If you only know one thing about Fifty Shades of Grey — well, one thing besides that it’s a wildly popular BDSM novel with a film adaptation due out Friday — it’s probably that E.L. James’ bestseller isn’t very good. Critics, when they deign to consider its literary merits, haven’t been kind; a few years ago, it even became a common pastime for journalists and talk-show hosts to make celebrities read its notoriously awkward sex scenes aloud.
But to be fair to James (perhaps more than fair), most of our classic erotic novels weren’t exactly celebrated in their time. Napoleon’s review of the Marquis de Sade’s Juliette and Justine consisted of imprisonment without trial. James Cleland and his publisher were both arrested over Fanny Hill. And so on.
Even today, there are plenty of voices ready to condemn literature’s erotic canon. You can find them, of course, on Amazon. From poor reading comprehension, general ignorance, and faulty chronology (The Story of O is not, in fact, a Fifty Shades ripoff) to suspiciously well-informed technical quibbles and some genuinely sick burns (D.H. Lawrence gets straight-up read), here’s a collection of Amazon’s most entertaining one-star reviews of classic erotic novels.