Fifty Shades of Disbelief
Originally posted February 27, 2015
Full disclosure: I’ve read only the opening sample pages of Fifty Shades of Grey. Barnes & Noble sent them to my e-reader shortly after E.L. James’s novel became a blockbuster. But those first fifty pages were enough for me—not because I found the book offensive or shocking. I simply couldn’t suspend my disbelief; I couldn’t believe in the world Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey inhabit.
Because the opening scenes unfold on the campus of Washington State University in Vancouver, a real world location I know well. I taught there for eleven years—in the very English department where Ana is a student in Fifty Shades of Grey. For many years, I even served as the faculty advisor on the college newspaper where Ana works. And yet, I didn’t recognize the campus James describes.
A Deliberate Choice
Maybe you’re thinking, setting doesn’t matter in a novel like Fifty Shades of Grey, and since over 100 million copies have sold worldwide, you have a point. But E.L. James has gone on record, stating that she chose the Pacific Northwest as a setting deliberately, and settled on Washington State University in Vancouver because it offered the literature courses she wanted Ana to take. Clearly, James did a little homework on the novel’s setting.
But not nearly enough.
The details she provides for her setting are superficial, stereotypical and sometimes even sloppy. In the book’s opening pages, for example, James never even bothers to give the college newspaper a name. She could, of course, have made one up; or a quick Internet search would have revealed its real name: The VanCougar. Details like this—real or imagined—bring a fictional world to life.
As for the campus itself, James’s WSU Vancouver conforms to the traditional image of a well established university with an expansive library and a robust English department, offering a wide selection of literature classes.
Fact Versus Fiction
In reality, however, WSU Vancouver is a new institution; the English department’s offerings are limited. When I started teaching there in 1996, the university didn’t even have its own campus; it occupied one building at Vancouver’s Clark College. The next year, when the WSU campus opened, it boasted only three buildings—including its small, utilitarian library, which occupies just one floor. English faculty and students have to request most of the books they need from the much larger library at the WSU campus in Pullman. The library in Vancouver is not, as the pages of Fifty Shades of Grey suggest, a place to retreat into an easy chair and escape the pressures of academic life.
Nor is it probable that The VanCougar would send a reporter to Seattle, 165 miles away, to profile a businessman. The newspaper focuses on the college community, and rarely covers stories about even Vancouver or Portland, just across the Columbia River, where many WSU faculty and staff live. Furthermore the VanCougar, like most college newspapers, functions on a very tight budget. When I was the newspaper’s advisor, it didn’t have a budget for travel expenses.
Why does this matter?
Because the setting in Fifty Shades of Grey plays a strategic, creative role in the book; it not only sets the stage for the action, but it triggers the plot. Ana’s work for the unnamed VanCougar propels her north to Seattle, into Christian’s arms, and ultimately into his erotic world. The opening scenes in Fifty Shades of Grey are critical to the entire narrative. In other words, the setting inspires the story.
This is why I couldn’t get past those first fifty pages. Since James had gotten her real-world setting wrong, why should I believe in the fictional situations she imagined for her characters? Why should I believe in the literary reality of those sexual fantasies? By choosing such a narrow and specific contemporary setting, James grounded Fifty Shades of Grey in the real world, yet didn’t deliver it.
Creating the Illusion of Reality
This isn’t to say that novelists can’t make things up. That’s what fiction is all about. But fiction is also about creating the illusion of reality, of building a three-dimensional world your readers can trust, and then taking them deeper into that world to ultimately explore the greater truth of fiction.
Contemporary settings can, admittedly, be tricky and it seems almost counterintuitive to assume that writers of contemporary fiction should research their settings. But James is British, and when she wrote Fifty Shades of Grey, she hadn’t visited the Pacific Northwest. I found myself in a similar position several years ago when I wrote The Last Grail Keeper—but in reverse. I was an American writing a contemporary fantasy set in Great Britain.
In Search of Credibility
My novel is far from perfect—few novels ever are—but I spent a lot of time researching locations from my office in Portland. This was before the Internet could take writers almost anywhere they needed to go, so I had to rely on books, magazines, and photos. I eventually realized, for example, that I’d have to rewrite a scene set on a train between London and Glastonbury—because no trains ran to Glastonbury. I knowingly stretched the truth when I placed an archeological dig there (the most recent dig at Glastonbury Tor dated from the late 1960s), so I added a few details about archeological techniques to make the scene more plausible.
After I’d sold The Last Grail Keeper but before it was published, I flew to England, and drove from London to Glastonbury. For the most part, the town was exactly as I’d imagined it: New Age bookstores; shops selling crystals and Celtic jewelry; cafes and tea shops with Druid or Arthurian themes. In the manuscript I’d submitted to my editor, I’d sent my characters to lunch in a fictional café called the Galahad. When I got to Glastonbury, I found a café very much like the one I’d imagined, only the real one was called Café Excalibur. Although both names were Arthurian, I decided to err on the side of caution and change the manuscript. In The Last Grail Keeper Felicity and her mom have lunch at the Excalibur Café.
Glastonbury, however, showed me I’d made one critical mistake. In the manuscript, Felicity and her mom rented a thatched roof cottage with a view of Glastonbury Tor. Yet Glastonbury is a town of red-tiled roofs. I knew right away I’d have to change the manuscript.
And then as I took a different path down Glastonbury Tor, I found one thatched-roof cottage, the only one I saw during my three-day visit to Glastonbury—and just as I’d envisioned it in my manuscript, it had a terrace off the back with a view of Glastonbury Tor. The thatched roof cottage stayed.
A Remarkable Sense of Reality
Author Eloise Jarvis McGraw, a Newbury finalist whose settings were always masterful, noted that the trick to writing credible fiction is to create “a remarkable sense of reality” so that readers believe they are “living totally in the character’s world.” Ultimately, a credible fictional world becomes “as vivid and tangible” as the reader’s own.1 It is an unspoken contract the author offers the reader: Trust me, and I will take you somewhere you’ve never been before.
Obviously, I couldn’t trust E.L. James. The world she depicts in the first fifty pages of Fifty Shades of Grey didn’t convince me that it was as real as my own, and it undermined my confidence in the rest of the novel. It killed my curiosity, and deadened my desire to turn the page.
I’m not the first critic to point fingers at James’s lackluster Pacific Northwest setting. Jeff Baker of The Oregonian wrote a similar piece centered on the book’s depiction of Portland earlier this month (February 15, 2015, to be precise). His conclusion: “Goodbye, Portland. It was like you never existed.”
Of course, most readers couldn’t care less about the setting in Fifty Shades of Grey. Many skip over all that to get to what my dad would call “the juicy parts.” Who cares about setting, plot, character, or even the writing itself in a salacious blockbuster like this? Who cares if Fifty Shades of Grey is credible? It’s a sexual fantasy, after all.
But for those of us who long for a deeper, more fulfilling reading or writing experience, literary credibility—and the elements of craft that contribute to it—are essential. Reading a book without them is like trying to listen to a soloist who is tone deaf. And it doesn’t take an entire song or an entire book to figure that out.
1. Eloise Jarvis McGraw, Techniques of Fiction Writing (Boston: The Writers, Inc., 1959), pp. 134.