5 shades of a more literary grey

Everywhere I go this week people are talking about those 3 books that have something to do with the colour grey – and a lot to do with sex. I haven’t read them but I am going to be judgemental about them because I have read the all important first page and that was enough for me.

The first page of the first book was badly written and it bothers me that so many people have bought these books and now consider them to be an example of the kind of writing that gets published. As a writer, I feel the need to lift the bar higher – to tell you about other books that may be far less graphic but which contain more erotic pleasure in one paragraph than could ever be achieved in this trilogy. Books which are written in such a way that the readers learns more about what it means to be human than that some women (EL James, I’m looking at you) still use the awful euphemism ‘down there’.

So here is my list of books that are passionate, beautifully written and will certainly keep you warm on these cold winter nights. They’re also the kind of books you might read again, rather than throw away.

1. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte: The art of this book is that even though the characters are socially unequal – Jane is a governess, Rochester is a wealthy landowner – the book in no way perpetuates the stereotype of weak woman dominated by powerful man. Rochester and Jane are intellectual and emotional equals. Their love story is told with such restraint and every exchange of dialogue builds the tension around whether and how two such seemingly at-odds characters can ever be together.

2. Atonement by Ian McEwan: This book is all about the fine details. There is one page where Robbie describes Cecilia as she climbs, dripping wet, out of the fountain. He notices things like the soles of her feet and as each sentence lingers over a different and usually non-sexual part of her body, you see how there is more to the joy of looking upon another than just boobs and bums.

3. Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez: Florentino and Fermina spend more time apart than together in this book but it’s the absences – what the imagination must create – that makes for the passion in this book.

4. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy: This book broke my heart. Doomed love, adultery, fatal passion – it could all go so horribly wrong and be so terribly cliched but it is not. You read this book knowing that this love will never work but that makes it all the more compelling.

5. Emily Dickinson’s poetry: According to all the newspaper reports – and who wouldn’t believe those? – Fifty Shades of Grey is responsible for rekindling romance (or maybe just sex) in many relationships. Try reading one of Emily Dickinson’s poems to someone you love and I guarantee the effects will be more long lasting.

I realise that none of the books on my list is very contemporary – does this mean that contemporary writers don’t write about sex and passion and love in a way that’s memorable? Have we fallen out of love with books about love? Surely we haven’t – I must have overlooked something. Let me know what you would add to my list.


  1. Faz

    I agree with you, and I certainly am not interested in reading anything by EL James. I’d add “The Bronze Horseman” by Paullina Simons to that list if I may- however it’s not very strong towards feminism and female empowerment though.

  2. Glen Hunting

    One of these days when I’m grasping for inspiration, I’m going to write a spoof of the first page of “Five Shades.” For instance:

    “Dear Ms. James,

    You refer, in recent your novel, to having trouble “getting any action down there.” Where is “there”, exactly? It is difficult to recommend a remedy for you if you reveal neither your precise geographical location, nor the site of any possible medical (?) ailment. I can’t tell, for instance, whether you’re a small-town girl with high hopes and aspirations but no current prospects for escape, or just sexually frustrated. In the age of Google Maps and graysanatomyonline.com, there is really little excuse for you being so unspecific….”

    And so on.

    By the way, “Atonement” and “Cholera” were both wonderful.

  3. Trin

    Ok this may be controversial for a writer’s blog but I have read the trilogy. Yes I agree that they are not the best pieces of writing that I have ever read. However I did enjoy reading the books. I would not have bought the second and third book otherwise.

    As you said it is one example of the type of book published, consequently I don’t think you are giving reader’s enough credit as I am sure we all understand that it is just one example of the type of writing being published. I am unsure why you are suggesting that as a writer all writer’s must set the bar higher. I enjoy reading for any number of reasons for example as you said the quality of writing, but also the story, the anticipation and even the topic matter. Yes some books manage to combine it all. Other’s don’t and some books that are beautifully written are not enjoyable to read, they are not page turners and consequently get left on the shelf covered in dust, not finished. We should be able to access varied pieces of writing and if it is enjoyable, it is enjoyable even if for different reasons.

    In relation to the comment “down there” yes it maybe an awful euphemism. At the same time I certainly don’t say or think I need some more action in my vagina (sorry but that just made me burst out laughing as I was typing that).

    To go back to the books they have been successful for a number of reasons I enjoyed the story about the relationship between the two main characters. I wanted to keep reading as I was interested to find out what happened to their relationship. Other’s fell in love with Christian Grey, the story of finding the love of their life and or the explicit sex scenes. What was most notable was the people who have read it after wanted to discuss and share with all the other people who have read. Surely this is a good thing.

    Disclaimer; this is said with all the love in the world xxx

    • Glen Hunting

      Fair enough. But I find it hard to resist the temptation to be flippant when someone complains about references to “down there.”

      I have a feeling I’ve opened a Pandora’s Box of innuendoes…

    • Hi Trin – you know me, I love a bit of controversy and disagreement! I completely agree with you that books should have both a great story and great writing – there is nothing worse than a book that is all beautiful writing but no story. But I also find that I don’t enjoy books where the writer has paid so much attention to plot twists and turns that they have forgotten that the words they use to convey those twists and turns are just as important.

      For me, good writing is fresh, original, distinctive – it’s a discovery of a voice that I haven’t encountered before. I want writers to raise the bar higher because I think writing that is full of cliches, that is derivative, that is nothing more than a fan-fic attempt at Twilight (which is what Grey began life as) isn’t trying hard enough. Who wants to see a copy of a Van Gogh that isn’t as good as a Van Gogh? But of course, not everyone likes Van Gogh and I understand that. I also think a story that repeats the old submissive woman/dominant man pattern isn’t doing women a lot of favours. Which is why I try to write strong female characters into my books.

      So thank you for your comments and I will leave you with my least favourite expression from Fifty Shades of Grey – inner goddess. That could quite possibly be worse than ‘down there’. xx

      • Trin

        Yes I totally understand where you are coming from. I also enjoy the playing the devil’s advocate. However I was a bit worried after rereading my comments the next morning. Yes can’t say I ever thought or used the expression inner goddess either! xxx

  4. Stacey Malacari

    Natasha, check out this review: http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/340987215. It’s possibly my favourite review ever written and is sure to get a few laughs out of you!

  5. Bailey

    To add to your list…a love story that is so restrained and subtle but sparky that even as a young girl reading the book I could understand its complexities…daddy long legs Jean Webster

  6. marlish glorie

    On the plus side….oh yes, there is one! Booksellers are doing well out of 55 shades which I think is great….these guys do need a break. What literary snobs , (like myself), need to remember is that blockbusters employ people. Also the average reading age in Australia is 14/15 years of age, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it was less in countries like America. I think this is important to bear in mind in that it means for most Australians 55 shades is a book they’re able to read easily. Now as to the content …well….I’ve listened to people who love it and see great merit in it, and others who just downright hate it. As for me, always intrigued by controversy over a book , be it for whatever reason.

    • Hi Marlish, you’re right, it’s great that the booksellers have been given another Twilight/Harry Potter/Millenium Trilogy blockbuster. Let’s hope it encourages them to display a few more Australian titles in their stores.

      What intrigues me about Fifty Shades of Grey is the number of people I have met who have gone into a bookstore and purchased all 3 books in the series at once, only to go home and begin reading the first and then discover that they can’t finish the first book, let alone read the second and third. I just hope they go back to the bookshop and buy two other books to make up for the ones they didn’t read.

  7. Some lovely books on your list Natasha. I read Anna Karenina when I was pregnant (ie particularly emotional) and just adored it. And Love in the Time of Cholera is one of my all-time faves.
    And I agree that writers need to set the bar higher. I have read half of the first 50 Shades to satisfy a particularly persistent nagging friend and IMHO it is just *so* badly written. I could forgive all its other flaws (well, at least not begrudge it the huge sales figures) if at the very least someone had given it a good edit.

    • Anna Karenina when pregnant would be an absolute tear-fest. I hope you had the Kleenex handy when you were reading it!

      The editing question is interesting isn’t it? I’m sure it had an edit, so does that mean the publisher felt the level of writing was right for the market they were pitching it at? That is pretty patronising for readers though, isn’t it? Or maybe the editor was just having a really bad day!

  8. Holly Stubbs

    Hi Natasha,
    Please DO read The Bronze Horseman, it is without a doubt the most romantic beautifully written book i’ve ever read! The sex scenes are tastefully done and you’ll hopefully fall in love with the characters as much as i did. The best!
    I agree with you, Fifty Shades is rubbish.
    Holly x

  9. Emma

    Natasha I love your blog! I must agree, the bronze horseman is the most wonderful book I have ever read, and it is part of a trilogy, of which they other two are just as amazing – the characters and stories are so strong you simply fall in love! Anna karenina is another favourite, and I must revisit Jane eyre as I haven’t read it since I was about 14! I am very much looking forward to reading your books as I am always keen to read anything beautifully written. Please read the bronze horseman ASAP! I’m jealous of all those that haven’t read it yet- you are yet to experience the magic! Any other suggestions for books? Perhaps some modern ones?

    • HI Emma

      Thanks so much! I will definitely have to go out and get The Bronze Horseman now as everyone keeps suggesting it to me – I can’t believe I’ve gone so long without having read it if it’s as good as everybody says it is. The other book I don’t have on my list but which I think is a great love story is The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood. I also know lots of people who don’t like this book but it’s one of my favourites and yes, it ends sadly, but so do many of the great love stories.

  10. I think, because we work so hard to get everything as right as possible in our books, that it really hurts us as writers when dregs like 50 Shades make it to the shelves in such a mess and then, despite it all, it catches on and makes it big. It makes us start to think that we’re wasting our time obsessing over the details, the format, the structure, the integrity of our writing when we could just pump out a litany of sub-par drivel and get rich.

    I could not bring myself to read the 50 Shades books. I read the reviews about it and so many commented on how atrociously the books are written that I just didn’t want to put myself through that. I would much rather fill my writer’s soul with quality works, books that show us that writers take a lot of care to create something beautiful, something that truly deserves the title of art because they’ve been carefully crafted and lovingly created. Yes, it’s so much harder to create that kind of book, but I think these books will last the test of time where books like 50 Shades will be a passing fancy that ends up lining garbage bins and stockpiling in second hand 20c book bins.

  11. Pingback: Writers Ask Writers: What Books Changed You? | While the kids are sleeping

  12. Pingback: All of my reading secrets revealed! | While the kids are sleeping

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