The Secret Life of E.L. JamesThe Secret Life of E.L. James by Marc Shapiro

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Initial reaction: Well, suffice to say that I won’t be reading any further of Marc Shapiro’s so-called biographies, because if this constitutes a “biography” with the obviously author glorified, skewed perspective, heavily biased, and sloppily written mess that this book was – I certainly beg to differ.

This is going to be a long review. Fair warning ahead of time.

Full review:

I’ve read my fair share of autobiographies and biographies of various media personalities. Some of them are figures I highly respect, some are about people I’d never heard of but was subsequently introduced after reading the account of their life. Then I’ve read biographies of people I couldn’t care two cents about for various reasons, but after reading their biographies – I at least gained a bit of perspective as to what their life was like, with a fair share of ups and downs, as well as insights as to what made them become the individuals they turned out to be. That, ultimately, was something I could respect.

Having said that, when I’m reading a biography, I expect an author writing one to have a fair balance of portrayal of their subject’s life, accomplishments, challenges, and the like. There has to be a degree of intimacy that allows me to get to know the person in question. I’ve even read a few unauthorized biographies that managed to do that well. It boils down to knowing your subjects, using your sources and making sure they’re accurate, and providing a balance of fair grounds to address those.

I stress the importance of accuracy because there was a biography I read once on basketball great Michael Jordan – widely circulated in fact – that started off with the sentence – paraphrased: “Michael J. Jordan was born in Wilmington, North Carolina.”

I stopped right there. First off, if anyone’s intimately familiar with Jordan’s background from a host of resources – either first hand accounts or secondary sources, he was actually born in Brooklyn, New York, but spent his boyhood to teen years in Wilmington. He attended high school there, even the gym was named after him at E.A. Laney High School later on in life. He had a hard time getting on the basketball team because he was “too short” to play as a sophomore, but was able to make the JV and eventually the Varsity team during his last two years of school there. One can read more about what his life was like past that point in other sources.

My point is that if you don’t know your subject enough to get the details right, you’re going to have problems and have people call you out on it. That wasn’t the only inaccuracy in that particular biography on Jordan, but it certainly stood out considering it was the very first measure addressed. The presentation of details are also key to the tone and overarching picture a biography takes on.

So here we are approaching the life of erotica writer E.L. James, known for the widely known trilogy “Fifty Shades of Grey”. (Really, you’re going to do a biography on someone whose claim to fame happened in the last maybe two years? Not that I’m discounting James’ work in television – that’s worth its own merits to be fair, and I’m not trying to discount that). I’m going to address one point off the bat – I had a hard time deciding whether or not I wanted to read “The Secret Life of E.L. James”, because there have been so many knock-off “Fifty Shades” related literature in the past year trying to feed into the cash cow epidemic it’s spawned. I wondered if I could even remotely take this seriously. But when I saw this offered as an ARC and under biographies, I thought “I might as well give it a try – if it provides a little more into E.L. James life and the process of how this trilogy came to be and the balance of things, for better and worse – it should be worth looking into. I might even gain some insights about it.”

I’m going to say this first in the aftermath of reading “The Secret Life of E.L. James” – nothing in this book is really “secret” – it’s just a compilation of already provided information one can find in a plethora of interviews in various mass media. That’s not what I take issue with in this book, however. To be fair, there have been several biographies that have taken details from a variety of media, but usually it would be from a combination of primary and secondary sources. I don’t think Shapiro’s account had any primary sources to speak of – most of what I saw were chiefly secondary and suppositions/details from the rumor mill.

The long and the short of it is – without mincing words about it, this biography is largely an arrogant, self-absorbed, pandering portrayal of James. If Shapiro’s intention was to make me like E.L. James, appreciate her journey to fame, and learn a bit more about her and her book series for the cost of the book ($15.99 for the book, $9.99 for ebook), he failed miserably. It’s really not worth the high cost, you could read this inside an hour. It’s chock full of inaccuracies and contradictions, and the prose makes James seem like the second coming of…something. I don’t know what to term it – it’s just so over-the-top.

I’m not saying that this biography should’ve been heavily negative or positive, but balanced. I may be a critic of James on the level that I think “Fifty Shades” started the epidemic of pulled to publish fanfiction (which violates a moral code in itself) that’s largely unedited, unresearched, and downright offensive on the level of portraying romantic relationships, erotic literature, and even an inaccurate picture of BDSM lifestyles. Still, that doesn’t mean that I’m a “hater” or someone who can’t appreciate hearing about where James started and learning a bit more about her person. A more apt biographer would’ve been more cognizant of the language they were using to portray their subject as well as knowledgeable about the positive statements and criticisms surrounding their subject. I’m not going to say that Shapiro didn’t address criticisms surrounding James. Oh no, he did something far worse – he actively dismissed them right after citing them. You don’t do that in a biography. You could get away with it if this was an opinion piece, but it’s not.

*heavily sighs* Let’s address this biography bit by bit and perhaps I can answer the question of what exactly went wrong with this work.

I’m going to start with the good about this biography, because there’s really very little to be said about the good inclusions. I did appreciate that there were brief segments in the end of the biography about the history of erotica and film recommendations for erotic movies, including “Secretary” and “The Story of O”. Yet, I still think the inclusions should’ve gone further, and oddly, the author doesn’t even consider some of the modern writers of erotica in that brief history that have made a name for themselves in sales. Where these oversights, or just that the author didn’t want to supposedly give light to them for competitive reasons?

There were also listings of songs from the classical album that EMI released in relation to “Fifty Shades” (I remember seeing them in stores) as well as the song playlists that James used for each book, notably. I wonder where the author subsequently got these playlists – it would’ve been nice to know if it came from a primary or secondary source but the citations are all jumbled at the end of the work. Some of them are cited in text as far as interviews and such goes, but it was hard to know where some of the material came from in the written accounts that weren’t cited directly.

I’ll give some credit to Shapiro on some details of James’ early life, but I still expected more out of it. It was very limited in scope and lacked quite a bit of intimacy (which I guess could be attributed to the fact that it’s unauthorized, but I’ve seen other unauthorized biographies delve into their subjects more than this.) It felt like a listing of things, and I’ll be honest – It would’ve been nice to at least hear a bit about what James liked about working on those respective TV shows and maybe a little more details regarding them. If you weren’t familiar with those shows on the BBC, you would have no idea from this biography what they were, how popular they were, what kind of impact they made and what kind of impact James made in those.

James respective fanfiction history is relatively short in this biography in comparison to the rest of the book, and some of it either inaccurate and leaves information out. First of all, Shapiro totally gets James fanfiction handle wrong. (He puts IceQueen SnowDragon, it’s actually SnowQueensIceDragon or SQID). He also doesn’t mention how James actually slammed and shunned the fanfic community that made her famous (though he does mention that James wanted to distance herself from the Twilight fic “Masters of the Universe”.) There were a number of public scuffles and cases where James put her foot in her mouth about her accounts of fandom activities (such as a charity she wrote for, but claims she never wanted to do it).

It does talk quite a bit about her journey to publication with “The Writers Coffee Shop” (known for publishing many Twilight fanfics) and ultimately to Vintage and the many copies it sold to that point. There are also discussions of the individual characters: Christian and Anastasia and where their names were derived. It’s interesting that in the discussion of where James came up with Christian’s character – there’s the mention that she got the character name from the series “Nip Tuck”, but when you get into the latter part of the book, under the heading of the film “Secretary” – it mentions that James might’ve seen and been inspired in part to name her character by that mode. Why wasn’t that mentioned in the section on Christian as well?

There is mention that Goodreads was one of the prime motivators of the book series going viral, among other social media sites and the blog tour that was launched shortly after it exploded. It did follow up with some mentions of criticisms by Dear Author and Galley Cat on the 89% similarities made between the “Master of the Universe” and “Fifty Shades”, but Shapiro is quick to dismiss them as “conspiracy theories.”

Then there was language about “naysayers” later in the book as the book was picked up by Vintage. And yet another note, when the conversation moves to the acquiring of a movie deal on “Fifty Shades,” he discusses how the news brought its share of praises and critics, but notably colors the critics in this form:

“Others prone to petty jealousies derided James for throwing her money around in a diva-like fashion.”

Terms like “naysayers,” “haters,” “conspiracy theorists” among other terms are not language you want to use in a biography, not unless you have verifiable proof to the claim that it has no basis in truth, and even then, you would use the neutral “critics”. Shapiro presented no tangible arguments in using those terms or portrayals, and even then, his use of language in those measures were really vague, if addressed at all.

What I was most offended by were the arbitrary comparisons Shapiro dared to make concerning E.L. James to Harper Lee (author of To Kill A Mockingbird), J.K. Rowling, among a number of already well established authors who have made names for themselves in a prolonged span of time and recognition for their works. James really hasn’t been around that long in comparison, and I don’t even know how you can compare the quality of her work to those authors or even make mention of her in the scheme of those authors at all. It just…it doesn’t make any kind of sense. Granted, the context of what Shapiro shares with the comparison to Harper Lee was noting whether or not James would only have this trilogy to her name and then “fade into obscurity.” “To Kill a Mockingbird” was a classic work because of its strong social commentary and has been in literature for more than 50 years – its impact has not faded, and neither has Lee’s name. You can’t even compare that to James, which “Fifty Shades” has not been released for even ten years. Will people even remember “Fifty Shades” in that time? That has yet to be seen, and there’s no way of telling that ten years down the line, someone else might write a far more stellar erotica novel that might blow James’ portrayal out of the water. What Shapiro does is more on the level of riding the wave of the current hype train and not taking into consideration the gravity of those comparisons.

The epilogue (there’s an epilogue in this biography?) was where I really hit the wall with this particular book, and where the book shows its most biased language. First of all, James’ story is not a “classic rags to riches story.” James already had her calling as a TV/media personality and was doing well for herself in that, and she used connections in the fandom community as well as those in her circles and such to have “Fifty Shades” marketed in the most profitable way possible. There are people who don’t even have those kinds of resources, and many erotica authors who write far more superior works who don’t even get the same mileage. Also, Stephenie Meyer and J.K. Rowling did not “carve out a template” for James specifically.

It’s interesting that Shapiro states directly in one mode that “We may not agree with much of her approach, and admittedly, much of what goes out on her watch is borderline tacky,” but then turns around and says in the same page “…We must all cut E.L. James some slack. Because she is doing what we would all do in her shoes.”

He can speak for himself on the latter.

On one hand it’s like he’s praising her work, next making vague criticisms (while knocking down tangible ones), and then the next saying that people should give her a break. I don’t know whether this is supposed to be a biography or a veiled defense.

Overall, I would not recommend this biography for anyone. It’s not very well written, has several inaccurate statements and comparisons, and it’s an overhyped, overpraising account that doesn’t attempt to hide its share of biases.

Overall score: 1/5

Note: I received this ARC from NetGalley from the publisher.

View all my reviews

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