the first book is still nothing like I thought it would be). Once word got out, it made the book sound like it was so great with some extra-steamy scenes. Women all over read the book, but most of it was curiosity. I definitely don't think the success was over people telling others that the book was really great.

      As we can see from the Amazon reviews, over 1/4th of those women were completely disappointed in their experience because the book itself sucks. Another 1/4 of them were also disappointed (2-3 stars), just not to the point that the 1 star reviewers were. Granted, authors are always going to have negative reviews, but even decent writers have a better mix of reviews than this one does. As an author, if I had a book released with those kinds of awful reviews, I would never again attempt to write a book. The author should be completely ashamed of her writing skills, but I guess money trumps wanting to be a good writer.

    • kmes profile image

      Kayla Swanson 

      5 years ago from Wyoming

      Good review, I still wonder how bad writing can be so wildly successful. I guess it's the shock value?

    • Willsummerdreamer profile image

      Will English. 

      5 years ago from Marietta, Georgia.

      They would thank you later lol.

    • Angie Martin profile imageAUTHOR

      Angie Martin 

      5 years ago from Frazier Park, California

      You're a smart one to determine the title belied it was a bad book! I totally agree with you that your title would be much better suited for the book. I really wish I could take back my curiosity, but I am willing to use my suffering to help others. After going through the absolute misery myself, I might just be crazy enough to knock the book out of someone's hands if I see them reading it in public.

    • Willsummerdreamer profile image

      Will English. 

      5 years ago from Marietta, Georgia.

      I heard the books title and was immediately turned off. I dunno what it was, but something about it rubbed me the wrong way. Then I heard what it was about and said aloud, "it should be retitled 'fifty shades of rape fantasy.'" I mean, for christsake, the random BS I come up with while daydreaming is better than this pornography. Great hub ^_^.

    • Angie Martin profile imageAUTHOR

      Angie Martin 

      5 years ago from Frazier Park, California

      Thank you, both!

      Beth - I'm glad that my personal suffering was able to save you from the torture! You gave a very accurate description of Twilight. This is the same thing, just for lonely women who don't know any better and now wish that a sadistic rich monster will sweep them off their feet and then mercilessly hurt them. It's sad, so sad...

    • profile image


      5 years ago

      hahaha, I loved this! From the blurb at the beginning to the end. I haven't read this book, but like most women I have been tempted. I had heard the plot line and that actually has kept me from renting it (as I probably wouldn't buy it.) I didn't like the Twilight crap either. I only saw the first movie and I thought of it as porn for 13 year old girls. You have surely saved one of my frontal lobes from decline and I really appreciate it. Well written. :)

    • jabelufiroz profile image


      5 years ago from India

      Impressive article ANGIE MARTIN. Voted up.


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