From the Desk of Matilda Darling

An Open Letter to E.L. James

Dear Ms. James,

I first got wind of your novel while, fittingly, in a commode. You see, my best friend Laurence DuPlessus was home sick from school and, wanting to avoid the social peril that is sitting by oneself in the Van Buren Middle School cafeteria (the jeers, the straw-wrappers, the crumpled paper bags which rain down on one’s head), I decided the best course of action would be to sequester myself in a bathroom stall and partake of my peanut butter and jelly sandwich therein. Whilst so concealed and enjoying an extremely satisfying ice-cold chocolate milk, I overheard who else but my nemesis Madison Lauren and her minions skip-giggling into the lavatory. I immediately balanced my milk carton on the wheelchair-assistance bar and scrambled to prop my feet up on the toilet seat (because the only thing more perilous than being caught eating alone in the cafeteria is being caught eating alone in the bathroom) and valiantly attempted to wholly tune out their clattering halfwit banter and focus instead on Tess of the D’Urbervilles, but to no avail. The fever pitch of their confab and the astronomical decibels of their squeals of amusement rendered even my formidable abilities of concentration quite useless. And so, having no choice but to attend to their conversation, I began to discern beneath the violent squall of their voices the soft rustling of bound pages and, with a thunderclap of recognition, I realized that they, too, were reading in the bathroom—but what? What to me could draw them from the cafeteria, their social Parthenon, could elicit such a response, and from such feeble minds as these? I have never seen Madison Lauren get excited about any book, except three: that triptych of literary crucifixion which is the Twilight series. Crouched atop the toilet, quiet as a church mouse, and with all the singular focus of a spy in a John le Carre novel, I attempted to parcel out what book, exactly, had captured their imbecilic imaginations.

“Where did you get this?” one of the minions begged of Madison, her face no doubt turned up to Madison’s spray-tanned visage as if hoping to be graced with some sort of benedictine ray from her sun god.

“I stole it from my mom’s bedside table? And it was in the drawer? And I took it?” Madison replied in her crispest, most officious San Fernando Valley accent. “I just have to put it back when I get home from school. She’ll never notice.”

“I don’t understand why it’s called that,” the other minion intoned. “What does that mean, Fifty Shades of Grey?”

I could actually hear Madison’s eye-roll. “I don’t know, I haven’t actually read it,” she said. Of course not. “I think the main guy’s eyes are, like, grey, or something?”

“Like Edward Cullen’s!” Minion Number One oinked.

“OMG yes,” Madison said with a luxuriating sigh. “Like, grey eyes, are just, like, perfection.”

“Okay, but in like, real life, I’ve never like actually seen anyone with grey eyes,” Minion Number Two said with an audible pout, clearly feeling herself taking a vicious tumble down Madison Lauren’s sliding scale of affections.

“Ugh, whatever,” Madison said over another flurry of shuffled paper. “Okay, here’s another good part. Look.”

Minion One read aloud: “And then he’s between my legs, running his nose up and down my sex, very softly, very gently—what does that mean, my sex?”

“Duh, what do you think it means?” Madison says, all worldly knowledge being hers.

“Like, my, you know?” Minion One whispered, astonished.

Minion Two read on. “He gently tugs at my pubic hair! EEW!”

“EEEEEEW!” the three squawked in indignant harmony.

This proceeded apace for solidly fifteen more minutes, and by the time Madison stuffed the novel back down in her bookbag and whisked the girls out of the powder room—insisting, as she went, that “OMG Derek just texted me, he’s waiting for me in the hot food line, we like have to go”—I felt as if my ears, nay my very intellect, had been metaphorically water-boarded. And yet—and yet!—I am ashamed to admit I also found myself enthralled (at one point I was listening so intently that I nearly tumbled from my perch atop the W.C., which would have truly been the ultimate disaster). But yes, I was utterly transfixed by the sexual acts apparently detailed in this book, transfixed but also repulsed by their deviance, and furthermore fascinated by the coinciding of my repulsion and transfixion. I finished my sandwich, exited my stall of ignominy and turned to the mirror to face myself. My instinct was, as always, to hatefully blame Madison Lauren for submitting me to that twenty minutes of sheer torture, but logic noted the truth: that indeed, she was merely the messenger; she and her minions were only reciting, as is their dumb parrot-like habit, the thoughts of a much more perverse mind. I immediately resolved to investigate this book: primarily, I assure you, to discern just how poorly written and morally depraved it is, and to know who, exactly, had committed such drivel to the printed page.

Luckily we Darlings are creatures of habit, and thus it is a given that every Sunday afternoon, my father will take me along for his usual circuit of errands around town—first, we get gas for the car, then, the hardware store, Uncommon Grounds for bagels, the wine shop, and the final stop: The Book House, a Lilliputian independent bookstore in the strip mall on Western Avenue. I adore The Book House. Although I am ill-traveled and therefore cannot safely say it is my favorite place on earth, I can say unequivocally that it is my favorite place in Albany. I love its bubbled linoleum floors. I love its potted ferns. I love its enormous tabby cat; he sprawls at inconvenient mid-aisle locations and stares up at you most impertinently when you suggest he relocate. I love its large History of Classical Music section. I love that they carry back issues of BUST magazine. I even love, against my better judgment, the Sarah McLachlan music that bleats from the CD player behind the cash register. But, once again, I have digressed. The point of all this is to say that I resolved to seek out your Fifty Shades of Grey on my weekly Sunday sojourn to The Book House, and though I did wonder whether a vaguely feminist bookstore such as this would be stocking a work of fiction that sounded upon first listen to be so very demeaning to women, there it was, not even shelved under erotica but displayed boldly front and center at the entrance to the bookstore. I waited until my father had given me his usual absent-minded pat on the head and then wandered away toward the Mystery section, whereupon I surreptitiously snatched a copy of the novel and nestled myself in a beanbag chair in the Children’s section, a location in which I was certain dear old Dad would never to think to seek me out.

I feel I am uniquely suited to critique this work because my reading comprehension is astronomically high for someone who is almost thirteen, yet this very youth also practically dictates that I am quite innocent in terms of interpersonal relationships between the opposing genders. (I speak, of course, of sex.) Thus approaching your novel as a crack literary mind who is rather innocent of the world, I must say I found your work to be absolutely appalling on all levels. Though I did not manage to finish the entire book in my hour and a half sequestered in the embrace of the bean bag, I did get damn near to it. First, the writing itself is abysmal: your plot is unbelievably uncreative, predictable (bad boy falls for good girl, his undying love for her snappy innocence leads him to reform himself against all his instincts; it is all, come to think of it, rather also a perversion of Pride and Prejudice, which brings a tear to my eye) and relentlessly linear, your vocabulary so limited, so repetitive, so reliant on slang and italics to convey “wit” and “emotional import” that one wonders if any editor ever clapped a critiquing eye on your manuscript before passing it on to the galley printer, or if in fact you even have a thesaurus laying ‘round your home office. One paragraph begins as follows:

“Saturday at the store is a nightmare. We are besieged by do-it-yourselfers wanting to spruce up their homes. Mr. and Mrs. Clayton and John and Patrick—the two other part-times—and I are besieged by customers.”

Can you not see all that is wrong with these sentences? Must a seventh grader point out their flaws? Yes? Let me, then, take up this cross. Do-it-yourselfers is not a word. Nightmare should not be used metaphorically unless you are intent on planting your writing comfortably in the realm of cliché and hyperbole. Certainly a busy afternoon at a hardware store could not ever be called a nightmare in the genuine Sartre sense of the word. The awkwardness of the third sentence is almost beyond description. As a final insult, you manage to use the same, very specific verb twice in two sentences, making both redundant and uninteresting.

I could copy-edit your entire book in this manner, but that would be a waste of time for us both, seeing as your book has, tragically, already been produced in bulk for consumption by the masses.

I was also amazed—in a bad way—at the lack of depth to your characters. That paucity is particularly noticeable in your female lead, Anastasia, to whom one would think it would be necessary to impart some sense of complexity in order to maintain a compelling narrative. I, of all people, should have felt some kinship with this character being that at the outset of the book we seem to be kindred spirits of a kind: clumsy, socially nervous types who have never yet managed to ensnare a boyfriend. Yet you do insist on ascribing to her the most helplessly girlish of tics, the most puerile of thoughts, the most feeble attempts at snappy comebacks. She is constantly referring to her “inner goddess,” biting her lip, rolling her eyes, and wearing her hair in pigtails. I sometimes wear my hair in pigtails, but I, as I have said, am a twelve-year-old. And on my honor, I counted no less than forty times where her line of dialogue is no more than, “Oh… please.” Granted, all of these instances of monosyllabic utterances are directed toward the male lead, Christian, as they are either about to engage in intercourse or are currently mid-coitus, where, I would imagine, one feels relatively verbally helpless and swept away in one’s passions. Which leads me to my next and final point.

One wonders at the sexual perversity of this book, and moreover at the American woman’s apparently hearty response to said perversity. Judging by the large number of copies sold at The Book House alone—and if Madison Lauren’s mother is reading it, one can be assured that word of your novel has, like a suprarobust radio transmission penetrating the icy atmosphere of Pluto, reached even the dimmest of literary minds—your book is a runaway best seller. I myself felt shocked and horrified at the intimacies contained within—yes, even at the more mainstream consensual acts not involving sadomasochism, a sexual practice of which I was heretofore unaware. I am not too sorrowed to have relinquished some of my innocence to you, Ms. James; I would much rather learn of such things via reading than some other avenue, such as television, movies, or, God forbid, real life. (Full disclosure dictates I must admit that, in the very same bookstore, I once also scanned Pillars of the Earth for its sex scenes after I had overheard our babysitter on the cordless telling a friend about how titillating she had found them.) And although one can blame you for your abominable prose style, Ms. James, one cannot altogether blame you for lighting out on such a topic; clearly there is a market for such erotica. From a feminist perspective, I suppose I ought to congratulate American women for embracing and taking control over their own arousal, but that same perspective admits dismay that this evident arousal is at the hands of a storyline involving a man who insists on total domination over his lover. Perhaps the author might counter: if this is what arouses the reader, how can you judge her for that? Does your feminist perspective want to engage in the act of body-shaming? To which I reply that you, Ms. James, seem to have written under at least the partial shade of that judgment, for you spend much of the novel rabidly attempting to excuse Christian’s sexual deviance by making him: one, unspeakably handsome; two, a billionaire—a billionaire, for God’s sake; three, permanently psychologically damaged by some horrifying childhood event; and four, unconditionally and illogically devoted to our meek, plaine-Jane, unifaceted heroine. Your message seems to be that if a man is so nearly picture-perfect and so willing to accept you for all your myriad flaws, then you should, like the good submissive housewife you are, be grateful for your good fortune and make no attempts to resist his advances, no matter how unhealthy or damaging his one deeply hidden flaw may turn out to be.

While I remain disturbed by the misogynistic undertones of your narrative, I also realize that if the function of this book is not so much to be a work of literature as it is to be a sort of masturbatory object, then it follows that it does not really matter whether the writing is of any discernible quality. For did Bach insist on functional tonality from the organist in the circus come to town? Does Wes Anderson only watch internet pornography shot with fill lighting? I do so wish that women the world over would not find themselves aroused by sentences such as yours, but as usual, I believe I dream the impossible dream.

Yours in hoping that you find an editor to whom you yourself can become a submissive,

Matilda Darling

Liz lives and writes in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.