I had a conversation the other week in which the person I was talking to questioned the taste, or lack of, Goodreads reviewers. Now, personally I don’t like the site – I find it clunky, untidy and deeply annoying to use. It also appears to be heavily skewed towards Young Adult books and I’m very unlikely to ever want to write Young Adult, largely because every time I hear the words Young Adult I hear Ben Elton saying ‘yaang ah-dalt’ and a person shouldn’t be expected to put up with such ghastly mental noise. Ever.
Also I’m getting old, and grumpy. Sometimes I think my entire life so far has been leading up to a fitting career as a middle-aged curmudgeon. I was never very good at the sunny optimism of youth, even when I was twenty-one. These days I find myself shouting at computer screens and discounting the reviews of people who can’t seem to write about a book without inserting a million of those ‘gif’ things you kids love so much. Look, if you can’t articulate how something made you feel without resorting to a loop of Tyra Banks rolling her eyes or posting FUCK in capitals sixteen times then maybe you need to read more books.
But, for one reason or another I landed on Goodreads the other night while searching for ‘the worst book ever.’ Long story short, I was looking to see where Life of Pi might place on the list, but don’t get me started on that mess. It wasn’t as high on the list as I’d hoped, but there were some entries that made me remember that conversation regarding taste. The Great Gatsby? Of Mice and Men?
Okay, I can see where a gif of Tyra Banks might come in handy at this point.
However, this staggering wrongness on the subjects of Steinbeck and Fitzgerald was nothing compared to the book that Goodreads readers deemed the ‘Worst Book Ever’. Do you know what those illiterate philistines selected as their number one, the worst literary shitfest of all time?
They picked Fifty Shades of Grey – and they are wrong. Dead wrong.
Fifty Shades Darker is far fucking worse.
The things I do for the sake of parody – honestly. It’s dreadful. Usually I can tear through a book – however bad – in a couple of days, but two weeks later and I’m still crawling through Fifty Shades Darker, occasionally stopping to howl, wail and curse God for letting this happen. It’s absolutely bloody awful. I’ve just got to the bit where Ana goes to see Christian’s psychiatrist (I know, I laughed.) and the shrink is like ‘Oh yeah, you have shatteringly low self-esteem and he’s a manipulative, sadistic basketcase who needs to be strapped down after lights-out. But what the hell? You make an adorable couple. Mazeltov.’
Never mind worst book ever – we’ve definitely found the world’s worst psychiatrist.
The money shot, as it were, is when Ana asks him if Christian wouldn’t be attracted to her if he wasn’t so broken. I think that’s the other way round, actually. He wouldn’t get her nearly so wet if he was remotely well-adjusted.
But then that’s all the rage these days. By my calculations the next #1 Bestseller will be titled Fifty Disastrous Bastards of This Beautiful Man. The cover will be a moodily lit bottle of antidepressants and it will star a couple of the usual cardboard codependents whining, fucking, whining, crying about how much they love each other, crying some more, fucking some more and then finding something else to whine about until he’s good to go again, which won’t take long because everyone in these books fucks like a neurotic weasel on E. Repeat in an infinite loop, until the human race is extinct or until the Sun burns out. Whichever fucking happens first. Personally, the way things are going I’d be surprised if we made it til next Thursday.
It’s almost enough to make you nostalgic for those old school romances where attempted rape and Stockholm Syndrome subbed for true love. I mean, yeah, some rock-jawed barbarian (probably depicted by Fabio on the cover) is dragging our violet-eyed heroine, Mary-Sue McFeisty, along by her flaming tresses, and yes, it’s all very horrible, but at least they’re not fucking talking about their ‘issues’.
Oh the issues. Oh the whining and the weeping and the bullshit wailing about abandonment and separation anxiety – the four o’clock in the morning yowlings about how mother never understood him. This is why Fifty Shades Darker is at least a hundred shades more painful to read than Fifty Shades of Grey. It opens with an ill-scrawled fragment that E.L. James probably borrowed from A Child Called It and then plunges headlong into the realms of Beginner’s Psychology for Thickies.
In it, Christian is magically cured of sexual sadism when Ana ‘leaves him’. The quote marks are there because that’s how they refer to it, like it was some windswept flight in the middle of the night, like Mary Queen of Scots midnight wild ride to Dunbar. In actual fact she took perfectly reasonable exception to him beating her black and blue with a belt and broke up with him. For five days.
You know how in Twilight (because this is Twilight with added crotch action, let’s be honest here.) Bella went catatonic for four months because Edward pissed off to Alaska? Well, it’s kind of like that, only for five days. Five days of crying, forgetting to eat, staring at walls and – a new but bizarre quirk for Ana – staring at her hands.
Five days in which the other halfwitted drama-queen in this book seems to forget what ‘breaking up with someone’ entails because he keeps sending her flowers, e-mailing her and asking her on dates. But whatever, because they get back together when he buys her an iPad and then they go to a Plutocrats Only charity ball where he buys her diamond earrings and they dine (There’s a menu.) on gold-leaf garnished tiger dick sorbet and fois-gras stuffed swan heads in Russian caviar. But obviously she’s not into him for his money or anything like that.
Oh, and he has a yacht. And they fuck on it. And he has a library, which we never heard of before, with a pool table. And they fuck on that too. And they fuck at the plutocrats masqued ball, which feels like it goes on for about forty years in real time, because the pacing in this thing is leaden, even worse than the first. Every single minute of every single day is related in mind-numbing detail, from their first hateful squeals upon seeing one another in the morning to their last solipsistic, melodramatic thoughts before unconsciousness mercifully claims them.
Then it’s a new chapter and it starts all over again, like a dental procedure you were hoping was finally over.
It’s not all doom and gloom though – there is some hilarity, in the shape of a clusterfuck of not-quite plot involving an ex-girlfriend who looks like Samara from The Ring and talks like Gollum, and a messy blackmail subplot that lasts all of about five minutes before it gets bored and buggers off, rather like the chargrilled Canadian amnesiac in Downton Abbey.
Also Ana has a job in publishing and a handsy new boss who is probably not called Timothy Grope but who cares, because it suits him. Yes, for some reason, despite the fact that she is about as interesting as lint, dumber than a third coat of paint and has all the social skills of a Vileda supermop, Ana is so irresistible that Timothy Grope can’t help but keep trying to stick his hands down her blouse.
There’s probably some amusement to be wrung out of Timothy Grope and Ana working as a slush reader, and definitely some giggles to be had from Gollumette the mental ex-girlfriend, but by and large Fifty Shades Darker is Fifty Shades Duller. And the first one was pretty fucking boring, or vice versa – either works. I think I’ve read IKEA assembly instructions with more depth of feeling than yet another prolonged description of Christian Grey inserting tab P into slot V. It doesn’t help that the author keeps interrupting, via Ana or her ridiculous ‘Inner Goddess’ – a sort of drunk, sex-crazed mime with more props than Carrot Top – and loudly telling us how we are supposed to feel.
Fuck, it’s so intense.
Jeez, he’s so hot!
Oh yes! It’s so arousing. My Inner Goddess has resurfaced after her evening of rocking and weeping in a corner, and she’s wearing harlot-red lipstick.
Holy crap! – we’re having sex and it’s sexy.
And so on. Sequels are generally for the fans only, but never has a sequel perhaps reeked of fan-pleasing quite as much as this sad little puddle of sick. Its fanfiction origins are all too obvious and demonstrate why fanfiction run through find/exchange is such a wretched substitute for original writing. Any writer worth a damn has the phrase ‘Kill Your Darlings’ permanently burnt into their memory.
Basically, this means that everything you put on the page had better have a damn good reason for being there. Does your dialogue serve a purpose – does it reveal character and/or move the story along? Or is it just the characters dumbly spaffing their brains at each other in little twinkly bantering conversations where they refer to one another as ‘Mr. Grey’ and ‘Miss Steele’ and you just can’t because OMG it’s so fucking cute?
If option B, sharpen your red pen and don your black cap.
Similarly, do your characters really need to go to a party for about three chapters? I know you’re having fun describing how lovely they look in evening wear and everything is glamorous and everyone is rich, but do your readers really need this in order to understand the story? And I’m not talking about the gaggle of Twihards who read you on ff.net – for fuck’s sake, they’re fans, some of them obsessive. At least one of them might be that mad Scottish girl on YouTube who screams and hyperventilates whenever the word ‘Twilight’ appears on a screen. Fans would weep tears of pure joy if you did stick drawings of Edward and Bella on a cocktail napkin and then wrote “And then they done sex”.
This is the trouble with fanfiction – it’s All Darlings All The Time. It’s a thing people write when they really, really, really love characters, enough to want to read about them doing their laundry and brushing their teeth and talking about what to have for dinner. And that’s fine – that’s fanfiction, but translated to actual original fiction it just reads like bad writing, like the self-indulgence of an author too lazy or arrogant to have learned one of the fundamental lessons of creative writing.
You would have to be a rabid fan to like either of these characters – he’s a manipulative, pompous, abusive creep and she’s a passive-aggressive narcissist, a woman so monstrously insecure and self-absorbed that when Gollumette gets hold of a gun and is waving it around while hissing about ‘Master’, Ana’s first thought is “Does he still have feelings for her?”
Perhaps somewhere in the back of her mind even the author has a dim knowledge that she has turned the admittedly gruesome twosome from Twilight up to eleven and so written a tale of two of the most thundering, charm-free shitheads ever to trouble the collective consciousness. Maybe that’s why she has Ana constantly harp on how good and kind and handsome Christian is and similarly everyone says Ana is the soul of compassion and altruism, even though everything these dickholes say and do demonstrates the exact opposite.
That or she couldn’t write her way out of a piss-soaked paper bag.